DIARY of a PART-TIME INDIAN : a novel
Author: Sherman Alexie
Little, Brown and Co. 2007
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Hardcover: 229 pages
The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association reports that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian appears on the Top 10 List of Challenged or Banned Books in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014.
Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, religious viewpoint, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence, depictions of bullying.
The title tells it like it is. Sherman Alexie was born a Spokane Indian. He grew up where the book is set, on a reservation – the “rez” – in Wellpinit, Washington State. He was, like his central character, hydrocephalic at birth, “with too much grease inside my skull”. And in his teens he attended Reardan High School, off the reservation, near the rich farm town, where all the other students were white. Many authors hum and ha when asked if their fiction is in any way autobiographical. This one makes no bones about it and yet skillfully manages to transform his actual experience into a novel. True fiction. Absolutely.
Arnold Spirit, Jr says:
I was born with water on the brain. . . My family thinks it as funny when the doctors. . . sucked out all that extra water with some tiny vacuum. . .
My brain damage left me nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other so my ugly glasses were all lopsided. . . I ended up with  teeth. . . Ten more than usual.
My head was so big. . . the kids called me Globe.
And oh, I was skinny. . .[but] my hands and feet were huge.
I also stutter and have a lisp. . . Every body on the rez calls me a retard. . . Do you know what happens to retards on the Rez? We get beat up. . .
Every kid wants to go outside. But it’s safer to stay at home. So I mostly hang out alone in my bedroom and draw cartoons. . . [I] draw because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me. . .
[I] draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation.
I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.
Book Review and Comments
Life on the impoverished Spokane Indian Reservation is rough on everyone but especially difficult for 14 year old Arnold Spirit, Jr aka Junior. His physical oddities and stuttering make him the perfect target for the mean spirited bullies on the “rez”.
Trapped by poverty and the effects of rampant alcoholism, he finds safety turning inward and dreaming of a better life off the reservation. He hides out in his room with his favorite books and resorts to writing about his life events – drawing relevant cartoons that express his deepest feelings and thoughts. One of my favorite cartoons depicts his parents lives if they were not handcuffed by culture, poverty and alcohol.
Determined not to be identified by his culture and circumstance, he never gives up hope to be seen as an individual on his own merits. We learn of his joys and sorrows through his diary.
Junior’s diary entries are written after the fact. They are openly honest and matter-of-fact; not offered as excuses or for shock value. They are sometimes startlingly emotional, often lonely, and at all times, written with unabashed candor and filled with optimism and hope.
As a child of two alcoholics, Arnold has seen first hand what alcohol can do to a family – hunger is a constant as Dad leaves to get bread and comes back drunk. His beloved Grandmother, who never touched a drop of alcohol, was run over by a drunken friend of Arnold’s father. His father’s friend was later killed in a drunken fight. His sister, Mary, and her husband were inebriated when they died in an accidental house fire.
FACT: A popular blog on Native American life says that alcoholism is a disease that takes root like a parasitic plant that can affect every aspect of life, even including the potential death of its host. It seems appropriate that this candid view of the subject by Junior presents readers with an opportunity to view the ramifications of alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
Junior’s life takes a turn when he begins his first day in high school and he is issued an ancient textbook that he discovers had been used by his mother in the past. Faced full-on with the dead-end future he could expect from the inferior education on the rez, he reacts by pitching the text book injuring his teacher, Mr. P.
A week into his school suspension, Mr. P comes to visit him at home. Junior, expecting Mr. P’s wrath, is surprised, when Mr. P says –
When I first started teaching here. . . we beat rowdy [students]. That’s how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian [in you] to save the child. . . We were trying to kill the Indian culture. . . I want to say you deserve better. . . If you stay on the rez, we will kill [the spirit] in you. . . You have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope.
Arnold is disheartened by his father’s dependence on alcohol but he never doubts that he is loved by both of his parents. He tells them how important it is to him to leave the rez and transfer to the high school twenty-two miles away for a better education. His father supports his decision although he knows that Junior will face deeply entrenched racism. His best friend on the rez, Rowdy, gives him a black-eye and a swollen nose as a going-away gift. He might have been the victim of bullying on the rez but his leaving the culture in his rear-view mirror now labels him a traitor. Indian families follow tradition and stay together.
[His first day at the new school begins with] the white kids. . .arriving for school. They surround me. Those kids aren’t white. They were translucent. . .They stared at me like I was Bigfoot. . .[Their school mascot] was an Indian, thereby making me the only other Indian in town.
Junior/Arnold has a very hard time on all sides of his new life battling bullying and insults on both fronts. But as time goes by that first year, the “white” Arnold begins to emerge from his repressed rez cocoon at the new school excelling in academics and sports. He also finds racism, bullying, violence, drugs, girls, and hormonal explosion with exposure to raw sex.
FACT: According to the The Children’s Assessment Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan it is estimated that 40-85% of children will engage in at least some sexual behaviors before turning thirteen years of age (Friedrich, et al, 1991). It is believed by experts that 80% of children have masturbated by the age of three (Parenting, 1997). Children need to learn about sexuality. If children do not receive information about sexuality from their parents, they will receive it from their peers, TV, magazines, movies and other media, which may provide them with misinformation and cause confusion.
I understand that some parents will prefer that their children acquire sexual knowledge at a time and place of their choosing. However, I am an old woman and I can affirm that when you learn about sex is usually far earlier than your parents think you are ready.
Junior’s life on the rez remains downcast until tragedy strikes his family and the entirety of the Spokane reservation pulls together in their grief and he is accepted back into the fold – with reservations- pun unintended.
By the end of his Freshman year, Junior/Arnold has a girlfriend in town and has his life on the reservation. He has learned many lessons during the year. The view of the “white’ town, seen as a meca for educational advancement, turns out to be less than perfect- normal in its own way. The problems that plague the reservation may differ based on culture, but all communities have their good points and their bad. He has learned first hand how poverty can make you feel inferior to those with money for new clothes and fast food. But he also learns that love and friendship can be color-blind.
I think that Arnold/Junior sums it all quite nicely. Yup. A cussword, Often my favorite.
I used to think the world was broken down by tribes, I said. 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.