“Alexie’s humor and prose are easygoing and well suited to his young audience, and he doesn’t pull many punches as he levels his eyes at stereotypes both warranted and inapt… This ultimately affirms the incredible power of best friends to hurt and heal in equal measure. [Readers] looking for the strength to lift themselves out of rough situations would do well to start here” (Chipman, 2007).
In Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Junior (also known as Arnold) is a fourteen year old Indian living on a reservation. After realizing that he (along with everyone else on the reservation) will be forever stuck in a cycle of poverty, Junior decides to break free from the reservation and attend an all-white school known as Reardan. The novel chronicles his journey through his first year at the school, as he makes friends, joins the school basketball team, finds a (sort-of) girlfriend, and learns how to navigate life and loss as a poor Indian teen.
As the review from Booklist above mentions, Sherman Alexie fills what would otherwise be a completely dark, tragic book with enough humor to have you laughing through your tears. I’m actually really glad I was able to read this and The Perks of Being a Wallflower back-to-back, as I noticed both similarities and differences between the two stories. Both novels deal with the personal account of a young teenage boy’s first year in high school, but beyond that, the two are entirely different. Where I felt that Perks was often throwing issues at me for the sake of covering everything possible, this novel felt more raw and realistic. To be perfectly clear, I enjoyed both novels very much, but something about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian spoke to me more than The Perks of Being a Wallflower did.
As a disclaimer, I am a white, middle class female who is now 23 years old. I know this book was not geared towards me, and that I can’t attest to the accuracy of the situations and characters presented within it. I do not know what it is like to grow up on a reservation and not have enough money to get myself to school every day, so I cannot relate to Junior (the novel’s protagonist) in that sense. I could, however, feel his pain throughout the novel, and I found myself relating to him on an emotional level. He is only a fictional character, but I wanted so badly to help him, and hated watching him go through hardship after hardship with little mercy from the rest of the universe in which he resides. The saddest part, however, is that this novel made me realize that there are teens out there, Indian and otherwise, who live this reality every day; they wonder how they’re going to get to school, and where their next meal is coming from.
I admit that, during my time in high school, the furthest thing from my mind was wondering how other teens around me were getting to school, and whether they’d eaten a proper meal beforehand. I was (as many teenagers in middle class situations are) entirely focused on the drama going on in my own life (bullying, grades, fitting in, etc.) to wonder what life would be like if I was not afforded the privileges I’d been given. This book made me really stop to think about the hardships that many American teenagers actually face, and this realization made the book that much more real for me. “The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don’t know… And no matter how much you learn, there is so much more you need to learn” (Alexie, 2007, p. 97). This quote rang painfully true for me, as this book taught me a great deal about humanity and finding humor in impossible situations.
While this book was not written for me, it still spoke to me and made me think critically about the world, which is what I believe good literature is supposed to do. For a teenager (or even a pre-teen) in a similar situation to Junior, this book could change his or her entire world. Whether a teen is Indian or not, people of every race, gender, religion, and creed can understand poverty, as every one of these demographics has been afflicted with it. While a poor teen might not be living in the exact same situation as Junior, I feel like he could potentially be an extremely relatable character to many young people reading this book.
Alexie is able, through his writing, to take even the darkest situation and find the humor in it. Take the following quote, for example: “I used to think the world was broken down by tribes… By black and white. By Indian and white. But I know that isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not” (Alexie, 2007, p. 176). In this scene, Junior’s entire class walks out of the classroom in protest when the teacher scolds him for missing school (due to uncontrollable reasons that I will not spoil here). Junior, shocked and touched by this, begins to laugh, as he has just realized that these white kids who seemed to hate and distrust him only months ago are suddenly on his side. In this one scene, racial barriers are broken (however realistically), and Junior begins to see that we are all a lot more alike than we believe we are.
We all have to deal with death, poverty, and many other circumstances over which we have no control. This, I believe, is why I related so much to Junior despite coming from an entirely different world: Alexie’s writing shows us that the human experience, while it might differ depending on your race and where/how you are raised, is fundamentally the same, and that none of us have to walk through life’s hardships alone. I don’t think there is any better message out there for teens who are struggling to make sense of a sometimes senseless world. If I were to recommend this book for classroom or library use, I would definitely use it to begin a discussion about poverty, racism, and the human spirit in any literature unit. A library could easily use this book as part of a display on diversity, as the protagonist is a Native American and the novel is written by a Native American author (something that I have yet to see in young adult literature). Whatever the use, I believe this book should be shared with as many young people as possible, as it promotes a very positive (and, at times, humorous) message of love, acceptance, and compassion for those facing hardships around us.
Alexie, S., & Forney, E. (2007). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown.
Chipman, I. (2007). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The Booklist, 103(22), 61.