Reader’s Response Journal: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianCitation:

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Illus. Ellen Forney. New York: Scholastic, 2007. Print.

Plot:

Junior is a Spokane Indian who decides that he will get a better education if he transfers to the nearby white high school instead of staying at the reservation high school. His choice is unpopular with his community and he even loses his best friend Rowdy. His start at Reardan High School is also rocky as he encounters racism and loneliness and tries to hide his poverty. Junior eventually makes friends with the genius kid Gordy,” begins “semi-dating” a white girl named Penelope and makes the basketball team. When Junior’s grandmother, his dad’s friend Eugene and his sister Mary die unexpectedly, Junior blames himself and questions his choice to leave the reservation for school. After Mary’s funeral, it is basketball that brings him and Rowdy back together and gives Junior some peace.

Setting:

Contemporary time period. Set in Wellpinit and Reardan, Washington.

Point of View:

1st person (Junior)

Theme:

Identity, race, hopes and dreams, friendships, maintaining tradition, death and grief.

Literary Quality:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian also won the National Book Award in 2007, among other awards and praise. Alexie created a multifaceted teen-aged character in Junior. As a budding cartoonist, Junior shows us examples of his talent, humor, angst and grief through his cartoons and drawings as well as his words. Supporting characters serve to develop the plot as well as Junior’s reaction to adversity. Alexie did a nice job balancing “teenager behavior” (like  masturbation or playing on the school basketball team) with conflicts that make Junior’s experience unique (like hitchhiking to school or Eugene’s gruesome death). Perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of the book was the idea of being a “part-time Indian” and how kids that grow up bicultural sometimes don’t feel fully welcome in either culture (like Junior being called an “apple”: red on the outside, white on the inside—this really happens!) Junior’s experience will speak to kids going through the same thing, regardless of their cultural background.

Cultural Authenticity:

Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian that grew up on the reservation where this book was set. In fact, he dedicated the book to his “hometowns” of Wellpinit and Reardan, the towns featured. The main character of this book was loosely based on his own childhood experiences. The Indians seemed to be represented fairly and we see both their failures and triumphs, strengths and weaknesses throughout the book. The American Indian Library Association awarded its American Indian Youth Literature Award to this book in 2008, indicating that the book “present[s] American Indians in the fullness of their humanity in the present and past contexts.”

Audience:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is probably most appropriate for a high school or young adult audience, due to some mild sexuality and a few tough deaths. Culturally, however, this book has a wider audience than just the Native Americans featured in it. Most teenagers will be drawn to Junior’s honest and humorous take on the world, while learning more about a subculture they might not be familiar with.

Personal Reaction:

When I came upon this book a couple years ago, it was through the recommendation of a high school boy in summer school who claimed it was “the best book he ever read.” That kind of endorsement made me pay attention, especially since it appealed to a teenaged boy (who very rarely seem to recommend books)! It is a very quick read and I think I tore through it faster this time than I did the first time because I knew it was good. Sometimes the cartoon illustrations got on my nerves because there were a few that didn’t seem to help the story, but there were others that I sat and studied for a bit before resuming reading. When I finished, I was sad to leave Junior’s world and wished that I could know more about what happens to him next.

Reader’s Response Journal: The Heart of a Chief

Heart of a Chief book coverCitation:

Bruchac, Joseph. The Heart of a Chief. 1998. New York: Puffin Books-Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 2001. Print.

Plot:

The year Chris Nicola, a Penacook Indian boy, begins sixth grade at Rangerville Junior High School, it seems that almost everyone in his life is growing apart. His father is fighting an addiction and doesn’t live with him, the people on his reservation are divided over the possible construction of a casino on their sacred island, one of his best friends stops talking with him and joins the football team, and other kids at school are upset about the challenge to their mascot, the Chiefs—a debate that Chris seems to have initiated through a group project he is working on for Language Arts. Chris is worried, but has no choice but to step up in leadership and look out for his family, friends and community. He even gets invited to join the wrestling team. The group presentation goes so well that the community takes note and begins the process to vote on a new mascot. Chris is disappointed that his father is not around to share in the excitement, but later his dad comes through with an idea that solves the casino problem too.

Setting:

Contemporary time period. Set in a fictional Penacook reservation and a nearby town in New Hampshire.

Point of View:

1st person (Chris)

Theme:

Cultural insensitivity, coming of age, maintaining tradition and identity, standing up for yourself

Literary Quality:

Bruchac uses powerful metaphors and similes as well as humor in his descriptions throughout the book. The author created a believable and likeable young protagonist in Chris. For example, Chris behaves with trepidation (as many sixth-graders would) when faced with entering an upperclassmen restroom by accident, finding one of the biggest guys in school there and fully expecting to be pounded. Likewise, when he smarts off to a teacher or burns all the surveyors’ stakes, he expects trouble. He does not realize when he overhears his aunt talking about Chris’ growing leadership on the phone with his father that she is talking about him. He sees himself as just a kid that doesn’t have much control. Though the author makes allusions to the “bigger picture” for the reader, the narrator doesn’t pick up on them the same way, in keeping with his status as a sixth-grader coming into his own.

Cultural Authenticity:

Though Joseph Bruchac is not completely of Native American descent (only 1/8 Abenaki), he has professional and personal experience with Native kids. He seems to have drawn upon the realities he witnessed and as described to him by other cultural insiders when creating this novel. He chose to set the story on a fictional reservation, so as not to damage anyone directly, but still tackles many sensitive issues present among these groups. The Native American group that Bruchac featured for his imaginary reservation, the Penacook are actually a Western Abenaki tribe, though not officially recognized as a sovereign nation by the government. Bruchac includes Penacook vocabulary throughout the book and acknowledges common Native American stereotypes as part of the story, which further establishes a neutral bias.

Audience:

With a 6th grade protagonist, the probable audience for this book is upper elementary or middle school. However, many of the characters’ experiences are not completely unique to tweens, so older readers/high schoolers would likely enjoy this book too, since the conflict and issues in the book are generally not very juvenile (mascot controversy, land use and development for a casino, the health aging guardians).

Personal Reaction:

I truly delighted in this story, even though it seemed predictable that our young hero would probably find a way to save the day by the end. I liked that the novel had a contemporary setting and the kids attended a public school, because non-Native American children could have an easier time identifying with the culture and story, instead of dismissing it as “the other” or as historical and passé. I did feel like Bruchac may have confronted too many Native American issues for the context of one novel, but ultimately they served as evidence for Chris’ maturation and growing leadership.