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

June 25, 2012

The Absolutely Trye Diary of a Part-time Indian is based on Sherman Alexie’s childhood growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation. The protagonist, Junior, is a smart 14-year-old, but has few friends due to his various medical conditions, including seizures, a large head due to excessive spinal fluid, and near-sightedness that requires him to wear government issue glasses. His father is an alcoholic who frequently uses up gas or food money for the family on alcohol.

Junior realizes that the school on the reservation is deplorably underfunded, so he decides to transfer to a nearby school full of rich white kids. He struggles socially at the school, but slowly makes a few friends, and then joins the basketball team. Meanwhile, he is even more hated at the reservation; his friend Rowdy won’t talk to him because of his decision to go to a white school, and there is a general feeling that Junior thinks he is too good for the reservation.

Alexie details the living conditions on the reservation with a straightforwardness and lack of sentimentality, making the overwhelming poverty, alcoholism, and violence all the more heartbreaking. In addition to weaving the impact that poverty and alcohol has on Junior’s life into the story – his dad can only drive him partway to school because he runs out of gas after spending money on beer the night before; Junior gets a textbook in the reservation school that was his mother’s 30 years ago – but does not shy away from depicting catastrophic events, including Junior’s grandmother’s death when she is struck by a drunk driver, and his sister’s death in a fire after a night of drinking.

It also shows the difficulty of traveling between the reservation and the white world outside. Once Junior decides to go outside the reservation, he is on the road to becoming more educated and successful, and to escaping the grinding poverty he has known his whole life; but he is then forfeiting any sense of belonging he once had on the reservation. There is no easy resolution to this, and while it would be easy to cast those on the reservation who taunt and belittle Junior as villains, Alexie never forgets where they are coming from. In one climactic scene, Junior’s basketball team at his new school beats the reservation school basketball team, and while he should feel elated, he looks at the faces of his former friends and realized how much this small victory would have meant to them.

Alexie is aided considerably by the cartoon illustrations by Ellen Forney, which are meant to represent Junior’s own budding interest in drawing. They add humor to a world that is considerably dark for a young adult novel. The fact that Alexie was willing to depict this world so honestly and openly in a book for teenagers is only one of the reasons the book works so well. It’s hard to talk about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian without lapsing into cheesy inspirational speech about heartbreak and uplift, or how a poor and damaged community manages to still support and care for one another, but Part-time Indian earns its heartbreak and it’s uplift.

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