The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is a young adult novel about an Indian boy, Junior, who decides to go to a white school off the Spokane reservation to get a good education. He is attacked by his own community for his choice and rejected at Reardan, the white school off the reservation. The book, told in a diary structure, tells of his struggles to fit in and find his identity.
One of my English professors, Dr. Thurber, told us in Modern Novels class, “All literature is about the loss and regaining of identity.” And that’s what this book is about, really. It’s about Junior struggling to figure out who he is and how to define himself as he lives in two worlds: the Indian reservation and the small-town white community. That’s why this book is considered “literature” instead of being lumped in with other diary-structured books for middle grade readers and young adults: Alexie explores identity in a powerful way.
Junior sums his struggle with identity up on page 83: “I woke up on the reservation as an Indian, and somewhere on the road to Reardan, I became something less than Indian. And once I arrived at Reardan, I became something less than less than Indian.”
Throughout the book, we see Junior grapple with his Indian side and his newly forming identity off the reservation: Someone who’s popular. Someone who’s smart. Someone who’s good at basketball. As the novel ends, Alexie wraps up the identity narrative smartly and effectively by showing how Junior is first welcomed back into his white class at Reardan after his sister’s death and then by showing how Junior reconciles with his best (Indian) friend, Rowdy, as they become friends again and go exploring. It’s neat, but it’s not sappy or overly optimistic, given the context of Junior’s life. But it is a satisfying conclusion to Junior exploring his identity and finding some sort of balance between his worlds.
“True” is in the title of the book. Junior writes on page 2 that he wants to sound “poetic and accurate,” which calls into question whether poetic and accurate are the same thing, or whether both are true in a way.
Junior writes a few pages later: “I’m not even writing down this story the way I actually talk, because I’d have to fill it with stutters and lisps, and then you’d be wondering why you’re reading a story written by such a retard.”
So we know that Junior’s telling of the story isn’t exactly “true” to life; it’s more poetic, it’s less (or more?) accurate. Would it be more truthful if he narrated the novel exactly as he spoke? No, we think, because the truth transcends that accuracy and appeals to our desire for poetry and storytelling, for narratives that weave together into a satisfying conclusion.
Alexie plays with this theme of truth later in the novel when Junior explains the difference between petrified wood and rock, but the teacher doesn’t believe him and asks a white kid to “tell us the truth.” Again, we see that Junior is telling the truth, but it’s not the truth that the teacher wants to believe. Alexie pushes at this notion of “truth,” pushing readers to think about what life is actually like for the poor and the Indians. It’s not want we want to believe, but it’s true.
Yes, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian gets political; but I think it would be hard—if not downright dishonest—to write about Native Americans without touching on politics. Alexie stays truthful (instead of preachy) by staying inside Junior’s head and letting him tell us what he experiences rather than monologuing about politics:
“It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
This is much more effective than straight-up political statements, like “Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move onto reservations and die.” Getting inside Junior’s head and his thought process is more effective for characterization and reaching for the “truth” than just making statements about politics.
“A series of broken dams and floods”
Early in the novel, Junior writes: “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.”
This seems to be an apt metaphor for the book and Junior’s life, which is filled with terrible things. He’s beaten up by Indians, mocked (and worse—ignored) by white kids, and his dad’s best friend, grandmother, and sister all die by the end of the book. It’s depressing and horrible, but it makes you realize what some people are struggling with and how some groups of people struggle with these inherited circumstances, this cycle of violence and death and destruction, more than others.
“Tiny little lifeboats”
The illustrations truly are the “tiny little lifeboats” that keep this book from being bogged down with depressing stories. The illustrations are great. Ellen Forney perfectly capture the goofiness and sometimes seriousness of the book with different types of line drawings. My favorite are the detailed sketches of people with labels about them, like the “White/Indian” sketch shown here.
Although the humor can be uncomfortable sometimes (because it’s true), it’s usually pretty funny. For example:
“‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Who has the most hope?’ ‘White people,’ my parents said at the same time.”
“My mother’s voice had gotten all formal. Indians are good at that. We’ll be talking and laughing and carrying on like normal, and then, BOOM, we get all serious and sacred and start talking like some English royalty.”
“I mean, we’re Indians, and we like to make up shit about lakes, you know?”
Perspective and timeline
One thing that threw me off in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was the timeline. There are times when it seems like Junior is writing in the present tense about events that have just happened that day, but there are other times where the perspective seems more detached, like he’s writing about events that happened weeks or years ago. Obviously, I understand that there are flashbacks, like the “Tears of a Clown” chapter when he talks about falling in love with Dawn. But there are other chapters where the perspective seems to shift in a contradictory way.
For example, when Junior describes his grandmother’s death, he starts by saying, “In fact, last week, she was walking back home from a mini powwow at the Spokane Tribal Community Center, when she was struck and killed by a drunk driver.” But then a page later, Junior says: “But my father, respecting my grandmother’s last wishes, left Gerald alone to the justice system, which ended up sending him to prison for eighteen months. After he got out, Gerald moved to a reservation in California and nobody ever saw him again.” Perhaps I’m reading it incorrectly, but the shift in perspective is a bit disorienting.
Should you read it?
Read this book. You may not love it, you may not agree with the political stuff, but Alexie examines the narrative of the Indian from a very interesting, personal, truthful perspective, which makes this book worth the read.