Isn’t Everyone a Part-Time Something?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Sherman Alexie, 2007.

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a semi-autobiographical book by Sherman Alexie. His first venture into the young adult genre describes what it is like to be a teenage boy living on an Indian reservation. It gives an honest, relatable, Alexie-esque look into a subset of American culture most people do not know much about. The book is about a boy named Junior (known to white people as Arnold Spirit Jr.), a Spokane Indian who has grown up on a reservation. As many of his previous works, Alexie touches on the theme of double-consciousness, an Indian living in a white man's world. It takes the reader through Junior's misadventures at school on "the rez" (short for reservation) and the consequences of his tough decision to attend a neighboring white school. The decision to leave is perhaps his only chance at survival. As is often the case with stories of cultural assimilation, a sense of guilt and shame accompanies Junior as he attempts to balance life in both worlds. Teenage years are turbulent enough, especially for Junior, the fragile Indian protagonist.

Not only are the every day anxieties of a hormonal youth explored, Alexie goes beyond the main character. The book also talks openly about Junior's family and the problems they deal with, like Junior's struggles with having brain damage and being bullied at school, his father's alcoholism and gambling addiction, his sister's decision to elope, and a few tragic deaths in the family. All these issues paint a gloomy picture of what life is like on an Indian reservation, admitting that most Indians have no hope of improving their lives unless they are lucky enough to leave the rez and make a life of their own.

The book is written from the point of view of Junior. Seemingly outcast, it is from this position that Junior watches and comments on the world around him. This gives Junior a unique position as narrator. Physically challenged from birth, he has always been an outsider never fitting in. It seems to the reader as though he or she is peering into Junior's own personal journal, complete with comedic illustrations of people and situations he deals with. Attempting to comprehend his surroundings, he often draws cartoons. These are the rose colored lenses he views the world through, softening the reality of life. Many of the illustrations are very poignant, showing the stark contrast between a white person and an Indian, or life in white culture versus life on an Indian reservation. Others are purely entertaining. These drawings are where Junior's personality and insight shine through the most. This character aspect is brought to life for the reader as Alexie employs Ellen Forney to do the artwork. Applied lightly, the result is far from a graphic novel. The drawings help the reader to view the world through Junior's perspective, that of a talented, bruised teenager.

Both the cartoons and the language capture an authentic voice,enabling us to travel back to our own youth. Alexie's world is stark and real. Many of the tales are filled with tragedy, violence, sadness, and the always welcome comedic voice he has become known for. The portrayal is an accurate account that is a pleasure to read for teacher and student alike.


Recommendations for Teachers:

Caution: This is a novel which would be sure to stir up a bit of controversy if used in the classroom. With that being said, this novel is heavily focused on the life of a teenage boy, and all of the stereotypical adventures associated with it including fighting, family turmoil, racism, alcoholism, death, abuse, acceptance, and sexuality (self-exploration specifically). The novel also addresses common stereotypes of the Native American community, which is always something to approach with caution. Cultural identity is explored and can be used for a number of discussions. There are also quite a large number of gruesome and sad deaths which may be sure to disturb students. One of the novel's downfalls is that little is left for the reader to think about, because the voice of the narrator is so dominant throughout the text. A teacher can use this as a jumping off point. Many productive conversations could be orchestrated through the author's words. Turn the student's thought inward. How does the narrator's voice affect the reader. Many positive lessons can come from a close and careful reading.

Contrary to other young adult novels, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has few literary merits. It is quick, as well as an easy read on the whole, with a conversational style and language. It is easy for readers to be brought into the world of the book. Many of the aspects found in the book will be relatable to the teenage reader. However, it may be difficult to find very many literary elements throughout the text without a guided, instructional hand. Many pictures and illustrations reminiscent of a graphic novel are incorporated, though not always school appropriate. This would probably not be the best text to be used in the classroom, but something students could read on their own time. Certainly if a teacher were to undertake a classroom reading, a constant voice will be needed to provide direction. Many students will find this book very appealing on face value. Be sure and instruct them on the Alexie's use of style. This book could be cause for great discussion if done properly.

If a teacher feels very passionate about the novel, excerpts could be taken and used as a short illustration or segue into a topic. For example:
  • Taking excerpts from the main character's thoughts on racism, and being a Native American.
  • Using excerpts to illustrate social problems, such as drunk driving and alcohol in society, or poverty.
  • Using excerpts of the main character's speech impediments and physical ailments to discuss hazing or discrimination.

About Sherman Alexie:
external image sherman-alexie.jpg Sherman Alexie, a part-time Indian himself, grew up a part of the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene tribe. He was born on October 7th 1966. After reading his semi-autobiography it becomes apparent that Alexie draws a number of parallels with the main character in this story. Like his character, Junior, he too was born with water on the brain, better known as hydrocephalus, and he too decided to attend a school outside of his reservation in order to attain a better education. In fact, he dedicates the book to Wellpinit and Reardan, calling them his "hometowns". In school Alexie excelled both in academics and athletics. After graduating in 1985, he went on an athletic scholarship to Gonzaga University then transfered to Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman, WA to study pre-med and become a doctor. He later changed his mind like many college students do and pursued a degree in American Studies and became a writer. His writing often draws from his own life experience. He incorporates harsh but true depictions of life on the reservation. One such topic is alcoholism, he often discusses the devastating effect on Indians. Proudly, he has been sober since he was 23 years old. He has been married since 1992 and has two children.

Other Novels by Alexie:
Flight (Grove Press, 2007)
Ten Little Indians (2003)
The Toughest Indian in the World (2000)
Indian Killer (1996)
Reservation Blues (1994)
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993)
Movies written by Alexie:
Smoke Signals (1998)
The Business of Fancy Dancing (2002) wrote and directed
Books of Poetry by Alexie:
Thrash (Hanging Loose, 2007)
One Stick Song (2000)
The Man Who Loves Salmon (1998)
The Summer of Black Widows (1996)
Water Flowing Home (1995)
Old Shirts & New Skins (1993)
First Indian on the Moon (1993)
I Would Steal Horses (1992)
The Business of Fancydancing (1992)
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Alexie's accomplishments regarding The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are numerous, including:
2008 Pacific Northwest Book Award
2008 American Indian Library Association American Indian Youth Literature Award
2007 National Book Award for Young People's Literature
Publishers Weekly 2007 Best Books of the Year - Children's Fiction
The New York Times Notable Children's Books of 2007
Los Angeles Times Favorite Children's Books of 2007
National Parenting Publication Gold Winner 2007 Best Books of 2007
Barnes & Noble 2007 Best for Teens
School Library Journal Best Books of 2007
Kirkus Reviews Best Young Adult Books of 2007 (pdf file)
Horn Book Fanfare Best Books of 2007
The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Blue Ribbon Winner
Kansas City Star's Top 100 Books of the Year

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“Indians call each other Indians. Native American is a guilty white liberal thing.” -Sherman Alexie//


Traditional Native American dance performed in Spokane, Washington.

Sherman Alexie speaking and answering questions about the book:

Additional Resources:


-Jeremy Battaglia, Krysta Beedon, Cassandra Pickett, and Jamie Ringelberg

Other YA Book Reviews by this group:
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky