Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Illus. Ellen Forney. New York: Scholastic, 2007. Print.
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.
Contemporary time period. Set in Wellpinit and Reardan, Washington.
Point of View:
1st person (Junior)
Identity, race, hopes and dreams, friendships, maintaining tradition, death and grief.
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.
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.”
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.
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.