Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Little, Brown, 2007. 229 pages. Tr. $16.19, ISBN: 978-0-316-01368-0
Plot: Arnold Arnold Spirit, Jr., was born with water on the brain, bad eyesight, and suffocating poverty. On his Native American reservation in Washington, he sees people trapped in their lives -- hungry, drunk. His parents are thoughtful, intelligent people who had big dreams, but their dreams were shattered by alcoholism and depression. The story begins with Arnold’s description of his birth defect, which he describes as “water on the brain” (really spinal fluid). His brain is damaged, which affects the proportions of his body. He has surgery and, against all odds, recovers without serious brain damage. Arnold is smart, and when he becomes disgusted with the ancient books they use at his school, he throws a book at his teacher. He gets in trouble, but the sympathetic teacher tells him that he needs to get off the reservation to go to school unless he wants to get stuck like everyone else there. Though he is treated like a traitor, even rejected by his best friend, Rowdy, he goes off to Reardan High School, twenty miles away.
He is less than welcome there and getting to school is difficult, especially because his father disappears and he often has to walk and hitchhike. His first days are tough, but he begins to like the school, especially Penelope. He plays on the basketball team , even confronting Rowdy when their teams go head to head, eventually leading to his reservation team’s defeat, which crushes him even though his team won. Life at school is good, but he is rocked by several tragedies on the reservation.
Critical Evaluation: Full of the kinds of risky and controversial behaviors that teens see every day, Arnold has to deal with the trouble all around him, from alcoholism to life-crushing recklessness, child abuse to gambling addictions. Against all odds, the book is hilarious all the way through as Junior faces life’s dangers with a searing sarcastic tone. The autobiographical nature of the story means that Alexie’s narrator faces his problems the way certain kids would, by laughing through the pain. Since Arnold escapes, he describes the downward trajectory of relatives and friends, but he keeps their lives at arm’s length, which sometimes makes it difficult to truly understand their tragic declines. Though it’s fiction, the book is autobiographical, and readers will see the distanced (yet funny) perspective that allowed Alexie to live a sort of double life and then, eventually, get out. Inspiring, visceral, and heartbreaking, this is a book about one boy facing life’s most difficult challenges head on.
Reader’s Annotation: Arnold, a comic-loving misfit on the Native American reservation that he calls home, is brave enough to go to the white school 20 miles away, but his dreams of creating a better life might be destroyed by bullies, angry friends, or even his own family.
Author bio: Echoing the story of Absolutely True Diary, Sherman Alexie was born on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state. He was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, and underwent a very risky surgery – if he survived, doctors were sure that his brain function would be impacted. Instead, Alexie was highly intelligent and talented, and he made the decision to leave the reservation school to do to the area high school. Though his father was an alcoholic and his mother struggled to take care of six kids, Alexie excelled at school, becoming a star basketball player and the president of the student body.
Awarded a college scholarship, he had difficulty figuring out what he wanted to be until he met the Native American writer Alex Kuo in a creative writing class. Through Kuo, he was introduced to the work of Joseph Bruchach, which changed his life. He decided to become a writer. Alexie’s adult writing has won him accolades. In 1998, the film Smoke Signals, a movie based on an Alexie short story with a screenplay written by the author, was released to great acclaim. The Absolutely True Diary has won the National Book Award and the California Young Reader Medal.
Genre: Realistic Fiction.
Curriculum Ties: English, Health, History (could use it to discuss the history and fate of Native Americans), Psychology.
Booktalking Ideas: Create a PowerPoint using comic book stick figures that illustrate some funny parts of the book, with Arnold’s quotes incorporated.
Write a letter from Arnold to the teacher who changed his life and read it.
Write a letter from Arnold to his sister, who led a parallel life yet succumbed to depression and alcoholism.
Reading Level: 4th grade
Interest Age: 14+
Challenge Issues: References to alcoholism, drug abuse and masturbation.
Challenge Response: Know the content of the book well. Discuss the fact that the racier content is fully in keeping with the story, that it’s somewhat based on real life (that this is what some people live with all the time), and that the tone of those sections is not gratuitous. Keep on hand the many rave reviews of the book, including: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/books/review/Barcott3-t.html
Why Included: It is one of the best reviewed YA books in the past ten years!