ElCicco #CBR5 Review #48: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel by Sherman Alexie


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is Native American poet Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical novel about a Spokane Indian teen from the reservation. Arnold Spirit (aka Junior) is different from the other kids on the reservation, and not just because of the condition he was born with. Arnold is different because he has hope and dares to leave the rez to attend the all-white high school in town. Filled with humor, sadness, hard truths and enduring hope, this YA novel, which won a National Book Award last year, is an inspiration for those who feel different and alone.

Arnold was born different. As an infant he had hydrocephaly, and he has had medical and speech problems through his life, problems that made him an object of bullying on the reservation. Arnold likes to read, draw (illustrations by Ellen Forney) and play basketball with his pal Rowdy, also from the rez and a really tough kid. When Arnold starts his freshman year in Wellpinit high school on the reservation, his frustration with the poor, outdated resources at the school causes an incident that ultimately leads to his decision, with his parents’ support, to attend the white kids’ public school in town. Arnold’s decision causes anger and resentment on the reservation, especially from his friend Rowdy, but others like his sister and his dad’s friend Eugene seem to understand and admire his drive to live his dreams.

The novel covers Arnold’s first year in high school, which turns out to be eventful and surprising in both good and bad ways. Arnold spends a lot of time alone and learns to handle it. He also finds some surprising allies at his new school Reardan, gains some confidence and discovers skills he hadn’t realized he possessed. One of the powerful messages of the book is the importance of parents and adults in developing young people’s self confidence. If expectations are high and the adults in your life show that they believe in you, it’s amazing what you can do.

At the same time, though, Arnold struggles with the loss of his friendship with Rowdy and a series of tragic deaths. In one chapter, Arnold addresses Tolstoy’s idea that happy families are happy the same way but sad families are sad in different ways. Arnold disagrees and the reader learns that sad statistics about alcoholism and deaths on the reservation. Arnold observes that on the reservation, they were all drunk and unhappy in the same way. Another powerful chapter deals with the basketball rematch between Wellpinit and Reardan, where Arnold has become a star. It becomes a bittersweet showdown for Rowdy and Arnold.

Alexie’s message for his YA audience (and it’s appropriate for anyone) is to make sure that you don’t let others define who you are or make you fit in some narrow category. Instead, recognize all the tribes you belong to and try to expand them. In an interview at the end of the book, Alexie says that you should be prepared to be lonely, as Arnold was when he made his decision, but Arnold found with time that the people he expected to shun him completely were part of his tribe. Arnold says, “If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.” It’s a moving story with a great message.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR 5 Review #24: The Final Four

It’s time for some turbo-charged book reviews, complete with recommendations for those who care for them. They’ll be up here day by day, or if you want to gorge yourself check out my separate blog

For those who wish Matt Christopher wrote about bigger stages: The Final Four

When I was a kid the biggest thing going in boys literature (for those too squeamish for Goosebumps), was Matt Christopher’s interminable series of books about young boys going out for a local sports team and trying to win a local championship and…well…doing it.

I loved books then, I love books now. I loved sports then, and I love sports now. But I outgrew Matt Christopher in about 4th grade. Still, I was intrigued when one of my students cracked open Paul Volponi’s book one day after my class. It had all the trappings of a regular sports novel with a grander sensibility: forget the local kid and the local game and the local problem, let’s deal with the Final Four, let’s deal with money and war and fame and power and romance and the media.

Part of Volponi’s work captures those principles well, in particular his central protagonists (a pair of point guards with tragic histories but totally different mindsets) give voice to a set of sincere concerns about injustices done to “student athletes” and law abiding citizens. It’s clear which of the two most people would root for, but it’s also clear that the less-likable player has understandable reasons for his behavior.

It’s unfortunate, therefore, that the other half of Volponi’s book is given over to “role-player” characters who balance out the stars, but offer very little depth to the situation instead hitting on those old sports book tropes (getting-the-girl and rising-to-the-occasion respectively). Sadder still, the descriptions of the game are accurate but not terribly riveting (despite the fact that the game goes into quadruple overtime).

I admire Volponi’s effort, but I hope that there’s a way to write about those bigger stages without succumbing to the long standing tropes we nerdy sports fans already know.