Book: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: YA Contemporary, Own Voices
Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.
Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, is a hard book to review. This semi-autobiographical YA novel is wildly hilarious at times, but also bleak and grim, and based off of many of the real-life experiences of the author.
“I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.”
My first thought was that Alexie’s writing, blunt and filled with dark humor, also contains what can easily be construed as negative stereotypes. The lack of positive role models on the reservation, and the almost angelic portraiture of the white-townsfolk towards the end of the book, paints a very unfair depiction of American Indian life. Is his story perpetuating the sentiment of American Indians as sad, hopeless souls? Why is it one of the few white people living on the reservation that is the one that tells Junior of his immediate need to get off the reservation and “SAVE HIMSELF”? White people to the rescue motif, really?
Having not grown up on or anywhere near a reservation, these are not questions that I feel comfortable answering myself. I have a very, very small thread connecting me to the American Indian community: my maternal biological grandfather is Native American. But I am adopted, and that is literally all the information I have. Not a whole lot to go by.
So, I went to Google, and researched some of Sherman Alexie’s past interviews, and reviews by people who grew up and/or lived on reservations, to gain a different perspective. I would like to share some of their thoughts here:
“The other aspect of this book that I enjoyed, though I don’t expect every reader to view the same way, is that the Indian Reservation depicted has a lot of truth to it from my own experiences of having grown up on and around my own as a girl. Twenty, and even ten years ago, our reservation life was not so far off from the one described here, with the exception of perhaps the climate being slightly different, and perhaps I was too young to understand and remember anything about crime rates. But there was poverty, and then there was crushing poverty where I am from. There was alcoholism, though I would venture that perhaps it wasn’t the hot-button stereotype that I feel is portrayed at times in Alexie’s book. I don’t know. Every Native community is different, for sure, with their own unique set of problems. While I feel that there is a lot of truth to what Sherman Alexie has created, I also feel that there is a sweeping generalization. So, it hits and it misses, and I would encourage you to read it for yourself and decide what you think.” ~ Ouyang Dan, FWD/Forward
“Literature is the study of human weakness. I just happened to write the Native American version of it.” ~ Sherman Alexie, Sadie Magazine interview
“When I think of the poverty-stricken, sexually and physically abused, self-loathing Native American teenager that I was, I can only wish, immodestly, that I’d been given the opportunity to read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” Or Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak.” Or Chris Lynch’s “Inexusable.” Or any of the books that Ms. Gurdon believes to be irredeemable. I can’t speak for other writers, but I think I wrote my YA novel as a way of speaking to my younger, irredeemable self.” ~Sherman Alexie, Why The Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood
I know this isn’t my typical review. In short, I found The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to be a funny, heart-breaking, and thought-provoking book. I definitely recommend it. With a caveat, as I also place the responsibility on the reader – esp. white readers – to understand fully and completely that Alexie’s book, and life experiences, are not to be taken as absolute truth for all American Indians, everywhere.
“I used to think the world was broken down by tribes,’ I said. ‘By Black and White. By Indian and White. But I know this isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not.”
Rating: 4/5 stars