Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Illus. Ellen Forney. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007.
In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Alexie delves into Native American culture, stereotypes, and the struggles of adolescence. The main character Junior lives on an Indian Reservation and was born with health problems; his glasses, small stature, and smarts make him an easy target for bullies, even amongst his own tribe. Many families on the reservations deal with alcoholism and abuse, and all live in poverty. Junior is not growing up in an environment in which opportunities are handed out or easily available; most individuals on the reservations lead the same lives year after year and generation after generation. However, recognizing Junior’s potential, Mr. P, Junior’s teacher, encourages him to attend the white school, Reardan, where he would have better prospects for making it in the world. As the only Native American student, Junior feels alienated from his new peers; however, they eventually accept him, and he forms bonds, especially strong, with the basketball team and Penelope, who is struggling with her own identity issues. Alexie shows that people, regardless of ethnicity or circumstances, are essentially the same and boundaries can be transcended. Despite the serious subject matter, Alexie’s humor allows the reader to laugh and be entertained, while also grasping more serious concepts.
Alexie does a fabulous job of capturing the viewpoints of young adults. Alexie’s use of humor and language is both realistic and appealing to teenage audiences. In fact, the inclusion of controversial topics, such as masturbation, makes the novel all the more realistic; Alexie writes how a teenage boy would talk, capturing the essence of the young adult. Marlinda White-Kaulaity relates how she would read segments of the novel to her teenage son; she says, “[she] would enter [his room] every now and then and say, ‘Listen to this part’ and then [she] would read a humorous segment of the book to him. He smiled. With each different part [she] read, his reactions became more animated” (Nilsen 90). Her son was obviously able to relate to the language and situations in the text. Additionally, Ellen Forney’s cartoons play an equally important role in establishing a believable character. Junior likes to illustrate people and situations, which display the exaggerated thoughts of young adults, especially boys. In addition to the humorous wordplay, Alexie also evokes the angst and uncertainty that teenagers experience. Upon realizing that he has his mother’s old textbook, which must be at least thirty years old, Junior declares, “let me tell you, that old, old, old, decrepit geometry book hit my heart with the force of a nuclear bomb. My hopes and dreams floated up in a mushroom cloud. What do you do when the world has declared nuclear war on you?” (31). The passion and disappointment that Junior experiences over the realization that his future is bleak, based on the lack of current school materials, is heartbreaking. Through Junior’s perspective, the reader experiences his humor, fear, disappointment, uncertainty, and hope.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is optimistic, and Junior, in particular, makes worthy accomplishments, showing that, despite dire circumstances, there is always a way out. On pages 13-14, Junior acknowledges what is parents “would have been if somebody had paid attention to their dreams.” Junior continues to state, “we reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams. We don’t get those chances. Or choices, We’re just poor. That’s all we are… it’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it” (13). As pessimistic as this statement is, many teenagers would agree. I work in a low socio-economic district, and students become stuck in their lives and don’t contemplate finding a way out. Junior, however, does just that – giving himself and the reader hope for a better future. Mr. P explains to Junior that, when he first started teaching, teachers were “were trying to kill Indian culture” (35), and, now, “the only thing kids are being taught is how to give up… all these kids have given up… all your friends. All the bullies. And their mothers and fathers have given up, too. And their grandparents gave up and their grandparent before them” (42). This ideology extends beyond the Indian reservation to any one who lives in poverty. It becomes a vicious cycle of complacency. Finally, Mr P tells Junior that he’ll find hope “the farther and farther [he] walk[s] away from [that] sad, sad, sad reservation” (43). Thus, Junior overcomes his fears and attends the white school, Reardan, which is the rival of his current school. Junior perseveres and turns potential bullies into friends. Eventually, all of the “girls in the school decided that [Junior] was cute,” and “all the other boys in school decided that [he] was a major stud” (110). As school and basketball takes off for Junior, he still worries about the ruined friendship with his best friend Rowdy from the reservation; however, at the end of the novel, the two play basketball and “didn’t deep score” (230). Alexie concludes his novel with hope for Junior both on and off the reservation.
Lastly, this novel includes narrative hooks, surprise and tension to keep the plot interesting. Several deaths sober the mood and are distressingly expressed through Junior, who struggles to keep his composure at school while struggling internally. Alexie also underscores the similarities between people of different backgrounds. Penelope is bulimic, and when Junior asks her about it, she replies, “Anorexics are anorexics all the time… I’m only bulimic when I’m throwing up,” at which, Junior exclaims, “she sounds just like my dad: ‘I’m only an alcoholic when I get drunk’” (107). All people struggle with vices and self-image, regardless of background or wealth. However, the most exciting part of the novel is probably when Reardan takes on the reservation’s basketball team. The first round, Rowdy gives Junior a concussion during the game, and they lose; however, in the second game, Junior is ready to go head to head with Rowdy on the court. Before the game, in an interview, Junior states, “I feel like this is the most important night of my life… I have to prove that I am stronger than everybody else. I have to prove that I will never give up. I will never quit playing hard. And I don’t just mean basketball. I’m never going to quit living life this hard, you know? I’m never going to surrender to anybody. Never, ever, ever” (186). At a point when there is so much tension, Alexie demonstrates how an individual can find the ambition to “never, ever, ever,” give up hope (186).
Nilsen, Alleen Pace, James Blasingame, Kenneth L. Donelson, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Literature for Today's Young Adults. New York: Pearson, 2013. Print.