Paul'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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Apr 19, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, young-adult, banned-book, four-star-plus

I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because I'm interested in censorship. I blog about attempts to ban and challenge books; I also read and review controversial books, particularly those written for young adults (my blog is here, if you're interested).

Sherman Alexie's YA novel came to my attention earlier this year when I saw a short article about it being banned from a high school library in a town near Spokane, Washington, not far from the Spokane Indian Reservation where the novel takes place. Since then, other school boards have responded to parental complaints by banning or restricting access to the book, and fresh challenges to the book continue to pop up around the country.

When parents and school boards get upset about this book, the most-cited complaint is to a brief passage about masturbation: Arnold Spirit, the 14-year-old Spokane Indian narrator, admits that he masturbates; moreover, he asserts that everyone else does too. Other complaints mention sex, violence, child abuse, alcoholism, death, and racism. Interestingly, the Richland, Washington school board members who voted to ban this this book hadn't read it. They heard that the book contained sex and violence, and that was enough for them.

So how about all this masturbation, sex, violence, child abuse, alcoholism, death, and racism? What's this book really like? It's like having an honest conversation with a bright and honest 14-year-old, that's what it's like.

Arnold Spirit is a great kid, but a troubled one. His family is dirt poor; all the families on the reservation are poor. His father's an alcoholic. Arnold is teased and bullied because he's smarter than the other reservation kids, and he's different (he was born with water on the brain and suffered from epileptic fits when he was younger; he still stutters and speaks with a lisp ... he's also what you would call the classic nerd, and a budding cartoonist). He realizes the only way he'll have a future is to leave the reservation school and attend a white school in a town 22 miles from the reservation, where he's the only native American student.

Everything about his life on the reservation and his new life among white schoolmates is hard, but he's filled with hope. He writes about his life with insight and humor, and when he writes about the bad parts ... his father's drinking and frequent absences, hitchhiking or walking to school on the days his family can't afford to drive him, the nights he and his family go to bed hungry, the beatings he receives from former friends on the reservation, the death of his beloved sister who burns to death in a trailer fire while passed out in an alcoholic coma ... he's frank and matter-of-fact about it, and at the same time as upset and heartbroken as anyone would be. He's a troubled kid with a hard life. And he masturbates, like every other 14-year-old (duh).

Now that I've read the book, I go back to those contemptible school board members in Richland, Washington who banned the book without having read it. Would they have banned it if they had read it? I strongly doubt it. Arnold tells us he masturbates and has sexual fantasies about a girl in his high school class. He doesn't describe these things, he just mentions them. The book is decidedly not pornographic or titillating in any way. It's just honest. If I had a troubled kid, this is exactly the sort of book I'd want him or her to read. It's real. It points you in the right direction, away from trouble and toward courage, hope, and self-betterment. It's a deeply moral book. I wish I'd had this book to read when I was 14!

Sherman Alexie maintains that attempts to keep school-aged children from learning about the harsh realities of life are "way, way too late.” In a 2011 Wall Street Journal editorial titled Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood, he has this to say:

Of course, all during my childhood, would-be saviors tried to rescue my fellow tribal members. They wanted to rescue me. But, even then, I could only laugh at their platitudes. In those days, the cultural conservatives thought that KISS and Black Sabbath were going to impede my moral development. They wanted to protect me from sex when I had already been raped. They wanted to protect me from evil though a future serial killer had already abused me. They wanted me to profess my love for God without considering that I was the child and grandchild of men and women who’d been sexually and physically abused by generations of clergy. ...

I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Lea (new) - added it

Lea Wonderful review, Paul -- I'm definitely picking this one up for my 14 year old!

Just last night I was confronted with judging a book before (or without) reading it. My husband took our 9 year old out to the book store, and she sent me a text to tell me which book she bought. I looked it up on GoodReads, just to make sure it was appropriate -- and I was HORRIFIED by what I read. It didn't seem at all appropriate for a young reader!

After she came home, I skimmed the book, sure I would be able to point out all the passages that were too old for her . . . but nope, the book is so well written that these "mature" topics flow in the story, and probably wouldn't even stand out to a 9 year old.

Thank goodness I'm not on the local school board, huh?


Paul Lea, thanks!

Austin Spirit's fictional diary reminded me of Anne Franks' Diary. I wonder what'll happen when the unexpurgated diary of Anne Frank is finally released. Shoot, a lot of parents have tried to ban the current, censored version!


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