Originally published: 2007 (This edition 2015)
Author: Sherman Alexie
Published by: Anderson Press
Genre: YA (appropriate for ages 14+)
Length: 272 pages
Reading dates: 25-27 August 2022
The Shoreham by Sea book club are following the Chichester Libraries Reading Challenge this year and the choice for August was a banned book. We always make suggestions and then vote and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was chosen.
In his first book for young adults, Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist who leaves his school on the Spokane Indian Reservation to attend an all-white high school. This heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written tale, featuring poignant drawings that reflect the character’s art, is based on the author’s own experiences. It chronicles contemporary adolescence as seen through the eyes of one Native American boy.
Based on the author’s own experiences growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is narrated by Arnold Spirit Jr (Junior), a teenage boy who decides he wants to leave the school on the reservation and attend the nearest all-white high school. Life isn’t easy for Junior – he was born with medical difficulties, his parents (as well as most people on the reservation) are poor and drink too much. But Junior is bright and is determined to try and make a different life for himself.
Written as if by a 14 year old boy, the text includes illustrations drawn by Junior who considers himself a talented cartoonist. Junior lives with his mum and dad (he observes what their lives could of been like if they didn’t live on the reservation). Despite their poverty, they want to do the best by Junior, accepting his request to transfer schools, something a lot of other people do not understand. A particularly poignant moment is when his dad disappears drinking at Christmas but returns with $5 for Junior who is impressed his dad managed to think of him and not just spend it on alcohol.
School is an eye opening experience for Junior – he obviously looks different to everyone else, and sometimes has to walk the 20 miles home from school if his dad has no petrol in his car. He makes friends with a few of his classmates but feels the need to hide the true him, trying desperately to hide how poor he actually is. By going to a white school he doesn’t feel he belongs anywhere – the people on the reservation can’t understand his decision to want to go there and his best friend refuses to speak to him.
There are some truly shocking moments but it is also a heart-warming and interesting read and I learnt a lot about Native American Indians from a narrator who felt very much like a teenage boy, raging hormones and all! Overall as a book club our thoughts were mixed – one low score but mostly well thought of.
As I said at the beginning of my review, we chose this book to read as it is book that has been banned in America, and has consistently appeared on the annual list of frequently challenged books since 2008 in schools and libraries. Controversy stems from the novel’s depiction of alcohol, poverty, bullying, violence, sexuality, profanity and slurs related to homosexuality and mental disability. I find it a shame that educators and librarians feel kids shouldn’t read about different cultures – all of these topics are handled well and are age appropriate and reading about them opened my eyes.
About the author:
Sherman Alexie is the author of, most recently, Blasphemy, stories, from Grove Press, and Face, poetry, from Hanging Loose Press. He is the winner of the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award, the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the 2001 PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, and a Special Citation for the 1994 PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Fiction. Smoke Signals, the film he wrote and coproduced, won both the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Alexie lives with his family in Seattle.