The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a book that is simultaneously hilarious and heart-breaking. A powerful story told with a dry sense of humor, I constantly found myself laughing at things which should not be remotely funny… but in the context of the book, they just happened to be hilarious.
Junior Arnold Spirit is a 14-year-old Spokane Indian living on the reservation, or Rez. Born with too much cerebral spinal fluid in his skull, but with an above-average intelligence, Junior is unpopular and had no chances to get ahead in life. After all, everyone on the Rez just stays there until they die. Then one day Junior decides he is sick of this and wants a chance at achieving his dreams– so he transfers to the “white” high school 45 minutes outside the Rez.
But we reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams. We don’t get those chances. Or choices. We’re just poor. That’s all we are.
Unlike other challenged books I have read, it’s easy to pick out why The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian might be challenged. This book addresses death, domestic abuse, depression, alcoholism, drug addiction/abuse, masturbation, premarital sex, abandonment, bullying, fist fighting, gun abuse, eating disorders, racism, and family issues. Plus there is explicit language and a general lack of cultural sensitivity. While this laundry list of “issues” might feel intense, never once does this novel feel like an “Issues Book”. This is just the story of a teenaged boy trying to break out of the mold society if forcing him into while navigating being a teenager. Junior just wants to escape from everything he has known and find something better for himself. Talk about summarizing what it means to be a teen perfectly.
When it comes to death, we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing.
My laughter comes from the way Sherman Alexie portrays Junior. He is a witty, self-deprecating, generally non-complaining high schooler. We get to experience the world through Junior’s eyes. His dark humor coupled with his sketches are how he chooses to deal with the situations around him. After all, at 14 Junior has already attended 42 funerals. As a white reader, I was sometimes uncomfortable with my laughter. There is so much inherently wrong with the life and perspective Junior has– and yet, this is a very real depiction of how Native Americans are currently living their lives out in the United States.
I also adore Junior because he loves books. Loves books openly and unabashedly. It’s perfection for me.
That’s right, I’m a book kisser.
One last worthy note: Sherman Alexie is a #OwnVoices author. This hashtag, developed by Corinne Duyvis, is about authors writing about their direct experiences, instead of an author from a dominant group who writes about a marginalized culture and gets a ton of praise for it. For example:
This isn’t to say that I want everyone to write only their own experiences– but diversity is front and center in literature right now. This just happens to be a huge trigger for misrepresentation, stereotypes, and tropes despite the best of intentions. Authors writing their own experiences write with extra nuance and authority that comes from living that experience.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a beautiful, depressing, eye-opening, and hilarious book. It touches on a laundry list of taboo issues, but that is what makes it such an essential challenged book to read.