An Absolutely Excellent Portrait of Alcoholism, Racism, Poverty, and Overcoming Struggle.

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: LIttle, Brown and Comapny, 2007.

200px-The_Absolutely_True_Diary_of_a_Part-Time_Indian.jpgJunior's feet are so big that he's shaped like a capital L. His head's so large that bullies call him "the globe," and spin him around only to stop him, point to a spot on his head and exclaim "I want to go here!" Junior gets bullied pretty regularly on the rez. He's part of the “black-eye-of-the-month club.” Until one day he opens up a geometry book, and it changes his life.

No, not because geometry is life-changing (well, maybe for geometricians), but because the book had once been used by his mother, thirty years before. And so Junior gets mad: “Let me tell you, that old, old, old, decrepit geometry book hit my heart with the force of a nuclear bomb. My hopes and dreams floated up in a mushroom cloud. “ So Junior threw the book at his teacher, Mr. P., and hit him square in the face.

During his suspension from school, Junior is visited by a bandaged Mr. P. who tell him: “you have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope.” When Junior asks his parents who has the most hope, and they tell him “White People,” he decides to transfer to Reardon High-School, an all-white school 20 miles outside of the reservation.

Not only does Junior have to worry about being the only Indian at Reardon (excepting the mascot) but when he transfers, everyone on the reservation sees Junior as a traitor, including his best friend Rowdy. As the school-year passes, Junior faces a struggle between his home on the rez, where he's Junior, and his future in Reardon, where he's known as Arnold.

Arnold starts to make a name for himself. He tries out for the basketball team, and even makes varsity. He makes a new friend, nerdy farmboy and fellow eccentric, Gordy. He even begins dating the beautiful Penelope. Kind of. Back at home, Junior has to deal with his father's alcoholism, his family's poverty, and a prolonged cold shoulder from the rest of the reservation.

Junior must prove himself when Reardon faces off against Wellpinit High in varsity basketball. As Junior walks out onto the court with his teammates, he observes: “My fellow tribal members saw me and they all stopped cheering, talking, moving. I think they stopped breathing. And, then, as one, they turned their backs on me.” Junior is determined to play, to the point where he has his dad's friend Eugene stitch him up in the locker room when someone from the stands nails him in the forehead with a quarter. Unfortunately, Junior is knocked out cold by his former best friend, Rowdy.

In the wake of his loss to Wellpinit, and a holiday season in which Junior's dad disappears on a drunken bender, Junior's grandmother is struck by a drunk driver. After that, Junior's treatment on the rez is a little better, but he's still got a long way to go to the end of the school year. And a chance to prove himself by playing off against Wellpinit one last time.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” paints a touching portrait of a young man who must rise above his lot in life, but never forgets the troubles of his people. A young man who never loses his sense of humor in the face of great personal tragedies. A young man who just might make it.

Recommendations for Teachers
This work meshes very well with books such as Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street. Many of the same themes are addressed, and it provides that undeniable man energy which will keep male students engaged. Taught side-by-side in a mostly-white school, these books have the potential to provide a lot of cross-cultural perspective. Teachers looking for a way to incorporate more genres into their students' writing may also use Junior's comics as a model.

Teachers using this book should be prepared to face issues such as poverty, racism, homophobia, and alcoholism; all issues which students may have personal experiences with. There is also a bit of bad language which should be addressed.

About Sherman Alexie

Much like his character, Junior, Sherman Alexie was born with water on the brain. He was also a bright kid who felt he had no future on the Spokane Indian reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. And so when he found his mother's name in a textbook at school, he transferred schools, again, like his character, Junior. Alexie attended Gonzaga University, and Washington State University, where he got a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies.

He also published The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven (1993), Reservation Blues (1995), Ten Little Indians (2003), Flight (2007), and others, and has worked on the films Smoke Signals (1998), and The Business of Fancydancing (2002). He is the recipient of O. Henry Award, and The Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Award. He lives with his wife, Diane, and two sons, Joeseph and David, in Seattle.

Multimedia (Video or Audio)

Sherman Alexie reads an excerpt from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and takes a few questions. Filmed at a Young Adult Novelist panel at the Texas State Capitol on November 3rd, 2007. Hilarity ensues.

Additional Resources:

--Jory Sanders.