Sherman Alexie’s 2007 young-adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a great read. Really, I should stop here and let you all go out and read it for yourselves because I’m not sure there’s much I can say beyond that. Although the book is marketed towards young adults, the content is quite heavy (as any good young-adult book should be). Alexie’s book also includes comics and illustrations throughout, adding an interesting flavour to the experience.
The Absolutely True Diary centres on Arnold Spirit, a young Spokane Indian growing up on the Wellpinit reserve in Washington state. He has just finished elementary school and is about to go to high school. However, he decides after receiving some advice from a well-meaning geography teacher to attend the off-reservation white high school in Reardan. Mr. P, the aforementioned geography teacher, tells Arnold that he needs to leave the reservation before he gives up hope. Arnold is a bright kid and the rez school simply won’t be able to help him escape the cycle of poverty and alcoholism that exist on the reserve. Arnold hesitantly decides to do this but faces backlash from his best friend, Rowdy, alienation from the all-white students of Reardan, indifference from the teachers, and various moments of outright racism from students and staff.
One of the things that surprised me in Alexie’s novel is that he is quite clear that reservations can become prisons which destroy most of the indigenous population. I think I have a certain amount of political caution bred into me so that I am hesitant to say anything bad about reservations or indigenous people in general. Reading Alexie critique the problems of the reservation was a real eye-opener for me. Bad things happen to good people and these bad things have very really causes in the way that white North American governments have treated indigenous peoples. Alexie’s self-reflexive criticism (he does not exempt the characters of Wellpinit reserve from blame) was amazing to see. He’s also a great writer so that I felt moved throughout the novel and never felt like it sank to shrill political criticism.
Did I mention there are comics included in the book? Because there are. And they are great. I’m all for mashing up genres particularly because some of the most creative work is happening in these areas. See my review of Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music for more on that. And comics always make things better …
I highly recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to any fan of indigenous literature.
Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007. Print.