Sunday Salon – Review of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Sunday Salon.com

On the front page of my edition of this book for Young Adults, twenty-two awards are listed, including National Book Award, New York Times Book Review Notable Book for Children, and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the year. Happily, the book lives up to its many bestowals of praise.

What I wasn’t aware of until after completing the book was that the story actually is, to a large extent, the author’s own story. Although the name of the 14-year-old protagonist is Arnold Spirit, Junior, rather than Sherman Alexie, Junior, many other details are the same.

Both the real Sherman and the fictional Arnold were born on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington (Sherman in 1966 and Arnold in 1992). Both developed hydrocephaly, or water on the brain, and required surgery at six months. Both overcame these obstacles as well as others, and graduated from the white high school about 20 miles from Wellpinit. And both became star basketball players at this high school.

Arnold, or “Junior” as he is known on the “rez” writes his diary with extraordinary insight, and a knack for looking on the bright side. His optimism persists in spite of constant teasing from other kids and even adults on the rez because of the way he looks: the hydrocephaly makes his head huge compared to the rest of his body, he wears “geeky” glasses, and is teased and beaten up regularly. His diary, illustrated intermittently by the wonderful drawings of Ellen Forney (but purported to be by Arnold) is his outlet. As he explains:

I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.”

Throughout, Arnold lightens the pathos of his life with a sense of humor that makes the hardships endured by his family and by reservation life bearable in spite of the pain they simultaneously impart. He well exemplifies the Yiddish expression “lachen mit yashcherkes” or laughing with lizards, which means: I’m laughing but it’s actually very sad. And there is much that is very sad.

On his family’s poverty he writes:

…it’s not like my mother and father were born into wealth. It’s not like they gambled away their family fortunes. 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.”

He observes:

It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.

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

He talks about the pervasiveness of alcoholism on the rez (a way to make pain go away, as he explains). His mom was a recovered alcoholic but his dad was still in its throes:

When the holidays rolled around, we didn’t have any money for presents, so Dad did what he always does when we don’t have enough money.

He took what little money we did have and ran away to get drunk.”

His grandmother was killed by a drunk driver, and his dad’s best friend was killed during a fight over alcohol. His older sister, too, died because of an alcohol-related incident. He objects to Tolstoy’s famous opening line to Anna Karenina that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”:

Well I hate to argue with a Russian genius, but Tolstoy didn’t know Indians. And he didn’t know that all Indian families are unhappy for the same exact reason: the fricking booze.”

When he and his parents went to the cemetery to clean graves, Arnold “wept and wept and wept because I knew that I was never going to drink and because I was never going to kill myself and because I was going to have a better life out in the white world.” And he does. But not because he hates his Indian heritage:

I cried because so many of my fellow tribal members were slowly killing themselves and I wanted them to live. I wanted them to get strong and get sober and get the hell off the rez. … Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move onto reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear.”

Alexie makes you so glad he fought not to disappear. This book of laughs and tears and strength and courage is both a love letter and a challenge to his fellow Indians to raise themselves out of the prison the white man put them in, and realize the joy of a life fulfilled. As his basketball coach told him Vince Lombardi had said, “The quality of a man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence, regardless of his chosen field of endeavor.” Arnold/Sherman does his best in spite of nearly insuperable odds to make this dream come true.

Evaluation: All the awards for this book were given justifiably. This is a unique and creative contribution to young adult literature. Arnold’s voice seems authentic for his age, and his positive attitude toward the tragedies of his life has much to teach young teens. But even adults won’t be disappointed!

Rating: 5/5

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20 Responses

  1. I love Alexie’s writing. I have this book sitting on my TBR shelves, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the review!

  2. Wow, 5 stars huh? I’ve heard of this book, and the reviews are always glowing. I can see why. Very fresh attitude, facing the issues head on. I always feel so incredibly sad when I hear about the plight of the modern Indian. And it doesn’t matter whether you are on a rez in South Florida, or Arizona, or wherever, the story remains the same. The drinking is a huge problem.

  3. Like Sandy, I think I can tell from your review why this is such a widely loved book. I love the cartoons you posted, and I must get my hands on it asap.

  4. This book has been on my radar for a while, but after your review, I feel like I MUST read it.

  5. Jill,

    I loved this book. I knew Alexie as a poet. This was my first work of fiction by him. I laughed, I could relate to a lot including the addiction and poverty (many of my extended family have lived similar lives) and I, too, was so glad Junior didn’t give up.

    Thanks for the review.

  6. I’ve been thinking of reading this one. Thanks for the review because now I think that I’m going to read it sooner than later.

  7. I didn’t realize there were so many similarities between Arnold and Sherman. But typing this made me realize their initials are opposite…AS and SA.

  8. I’ve never read this- but I want to now. Thanks!

  9. My son told me that I had to read this book….so I did and fell in love with it!! Your review is excellent!!!

  10. I’m so glad you liked this one too. I thought it was beautiful and brilliant and moving and wonderful. :-)

  11. I LOVED this book! Junior is so authentic and funny. i loved his eternal optimism and you picked some great cartoons and quotes to show why the book is so great. I definitely want to read more of Sherman Alexie’s work. So glad you liked it!

  12. I didn’t know there were illustrations! I absolutely love the ones you’ve posted here. This book looks superb.

  13. I’ve wanted to read this book for several years, but I don’t think I’d ever actually read a review until now. Your excellent review and the well-chosen, awesome pictures have convinced me that not only do I need to read this soon, but I need to read this really, really soon.

  14. This sounds really interesting … it is going on the list!

  15. I have to find this one. Can’t get any better than 5/5.

  16. I’m going to have to read this one!

  17. I LOVED this one. It is definitely one of the best books I read this year. My husband and I listened to it on a road trip, but I really want to buy the edition with the illustrations.

  18. I read and reviewed this one not too long ago. I agree that it is very good; a lot of the quotes you used are ones I still remember from the book. I hope more people read this one based on your review!

  19. [...] look at Sherman Alexie’s website, which is full of information about his books and much more. Sunday Salon and The Children’s Book Review also reviewed [...]

  20. [...] The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – this semi-autobiographical and delightfully illustrated story deserves the 22 [...]

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