Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Little, Brown, 2007. 230p. Grades 7-12. Realistic Fiction. (National Book Award 2007).
Arnold Spirit Jr., aka “Junior,” is a fourteen year old Native American living on the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington state. Surrounded by the poverty, rampant alcoholism, and frequent desperation of life on the “rez,” Junior decides to embark on his own quest for education and leaves the reservation school system to attend high school in a nearby town. Armed with a fantastic sense of humor, a beyond-his-years sense of the ironies of life, and his unique illustrations of both worlds, Junior carefully navigates the distance between success at his new school and remaining true to his roots on the reservation.
Thoughts- Rare is the book that actually makes me laugh out loud while reading, but this book? This book had me in stitches almost from page one. Of course, it also had me in tears several times before it was over, and therein lies much of Alexie’s genius. The way he manages the frequent tonal shifts in Part-time Indian is masterful; so masterful, in fact, that you don’t even see the author’s hand in the final product. Junior’s story seems so authentic and so plausible that it really is like reading an “absolutely true diary” written by the most astute fourteen year old ever. For me, almost everything about this book was spot-on—the characters are idiosyncratic and fully fleshed-out, the setting springs to life off the page, the dialogue sounds exactly like how people actually talk, and the plot keeps you turning pages.
I especially appreciated the incredibly nuanced portrayal of the reservation that Alexie creates for the reader. Yes, times are tough all around on the rez. Yes, Junior is surrounded by alcoholism, abuse, and loss. Yes, everyone lives in almost abject poverty. However, there is also pride, tradition, history, and love on the rez. It is a place that is buried deep in Junior, and I really loved how Alexie showed the range of conflicting emotions Junior experiences in regards to his home. It also, without any sense of didacticism, taught me a lot about the lives of Native Americans who stay on the reservations as well as giving some insight into the complex circumstances and feelings surrounding that life.
I think this book will speak to just about any reader, and I believe it would work really well in a classroom setting. It does have some “controversial content,” but that content is all in service to the story Alexie is trying to tell and none of it seems gratuitous. It would be a change of pace for students—something funny for once (even if there is a dead dog at the beginning)—and I think it would be enjoyable for both teachers and kids. I’ve been recommending this book to everyone I know, and they’ve all loved it as much as I did.