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“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Pages
Sep 7th, 2022

by Sherman Alexie

“I can’t blame my parents for our poverty because my mother and father are the twin suns around which I orbit. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.”

Alexie’s semi-autobiographical young adult novel provides an intimate and heartbreaking, yet humorous, glimpse of life on a modern, rural Indian reservation. Through the voice of 14-year-old Arnold Spirit (Junior), Alexie explores themes of poverty, alcoholism, violence, and budding sexuality. Junior dares to believe he is meant for something bigger than the poverty-stricken Spokane Indian reservation where his family has lived for generations. A nerdy oddball, Junior relies on his friend Rowdy to defend him against class bullies. Rowdy’s alcoholic father abuses the young boy, and Rowdy stays anxious for a fight. When Junior decides to transfer to the predominantly white school across town, he struggles to fit in and endure the jealousy/hatred of his former classmates on the reservation. Junior recognizes the hopelessness that slowly eats away at his people who barely get by: “Reservations weren’t meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move onto reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear.” 

Alexie explores the delicate balance of pride in where you come from compounded by the reality of confronting the bleak outlook of staying put. Alexie does not shy away from criticizing the privileged students who don’t understand the new Indian boy in their midst, the lanky outsider with a stunning jump shot. Alexie also delves into the humanity that inevitably surfaces when people of different backgrounds are forced to come together. Junior is the underdog a reader roots for, though it’s complicated by the underdog only succeeding when separated from the community who raised him – the ultimate underdogs still surviving on the reservation. 

The memoir is ultimately readable and uproariously funny. Published in 2007, the terminology showcases the ramblings of a teenaged boy, oblivious to political correctness or tact. The novel has been accused of capitalizing on racist and homophobic undertones and outright profanity. Some American high schools have gone as far as banning the book. While many lines are cringeworthy, the heart of the novel beats loudly, radiating a warmth that makes Junior and his plight hard to ignore. With so few recognized indigenous authors, Alexie’s writing humanizes Native Americans by presenting a complicated, yet realistic picture of the hardships they face. While the novel is classified as young adult reading, its themes and subjects are intriguing for adult readers. Regardless of cultural differences, the high school experience is universally filled with highs and lows, moments of intense triumph and mortifying gaffes.

“Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”