Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.
Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.*
I finished the second book in the GoT series earlier this week, which meant it was time for me to read a different book before diving into the third one. I chose THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN because it’s been on my TBR list for a while now, and I finally picked up a copy of it at a used bookstore up in Rochester a couple months ago.
When I was in undergrad I took a course titled Native American History and Activism, which is exactly what it sounds like–we spent the first half of the semester learning about the history of reservations and the Native Americans who live on them, particularly the Oglala Lakota in South Dakota, and then we spent Spring Break on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The second half of the semester was spent reflecting on our experience and putting together presentations in order to teach others about the many different issues facing Indians today.
There were 10-15 of us in the class and each of us was able to choose a unique topic to write our final papers on. Our final papers were 15-20 pages long. Just take a moment to think about that; there are that many major issues currently facing an entire group of people in the United States. The reservation we visited? Its the poorest county in America. People live in mobile homes whose pipes often freeze and burst in the winter because there is no insulation beneath the trailers to protect them; feral dogs roam the streets and often attack people because there is no other food for them to eat; alcoholism runs rampant through the communities because it is a way of drowning out problems and sorrows; the prices of quality food are insanely inflated, so obesity is a serious problem because fast food and sugary drinks are the most affordable. The list goes on and on and on.
It’s no surprise that Native Americans mistrust whites because it is whites who placed them in the situation they are in now. It is whites who broke promise after promise, who stole sacred land and carved the faces of white men into the stone, who left Indians on these reservations to die.
Despite this mistrust of whites, the protagonist in Sherman Alexie’s novel recognizes that unless he leaves the reservation and forges a new path for himself, one other than that which he has seen countless other Indians stumble down, then he will perish, devoid of any hope and drowned in alcohol and sorrow. He is an extremely brave, wise young man, but he is torn by his decision. He and the others in his tribe can’t help but feel as though he betrayed the community, like he gave in to the people who had put them in this position to begin with, though it opens up a world of opportunity that he never would have had if he had remained on the reservation. Not many kids on the reservation even consider college as an option because it seems so far from their own realities, but Arnold is given the confidence he needs to believe in himself and chase that dream. He lost a lot in the process, but ultimately I think that he thinks it was all worth it.
He grapples with the dichotomy of Native American vs. white throughout the book and finally comes to realize that we all belong to different types of tribes. Arnold isn’t just Indian–he’s a cartoonist, a basketball player, a bookworm, etc. This was a really powerful turning point in the story and something we should all keep in mind as we move through life. We don’t have to necessarily sacrifice any one part of ourselves in order to fully embrace the others. We can be all of the different things at once.
This book has a very light style of narration so that the serious topics discussed don’t feel quite so heavy, which makes it a perfect introduction to the issues for young adults, the target audience. The narrator is relatable on a lot of levels, so it really allows kids and adults alike to place themselves in his shoes. The drawings also bring an element of humor and help in our understanding of how the narrator views the world.
I highly recommend this to everyone, no matter their age or background, because the troubles faced by Native Americans need to be addressed and this book gives a very real, human glimpse into the traumas still being dealt with today. There are no easy solutions, but even just sparking some thought or discussion can go a long way to lessening these struggles.
*Cover image and synopsis are from Amazon.com.