The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the story of a young boy growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, WA. Arnold (aka Junior) is smart. Smart and physically weak. For a boy growing up on “the Rez” this is a bad combination. Intelligence and education are of little value to the tribe, but toughness is crucial. Not only does Arnold not fit in, he wants out. He wants more.
Despite the lack of encouragement from the community, Arnold is excited about school. He thirsts for knowledge and education. However, on the first day of his Freshman year of high school, Arnold is confronted with the crushing limitations of education on the reservation. This realization prompts an uncharacteristic act of violence from Arnold that lands him a suspension and, more importantly, the attention of Mr. P, his math teacher. Mr. P, who is also the victim of Arnold’s violent outburst, gives Arnold life-changing advice – leave the reservation or die. The next day Arnold enrolls at Reardan High, the rural “white” high school 22 miles away. From then on, 14 year old Arnold must endure life as an outsider at Reardon and life as an outcast on the Rez where they now see him as a traitor.
I have mixed feelings about this book. The story is an important one, shedding light on the plight of the modern Native Americans and especially on the impact that poverty and alcohol have on their lives. This story deals with important themes such as loneliness, fear, belonging, death, poverty, and violence. We get a glimpse of what life is like for people who are poor and hopeless, for children who come from abusive homes, and for “privileged” kids whose lives are far from perfect. We see how alcohol destroys lives and how friendship changes lives. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is an important book because it touches on a lot of important themes. This is probably one reason why this book is frequently taught in grades 6-8. It is not on the list of Common Core Exemplar Texts, but it is considered “Common Core appropriate.” Not only does it cover a wide range of themes, it also offers ethnic diversity and literary merit, all important components of Common Core texts.
However, another characteristic of Common Core texts seems to be that they are relatable, a term often confused with relevant. Certainly the themes mentioned above are relevant to a lot of teens and tweens, but these same themes can be found in a multitude of other classic literary works. What likely appeals, at least to some people, about this book is that it is relatable (Common Core is full of relatable texts). Lois Lowery’s The Giver is relevant. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is relatable. Arnold is relatable because he talks like a 14 year old boy. (Well, hopefully not like my 14 year old boy) He cusses. He’s crude. And he devotes a significant amount of time to discussing (bragging about) masturbation. I’m not sure these things disqualify this book as appropriate reading for grades 9 and up, but I would be very uncomfortable with my 6th grader reading this book. And if my older children were to read it, I would want to have some frank, albeit uncomfortable, discussions about some of this book’s content.
Something else some parents might take issue with is the novel’s treatment of religion. Arnold’s family appears to be nominally Christian, probably Catholic. Arnold’s mother attends church, and a family member is buried in a Catholic cemetery. My concerns are these: First, Arnold tells us that traditionally Indians were tolerant of people who were different, including homosexuals, until the white people came along with their Christianity. I don’t know if that is historically accurate. I’d say that likely varied from tribe to tribe, but the anti-Christian sentiment is hardly subtle. Second, due to a series of family tragedies, Arnold becomes angry with God and with Jesus. This is certainly understandable. Anyone, much less a 14 year old boy, would have trouble processing what Arnold goes through. I don’t take issue with Arnold’s anger, but with the author’s failure to adequately address or resolve the anger. Anger with God is a normal human emotion, but Alexie only acknowledges this emotion. He does not explore it or allow his character to work through it. This could be confusing and even spiritually damaging to some young readers, giving them the sense that God really is to blame for our sorrows.
I don’t feel like I can give the book a whole-hearted recommendation, but I am not completely discouraging parents from allowing it either. My advice would be to read this book with your kids. Or better yet read it first and decide if it’s right for your family. And if your child is reading this book in school with his teacher and classmates, be sure to discuss with his teacher what the accompanying lessons and discussions will involve.
Yes. Both curse words are crude talk are abundant in this novel.
Arnold’s best friend Rowdy comes from a violent home and Rowdy himself is violent. None of the violence is terribly graphic.
There is no actual sex in this novel. In fact, Arnold and his girlfriend do no more than a little kissing and hand holding. However, Arnold does talk about being a champion and chronic masturbator. At one point he says, “If God didn’t want us to masturbate, He wouldn’t have given us thumbs.” He also makes several references to erections – only he usually uses more crass terms.
There is one story about a ghostly horse, but it is not taken very seriously by Arnold, nor is it a part of the tribe’s spirituality.
IMPORTANT QUOTES (It’s tough to choose. This book is full of important quotes – some profound and beautiful, some disturbing)
“Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.”
“I think all of us are always five years old in the presence and absence of our parents.”
“Do you understand how amazing it is to hear that from an adult? Do you know how amazing it is to hear that from anybody? It’s one of the simplest sentences in the world, just four words, but they’re the four hugest words in the world when they’re put together -‘You can do it’.”
“I used to think the world was broken down by tribes,’ I said. ‘By Black and White. By Indian and White. But I know this isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not.”
“Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”
“My grandmother’s greatest gift was tolerance. Now, in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity. In fact, weird people were often celebrated. Epileptics were often shamans because people just assumed that God gave seizure-visions to the lucky ones. Gay people were seen as magical too. I mean, like in many cultures, men were viewed as warriors and women were viewed as caregivers. But gay people, being both male and female, were seen as both warriors and caregivers. Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives! My grandmother had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians. “Jeez,” she said, Who cares if a man wants to marry another man? All I want to know is who’s going to pick up all the dirty socks?”
“Drinking would shut down my seeing and my hearing and my feeling,” she used to say. “Why would I want to be in the world if I couldn’t touch the world with all of my senses intact?”
Grief is when you feel so helpless and stupid that you think nothing will ever be right again, and your macaroni and cheese tastes like sawdust, and you can’t even jerk off because it seems like too much trouble.”
“I’ve learned that the worst thing a parent can do is ignore their children”