The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
First edition cover
|Cover artist||Kirk Benshoff|
|Country||United States of America|
|September 12, 2007|
|Media type||Print (hardcover & paperback)|
|LC Class||PZ7.A382 Ab 2007|
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is a 2007 novel for young adults written by Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Ellen Forney. The book won several awards. This was the first young-adult fiction work by Alexie, a stand-up comedian, screenwriter, film producer, and songwriter who has previously written adult novels, short stories, poems, and screenplays. Alexie stated that "I did [write the book] because so many librarians, teachers, and teenagers kept asking me to write one."
The Absolutely True Diary is a first-person narrative by Native American teenager Arnold Spirit Jr., also known as "Junior", a 14-year-old budding cartoonist. The book is a bildungsroman, detailing Arnold's life on the Spokane Indian Reservation and his decision, upon encouragement from a reservation high school teacher, to go to an all-white public high school in the off-reservation town of Reardan, Washington. The novel has 65 comic illustrations by Forney, which sometimes act as punchlines while also revealing Arnold's character and furthering the plot.
The novel is controversial for some of its content on issues such as alcohol, poverty, bullying, homosexuality, violence, and sexual references as well as for the tragic deaths of characters and the use of profanity. As a result, some schools have banned the book from school libraries or inclusion in curricula.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Characters
- 3 Themes and symbolism
- 4 Reception
- 5 Controversy
- 6 Autobiographical elements
- 7 Audiobook
- 8 Film adaptation
- 9 Educational resources
- 10 References
The novel opens with Junior's explanations of the fact that he was born with an excess of cerebrospinal fluid in his skull (an event that he describes as being "born with water on the brain"). Junior is left with many physical problems. Some of these problems are that he is skinny, and has an over-sized head, hands, and feet. He also suffers from poor eyesight, experiences frequent seizures, and lisps and stutters. Mistreated by others on the reservation because of these problems, Junior is regularly beaten up and given such nicknames as "retard" (for the brain damage that he has sustained) and "globe" (for his large head). His family, like the majority of the other reservation families, is incredibly poor: This point is emphasized when Arnold's adopted dog Oscar begins to suffer from intense heat exhaustion and Arnold's father is forced to shoot him to avoid having to pay the expensive veterinary treatment necessary to save him.
Arnold's life on the reservation is brightened by his friend Rowdy, a "tough kid", as he is called by Arnold. Rowdy's father abuses him and his mother, thus they are constantly and noticeably covered in bruises. Despite the hardships that he experiences and his cold, tough attitude, Rowdy stays true to his friend Arnold and tries to protect him from some of the physical abuse he is dealt. On Arnold's first day of high school, his geometry teacher, Mr. P, hands out textbooks to the students and Arnold realizes that his book has his mother's maiden name written in it. She was thirty years old when she gave birth to Arnold, thus making the textbook at least thirty years older than Arnold himself. Arnold is angered and saddened by the fact that the Spokane reservation is so poor that it is unable to afford new textbooks for its high school. Because of this, Arnold violently throws the book, which ends up colliding with Mr. P's face and breaking his nose. The school subsequently suspends Arnold. During Arnold's suspension, Mr. P meets with Arnold to reveal to him his sister's dream to be a romance writer, he is not angry with him, and that "You [Arnold] have to leave this reservation".
A week into the school year, Arnold transfers to Reardan High School, a school full of kids with a lot of money in the countryside. Arnold is the only Indian at Reardan besides the team mascot. Although Arnold's mother is an ex-drunk, his father a drunk, and they are poor, they still allow him to transfer to Reardan. Arnold starts to have a crush on the school's most popular white girl, Penelope, and makes friends with a smart student named Gordy. Arnold tries to talk to Rowdy about his crush on Penelope, but their relationship is strained by Arnold's decision to go to Reardan. In contrast, Arnold and Penelope develop a closer relationship. Arnold makes the Reardan varsity basketball team and plays two games against his former school, Wellpinit, and specifically Rowdy. During their first game, Wellpinit wins after Rowdy elbows Arnold in the head and knocks him unconscious. In their second meeting, Reardan wins and Arnold gets to block Rowdy. Arnold believed he wanted to win, but after seeing the Wellpinit players' faces after their defeat, he cries and feels ashamed of himself. Throughout the novel, Arnold is struck by many tragedies: his grandmother is run over by a drunk driver, Gerald, while walking home from a powwow; his father's best friend Eugene is shot in the face by his friend Bobby after fighting over the last drink of alcohol; and his newlywed sister and her husband die when their mobile home is accidentally set on fire after a night of heavy drinking. In the end, Arnold and Rowdy reconcile while playing basketball and resolve to correspond no matter where the future takes them.
Arnold Spirit – nicknamed Junior, is a fourteen-year-old boy who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He enjoys playing basketball and drawing cartoons in his free time. Junior and his family, along with the others on the reservation are dealing with poverty. A lot of times, there is not enough food to eat in their home or enough money for gas in the car, forcing him to hitchhike to school or not go at all. He is incredibly smart and transfers from an all-Indian school to an all-white school.
Junior's Mom (Agnes Adams) – is a Spokane Indian, who has lived on the reservation her entire life. She is a bad liar, likes to read books, and is considered by Junior to be very smart. She likes to drink and is seen as eccentric by junior. "She's a human tape recorder. Really, my mom can read the newspaper in fifteen minutes and tell me baseball scores, the location of every war, the latest guy to win the lottery, and the high temperature in Des Moines, Iowa."[a]
Junior's Dad (Arnold Spirit, Sr.) – is an alcoholic and a good singer. He sometimes disappears for days on drinking binges. "He sings old country songs. And blues, too. Like a pro."[a] He can also play the piano, the guitar and saxophone.
Mr. P – is Junior's geometry teacher at the Spokane Indian Reservation school. He mentored Junior's sister and he wants to help Junior leave 'the rez'. He has regrets from beating the Indian out of the children in his years of teaching. He is short and bald. Incredibly absent minded, he often forgets to come to school, but "he doesn't expect much of [his students]."[b]
Rowdy – "He is long and lean and strong like a snake."[c] Junior and Rowdy have been the best of friends since they were little. Rowdy's father abuses him, which explains his bullying behavior. He likes reading comics, like Archie. The comics help him escape the troubles of the real world.
Mary – Junior's Sister. Mary has long hair and is nicknamed "Mary runs away". She likes to write romance stories and is considered by Arnold to be "beautiful and strong and funny". She was very smart but did not have the skills to get a job.[d] After high school, she did not go to college or get a job, instead she moved to Montana with her new husband she met at the reservation casino. Mary and her new husband die of a fire in their trailer after a partygoer started to make some soup and then forgot and left. A curtain drifted onto the hot plate and the trailer was quickly engulfed. Arnold was told that Mary never woke up because she was too drunk.
Gordy – attends Reardan, wears glasses, and does everything in the name of science. He is very smart and he eventually becomes Junior's good friend, and—in many ways—his teacher.
Penelope – Arnold's girlfriend from Reardan High, she has blond hair and Junior thinks that she is very pretty. She enjoys helping others, is bulimic, and has a racist father named Earl. She is popular and plays on the Reardan volleyball team. She is obsessed with leaving the small town behind and travelling the whole world.
Eugene – is the best friend of Junior's father. "Eugene was a nice guy, and like an uncle to me, but he was drunk all the time."[e] He becomes an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) for the tribal ambulance service and for a brief time drives a 1946 Indian Chief Roadmaster. Eugene dies after being shot in the face by his good friend Bobby, who subsequently hangs himself in jail.
Junior's Grandma – nicknamed Grandmother Spirit, is Arnold's source of advice and support until she dies after being hit by a drunk driver, while walking on the side of the road on her way home after a powwow. Her dying words were "Forgive him", which meant that she wanted her family to forgive the drunk driver, Gerald, for hitting and killing her. The irony is that she never had a drink in her life. She was also extremely tolerant and loving of all people. Junior's grandma is his favorite person in the world. "My grandmother's last act on earth was a call for forgiveness, love, and tolerance."[f]
Coach – is the coach of the basketball team at Reardan High School. Unlike the teachers who are apprehensive of Junior's attendance at Reardan, the coach pays no attention to Junior's race. He is supportive of Junior both in and outside the court.[g]
Themes and symbolism
Hope and dreams
Throughout the novel Junior shares his dreams with the readers. In the first chapter, he dreams of becoming a cartoon artist in order to get rich and escape the cycle of poverty and abuse on the reservation. The idea that hope exists off the rez is echoed in later chapters, where Junior finds himself caught between home on the reservation and pursuing his dreams in the outside world. Junior asks his parents, “Who has the most hope?” to which they answer “White people”.[h] The rez is characterized by lack of opportunity and poor education, the solution to which appears to lie in the Western world. Hence, the novel explores the theme of hope and dreams through Junior’s struggles to find a path to break free of his seemingly doomed fate on the reservation.
Junior admits that being a target of bullying due to his appearance and medical history (lisp, seizures, water on the brain). He reveals this information in a way that is both comical as well as sympathetic; he invites readers to share and relate to his experience being bullied. After transferring to Reardan High School, Junior must also deal with being the only poor Native American student in a school full of rich white people, and the pressures of keeping up appearances for fear of losing his peers’ social acceptance.
Junior lives under the constant threat of physical violence. Although he attempts to assuage the threat through his drawings and light-hearted approach to the problem, he is nevertheless subjected to regular beatings by members of the reservation, including the adults. But violence serves as a form of communication in the reservation. Junior believes it is the Indian’s acknowledgement that they are going nowhere that fuels their violence. Thus, like Rowdy, physical violence is also communicative.
The novel uses humorous narratives and comics to convey the theme of race. It explores racial issues such as stereotyping of Native and White people, the use of indigenous culture as sports mascots, interracial friendships, and cultural tokenization. For example, Junior notes that the only other “Indian” at Reardan was its school mascot, calling attention to the ubiquitous use of indigenous symbols in sports (see “List of sports team names and mascots derived from indigenous peoples”). Although Junior often dichotomizes Whites and Indians, Alexie reveals the stereotyping that occurs while still blurring the lines between races. Junior eventually establishes friendship with many of the White Reardan students, who see past race and accept him for his caring nature, his intelligence, and his basketball talents.
Alcohol abuse is an issue salient to the Spokane reservation. It is directly responsible for the character deaths in the novel and the deaths of most of the Indians on the reservation.[i] The novel highlights the destructive nature of alcohol abuse and its major contribution to the stagnation of progression at the reservation and dysfunction of the family. Junior voices his disapproval for its widespread use and considers it to be directly responsible for much of the disarray in his own family.
The portrayal of alcoholism in the novel is representative of the problem Native Americans have with the use of alcohol. Much of Sherman’s desire to explore and address the issue of alcoholism derives from his own experiences with alcohol in the reservation. When asked if he feels the need to address alcoholism as a Native American, he replied "the whole race is filled with alcoholics. For those Indians who try to pretend it's a stereotype, they're in deep, deep denial," and by addressing it that "with the social hope that by writing about it, maybe it'll help people get sober, and it has."
The centerpiece of the novel is the friendship between Junior and Rowdy. In the first chapter, Junior says, "Rowdy might be the most important person in my life. Maybe more important than my family.[j] In the absence of his drunk, emotionally-distant father and eccentric mother, Junior finds solace in Rowdy. But as the novel progresses, Junior begins to make friends at Reardan High and learns just how crucial it is to build new relationships with different people, as they each serve an important role or function in his life.[k]
Writing and literature
Writing and literature play an important role in the lives of Junior, Rowdy, and Mary. Rowdy reads comics as a way to escape from his abusive, dysfunctional home: “He likes to pretend he lives in comic books.”[l] Similarly, Mary reads and writes romance novels in order to escape (and run away) from her reality. In contrast, Junior draws cartoons and writes because it makes him feel important and is his way of communicating with the world. Writing, drawing, and reading are activities that are cathartic to them and also function as coping mechanisms to make the dysfunction, violence, and abuse in their lives bearable.
Oscar is Junior's stray mutt, best friend, and "the only living thing he can depend on."[m] He is euthanized by Junior's father at the beginning of the novel because they are unable to afford to take him to a vet. Oscar is a symbol of the struggles and consequences of being poor. Junior's inability to aid his friend reminds him of his poverty and the poverty he believes he is destined to inherit.[n] However, Oscar's death is also a turning point for Junior as it acts as a catalyst for his change.
In the novel, basketball is a symbol of improvement. Before his arrival to Reardan, Junior was, by his own words, "a decent player."[o] While at Reardan, Junior improves because of the expectations set by his coach and teammates and becomes a valuable asset to the team. By the end of the novel, Junior believes he will be able to best Rowdy someday. The transformation Junior undergoes through the sport is a testament of his will-power and dedication to better himself.
Bruce Barcott of The New York Times said of the novel in a 2007 review, "For 15 years now, Sherman Alexie has explored the struggle to survive between the grinding plates of the Indian and white worlds. He's done it through various characters and genres, but The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian may be his best work yet. Working in the voice of a 14-year-old forces Alexie to strip everything down to action and emotion, so that reading becomes more like listening to your smart, funny best friend recount his day while waiting after school for a ride home."
The New York Times opined that this was Alexie's "first foray into the young adult genre, and it took him only one book to master it." The San Francisco chronicle praised it as "[a] great book full of pain, but luckily, the pain is spiked with joy and humor."
Reviewers also commented on Alexie's treatment of difficult issues. Delia Santos, a publisher for the civilrights.org page, noted "Alexie fuses words and images to depict the difficult journey many Native Americans face. ... Although Junior is a young adult, he must face the reality of living in utter poverty, contend with the discrimination of those outside of the reservation, cope with a community and a family ravaged and often killed by alcoholism, break cultural barriers at an all-White high school, and maintain the perseverance needed to hope and work for a better future." As Andrew Fersch, a publisher for Vail Daily, commented, “most folks block out most of their teenage memory, [while] Alexie embraced it with humor."
Alexie won three major "year's best" awards for The Diary, and a California award that annually covers the last four years.
- 2007 National Book Award for Young People's Literature
- 2008 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Fiction and Poetry
- 2009 Odyssey Award as the year's "best audiobook for children or young adults", read by Alexie (Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, LLC, 2008, ISBN 1-4361-2490-5).
- 2010 California Young Reader Medal, Young Adult Book (eligible to win once during its first four years)
The Diary was also named to several annual lists including three by the library industry.
- "Best Books of 2007", School Library Journal
- 2008 "Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults", Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA)
- "2009 Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults", YALSA
The book has been at the center of several controversies regarding the depiction of sex and violence in books written for young adults. Alexie responded to such complaints in a 2011 Wall Street Journal post entitled "Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood", in which he argues that attempts to prevent school-aged children from learning about the harsher aspects of contemporary life are "way, way too late". He uses his own life as an example:
Of course, all during my childhood, would-be saviors tried to rescue my fellow tribal members. They wanted to rescue me. But, even then, I could only laugh at their platitudes. In those days, the cultural conservatives thought that KISS and Black Sabbath were going to impede my moral development. They wanted to protect me from sex when I had already been raped. They wanted to protect me from evil though a future serial killer had already abused me. They wanted me to profess my love for God without considering that I was the child and grandchild of men and women who’d been sexually and physically abused by generations of clergy.
Alexie also points out in that post that he has visited many classrooms and received many letters and messages from students who liked the book, noting that these students have had difficult experiences similar to his own—"depression, attempted suicide, gang warfare, sexual and physical abuse, absentee parents, poverty, racism, and learning disabilities"—and he notes:
I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read.
In April 2010, the Stockton School Board, located in Missouri, voted to remove The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian from the school library after a parent complained about its content. The American Library Association has asked the school board to reconsider its decision. In September 2010 the School Board decided to uphold its April decision to ban the book from the curriculum and from the library with a vote of 5–2.
In June 2011, the Richland School Board, in Washington, voted to prohibit the use of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for all grade levels. The book was subject to a pilot program, by a ninth-grade English class, prior to an Instructional Materials Committee review. Although the original vote was only about the appropriateness of the novel for freshman English students, the Committee decided to remove it from all grades, by a vote of 3–2. At the time of the ban, all 10 copies of the novel at the Richland Library were checked out and the same 10 copies had holds. The decision to ban the novel was reversed the following month after some of the board members and district committee members actually read the novel stating that they found the novel to be "outstanding".
In mid-October 2010, Newcastle Middle School attempted to use the book in the 8th grade English curriculum. At first, the district allowed it under the premise that children who were not allowed to read it would bring a signed paper allowing them to read the alternate book Tangerine. About two weeks after the announcement made to the 8th graders, the school board banned it on terms of teaching it in a curriculum, but still allowed it in the library for those who wished to read it.
In April 2014, the book was pulled from the Meridian district’s supplemental reading list after significant parental disapproval of the subject matter of the novel. The book had been a part of its curriculum since 2010. Students protested to remove the ban but were unsuccessful. The National Coalition Against Censorship states that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is its most frequently defended title.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is semi-autobiographical. The novel started as a section of Sherman Alexie's family memoir, but after the persistence of a Young Adult editor he decided to use it as a basis for his first Young Adult novel. Sherman Alexie states that, "If I were to guess at the percentage, it would be about seventy-eight percent true". Like Arnold, Sherman Alexie did grow up on the Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit with an alcoholic father. He was also born with hydrocephalus, like Arnold, but Alexie did not have any speech impediments. Like Arnold, Alexie was also teased for his government-issued, horn-rimmed glasses and nicknamed "The Globe" by fellow students because of his oversized head. Another similarity between Alexie and his character is that Alexie also left the reservation to attend high school at Reardan High, but Alexie chose to go to Reardan to achieve the required credits he needed to go to college. Like Arnold, Alexie also became the star player of Reardan's basketball team, and was the only Indian on the team besides the school's team mascot. The scene where Arnold finds that he is using the same textbook his mother did thirty years before him, is drawn from Alexie's own experiences. The only difference from Alexie's life and the novel is that Alexie threw the book against the wall and did not hit anyone.
The author Sherman Alexie himself narrates the audiobook of The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian, which has won many awards for Alexie's creation of an idiosyncratic first-person voice of Arnold. "Alexie is the perfect choice to read his own story." Alexie is able to convey the messages that the missing cartoons, caricatures, and sketches reveal in the printed text. Alexie is able to do this because of his experience as an orator. He won the Taos Poetry Circus World Heavyweight Championship award three years in a row for his oratorical virtuosity.
- The Absolutely True Diary
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- Alexie, p. 157.
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- Alexie, p. 179.
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- Reyhan, Harmanci (September 30, 2007). "Sherman Alexie's new novel takes teen off the rez". San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco: SFGate). Retrieved March 9, 2011.
- "Civil Rights Book Club: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian". Civilrights.org. October 1, 2010. Retrieved 2015-04-15.
- Santos, Delia (October 1, 2010). "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian". Retrieved March 9, 2011.
- Fersch, Andrew (October 20, 2007). "Book Review: The Absolutle True diary of a Part time Indian". Vail Daily. Retrieved March 9, 2011.
- "National Book Awards – 2007". National Book Foundation (NBF). Retrieved 2012-04-15.
(With acceptance speech by Alexie, interview with Alexie, and other material, partly replicated for all five Young People's Literature authors and books.)
- "Fiction and Poetry Award Winner: The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian". Horn Book Magazine 85 (1): 25–28. 2009.
- "Odyssey Award winners and honor audiobooks, 2008-present". ALSC. ALA. Retrieved 2012-04-19.
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- "2009 Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults". Young Adult Library Services 7 (3): 30–31. 2009.
- Alexie, Sherman (June 9, 2011). "Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved July 12, 2011.
- Penprase, Mike (September 9, 2010). "Stockton book ban upheld 7-0 in packed public forum". Springfield News-Leader.
- Cedar County Republican, September 15, 2010. Adam Stillman. "The Absolutely True Diary...Absolutely Banned".
- Tri-City Herald, June 19, 2011. Jacques von Lunen. Northwest novel removed from Richland schools' reading list.
- The Spokesman-Review, : Published: June 20, 2011. Compiled from wire reports. NW today: Alexie novel removed from Richland schools.
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