I. Love. This. Book.
There’s no questioning why and how Sherman Alexie’s 2007 novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Currently, I am absolutely questioning why and how it took me so long to read this! How old was I in 2007? 16? WHY WASN’T I READING THIS BOOK THEN?!
2007 was a pretty darn good year. Another favorite book of mine, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson, won the same award for fiction that year, and my all-time favorite movie, No Country for Old Men (a perfect adaptation of the killer Cormac McCarthy book of the same title), was also released in ’07. There Will Be Blood, another film fave, contended with No Country… for Best Picture alongside Juno (another fave) at the 80th Academy Awards (No Country for Old Men won). Kanye West, Feist, Iron & Wine, Spoon, Radiohead, M.I.A., and Bon Iver all released monumentally terrific albums. I got a license; I got a car. 2007 was literally the best year of my life as far as art & media go, so how the heck did I miss out on this one?!
Anyway, I digress.
…Part-Time Indian has everything a “good” book should have: humor throughout; balanced darkness; pictures; a driving plot; lovable characters; and lessons that don’t even feel like lessons. There’s no questioning what the “morals” of this story are, yet Junior’s story and humor are so enthralling that none of it sounds preachy. Junior (formally Arnold Spirit) lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation, where poverty, abuse, and alcoholism cause him to transfer to a nearby nearly-all-white school in Reardan. In addition to the school mascot, the Redskins, Junior is the only Native American in sight. We learn about his year at Reardan surrounded by whiteness, as well as what it’s like to come home to a reservation and town full of Native American friends who feel betrayed by his transfer. Race & prejudice, poverty, “othering,” alcoholism, death & sorrow, budding sexuality, and Native American issues are all themes discussed in length throughout the novel. However, as lofty as exploration of these themes can get, Alexie manages to construct a down-to-Earth narrative about them.
Every teacher should read this. Every young adult should read this. Every white person should especially read this. There might be no group more marginalized than Native Americans in our country, and I feel like I have learned so much about current issues related to that community. In addition, as a white teacher and a human, this book reminds me about the inherent prejudices & privilege I received by society at birth. There’s nothing I love or need more than a good slap in the face to remind me of my place in history or society. …Part-Time Indian gives me all of this, as well as beautiful writing that’s easy to read, yet not “dumbed down.” Every single human in America can gain from reading this novel.
In short, I highly recommend this book for all. It’s inspirational, well-written, humorous, and important. I’ve always loved Alexie’s short stories and author interviews. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is just another chunk of perfect literature he’s given to the world. Read it and you won’t regret it.
“The reservation is beautiful.
I mean it.
Take a look.
There are pines everywhere. Thousands of ponderosa pine trees. Millions. I guess maybe you can take pine trees for granted. They’re just pine trees. But they’re tall and thin and green and brown and big.
Some of the pines are ninety feet tall and more than three hundred years old.
Older than the United States.
Some of them were alive when Abraham Lincoln was president.
Some of them were alive when George Washington was president.
Some of them were alive when Benjamin Franklin was born.
I’m talking old.”