Written by awarding-winning novelist Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, is a novel that smartly and humorously delves into the issues of discrimination based on social class and ethnicity, alcoholism, first love, self-confidence, and a teenage boy’s quest for success. It is a boy’s journey from what he has known and loved (and sometimes hated) – his home on the reservation – into the world of the whites; a world in which he never thought he’d belong.
I originally picked up this book because of the title. I thought the idea of a “part-time” Indian was interesting, and having recently moved to the Southwest, I wanted to better understand the cultures and sub-cultures I would find here. I am constantly trying to read books that teach me about cultures other than my own. As a teacher, I recognize that our world is diverse and everyone has a story. One culture that I had never read about was that of the modern Native American. What I learned was both heartening – the bond of love and loyalty established within a deeply rooted community, and disturbing – the almost inescapable fall of the tribesmen into depression and self-destruction.
Junior, the main character, was born different. He had too much cerebral spinal fluid and wasn’t expected to live, especially not without permanent brain damage. Well, Junior is a survivor, as is shown time and again throughout the novel. He uses sharp wit and self-deprecating humor to make light of an often tragic existence. He draws to relieve the pressures of life and express his true feelings. His best friend, Rowdy, expresses himself differently – he uses his fists, like most of the other young boys on the reservation.
Junior’s life is not easy. He is small and clumsy, a result of his condition. Also, he helplessly witnesses the continual cycle of his family and tribe members be sucked into the unforgiving grip of alcoholism and violence. On the Spokane Indian Reservation, it is the norm, not the exception. Junior unconditionally loves his family and worships his oldest sister, but he knows that if he doesn’t get out of the reservation, he will become as depressed and angry as everyone else.
It is a guilt-stricken reservation teacher who approaches Junior with the idea of leaving the reservation to go to public school. No one in his tribe has done this before, which makes Junior a traitor to his people and at the public school, as the only Native American, he is an outsider. Caught between two worlds, Junior must find his way and find himself.
Most people never leave their hometowns. Fewer still leave their social class. Junior must face the betrayal felt from his tribe, the distrust of his new classmates, and forge ahead into an unknown future. This is something many of us will never do – are too afraid to do.
With the help of illustrator Ellen Forney, Junior will make readers laugh and cry. He is the quintessential teenage boy from his obsession with a white girl to his quest for respect from other boys. He is immensely likable and a true hero.
What a great book!
FYI to parents and educators: While parts of this book are hilarious and honest – the true mind of a hormonal teenage boy, please read before buying for your children/students. You may not be comfortable with all content.
List of Awards for this book:
New York Times Notable Book of 2007
#1 Book Sense Bestseller
Publisher Weekly Best Book of the Year
A NAPPA Gold Book
School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
An Amazon.com Best Book of the Year
Kirkus Reviews Best YA Book of 2007
A BBYA Top 10 Book for Teens
Student-made trailer from Youtube: