Sherman Alexie is a jack of all trades: he makes films, writes poetry, performs stand-up comedy, and pens novel after novel. 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, both heartrending and uplifting. The book debuted in 2007 and has been lauded from the date of its publication, winning a National Book Award.
The lovable 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 indicate). 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. Arnold Spirit, Jr. is the reservation outcast and has been beaten to a pulp more times than is probably healthy.
The central conflict of the novel comes when Arnold, like Alexie, makes a choice to leave the reservation and attend the affluent white school 22 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. He must learn to see himself not just as an Indian, but as a person from many different tribes.
The journey to a meaningful identity, though, is a difficult one, and 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 to be had. Though The Absolutely True Diary is careful not to pull its punches, it also offers readers a rewarding exploration of hope, joy, love, and the power of positive thinking.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a novel about hope, about who has it and who doesn't, and about how hard life can be when hope leaves. And how life can change when hope reappears.
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 (Chapter 24). What's on your Hope List?
Here is one of Shmoop's: