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 When Arnold starts his freshman year in Wellpinit high school on the reservation, his frustration with the poor, outdated resources at the school causes an incident that ultimately leads to his decision, with his parents’ support, to attend the white kids’ public school in town.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.