Novel by Sherman Alexie
Review by Amaia van Dommelen
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a young adult novel written by Sherman Alexie. This novel is one of his more recent books that he has published, yet it’s known worldwide, as well as the books: Flight, Thunder Boy Jr., and Blasphemy. Most of his writing is drawn from his personal experiences from his childhood when he lived on the Spokane Indian Reservation. This book is a coming of age novel, with a genre of bildungsroman, and a humorous tone. Targeted for teenagers and young adults, this book talks about issues that many of them face daily, including the relationship to, and separation from, parents and family, love and sexuality/gender norms, cultural and racial background, expectations, and much more.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is about a fourteen-year-old boy named Arnold Spirit Junior, who was born hydrocephalic, or as he describes it “I was born with too much cerebral spinal fluid inside my skull. But cerebral spinal fluid is just the doctors’ fancy way of saying brain grease.” (1). He had trouble making friends and fitting in with his Indian society in the reservation, but that wasn’t enough to stop him from speaking to the world. In his free time, he draws cartoons of everything: his sister, his school, and even his best friend, Rowdy. So he drew, and drew, and drew until the day he decided to take another path that wasn’t yet paved for him. Arnold changed schools, abandoning his family, friends and even his childhood. As he starts spending more and more time away from home, more problems seem to arise.
Emotionally, his life becomes exhausted to carry around with ongoing bricks piling on top. Everyone seems to turn on him, for the people in the rez start considering him a “part-time Indian”, but life at his new school isn’t pleasant either. There, he gets picked on by the other guys for being the odd one out of the bunch. Just when Arnold starts feeling helpless, his life changes when he punches the meanest bully of them all. That’s when he realizes his inner strengths he never knew he had. Only then he gets accepted into the all-white school society.
In the book, the protagonist, Arnold, grows up to learn the truth behind his reservation and life as a Native American. In his school, at the Spokane Indian Reservation, his teacher, Mr. P, unfolds a secret before Arnold’s eyes: “We were supposed to make you give up being Indian. Your songs and stories and language and dancing. Everything. We weren’t trying to kill Indian people. We were trying to kill Indian culture” (35). But before Arnold can respond, Mr. P becomes a positive role model and suggests he leaves the rez for education, because he sees Arnold’s inner potential of fulfilling his life as an Indian. “But not you,” Mr. P said. “You can’t give up. You won’t give up. You threw that book in my face because somewhere inside you refuse to give up. If you stay on this rez, they’re going to kill you. I’m going to kill you. We’re all going to kill you. You can’t fight us forever” (43).
As his teacher suggests, he takes the risk and finds a way out of the reservation. Arnold doesn’t have anyone to talk about his worries or problems, so he finds an alternative way. The only way he can cope with all this pressure is by drawing. “I draw because words are too unpredictable. I draw because words are too limited.”(5) he writes, explaining how his form of expression is through cartoons.
This book was woven together with a sense of humor, but with a deep message that runs through the entire novel. It is a great example of a coming of age novel, because of all the realistic themes introduced in the book that are recognized in the daily lives of teenagers. When reading it, you live along with the main characters, taking their place in the story. The book keeps you engaged, and once you pick it up, the story’s words take you off your feet and you don’t put it down until you finish. I would strongly recommend this book to teenagers who are having a hard time growing up and deciding who they want to be. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a captivating book you’ll never forget.