Larissa's Reviews > The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
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Mar 25, 09

bookshelves: kinder, 2009, usa, read-by-recommendation, young-adult, epistolary
Read in March, 2009

As part of a personal project to become more familiar with What the Kids Are Reading, I picked up Sherman Alexie's highly recommended (by librarians) Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which won a The National book Award when it was first published in 2007. I finished it in a day.

Part-Time Indian is Alexie’s first YA novel, and is based on his experiences growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington. It’s narrated (and illustrated) by fifteen-year-old Arnold Spirit, Jr. (usually just ‘Junior’) who finds himself in the middle of a rather substantial identity crisis when he decides to attend a middle- class and predominantly white high school twenty-two miles away from his reservation. Being a physically awkward, bespectacled, awkward bookworm has already made Junior somewhat of an outcast in his Spokane community, and his choice to ‘abandon the rez’ only increases his isolation at home. The only Indian (note: Junior never refers to himself as a ‘Native American’ in the book) to have ever attended his new high school, he finds himself teased and tricked, but most often ignored, by his classmates until an unlikely relationship with a lovely blonde named Penelope and a burgeoning talent for basketball change his circumstances somewhat.

Junior’s voice is that of a smart, self-deprecating, and earnestly hopeful teenager who can appreciate the nuance of social hierarchies and cultural differences, while still getting a kick out of pictures of bare asses, farts, ambidextrous (and ‘chronic’) masturbation, and well, a whole lot of teenage ‘boy stuff.’ He’s a well-realized and endearing character who you can feel a kinship with even if you don’t necessarily relate to what he’s going through. Because this isn’t a ‘coming of age’ novel with wholly relatable subject matter, one of those books that supposedly captures a universal experience. And I mean that as a good thing. This is a story about a very specific person with a very specific perspective—not a bland, generalized story which somehow attempts to encapsulate all teenage experience.

Often eschewing his plot line for well-paced and brief tangents, Alexie paints a vivid picture of life on an impoverished yet tight-knit reservation, without getting caught up in either sentimentality or out-and-out condemnation. He reveals the vicious cycle of poverty, alcohol abuse, apathy, racism, segregation, and lackluster education that exist within/around contemporary Indian communities, but finds the source of the problem to be internally, as well as externally, inflicted. That he’s able to approach his (often tragic) subject matter with humor and a balanced perspective is a mark of his talent.
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