The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Introduction
In A Nutshell
Sherman Alexie is a jack of all trades: he makes films, writes poetry, performs stand-up comedy, and pens novel after novel... and we wouldn't be surprised if he announced that he was planning on jump-starting a career in underwater welding, trapeze artistry, or shark whispering. He's just that much of a Renaissance Man.
In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), Alexie switches to the young adult genre in order to offer an autobiographical depiction of reservation life that is both bleak and hopeful, and both heartrending and uplifting. The book dropped in 2007 and has been getting heaped with praise from the date of its publication, even winning the ultimate American lit prize: the National Book Award.
The hilarious narrator of The Absolutely True Diary is a fourteen-year-old Native kid named Arnold Spirit, Jr., a character based in part on Alexie's experiences growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, WA. Arnold is funny, sensitive, and a budding artist (as Ellen Forney's amazing illustrations prove).
Arnold, though, is not only a teenage Indian going through all of the usual coming of age stuff. Arnold is also a hydrocephalic with a stutter and a lisp who is picked on mercilessly. He's the reservation outcast, and he's been beaten to a pulp more times than is probably healthy.
Arnold (like Alexie) makes a choice to leave the reservation and attend the affluent white school twenty-two miles away in Reardan. Branded a traitor, Arnold then gets caught between two worlds: his home on the reservation and the white high school he attends. Feeling as though he fits in nowhere, Arnold is forced to forge a new kind of identity for himself... as if being fourteen years old wasn't hard enough.
And don't worry—Alexie doesn't try to sugarcoat Arnold's life. Alexie has been known in other works for his realistic depictions of reservation life, what he himself calls "reservation realism" (a phrase Alexie coined in the introduction to the 2005 edition of his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven). The Absolutely True Diary is true to Alexie's style, as we see how the reservation is a place of great beauty, but also a very destructive environment blighted with poverty, alcoholism, abuse, and senseless death.
Still, as the novel teaches us, there is also plenty of joy—or, as one of the character calls joy, "metaphorical boners"—to be had. The Absolutely True Diary doesn't pull any punches, but it also offers readers a hilarious and hopeful read. And even if you're nothing like Arnold, we're willing to wager that you'll find this novel to be "absolutely true" and absolutely relatable in at least a few ways.
Why Should I Care?
We're going to put our usual pun-filled mania on hold here, because this is a novel that deserves a Moment of Sincerity:
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a novel about hope and joy—about who has it and who doesn't, and about how hard life can be when hope and joy leaves. And how life can change when hope and joy reappears.
But just in case you thought we were losing our edge—or that Alexie's novel was drippy or sappy—we're going to let you know that "joy" in this novel isn't called "joy." It's called an "emotional boner." ("Hope" is just plain "hope," though.)
Arnold Spirit, Jr. is a stuttering hydrocephalic living on an impoverished Indian reservation where he is routinely bullied and beaten up. His parents are alcoholics, his sister is a hermit recluse, and his best friend is abused by his father.
Kind of sounds like he should give up and call it a day, right?
Arnold has hope. He fights back. He looks for others with hope. He decides that things can change for him. He has the strength to fight. And he does.
Now, don't get us wrong. Just because Arnold has hope doesn't mean his life isn't hard. Poverty is terrible, and parts of Arnold's story are very, very sad. Devastating, even. Despite all this, Arnold chooses to live a life of opportunity and possibility. He wants things to change, and so do we.
Stories about hope are important because they teach us not to give in to despair. Even when there are seemingly insurmountable forces working against us, we still must believe things can change. Why? Because they do.
Arnold finds hope in life by making lists of his favorite things: the things that bring him the most joy—or, using the vocab of The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian—give him an "emotional boner." What's on your list?
Here is one of ours:
- "I Have a Dream," a speech by Martin Luther King
- Big dogs that think they're small dogs
- Dorothy Allison, author
- Our grandmother's chicken
- The Garden, a film by Scott Hamilton Kennedy
- GIFs of owls
- It's a Wonderful Life, a film by Frank Capra
- Zach Anner, comedian
- Buying a new toothbrush
- Old men wearing really snappy clothes
- Mint chocolate chip ice cream
- "Hot Topic," a song by Le Tigre
- The concept of the BeDazzler