The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian
By Sherman Alexie
Illustrated by Ellen Forney
cover image retrieved October 30, 2012 fromhttp://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/absolutely-true-diary-of-a-part-time-indian-sherman-alexie/1100163889?ean=9780316013697
Alexie, Sherman, and Ellen Forney. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown, 2007. ISBN-13: 9780316013697
Arnold Spirit is a teenage boy who is anything but typical. He is Native American, which makes him part of a culture marred by alcoholism and poverty; he was born with Hydrocephalus, which makes him medically fragile and the butt of much ridicule; and he is unwilling to accept the status quo, which is a life of low expectations and few opportunities. Entering high school on the “rez,” Arnold reaches the boiling point when he realizes that the math textbook he is assigned for the year is the exact book his mother was issued so many years ago. Arnold comes to realize that life on the rez will never change, so he must strike out on his own to have a chance at the future he desires and feels all Indians deserve as much as the next (White) guy. Arnold arranges to attend school in the nearby farm town of Reardan, which put him in no-man’s-land: to the Whites in town he is an outsider, a lowly Indian; to his tribe members he is a traitor, who must think he’s better than them. This hilarious, touching story of Arnold’s Freshman year in high school exhibits the highs, lows, and realizations of an intelligent teenage boy who recognizes that he is a survivor who will not be denied the chance to live life to its fullest.
Brutally honest. Heart-wrenching. Humorous and entertaining. Realistic. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian manages to hit the mark over and over again as a year in the life of Arnold Spirit unfolds. The title tells the reader from the get-go that Arnold’s ethnicity will be a factor in this novel. But Arnold’s ethnicity is not the only culture explored here. Arnold makes astute observations of his White classmate’s lives and culture, as he compares them to his own. He observes that White fathers are capable of being invisible in their families, even when they are in the same room. He states that “white girls from small towns aren’t supposed to dream big; they’re supposed to be happy with their limitations.” Arnold knows deep in his heart this isn’t right, any more than the cultural norms of Indian life are right.
Alcoholism and poverty go hand-in-hand with Indian life, and Arnold discusses them with candor. He talks about being hungry (often): Poverty = empty refrigerator + empty stomach. Arnold observes that Indians begin to feel that they are poor because they don’t deserve any better, even though he knows that’s not true. He compares his clothing with that of the White kids in Reardan. Going as a homeless person for Halloween seems natural, he says, since his everyday clothes are pretty much like a homeless person’s would be. Poverty defines his way of life. He tires to hide his poverty with little lies, but finds that finally coming clean to some classmates is somewhat liberating.
Alcoholism in his tribe, and in Indians as a cultural group, goes hand in hand with poverty; each seems to spring from the other. Sadly, alcoholism also leads to another fact of life for Indians: death. It is directly responsible for the deaths of Arnold’s grandmother, sister, and his dad’s best friend in this novel. Arnold relates that he has attended 42 funerals, while his White classmates have each probably attended five or less. Arnold reveals that Indians know how to celebrate the lives of their dead, know how to grieve, since grieving unites them and sometimes consumes them.
When Arnold tells his parents that he wants to attend school in Reardan, his parents do not object. He comments that his parents may be drunks, but they don’t want their kids to be drunks. When his dad is dropping him off for his first day of school at Reardan, he says his father is, “the loser Indian father of a loser Indian son in a world built for winners.” But Arnold knows his father loves him and wants the best for him. That’s why it is so important for him to break away from the chains that bind him, and his people, on the reservation.
Language is culturally telling, as well. Arnold’s older sister Mary is teasingly referred to by a new Indian name, “Mary Runs Away,” since she vanishes into their basement often, unable to deal with the world. Arnold says that some members of his tribe think of him as an apple, because he’s “red on the outside and white on the inside.” He calls his home, the reservation, “the rez.” Crossing cultures is very evident in the language of this novel.
Every aspect of this novel is filled with honesty and cultural authenticity. The reader who seeks a good novel certainly finds that, with a large dose of information of what it would be like to cross cultural barriers. This book is an excellent read for anyone, middle school and up.
From School Library Journal Starred Review. Chris Shoemaker, New York Public Library
The many characters, on and off the rez, with whom he (Arnold) has dealings are portrayed with compassion and verve, particularly the adults in his extended family. Forney’s simple pencil cartoons fit perfectly within the story and reflect the burgeoning artist within Junior. The teen’s determination to both improve himself and overcome poverty, despite the handicaps of birth, circumstances, and race, delivers a positive message in a low-key manner. Alexie’s tale of self-discovery is a first purchase for all libraries.
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
This is the Native American equivalent of Angela’s Ashes.
Sure to resonate and lift spirits of all ages for years to come.
VOYA (starred review)
Realistic and fantastical and funny and tragic-all at the same time.
Horn Book (starred review)
The line between dramatic monologue, verse novel, and standup comedy gets unequivocally-and hilariously and triumphantly-bent in this novel.
Awards/Best Book Lists:
American Indian Youth Literature Award, 2008 Winner Young Adult United States
Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Children's Literature, 2008 Winner Fiction and Poetry
California Young Reader Medal, 2010 Winner Young Adult California
Cuffies: Children's Booksellers Choose Their Favorite (and not-so-favorite) Books of the Year, 2007 Honorable Mention Favorite Book to Handsell United States
Cuffies: Children's Booksellers Choose Their Favorite (and not-so-favorite) Books of the Year, 2007 Honorable Mention Hottest Selling Book to Go Out of Stock United States
Cuffies: Children's Booksellers Choose Their Favorite (and not-so-favorite) Books of the Year, 2007 Winner Favorite Young Adult Novel United States
Cybil Award, 2007 Finalist Young Adult Fiction United States
Delaware Diamonds, 2009 Winner High School Delaware
Golden Inky, 2009 Shortlist Australia
Los Angeles Times Book Prize, 2007 Finalist Young Adult United States
Mind the Gap Award, 2008 Best book overlooked by the United States
National Book Award, 2007 Winner Young People's Literature United States
National Parenting Publications Award, 2007 Gold Book Ages 12 & Up United States
Odyssey Award, 2009 Winner United States
Pacific Northwest Book Award, 2008 Winner United States
Thumbs Up! Award, 2008 Honor Book Michigan United States
Amazon Editors' Picks: Top 10 Books, 2007 ; United States
Best Children's Books of the Year, 2008 ; Bank Street College of Education; Outstanding Merit;
Bulletin Blue Ribbons, 2007 ; The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books; United States
Capitol Choices, 2008 ; The Capitol Choices Committee; United States
Choices, 2008 ; Cooperative Children's Book Center; United States
Horn Book Fanfare, 2007 ; Horn Book; United States
Kirkus Best Young Adult Books, 2007 ; Kirkus; United States
Kirkus Book Review Stars, July 15, 2007 ; United States
Middle and Junior High Schoool Library Catalog, Ninth Edition Supplement 2008, 2008 ; H.W. Wilson
Company; United States
Notable Books for a Global Society, 2008 ; Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group IRA;
Notable Children's Books, 2007 ; New York Times; United States
Publishers Weekly Best Children's Books, 2007 ; Cahners; United States
School Library Journal Best Books, 2007 ; Cahners; United States
School Library Journal Book Review Stars, September 2007 ; Cahners; United States
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2008 ; American Library Association; Top Ten; United States
· Arnolds says that the differences between the reservation and Reardan are like the story A Tale of Two Cities (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…) Students will construct a T-chart contrasting these two locations.
· Pair this novel with a poetry selection by Sherman Alexie:
Old Shirts and New Skins
First Indian on the Moon
Seven Mourning Songs For the Cedar Flute I Have Yet to Learn to Play
Water Flowing Home
The Summer of Black Widows
The Man Who Loves Salmon
One Stick Song
Students will compare the insights into Native American culture given in the novel and in these
poems. Students will identify descriptive phrases in each that reveal details about Native culture
· After Mary moves to Montana she writes letters to Arnold. We never see if he answers her. Students will write a letter to Mary from Arnold’s point of view. They will tell her about an event from the novel, describing it in more detail, including how Arnold felt about it.
· On a blank US map, students will identify the states of Washington and Montana. Mark the Spokane reservation and the Flathead reservation. Draw a path between them, showing the route Mary might have taken when she moved. Include a map key and scale.
· Students will discover more information about Native American tribes of North America by viewing National Geographic video at http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/kids/history-kids/native-americans-kids/ Students will list and discuss commonalities and differences among the various tribes discussed in the video.
· This novel explores the differences between Arnold’s life and that of his White classmates in Reardan. The illustration in the chapter entitled “How to fight Monsters” shows differences between the two, both physically and metaphorically. Students will construct a similar split page illustration showing the differences between life on the reservation and life in Reardan. The illustration should be labeled with at least 10 differences, (see example illustration)
Other books by Sherman Alexie:
Indian Killer (1996)