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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.
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:
Sherman Alexie Website
Official website of the author.
The official website for the Spokane Indians.
Resources on the Spokane Indians
The website for the Wellpinit School District provides a list of useful links on Spokane culture, including the history of the Spokane Indians, some of their myths and legends, and more.
Ellen Forney Website
Have a look at the site of artist and illustrator Ellen Forney.
Modern American Poetry
Alexie isn't only a novelist, he's also a poet. Check out this website from the University of Illinois, which provides a bio of Alexie and scholars' thoughts on his work.
A very brief bio of Alexie, plus links to some of his poetry.
"Off the Rez," Bruce Barcott, The New York Times
A review of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian from 2007.
"Absolutely Fabulous," Jami Attenberg, PRINT
A review of Alexie's book and Ellen Forney's drawings from the design magazine PRINT.
"How to Write the Great American Indian Novel," Poem, Sherman Alexie
See Alexie at work in poetry.
"I'm Y.A. and I'm O.K." Margo Rabb, The New York Times
Margo Rabb talks to Sherman Alexie and others about what it means to write young adult fiction.
Sherman Alexie Reads Part-Time Indian
Alexie reading a portion of his book.
Alexie Accepts National Book Award for Part-Time Indian
Alexie's acceptance speech at the National Book Awards. Tip: he gets on stage after the 4:35 minute mark!
Sherman Alexie Talk in Tulsa
Sherman Alexie describes his real-life decision to switch schools as a teenager.
"Absolutely True Diary," Allen Cheuse, NPR
NPR review of Alexie's book first broadcast in October 2007.
"Author Sherman Alexie Targets Young Readers," Morning Edition, NPR
Radio interview with the author.