The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
First edition cover
|Cover artist||Kirk Benshoff|
|Genre||Young adult fiction|
|Publisher||Little, Brown and Company|
|September 12, 2007|
|Media type||Print (hardcover & paperback)|
|LC Class||PZ7.A382 Ab 2007|
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian (The Absolutely True Diary) is a 2007 novel for young adults written by Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Ellen Forney. The book won several awards and 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 from the perspective of Native American teenager Arnold Spirit Jr., also known as "Junior", a 14-year-old budding cartoonist. The book is a bildungsroman, detailing Junior'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 Junior's character and furthering the plot.
The Absolutely True Diary is controversial for its discussion of alcohol, poverty, bullying, violence, and sexuality, as well as for the tragic deaths of characters and for the use of profanity and slurs related to homosexuality and mental disability. 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 Sherman Alexie's biographical background and purpose
- 7 Historical Trauma of the Spokane Indians
- 8 Multicultural Literature
- 9 Autobiographical elements
- 10 Audiobook
- 11 Film adaptation
- 12 Educational resources
- 13 References
The book follows one school year in the life of Junior, a fourteen-year-old boy living with his family on the Spokane Indian Reservation near Wellpinit, Washington. It is told in episodic diary style, moving from the start of the school year, through the major holidays, to the beginning of summer. It includes both Junior's written record of his life and his cartoon drawings, some of them comically commenting on his situations, and others more seriously depicting important people in his life.
The Absolutely True Diary begins by introducing Junior's circumstances, including the fact that he was born with hydrocephalus and therefore is small for his age and suffers from seizures, poor eyesight, stuttering, and lisping. As a result, Junior has always been picked on by other people on the reservation. His family is poor, a condition Junior attributes to being from the reservation and not having opportunities to fulfill their potential; their poverty is displayed early when Junior's dog Oscar gets heat stroke and has to be put down by his father because they cannot afford to take him to a veterinarian. Junior's only child friend is Rowdy, a classmate who is abused at home and is known as a bully on the reservation. Despite his intimidating role, Rowdy often stands up for Junior and lets Junior see his vulnerable side, such as his enjoyment of such kids' comics as Archie and Richie Rich.
Diary then moves to Junior's first day of high school and to the incident that sets up the plot of the book: when his geometry teacher, Mr. P, hands out the textbooks, Junior sees his mother's maiden name written in his, meaning that the textbook is at least thirty years old. Angered and saddened by the fact that the reservation is so poor that it cannot afford new textbooks, Junior violently throws the book, which hits Mr. P's face, breaking his nose. When he visits Junior at home, Mr. P convinces Junior to transfer to Reardan High School, sensing a degree of preciousness in the young teenager. The town of Reardan is far wealthier than Wellpinit--Junior is the only Indian at Reardan besides the team mascot. Although Junior's family is poor, and although the school is 22 miles away and transportation is unreliable, they support him and do what they can to make it possible for him to stay in the new school. Rowdy, however, is upset by Junior's decision to transfer, and the once-best friends have very little contact during the year.
Junior develops a crush on the school's most popular white girl, Penelope, and becomes study friends with a smart student named Gordy. His interactions with the white students give him a better perspective both on white culture and his own. He realizes how much stronger his family ties are than those of his white classmates, noticing that many of the white fathers never come to their children's school events. Junior also realizes that the white students have different rules than those he grew up with, which is evident when he reacts to an insult from the school's star athlete, Roger, by punching him in the face. Junior hits him, as he would have been expected to do on the reservation, and he expects Roger to get revenge. But Roger never does; in fact, Roger and his friends show Junior more respect. Junior also gets closer to Penelope, which makes him more popular with the other girls at the school.
Roger suggests that Junior try out for the basketball team, and to Junior's surprise, he makes the varsity team, which puts him against his former school, Wellpinit, and specifically Rowdy, who is Wellpinit's star freshman. Their first match demonstrates to Junior just how angry the reservation people are at him for transferring: when he enters the court, they turn their backs on him. During the game, Rowdy elbows Junior in the head and knocks him unconscious. In their second match that year, Reardan wins and Junior gets to block Rowdy. Junior feels triumphant until he sees the Wellpinit players' faces after their defeat and remembers the difficulties they face at home and their lack of hope for a future; ashamed, he runs to the locker room, where he vomits and then breaks down in tears.
In the course of the year, Junior and his family suffer many tragedies, all related to alcohol abuse. His grandmother is hit and killed by a drunk driver. A family friend, Eugene, is shot in the face by his friend Bobby after fighting over alcohol. Finally, his sister and her husband die when their mobile home is accidentally set on fire after a night of heavy drinking. These events test Junior's sense of hope for a better future and make him wonder about the darker aspects of reservation culture. But they also help him see how much his family and his new friends love him, and he learns to see himself as both Indian and American. Meanwhile, Rowdy realizes that Junior is the only nomad on the reservation, which makes him more of a "traditional" Indian than everyone else in town. In the end, Junior and Rowdy reconcile while playing basketball and resolve to correspond no matter where the future takes them.
Arnold Spirit Jr. – nicknamed Junior, Arnold 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, feel the daily effects of poverty and financial shortcomings-- there is often not enough food to eat in their home or enough money to fill the gas tank in the car, forcing him to hitchhike to school or not go at all. He is incredibly smart; he transfers from the school on the reservation to Reardan, where almost all the students are white.
Agnes Adams (Junior's Mom) – A Spokane Indian, Agnes has lived on the reservation her entire life. She is a bad liar, likes to read books, and is considered to be very smart by her children. She likes to drink and is seen as eccentric by Junior: "She's a human tape recorder," Junior explains, "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]
Arnold Spirit Sr. (Junior's Dad) – An alcoholic and a good singer. He sometimes disappears for days on end on drinking binges. "He sings old country songs. And blues, too. Like a pro," according to Junior.[a] He can also play the piano, the guitar, and saxophone.
Mr. P – Junior's white geometry teacher at Wellpinit High School. He mentored Mary, Junior's older sister, and wants to help Junior leave the reservation. Mr. P regrets the way he treated his students when he was younger. He had been taught to beat the Indian out of the children. 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] A major turning point in Diary's plot occurs when Junior throws his math book at Mr. P after a realization about the reservation's poverty.
Rowdy – Rowdy is Junior's best friend. He is "long and lean & strong like a snake."[c] Junior and Rowdy have been the best of friends since they were little but turn into Junior's "arch nemesis" during the novel. Throughout the novel, Rowdy's father abuses him, which leads to his bully-like behavior. He likes reading comics, such as 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 Junior to be "beautiful and strong and funny". She was 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-home after a partygoer forgot about a boiling pot of soup. A curtain drifted onto the hot plate and the trailer was quickly engulfed. Junior was told that Mary never woke up because she was too drunk.
Roger - Roger is a jock at Reardan High School. Upon meeting Junior, Roger uses racial slurs to demean him, and Junior then punches him in the face. Contrary to Junior's expectations, Roger then begins to respect Junior, and the two gradually become friends.
Gordy – A student who 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 – Junior's girlfriend from Reardan High. She has blond hair and Junior thinks that she is very attractive. 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 traveling the 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] Junior reveals. 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 his close friend Bobby shoots him in the face during a dispute over alcohol. Bobby hangs himself in jail.
Junior's Grandma – Nicknamed Grandmother Spirit, she is Junior'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. Ironically, 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," Junior recalls on page 157.[f]
Coach – 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 on and off 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 cycles 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 to 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. Violence serves as a form of communication in the reservation; Junior believes it is the Native Americans' acknowledgement that they are going nowhere that fuels their violence. Thus, as is true with 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 Alexie's desire to explore and address the issue of alcoholism derives from his own experiences with alcohol on 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, which frames the novel. 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 important roles 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," Alexie reveals.[l] Similarly, Mary reads and writes romance novels in order to escape (and run away) from her equally harsh reality. In contrast, Junior draws cartoons and writes because it makes him feel important and is his way of communicating with the world. Alexie furthers the distinction between Junior on Mary on page 46—he writes, "My sister is running away to get lost, but I am running away because I want to find something."  Alexie's commentary on Junior's perspective (through drawings, dialogue, and Junior's own views on literature) highlights Junior's ambitiousness, curiosity, and drive. In essence, writing, drawing, and reading are activities that are cathartic to Rowdy, Mary, and Junior. These outlets function as coping mechanisms to make the dysfunction, violence, and abuse in the characters' lives more 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 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 realization and 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 beat 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."
In another review published on November 2016 by Dakota Student website, author Breanna Roen says that she has never seen the way that this book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, conveys so much happiness, love, and grief. Alexie’s work in this novel can’t be compared to other Native American books; it is “a whole different ball game,” Roen asserts. The review continues to state that the theme regarding identity, home, race, poverty, tradition, friendship, hope and success is seen throughout the entire book, leaving the readers on the edge of their seats and wanting more . Roen says that she could hardly put the book down and is avidly looking for something similar.
In the review, "A Brave Life: The Real Struggles of a Native American Boy make an Uplifting Story" published in The Guardian, author Diane Samuels says that Alexie’s book has a “combination of drawings, pithy turns of phrase, candor, tragedy, despair and hope ... [that] makes this more than an entertaining read, more than an engaging story about a North American Indian kid who makes it out of a poor, dead-end background without losing his connection with who he is and where he's from.”  In some areas, Samuels criticizes Alexie's stylistic reliance on the cartoons.  However, Samuels continues to say that for the most part, Sherman Alexie has a talent for capturing the details and overview in a well-developed and snappy way.  Samuels finishes her review by stating that: "Opening this book is like meeting a friend you'd never make in your actual life and being given a piece of his world, inner and outer. It's humane, authentic and, most of all, it speaks." 
In the review “Using The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to Teach About Racial Formation”, Miami University professor Kevin Talbert says that Alexie chose to narrate the story through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Junior to transport his readers into “uncomfortable or incongruent spaces.” He continues to say that the novel’s writing allows for topics about class and racial struggles to be intertwined with more common adolescent struggles like sexual desires, controlling hormones, and managing relationships with friends and family. Furthermore, Talbert believes that, unlike other Young Adult novels, this book captures issues of race and class in a way that is not limited to Native American readers but a wider audience. The article continues to state that Junior’s narration in the novel sends a message to society, “that adolescents have important things to say, that being fourteen years old matters”.
Dr. Bryan Ripley Crandall, director of the Connecticut Writing Project at Fairfield University, posits in his critical essay "Adding a Disability Perspective When Reading Adolescent Literature: Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" that the book presents a progressive view of disability. Arnold has what he calls "water on the brain", which would correctly be referred to as hydrocephalus. Crandall points out that Arnold is never held back by his disability, but in fact laughs at himself: "With my big feet and pencil body, I looked like a capital L walking down the road." According to Crandall, the illustrations by Ellen Forney, which are meant to be the cartoons that Arnold draws, represent a new way for the disabled narrator to communicate with the readers: they "initiate further interpretations and conversations about how students perceive others who are not like them, especially individuals with disabilities". Arnold's hydrocephaly doesn't prevent him from becoming a basketball star at his new school. His disability fades as a plot device as the book progresses.
David Goldstein, in his paper "Sacred Hoop Dreams: Basketball in the Work of Sherman Alexie", analyses the importance of basketball in the novel. He suggests that it represents "the tensions between traditional lifeways and contemporary social realities". According to Goldstein, Junior/Arnold sees losing at basketball as "losing at life." The Reardan kids are eternal winners because of their victories on the court: "Those kids were magnificent". Goldstein notes how basketball is also a sport of poverty in America -"it costs virtually nothing to play" - and so is appropriate for the reservation."
Nerida Weyland’s article, “Representations of Happiness in Comedic Young Adult Fiction: Happy Are the Wretched” describes how Junior/Arnold is an example of the complex, not-innocent child often presented in modern young adult literature. As detailed in Alyson Miller’s “Unsuited to Age Group: The Scandals of Children’s Literature,” society has created an “innocence of the idealized child”; Alexie's protagonist is the opposite of this figure.
According to Weyland, Alexie doesn’t play by the rules – the use of humor in the book is directed at established “power hierarchies, dominant social ideologies or topics deemed taboo”. Weyland suggests that the outsized effect of this feature of the book is revealed in the controversy its publication caused, as it was banned and challenged in schools all over the country. Weyland states that Alexie’s book with Forney’s black-comedy illustrations explore themes of “racial tension, domestic violence, and social injustice” in a never-before-done way. As an example, Alexie uses the anecdote of the killing of Junior’s dog, Oscar, to expand on the idea of social mobility, or lack thereof – Junior states that he understood why the dog had to be killed rather than taken to the vet, because his parents were poor and they “came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people”. Weyland notes how readers are likely to be uncomfortable with Junior/Arnold/Alexie making light of topics of such importance (racism, poverty, alcoholism) through the use of dark comedy.
Alexie won three major "year's best" awards for Diary, a biannual award for books by and about Native Americans, and a California award that annually covers the last four years. The awards are listed below:
- 2007 National Book Award for Young People's Literature
- 2008 American Indian Youth Literature Awards. American Indian Library Association Best Young Adult Book.
- 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)
Diary was also named to several annual lists including three by the United States' library industry (not including being banned).
- "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
Diary 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 article 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.
In the same article, Alexie explains that he has visited many classrooms and received numerous 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.
However, some people argue in favor of the book, stating that the novel shows positive perspectives on life and holds an anti-alcohol message. In a Chicago Tribune article entitled "Some Parents Seek to Ban The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian", John Whitehurst, an English teacher at Antioch High School, argues that Alexie's book should still be a part of their school curriculum:
While there is graphic language, keep in mind that Arnold [the main character] uses this language to express his own feelings to himself or to exchange taunts with his best friend, he never uses this language in front of girls, to his family or to other adults, and he doesn't act on such thoughts. He is consistently polite.
The controversy at Antioch High School is included in the censorship section below.
Since its publication in 2007, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has earned a host of awards, but has also been met with censorship. Examples of censorship include the removal of the book from libraries and school curricula, its exclusion from reading lists for students, and other barriers to stop students from accessing the book. The National Coalition Against Censorship has called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian the book it defends more than any other. The root of some people’s problems with the book might be seen in Alexie’s unapologetic statement that he writes for who he is: “kind of mixed up, kind of odd, not traditional. I'm a rez kid who's gone urban, and that's what I write about. I've never pretended to be otherwise." The topics addressed in the book that have been controversial are its perceived cultural insensitivity, provocative and explicit language, scenes that are sexually explicit or anti-family, and depictions of bullying and violence. For its grappling with these issues, "some people thought it was the greatest book ever, and some people thought it was the most perverted book ever," said Tobin, a superintendent of a Georgia school district. Some have criticized efforts to reduce the book to these objectionable aspects in order to have the book censored or removed from schools. Cari Rerat, a public librarian in Missouri, claims that a section of the book that was only 15 sentences long that referred to masturbation was enough to earn the banning of the book in one school.
Antioch County, Illinois (June 2009)
In the summer of 2009, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was introduced to Antioch High School on a summer reading list for incoming ninth graders. It was not long before parents caught wind of the book’s references to alcoholism, sensitive cultural topics, and sexual innuendos—in the beginning of June, seven Antioch parents attended a 117th District school board meeting to request that the book be removed from the curriculum.
John Whitehurst, the chair of the high school’s English department, defended his choice to include Diary in the summer curriculum. He cited exposure to alcohol and the presence of social tension as two relatable and important themes for freshmen to understand before entering high school. He also suggested that since recent studies indicated teenage males' lack of interest in reading, a novel with an active male protagonist would be conducive to reversing the negative trend.
Jennifer Andersen, one of the parents who attended the meeting, asserted that the curriculum's inclusion of foul language would suggest that the school condoned the use of profanities. “I began reading, and I started to cross out sections that I didn't want [my 14-year-old son] to read. Soon I thought, 'Wait, this is not appropriate; he is not reading this,'" Andersen told The Chicago Tribune in 2009. She concluded that the most viable solution was a universal “warning label” on books for high-schoolers, and proposed such a policy to the school board. In contrast with other national book-banning controversies, both the parents and the superintendent told the Tribune that they had read Diary before discussing its potential censorship. In Bless Me, Ultima's 2005 censorship case in Grand Junction, Colorado, Superintendent Bob Condor admitted to not reading the entire book before banning it. Additionally, a 2011 decision to ban Diary in Richland, Washington was overturned after one month when proponents of the book's censorship read the entire novel.
Unlike the novel’s censorship case in Stockton, Missouri, Diary was not banned from Antioch High School’s curriculum following the controversy, nor did the school accept Andersen’s proposition. Instead, the English department introduced an alternative option for summer reading—students who preferred to read John Hart's Down River were permitted to do so.
Stockton, Missouri (April 2010)
In April 2010, the Stockton School Board, located in Missouri, voted 7- 0 to remove The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian from the school library after a parent complained about its content. The main concerns about the book were its profane language  and sexual content. Ken Spurgeon, one of the case board members, said in an article published by CedarRepublican.com, “We can take this book and we can wrap it in those 20 awards everybody said it won, and you know what, it is still wrong”. However, people at Stockton that supported the book believed it encouraged high school students, especially boys, to become interested in reading. Kim Jasper, a communication arts teacher at Stockton High School, stated that students “can recognize themselves in the literature, and yes sometimes books deal with harsh issues ..... such literature, even with its harsh issues, tells teens their lives matter, and the issues they face are important, and that they are not alone in the battles they may be fighting”. The American Library Association (ALA) wrote the school saying that they “strongly encourage the board to reconsider the removal of this book and to ensure the inclusion of diverse viewpoints in both the library collection and the curriculum".
On July 21, the Stockton R-1 School Board met and voted 7-0 to reconsider the motion upheld on April 15. The decision of the board stated that before the special meeting, the original book review committee would meet and be asked five written questions regarding the suitability of the book. Also, the meeting would be open to the public so citizens could express their opinions regarding the book. In addition, Cheryl Marcum, a resident of Stockton against banning book requested that the committee answer eight question that would help citizens better understand the rationale behind voting to remove the book. Marcum, also asked the committee and school board to consider four requests before the meeting. The demands included, allowing The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to be read in classrooms and checked out from the library with parental permission.
On September (2010), the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom published the questions that the review book committee was asked by both the school board and Cheryl Marcum. The questions made by the school board were: “No. 1. Is the book educationally suitable for use in Stockton High School classrooms? Please explain the basis for the majority and minority opinions regarding this question. No. 2. Is there such vulgarity and sexual references in the book as to cause it to be pervasively vulgar or contain content that is sexually inappropriate for high school students in grades 9-12? No. 3. If yes, describe the factual basis for such determination. No. 4. If no, describe the factual basis for this determination. No. 5. If retention of the book in the school library is recommended by either a majority or minority of the committee with restrictions, explain the specific restrictions that are suggested”.
The special meeting took place on September 9, and over 200 people attended the forum. After a lengthy discussion from parties both for and against the novel, the School Board voted 7–0 to uphold its banning of the book from the curriculum and voted 5-2 against the request to allow the school library to hold the book with restrictions to accessing it.
Newcastle, Wyoming (Oct 2010)
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 teaching it in a curriculum, but still allowed it in the library for those who wished to read it.
Richland, Washington (2011)
In 2011, a ninth-grade Language Arts teacher at the Richland Public High School piloted in the book in his curriculum, and with the help of his students, reported to the school's board on the book's place in a high school curriculum. Parents of students in the class were notified ahead of time that the teacher was interested in the book for its "realistic portrayal of the high school experience and compelling theme of perseverance," but also that he was aware of its profanity, and so they were able to opt their student out of reading the novel.
At the end of the course, the students and one parent reviewed the book, with 95% recommending that the school keep the book it in its curriculum permanently. At the same time, the school's Instructional Materials Committee had a split vote on whether or not to allow it. In June 2011, the school board voted 3-2 to remove the book from the school entirely. Board members had not read the book, but cited the split Instructional Materials Committee vote as reason to ban the novel.
The board members later learned that some members of the Instructional Materials Committee had not read the book, and so the board members agreed to vote again, but read it for themselves before the vote. On July 11, 2011, the school board voted 4-1 to reverse their earlier decision (2). One board member who changed his vote after reading called the book "outstanding" after reading it.
Yakima, Washington (2013)
Sherman Alexie’s novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, was challenged in his home state of Washington, only a few hours' drive away from where the semi-autobiographical work is set. This means that various people have objected to certain content, theme, or language in this book. The dispute over the book’s appropriateness for high school students took place in the West Valley School District in 2013. Specifically, many parents claimed that the book contains inappropriate and sexual content and language that are unsuitable for high school students.
Alexie’s semi-autobiographical book tells the story of Arnold, a teenage boy who lives on the Spokane Indian reservation, but goes to school outside of the reservation to receive better education. The novel contains themes such alcoholism, poverty, hopelessness, racism, and even bullying. However, Alexie uses humor and cartoons to provide an uplifting approach to these serious issues that arise in the world today.
The Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, which records all instances of challenges to literature in the U.S., reports that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian had been approved by the West Valley district’s Instructional Materials Committee for grades 11 and 12, but was added to the 10th grade curriculum without undergoing the usual procedure. These sophomores studied the book in conjunction with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for a module on racism. The Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom records how this pairing––and the inflammatory language of The Absolutely True Diary––made Alicia Davis, an elementary school teacher with a daughter in the class, uncomfortable. She said that the subject matter of To Kill a Mockingbird (lynching and Jim Crow) was enough for one class. Davis understood the need for a different cultural perspective, but argued that such offensive language has no place in a high school class; she suggested that Alexie's book be reserved for college classes. The Newsletter adds that Davis's friend, Katie Birley, joined her in protesting against the book because the school didn't follow proper protocol.
However, Josh McKimmy, a 10th grade English teacher at West Valley, spoke up in defense of teaching Alexie’s novel to his sophomore class. “The book is a gateway for reluctant readers,” he said. “It deals with issues [my] students are very familiar with as teenagers. They really identify with Junior’s problems… Kids struggle with identity; that’s kind of what high school is”. To McKimmy, the book is a way to educate his students about the modern problems that not only Native Americans, but also teenagers of any ethnicity face today. He claimed that he was not teaching the book to create controversy, but rather to raise awareness of the problems that exist in the world that students may not have been exposed to.
Furthermore, some residents of Yakima defended the book's place in the syllabus. In a letter to the editor of The Yakima Herald, Peggy Haskett voiced her opinion, opposing the censorship of The Absolutely True Diary: “a book like this begs to be read and discussed”. Haskett writes that she encouraged her daughters to read the book “to be exposed to the realities of life for people who grow up in a very different environment”.
As of now, there have been four official complaints about the book that have been recorded. The West Valley district's assistant superintendent, Peter Finch, admitted that it was an "honest mistake" on their part for failing to officially approve of teaching the book in 10th grade classes. Thus, Alexie's book was removed from 10th grade classes and made supplemental literature for 11th and 12th grades, instead of required reading.
Meridian, Idaho (April 2014)
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.
Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been banned in numerous places across the country due to its explicit descriptions of sexual behavior, racism, and profane language. According to Marshall University Libraries, in 2015 the text was banned from the Meridian (ID) school districts' required texts due to parents complaining that it “discusses masturbation, contains profanity, and has been viewed as anti-Christian”. As an attempt to make amends with the parents and their wishes, a committee from the school board decided that the book was not going to be fully banned. In order for 10th grade students to be eligible to read it they needed a parent signed permission slip. The Meridian high school superintendent, Linda Clark, was the one who made the executive decision that the book should be fully pulled from the curriculum and replaced with something more age appropriate. Numerous parents agreed with her actions, however, there were many adults and students who did not see an issue with the book being taught in a high school setting. There were many student run organizations that provided the school board with arguments as to why they believe the novel should stay in the districts curriculum. A petition organized by Brady Kissel, a mountain view high school student, was signed by 350 different students from the Meridian district. It then gave Baker and Lott, two young women from Washington State, an idea that allows the students to have access to the book without it being required. Their thought process was if students are unable to read it in a school setting, it should be accessible outside the classroom. Stacy Lacy, a teacher from Meridian high school was one of many who spoke out against the decision to ban the novel. She believes that the story of how a young boy is put into a new school environment and is bullied due to his race and ethnicity applies to many teenagers today. To back up her argument, she told a story about a boy she had in one of her classes. At first, the boy was attached to his phone and never read a book in his life, but once he was handed Sherman Alexie’s novel it changed everything. He read every single page of the book and then passed it on to his classmates. Clay believes that despite the fact it contains profane language and “inappropriate” scenes, the book can have a positive impact on young student's.
Brunswick, North Carolina (July 2014)
On July 1, 2014, a grandmother in Brunswick, North Carolina, filed a complaint against the novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian at Cedar Grove Middle School. Two weeks later, the school's Media Advisory Committee met and unanimously agreed to keep the book in its curriculum because the committee saw the value in “the realistic depiction of bullying and racism, as well as a need for tolerance and awareness of cultural differences.” The grandmother, Frances Wood, appealed the decision, remaining adamant that “[t]his book is not morally acceptable… Everything in it is degrading. There's nothing uplifting in it.”
Days after the committee voted to keep the book, Wood appealed the decision to the school’s superintendent, who voted in favor of keeping the book; Woods then appealed the superintendent’s decision to the school board, whose decision would be final. A few months later, on September 10, Wood finally lost her petition to have the book banned when the Brunswick County School Board members voted in favor of keeping it in the school. Though the book will stay in Brunswick County schools, students will now need a note from their parents before they can check it out of the library as a result of the complaint.
Wood, however, continued fighting against the book. In April the next year, she filed another complaint—this time at West Brunswick High School. She claimed, in a letter to the school’s principal and media coordinator, that "this book is very offensive to any moral person” because of its mentioning sexual practices, and allusions to bestiality, which is illegal in North Carolina. She also objected to what she saw as “negative remarks” about Christianity and Judaism, as well as “derogatory remarks” about blacks and Native Americans, which, according to Wood, “definitely show racism.”
Wood lost this protest against the book when the principal of West Brunswick High School responded a few days later that the county school board’s policy was that their decision on a book held for all schools in the county, and that those decisions could not be revisited for two years.
Sherman Alexie's biographical background and purpose
In “Healing The Soul Wound,” Jan Johnson, a writer and literary critic, discusses Sherman Alexie's purpose in sharing stories of marginalization and oppression in Native American communities.
Johnson immediately identifies the “soul wound,” a concept that evolved from the mistreatment and exploitation of Native Americans. This phenomenon is responsible for the characterization of Native Americans as individuals who are constantly suffering, and according to Johnson, this struggle has become a cultural trait. Johnson writes, “Alexie feels that—as a result of this grim history—suffering and trauma are fundamental to the experience of being Native American. Ceaseless suffering attains an epistemological status.”  In Sherman Alexie, A Collection of Critical Essays, critics Jeff Burglund and Jan Roush interpret Jan Johnson's definition of the soul wound as "intergenerational suffering."  On pages 10 and 11 of Diary, Alexie elaborates on the concept of generational poverty when he reveals that Junior's family is too poor to care for the family's sick dog: "My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people," he writes. Junior is “wounded,” which Alexie shows through Junior's alcoholic father, his misguided sister, and his defeating social life. Through Diary, Alexie aims to make a larger statement about the need for change in both the internal structure and the external perception of Native American communities in the United States.
In his own writing, Alexie has explored the concept of upward mobility in Native American life. “A smart Indian is a dangerous person,” Alexie states in a personal essay, “[a smart Indian is] widely feared and ridiculed by Indians and non-Indians alike.”  Junior encapsulates this type of experience when he receives strong censure both from his tribal community, and from his peers and teachers at his new school, Reardan. In the personal essay, Alexie's continued explanation of his own experience is reflected in Junior's. Alexie recalls, “I fought with my classmates on a daily basis. They wanted me to stay quiet when the non-Indian teacher asked for answers….[W]e were Indian children who were expected to be stupid. …[W]e were expected to fail in the non-Indian world.”  Through Junior's success in the non-Indian world, Alexie represents a possibility for the success of Native American children—by defeating the expectation that he is doomed to fail, Junior crosses social boundaries and defeats unfavorable odds. Alexie's reflections demonstrate that Junior's experiences are semi-autobiographical.
Historical Trauma of the Spokane Indians
Sherman Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. While living on the reservation he had to make sacrifices and choices that guided the direction of his future. In his novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (The Diary), he writes a story about his own personal experiences he faced once he left the reservation, and how his decision to go to school for a proper education was quite difficult to adjust to. In Jan Johnson’s article Healing the Soul Wound in Flight and The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, she talks about how Junior went from being one of the smartest kids on the reservation, to being a target in his new prominently white school. Johnson explains that behaviors of the characters in Flight is a reflection on the traumas Native American Indians went through. On the other hand, The Absolutely True Diary, is a possible indication of the healing process from the tragedies and traumas the Spokane Indians faced throughout history. It is important for people to understand how this specific group and other groups of Native Americans were dehumanized and ripped of their cultural values, which is what Johnson considered the “soul wound” of American Indians. Columbus and his men colonized the new land they encountered in horrid ways that diminished Native people of anything they had. Violent invasions by Columbus and his crew left the Indians with nothing to call their own. Sacred land, animals, plants, and relatives were all lost during the time of what Maria Yellow Brave Heart and Lemyra DeBruyn called the “American Indian Holocaust”. The ones that were somewhat fortunate enough to stay alive were brainwashed of everything they knew, and were forced to believe and follow the religious practices of the Christian faith despite the fact it was not what they believed in. The Indians were also forced to relocate and leave everything; which led to many of them dying due to illness or unbearable conditions they had to walk in. Even though the trauma Native Indians faced occurred millions of years ago, they currently are still affected by them. It is the “historical unresolved grief” that is the cause of high crime rates and mental health issues among Native American people today. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart and Lemyra DeBruyn, explain the meaning behind “historical disenfranchised grief” and how it is overlooked by Americans. American Indians are experiencing disenfranchised grief because of how this group of people was and still is seen as savages, emotionless, and have no right or reason to mourn and grieve.
A textbook called Sherman Alexie in the Classroom was recently published in order to help teachers and educators explore how multicultural texts can impact the learning outcome of students––especially for Native Americans in the modern times. This text explores the significance and the message behind the works of Sherman Alexie, including poetry, novels, films strips, and much more.
Sherman Alexie's novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is a multicultural text that many English teachers use in order to educate their students about the Native American heritage. The author, Alexie, himself is of the Spokane heritage. This means that he has had first hand experience of being Native American and facing racism, which gives him the ability to be able to discuss these issues in the context of his ethnicity. As a result, he uses his own background and personal experiences to write this specific novel in a semi-autobiographical format. However, many adults, especially parents, have rejected this book because they claim that the content and language of the novel are unsuitable for high school students. Other adults also claim that the presence of alcohol in the novel forms a mood of despair and sadness, which could influence children in negative ways. However, many teachers argue in defense of the novel. They refer to the textbook, Sherman Alexie in the Classroom, to claim that the book provides an opportunity to educate non-Native American students to “work through their white guilt and develop anti-racist perspectives”.
Having read and discussed the topics of Alexie's novel as a multicultural literature, a student named Hannah Wolf also argued in favor of Alexie’s novel. She claimed that the beginning of the book was very depressing and made her cry. However, as she kept reading, she discovered that Junior, the protagonist, started to stand up for himself and build more confidence. This testimony shows that a multicultural text such as this novel not only teaches students of one specific race to stand up for themselves, but also influences students of any race or ethnicity to maintain confidence and stick up for what they believe in.
Furthermore, Alexie’s text and novels encourage educators to initiate discussions in their classrooms about the Native American culture as a whole. Many stereotypes of Native Americans exist in the United States, therefore, many people have erroneous views of what modern Native Americans' lives are like. 11th and 12th grade English teacher, Bryan Ripley Crandall, believes that learning about different cultural backgrounds creates a diverse learning environment. Crandall also states that the Native American narrative of Alexie's book is a way of giving minority students an access to their own background and heritage within an American education. Therefore, Alexie’s multicultural literature of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian provides an expanded perspective of the daily lives of Native Americans living on the reservation in today’s world.
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 giant 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. "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.
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