The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie
Little, Brown & Co., 2017
(10th Anniversary Edition)
[Challenge # 5: A book by a local author.]
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a semi-mythic coming of age story of a Native American boy’s freshman year. Arnold Spirit Jr. lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation, an intelligent yet quiet youth whom no one notices much, and whose family is so poor that when they can’t afford a trip to the vet for their sick dog, they shoot it. He has a best friend, Rowdy, and a family that cares for him yet is crippled by alcoholism and apathy. At the beginning of his first year at the Rez’s high school Arnold receives a textbook and is excited to start learning. When he opens it, he sees his mother’s name inside, and realizes the textbooks have not been updated for twenty-five years. Angered, he hits his teacher in the face with it!
Thus starts his journey, in which he decides to attend a regular public high school in the nearest town rather than the Native community’s. This decision bears consequences: his friends and community turn their backs on him for betraying their own, for seeking a better education and better life.
Of course, Arnold doesn’t phrase it like this, because he’s a 14-year-old boy; he thinks instead in omens and intuition. His narration is the most charming part of the book, even if it’s a lot like Alexie’s “regular” writing tone. Yet, it feels like a 14-year-old, and he draws you into his world. I wish every YA writer attempting a first person teen voice would read True Diary, or something like it. It’s a wonderful how-to on writing a story true to a teen’s age and a teen’s narrative style, with none of the present voice over-scriptedness that’s so prevalent in YA published recently.
But, it is a strange book. It’s categorized as YA, but it is really more of a confessional autobiography, with a dash of magic realism. I enjoyed Alexie’s first short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, a lot, and True Diary has many of the same story themes of that earlier collection. The strongest of these is identity, how young Natives navigate a White world that still has many stereotypical notions about them, or a patronizing, bleeding-heart sympathy that is almost as bad.
The book had a lot of twists and turns that I liked; it always surprised me. A chapter would start out in one tone, then switch to another when the narrator springs some revelation on us. I particularly like how the Geometry teacher who Arnold hits with the book becomes his savior and mentor, and a seemingly-clueless White basketball star a true friend. The cartoons by Seattle artist Ellen Forney scattered about the text added to my enjoyment and gave the text an extra oomph, as Arnold intends to pursue a career in comics when he graduates. In the span of the book he experiences more than his share of tragedies and a few triumphs, and by the end he understands his accomplishment and what that will mean for his future. For he does intend to continue in the public school, which, despite being in a small town in Central Washington State, will give him a better education and more exposure to the world than the one on the Rez. Yet, he does not reject his roots. He embraces them still, for all their flaws.
Other parts of the book I was not crazy about. There was a bit about masturbation which went on too long and gleefully for a YA book, though I suspect that kids would love it. There’s also a throwaway line of “Indians like to talk dirty” which squicked me, considering recent criticisms against the author. I also felt the tone was belligerent at times, as if rubbing White noses in the dirt over the situation their ancestors created. But overall, it helped me understand my Native friends better. It also made me wonder if the author would be as lauded if he did not write about the subject matter that he does, which is a peek for Whites into a very private and guarded world which contains a lot of trauma.
In the end, I found it hard to separate the author from the art. I know I don’t want to be the kind of writer that mines (or uses, or transforms, or justifies….) their tragedies into subject matter. I’m too private for that. Perhaps that’s a shortcoming. I don’t know.
The new material for the 2017 edition includes interviews with both Alexie and Forney, an afterword by Alexie, bonus drawings, an alternate version of the first chapter, and a few chapters from the viewpoint of Arnold Spirit’s best friend Rowdy. It enhances the book and pulls it together as a whole, so I recommend reading the special edition if you can get it.