From the TFB archives, a re-post of a January 25, 2010, review of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which has been banned or removed from schools around the United States. It's a hard-hitting book, as Alexie's books always are, but it has warmth, humor, and honesty. It is another novel that is listed as Young Adult, but it's a wonderful read, no matter what your age.
In a discussion of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian with friends recently, the question came up about whether this young adult novel by Sherman Alexie is a true story or a novel with autobiographical elements. After all, the title says it's "Absolutely True," but in small letters above Alexie's name on the cover it says "A Novel."
The book is the story of 14-year-old Arnold Spirit, a Spokane Indian living on the rez, who realizes that the only way he is going to survive is to leave the reservation. All around him are family and friends who have known nothing but poverty, violence, addiction, and hopelessness, and he does not want to fall victim to this unending cycle. So, with the encouragement of a jaded teacher looking for redemption and the support of his loving, but flawed, family. Arnold transfers from the reservation school to an all-white high school twenty-two miles away. As far as his tribe--and his best friend--is concerned, Arnold has become a white-loving traitor to his people.
At the white school, Arnold regarded as foreigner at best, Indian at worst, and no one is about to make his life easy for him. So, Arnold is caught between two worlds where no one--least of all himself--can understand him. Is he a member of his tribe? Is he a white-lover who will eventually turn his back on where he came from? As Arnold struggles with these questions, he must also deal with multiple tragedies that beset his family, grinding poverty, and ostracism from the one Indian friend who had always defended him.
This novel takes on many serious issues, such as alcoholism and racism, with the blunt, in-your-face-honesty that Sherman Alexie is notorious for, but the book is also permeated with Alexie's trademark sense of humor. Here is a pair of exchanges between Arnold and his two friends about Arnold's crush on a white girl. The first is between Arnold and his Indian ex-best friend via e-mail:
Even though I didn't think I'd ever hear back, I wanted to know what to do with my feelings, so I walked over to the computer lab and e-mailed Rowdy....
"Hey, Rowdy," I wrote. "I'm in love with a white girl. What should I do?"
A few minutes later, Rowdy wrote back.
"Hey, Asshole," Rowdy wrote back. "I'm sick of Indian guys who treat white women like bowling trophies. Get a life."
Arnold asks his white friend, Gordy the Intellectual:
"I'm an Indian boy," I said. "How can I get a white girl to love me?"
A few days later, he gave me a brief report.
"Hey, Arnold," he said. "I looked up 'in love with a white girl' on Google and found an article about that white girl named Cynthia who disappeared in Mexico last summer. You remember how her face was all over the papers and everybody said it was such a sad thing?
...."Well, this article said that over two hundred Mexican girls have disappeared in the last three years in that same part of the country. And nobody says much about that. And that's racist. The guy who wrote the article says people care more about beautiful white girls than they do about everybody else...."
"So, what does that mean?" I asked.
"I think it means that you're just a racist asshole like anybody else."
Wow....In his own way, Gordy the bookworm was just as tough as Rowdy.
That is Alexie's writing at its best, hard-hitting and tough with a sense of humor. It uncomfortably pricks at your conscience while making you laugh at the same time. Here is a conversation that is so true to the adolescent boy reality; it's loose and funny and simple, but belies an issue that is incredibly complicated.
Another element of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian that shows how naturally Alexie falls in with his intended young adult audience is the artwork in the book. Drawn by artist Ellen Forney, Arnold's cartoons and drawings permeate the book. Arnold makes sense of his world through pictures, and the illustrations offer readers another level on which to understand him. It is interesting to see how the artistry moves from comic images to sketches more grounded in a "realistic" view of the world. When Arnold is struggling for understanding, his art is more cartoonish, more comic. When he reaches a deeper understanding, his artwork moves from caricature to realism. The artwork in the books adds a wonderful dimension to an already well-told story.
It's a well-told story, but is it true? In fact, most of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is true. Alexie ressurected the novel from a long manuscript of a memoir he had written about his family but had never published. Arnold's experiences of leaving the rez, transferring to the all-white school, being ostracized, losing family members tragically...they are all the real life experiences of the young Sherman Alexie. When asked in an interview why he didn't just write a memoir instead of making it a novel, Alexie said, "...partly I made it a novel simply because--this is weird to say--nobody would actually believe it as a memoir."
He's probably right.