The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Art by Ellen Forney

Published September 2007 by Little, Brown and Company, New York/Boston

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Summary and Book Review
Sherman Alexie invites us to experience the childhood of his self-reflecting character in this captivating tale. In "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian", we discover the woes and wonders of the life of a teenage boy, Arnold Spirit, known as Junior on the "rez", caught between the worlds of a struggling Indian reservation and a flourishing town inhabited by whites. Junior shares his encounters and emotions in his cartoon-enriched diary as he leaves his life as a miserable outcast trapped within the bindings of "the rez" to become a teenage hero who finds himself while attending school among the whites. Junior's decision to leave the rez school to attend a Reardan, a white town school where students are "beautiful and smart and epic...[and] filled with hope" (p. 50) is certainly a bold one; he explains, "You can't just betray your tribe and then change your mind ten minutes later. I was on a one-way bridge. There was no way to turn around, even if I wanted to" (p. 55). Members of the reservation consider Junior a traitor and he becomes a victim of verbal and physical bullying. Junior became an outcast among his tribe that he left behind and his new schoolmates who did not interact with Indians on a regular basis. However, by the end of the novel, Junior finds a happy balance between his two contrasting worlds. By following his personal judgments and doing what makes him happy, Junior finds a place for himself among within his home and school environments. He earns himself to be a position as a well-liked and respected member of both the "rez" and the white town.

After his two worlds collide during an attention-grasping encounter near the end of the diary, Junior reflects upon his experiences throughout the year with a newly-attained level of maturity. He discovers that he cannot let the stereotypes of society control his life; he will go where he wants to go and become who he wants to become--and his dreams to discover a life of success beyond the reservation cannot hinder the unconditional love and support of his family. Even after he had became a traitor amongst his own people for leaving the reservation, in the end they looked at him with respect. Junior proves that if you believe hard enough in something and believe in yourself hard enough, anything is possible.

This book is a great tool to use in the classroom, especially for teaching students about stereotypes, goal-setting, and the attainability of dreams. Junior is the epitome of individualism and self-sufficiency, and along his journey he learns the importance of striving to seek out the best life possible (even if it means risking social status and respect). On top of this there are many topics that this novel addresses that students may be able to identify with, including: bullying, adolescent romance, family, and competition. However, the larger theme of the book uses the depiction of Indians and the social problems they face as a medium for discussing the many issues faced by minority students. In a comical yet tragic way, the reader is introduced to the depth in which the characters' identities are wrapped up in their race and culture. As a future-teacher I would recommend teaching this book to my students because it enables so much room for discussion and emotions. It helps students open the doors to a meaningful discussion on many issues that are sometimes difficult to have in a classroom, yet are so relevant to the lives of adolescents and are thus important to address.

Another aspect of this book that makes it so appealing for teachers is the "student-friendly" language that it uses. It is written from the perspective of a freshman aged high-schooler, using conversational language that is easy for adolescent students--and anyone else--to follow and relate to. Aside from that, it's also very humorous. Junior discusses the things that run through the heads of many students his age. This book will definitely latch onto its readers, and it won't let go until they've read every last page.

Recommendations for Teachers
Teachers can use this book to teach students about the culture and lifestyle of the Spokane Indians (or any tribe of Native Americans), as well as the issues and problems that they have to deal with every day. The book provides a great parallel to the lives of students, and can be used to evoke discussion about topics such as tolerance and acceptance, and bullying and peer pressure. Since many of the topics Junior dealt with in the book apply to high school life today, students will find the book compelling and interesting.

To provide background information prior to reading the book, a teacher could arrange a lesson plan around information regarding Indian Reservations. This could develop into independent study projects, student presentations or other related assignments while students continue reading the book.

  • Teach students about Spokane Indians
    • History/heritage
    • Customs/traditions
    • Current Information regarding Spokanes
  • Provide general information about Indian Reservations
    • Address history, origin, locations, laws of reservations
    • Discuss current status of Indian Reservations and the relationship between Indian Reservations and "the rest of America" today
  • Address Issues Regarding Racism and stereotypes
    • Create a lesson plan in which students journal about their stereotypes of Indians and Indian reservations. After they have journaled, have them retrieve scenes from the novel that either affirm or reject that stereotype. Then turn their findings into a class discussion about how we create/learn these stereotypes. Are some of them based on fact? If so, is there a reason beyond their control for the stereotype? If the stereotypes are untrue, why do we assume that they are right?

About the Author, Sherman Alexie
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Born in October 1966, Sherman Alexie's life almost exactly mirrors the life of Junior in the novel. He relects upon life through the eyes of a not-so-typical man; Sherman Alexie is not only a Spokane Indian, but he is also a survivor of a rare condition called "hydrocephalus" which refers to the overproduction of liquid within the brain. He learned how to read by the age of 3, which caused him to stand out from his peers. Alexie endured years of ridicule and torment from other students, until he found his true calling -- writing. Planning to go into the medical field, he attended both Gonzaga and Washington State University, but his mind was changed after a poetry workshop. He realized writing was what he wanted to do. Not only has Alexie written numerous books, poems, and essays, he has also written and directed a few movies which include: 49? , The Business of Fancydancing , and Smoke Signals.




Media
Sherman Alexie's Award Acceptance Speech (From the National Book Foundation)

Listen to Sherman Alexie read parts of the book!

Additional Information

2007 National Book Award Young People's Literature Winner Interview With Sherman Alexie Sherman Alexie answers three short questions about his book.
Audio Clip of a Section of the Book Alexie reads a short section near the beginning of his book.
Breaking Stereotypes of American Indians A tool that may be useful to teachers to help students break preconceived notions of American Indians.
City of Spokane, Washington (official site) This site helps the reader imagine what Spokane is like.
City of Wellpinit, Washington This website offers maps and weather and general information about another town referenced in the book.
Information about Hydrocephalus A basic definition of the condition the main character is plagued with.
New York Times Review A book review by Bruce Barcott, writer for the New York Times.
NPR Review of the Book NPR links to a media selection of a review for this book.
Other Native American Authors Another thing to help students take this book outside of the classroom -- a link that lists other Native American authors.
Reardon High School The actual high school that Junior attended, complete with pictures and yearly schedule.
Sherman Alexie's Official Website About the author, awards, articles and more.
Spokane Tribe of Indians Website Different "tribal news" and "tribal government" links about the Spokane Indians.
The Confederation of Salish and Kootenai Tribes Website Another link to information on other tribes.
Wellpinit High School The current website of the other school referenced by Alexie.
Other Books by Author Sherman Alexie's other popular books.
Controversy Surrounding Fellow Author "When the Story Stolen is Your Own", an article from Time Magazine