The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

written by Sherman Alexie

art by Ellen Forney

published 2007

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time in Indian, a novel by Sherman Alexie, focuses on the experiences of a young American-Indian boy, Junior, who is known as Arnold Spirit (Jr.) off the reservation. His diary covers a life-changing school year, during which Junior takes a chance and chooses to attend an all-white high school off of the reservation - a choice met with mixed reactions from his family and friends. Throughout this diary of a teenage boy, readers are able to travel along with Junior as he leaves his reservation school behind and joins the all-white school twenty miles away, as he learns to embrace his heritage and to take control of his life.

Junior lives on the Spokane Indian reservation. On the Spokane Indian reservation, many live a life of poverty and alcoholism, and are heir to a life where all hopes and dreams have been taken away from them. Many of the children within the tribe live with parents who are abusive when drunk, and these children are not encouraged to do their best in school or in life. Fortunately for Junior however, he has two very supportive parents and a wise grandmother who supports his decisions, whether they are wise or not. With this encouragement, he is able to improve his own life and even, perhaps, to inspire some of his peers to do the same.

"I was born with water on the brain.
Okay, so that's not exactly true. I was actually born with too much cerebral spinal fluid inside my skull. But cerebral spinal fluid is just the doctors' fancy way of saying brain grease. And brain grease works inside the lobes like car grease works inside an engine. It keeps things running smooth and fast. But weirdo me, I was born with too much grease inside my skull, and it got all thick and muddy and disgusting, and it only mucked up the works. My thinking and breathing and living engine slowed down and flooded." (Alexie, 1)

With these lines, Alexie introduces us to the voice of Junior. Perhaps, he began with the "water on the brain" simply because it sets Junior apart as different, or perhaps it is more symbolic. Perhaps, in this funny description of "brain grease," Alexie is describing not only Junior's disadvantage, but also the disadvantaged starting position of Junior's tribe and all American Indians by extention.

Well-loved young adult author Chris Crutcher describes The Absolutely True Diary, "I know Sherman Alexie is on his game when I'm reading his book, laughing my ass off while my heart is breaking. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian captivates absolutely." He captures the essence of the book's appeal - its ability to provoke both laughter and tears, happiness and outrage. Students will connect with the voice of Junior, in his funny, self-depreciatng manner and his witty observations of the social hierarchy of high school and the unexpected depths of even the most "normal" teens. A particularly hilarious scene is introduced by "THE UNOFFICIAL AND UNWRITTEN (but you better follow them or you're going to get beaten twice as hard) SPOKANE INDIAN RULES OF FISTICUFFS" (Alexie, 61). Poor, geeky, weak Junior, who describes himself as "the only Indian in the history of the world who ever lost a fight with himself." (Alexie, 63), stands up to a huge, popular, white football player, and simultaneously learns that white kids do not know the "rules of fisticuffs" and earns the respect of his new school.

Junior is also a budding comic artist and the drawings scattered throughout the text are insightful and hilarious. These will definitely pull readers into the story:
"I draw all the time.
I draw cartoons of my mother and father; my sister and grandmother; my best friend, Rowdy; and everybody else on the rez.
I draw because words are too unpredictable.
I draw because words are too limited.
If you speak and write in English, or Spanish, or Chinese, or any other language, then only a certain percentage of human beings will get your meaning.
But when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it." (Alexie, 5)
This passage could spur a discussion about the power of words, the limitations of words, and interpretations of words. It could also be used to discuss the place of illustrations in text - how they add or detract from a work, and why an author chooses to include them.

Junior is also forced to reconcile his personal heritage with his new "white" school, an adaption recognized by everyone who was ever the new kid trying to fit in. He seeks to find a place where he can fit in without betraying his community. This dilemma will connect with teenagers, as will Junior's fight and subsequent isolation from his best friend Rowdy.

Alexie does not shy away from sensitive topics in this book, addressing masterbation, physical abuse, racial slurs, eating disorders, and more. Although Alexie does not moralize, he does not treat most of these subjects lightly, and this book could be used as a jumping off point for many discussions, including censorship. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian may create controversy in the classroom as to whether it is suitable for teenagers to read. It is written at an easy reading level but because it addresses so many controversial issues, it may be safer to use it only in high school. It could still be fun and useful in middle school, but the maturity of students must be taken into account, especially if the book is to be read by the whole class. Along with this, teachers can introduce studets to different cultures, and how people represent their culture, and also to take pride of even your own background. This book also lets the reader, especially with young adults, build self-esteem, believe in their dreams and pursue their goals, and also to believe in their capabilities to take chances in order to succeed.
Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie


Podcast.mp3

Some helpful links:

  • An audio interview of Sherman Alexie by Chris Watson about The Absolutely True Diary
  • Sherman Alexie reading an exerpt of //The Absolute True Diary//
  • Official Site of Sherman Alexie: fallsapart.com
  • Click here for an mp3 excerpt of the book
  • The Absolutely True Diary is a 2007 National Book Award finalist. Here is a review by the National Book Foundation, along with helpful links and a list of Sherman Alexie's appearances.
  • An NPR review of the book
  • A review of the book from teenreads.com
  • To Purchase the Book Click Here
  • Smoke Signals: a movie written by Sherman Alexie and based on another of his books. It follows two American Indian teens on a quest of self-discovery and growth, with Alexie's humorous perspectives.
  • Here is a listing of Alexie's books of poetry, along with one poem online.
  • A useful page with links to English lesson plans using Alexie's works.

    Below is the short poem "Why We Play Basketball" written by Sherman Alexie and animated by the Native Lens youth in May 2005.

How teachers can use this book in classroom discussions:


1. Discuss American-Indian history and the heritage of different tribes and reservations throughout the country.
2. Introduce students to some Indian ceremonies and some different artifacts of their culture.
3. Invite an American-Indian speaker to present him/herself and his/her culture to the class.
4. Have students make bead necklaces and bracelets with different colors and shapes or dream catchers to enrich the study of American-Indians.