Book Summary: In this somewhat controversial and much challenged story of the life of a teenage boy on an Indian reservation, the protagonist is Junior (real name Arnold). As a child, Junior was born with water on the brain and suffered from seizures. His poor health affects his speech as a teenager and he has poor vision. His life on the reservation is bleak: his best friend Rowdy is very protective of him, but extremely violent to others as he comes from an abusive home; Junior’s parents are alcoholics; school does not challenge his intelligence; and he gets into scrapes and fights. Junior’s teacher sees his potential and connects him with a predominantly white school outside the reservation where his education will be much better. At the new school school (which Junior usually has to hitch hike to because his parents can’t afford gas money), Junior stands out for his race, his physical differences, and his poverty. He is the butt of some jokes, but manages to make friends and even a girlfriend there. However, on the reservation people feel Junior is getting too big for his boots, and Rowdy in particular feels angry and betrayed, so turns against Junior and hurts him badly during a school basketball game. Then, Junior’s grandmother is killed by a drunk driver, Eugene (his dad’s friend) is shot, and his older sister Mary dies in a house fire she didn’t wake up to because she was passed out drunk. Rowdy and Junior rekindle their friendship and Junior promises he will never drink alcohol. Though Junior’s identity crisis (feeling like a part-time Indian because he took the risk of leaving the reservation for school) is not resolved, the reader feels he can move in a positive direction.
APA Reference of Book: Alexie, S., & Forney, E. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian. New York: Little, Brown.
Impressions: I understand why this book is frequently challenged by parents: There is cursing and drinking, it does not paint reservations or Junior’s tribe well at all, and it is written in the voice of a teenager (no parent wants to hear how teenagers really talk when they’re not around!). However, I thoroughly enjoyed it and can understand why a high-schooler would love it. I spoke with a friend of mine who is a high school English teacher and uses this as a novel study. She said the students really enjoy it and it facilitates meaningful conversations about issues in their own lives, diversity, and overcoming adversity. One of the key features of this book which makes it stand out are Forney’s amusing illustrations to accompany the text. It breaks up the text for readers and also communicates situations Junior gets himself into without relying just on prose. For instance, one of the illustrations shows a teenage boy split in two with a white side and an Indian side accompanied by labels of what makes each different. These go a long way to helping the reader understand Junior’s crisis of identity.
Professional Review: Chipman, I. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian. Booklist, 103(22), 61.
Arnold Spirit, a goofy-looking dork with a decent jumpshot, spends his time lamenting life on the “poor-ass” Spokane Indian reservation, drawing cartoons (which accompany, and often provide more insight than, the narrative), and, along with his aptly named pal Rowdy, laughing those laughs over anything and nothing that affix best friends so intricately together. When a teacher pleads with Arnold to want more, to escape the hopelessness of the rez, Arnold switches to a rich white school and immediately becomes as much an outcast in his own community as he is a curiosity in his new one. He weathers the typical teenage indignations and triumphs like a champ but soon faces far more trying ordeals as his home life begins to crumble and decay amidst the suffocating mire of alcoholism on the reservation. Alexie’s humor and prose are easygoing and well suited to his young audience, and he doesn’t pull many punches as he levels his eye at stereotypes both warranted and inapt. A few of the plotlines fade to gray by the end, but this ultimately affirms the incredible power of best friends to hurt and heal in equal measure. Younger teens looking for the strength to lift themselves out of rough situations would do well to start here.
Library Uses: I foresee using this book in a high school book study group in the library. It could be the launching point for valuable and meaningful discussions about racial identity, stereotypes, and how the teenagers perceive themselves through the eyes of others and personally. It is a good book for a guidance counselor to keep on hand, as well.