The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie came to my attention some time ago when I was looking at an article about children’s books that get frequently banned. Apparently, in American High Schools, along with Captain Underpants by Dave Pilkey, this is one of the most banned books in their library system.
I immediately purchased both books. I have already reviewed Captain Underpants, slightly baffled as to why anyone would want to ban the book, which basically consists of a lot of fart and pooh jokes.
I can understand a little more why someone might want to ban The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, but not much more, frankly.
It tells the story, in diary form, of Arnold Spirit, known as Junior. Arnold lives on the Spokane Indian reservation where he was born, and all his family were born and have lived for generations.
Arnold is different. He was born with water on the brain. He has seizures. He has a stammer, and a lisp. Arnold is a target for every mean bully on the rez, and there are a lot of them. Not just kids, every man who drinks too much (see 99% of the population), everyone who is just feeling a bit mean, take it out on Arnold. He has been fighting since he was three, and the only person who protects him is his friend Rowdy, a boy who was born angry, and who lives with the most violent and drunken father on the rez.
Arnold’s world is not pretty. His sister is mad and has lived in the basement for seven years. His mother is a reformed alcoholic. His father is still a drunk. His grandmother is the only sane and still point in his life.
Arnold is also cursed with being bright. One day, in the terrible, sub standard rez school, Arnold sees his mother’s maiden name written in a geometry book. When he realises that they are being fobbed off with text books over thirty years out of date, he sees the hopelessness of life on the rez, and loses his temper, accidentally smacking the teacher in the nose with the book, breaking his nose. Arnold is expelled.
The teacher visits Arnold, and instead of lambasting him, he understands Arnold’s frustration, and insists that Arnold get away from the rez and use his considerable academic talents to go to high school 22 miles away in the only decent school in reach. A school full of white kids, red necks, racists and no other Indians.
Arnold takes on the challenge and the story tells of his attempt to negotiate two completely different existences without being destroyed and spat out by both of them.
The book is often bleak, very often tragic and violent. It is full of the harsh realities about life for the majority of the Indian population who live on reservations. It is clear eyed and unsentimental. It is also brilliant.
If you don’t like books that speak some difficult truths. If you don’t accept that teenage boys masturbate, or get angry, or that domestic violence and alcohol abuse exist in children’s lives and that children who live in these situations often go hungry and survive rather than live. If you don’t like books that speak frankly about racism or poverty, then I can see why you would want to ban this. But shame on you.
The book is funny, dark, twisted and clever. It shows you perfectly into Arnold’s mind and thoughts, and makes you care about him without being sentimental. It forces you to look at another way of life, and even if it is from the point of view of an Indian, a lot of what Arnold goes through is what any confused, socially disabled teen might go through. It has a lot to say, and I think that the voice it speaks in is so real and raw, that it will stay with the reader for a long time.
The subject matter makes this book unsuitable for primary and middle schools. I’d say that it works best for boys and girls aged 13 and up. I’d love to see this taught in a school. It would be amazing to see how kids react to this.
It is not so well known in the UK as it is in the USA, but I wish it were better known.