Humor is one of my favorite elements in a book, and when I find myself laughing out loud as I read I am delighted. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is certainly a laugh out loud story funny, but it is the poignant tale of one boy’s struggle to climb higher than his ancestors without losing his identity in the process that makes this book a must read.
Arnold Spirit Jr.(Junior) came into the world with water on the brain and was not expected to live. Growing up on the Wellpinit Reservation in Spokane Washington was difficult. Constantly bullied and called a retard by everyone but his best friend Rowdy, he makes a decision one day to leave the poor reservation school to attend an all-white school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Regarded by everyone on the “Rez” as a traitor including Rowdy, Junior manages to survive a great deal of loss by finding an inner strength and proves himself to be a true warrior.
How do you do justice to a book that totally grabs and surprises you at ever turn of the page. That is exactly what happened as I read about Junior. Life on the reservation was so hard, and Alexie uses humor to relate all of the struggles Junior faces. He was often beat up, his parents were poorer than poor, his father was an alcoholic, his sister, had given up on any dreams she once had, but Junior wanted more. A budding cartoonist he draws “because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me.” The book is peppered throughout by Ellen Forney’s cartoons. Each cartoon in the book strongly expresses Junior’s understanding of the events in his life and how those events not only impact his understanding of himself, but how racism impacts his entire culture. The cartoons and Alexie’s witty prose adds depth to Junior’s character.
Although I loved everything about this book, the main reasons it worked so well for me was Alexie’s characterization. Junior's voice is so clear and real. He is a fighter. He has hope. It is this hope that sends Junior on his quest for a better life realizing, sadly, that there is no hope staying on the reservation. This revelation comes after a conversation with a reservation teacher ...
"You've been fighting since you were born," he said. "You fought off that brain surgery. You fought off those seizures. You fought off all the drunks and drug addicts. You kept your hope. And now, you have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope."
“I was starting to understand. He was a math teacher. I had to add my hope to somebody else's hope. I had to multiply hope by hope.”
Junior’s decision to go to the white school is not without problems. But his biggest problem does not come from acceptance at the school, although he does have problems fitting in at first and faces a certain amount of racism for sure. Likewise, he faces problems from his tribal people, but this isn’t the worst part either. The real problem for Junior is internal. Trying to find justification for wanting a better life than the one he faces if he stays on the reservation. As the title suggests Junior’s decision unfortunately made him feel like a part-time Indian, and yet philosophically he knew that staying also meant the very real possibility that he would end up a very disturbing statistic that he discuss here...
“And you know what the worst part is? The unhappy part? About 90 percent of the deaths (on the reservation) have been because of alcohol ...
I was making an attempt too. Maybe it would kill me, but I knew that staying on the Rez would have killed me too?”
Junior is a very strong character probably because he is based on Sherman Alexie’s life. The humor Alexie uses may soften the harsh realities of life on the reservation, but in no way detracts from the social and cultural commentary on which the book is built. Junior’s description of the poverty, addictions and the hopelessness that face his tribal people are very real, and it is for this reason alone that I would highly recommend this book be a mainstay in classrooms and adult bookshelves. More than that it is a book about strong family ties, dealing with grief, and belonging to tribe of the human race.