Even Part-Time Readers Will Enjoy Alexie

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Sherman Alexie, 2007. Illustrated by Ellen Forney.

Imagine getting up in the morning, taking a shower, eating breakfast, making sure you have all your homework, finally you are ready to walk outside and make the trek to school (or to the bus stop); who are you with? On a good day your friends would be outside waiting for you, like in the Christmas classic A Christmas Story, so they could talk about who was going to stick their tongue on a frozen flagpole (or whatever misguided bet is going on amongst these friends at the time). For Arnold Spirit, also called Junior, in Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, it becomes much different than the cliché school jaunt when he decides that he wants to go to a rich white school outside the Spokane Indian Reservation where he lives. Junior chooses to change his path in life, hopefully for the better, so he can get away from the bullies that constantly berate him for the complications that came from having “water on the brain” (the way Junior describes himself being born with too much cerebral spinal fluid in his skull); he has 42 teeth, an over-sized head, hands, and feet, has poor eyesight, experiences frequent seizures, stutters, and speaks with a lisp.

As a result of these misfortunes Junior is the recipient of severe bullying. Fortunately, he gets to come home to the undying love of his parents and grandmother (though his mother and father both drink). After being convinced, by a guidance counselor from the reservation’s school, to go to the rich white school in Reardan (where his is also an outcast) Junior begins to figure out how to discover just how destitute the Native Americans on his reservation are and tries to figure out the reasons behind their situation (connects his isolation with the isolation of the Native Americans). He also begins to realize just how much is out there to learn. "The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don't know....Okay, so it's like each of these books is a mystery. Every book is a mystery. And if you read all the books ever written, it's like you've read one giant mystery. And no matter how much you learn, you just keep on learning there is so much more you need to learn." While on the reservation it seemed that people were much more interested in getting drunk than with knowledge. Instead Junior wants to be drunk on knowledge by reading every book he can until they become one big mystery.

To get away from his feeling of utter unimportance Junior draws cartoons (Alexie puts slides these into the book adding to its humor). Not only does it make him feel important, but with them he is able to imagine what his family would have been like if they had not been bound by the reservation. This allows Junior to express himself in a way that is enjoyable for him. The cartoons also help to show his determination to get out of poverty in the face of all the obstacles that have been set before him. Alexie's comical and accessible writing coupled with the very disheartening situations Junior is in (as well as the entire Reservation; poverty, alcoholism etc...) almost puts this book in the young adult dramedy category making this book a quick and enjoyable read that would be useful in any classroom.

Recommendations for Teachers

Since The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is semi-autobiographical, it deals with realistic issues that most teenagers can relate to through personal experience. Teachers can utilize this aspect of the book by connecting the issues presented to the lives of students. Some of the issues addressed in the book that could be discussed in the classroom are: the high school community, tolerance, self-esteem, identity, racism, death, alcoholism, and family. The accessibility of the issues makes the book relatable for students, so teachers should be able to have higher level discussions about these social issues. Even though the issues are accessible, they are also highly controversial, and it may be difficult for teachers to discuss all of the issues in the classroom. The alcoholism, the deaths, and the fighting in the novel, among other things, may be protested by parents, administration, or students themselves because of the graphic nature of certain passages. The intellectual and maturity level of the students needs to be taken into consideration before teaching the entire book. This book would most likely work best for students who have specific interest in the topics which are addressed. It could work well as an option for a small group literature circle.
There is also the option for teachers to use sections of the book to teach about the social problems that Native Americans face. Teachers could use the book for teaching students about reservation life or Native American life in general.

About the Author
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Sherman Alexie was born in October of 1966 in the Spokane Indian Reservation outside of Spokane, Washington. As an infant he had to under surgery for hydrocephalic (as he describes in his book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, this means he had "water on the brain") which doctors predicted would kill him. Even when he made it through the surgery doctors believed that he would still suffer severe side-effects, like mental retardation, but, proving them wrong again, he excelled in school. Later on during his writing career Alexie would use the lessons he learned from his hardships to right his book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Alexie's original career path was aimed at being a doctor, but with the help of a persuasive professor Alexie altered that path mid flight and began working towards being a writer and the rest is history.

Alexie's work includes:
Poetry



Fiction


Films


Sources: Biographical Inforation from- http://www.shermanalexie.com, list of novels from- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherman_Alexie, Links from http://www.fallsapart.com, 26 February, 2009.

Multimedia




This is a thirty minute interview with Sherman Alexie. He talks extensively about his life experiences and what it is like to be an Indian writer.



Sherman Alexie reads from and comments on his book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.


Additional Resources



Reviewed by:
Cameron Kutzli
Jory Sanders
Colby Ensing
Crystal England
Other Reviews:
Feed by M.T. Anderson
Smack by Melvin Burgess

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Podcast: