The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
| published August 25, 2014 |

Book review by Kristy Webster
Thursday Review contributor

Both hilarious and heartbreaking, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a fictionalized account of Sherman Alexie’s adolescence on a Spokane Indian Reservation is told with sharp wit and uninhibited clarity.

Fourteen-year-old Arnold Spirit was born with more challenges than most. Born with “water on the brain,” his oversized noggin’ and his slight build make him a target for bullying. To make matters worse, Arnold has decided to leave school on the reservation for an all-white school in a nearby town. Treated like a traitor by his tribe for leaving the “rez,” and like an alien by his new schoolmates, Arnold will have to rely on his wits and his own inner strength to navigate through some perilous events and devastating challenges.

In spite of the books themes of alcoholism, dire poverty, racism, and death, Alexie manages to inject his readers with hope through the careful use of his insightful humor.

I had expected to go about my review and recommendation of Alexie’s award winning young adult novel with the same approach as I’ve taken with the rest of young adult novels I’ve reviewed recently. However, this novel is unique in that it’s been attacked and villainized as being not appropriate for young readers (young meaning around 16) to the point where it was banned in schools in Idaho. The banning of Alexie’s humorous, heart wrenching, and brutally honest novel hit a nerve with me.

As I read ATDPTI, the dark cloud of that censorship settled over me for the duration of my experience with the story. It put me in a special place as a reader, where reading and understanding the message and themes of the book became more than just an intellectual or emotional process, but also an exercise in determination and defense of art, an act of defiance against censorship. It meant putting me in mindset where I had to continuously ask myself, “And what exactly, would a high school student be missing if the opportunity to read this book were taken from them because of a group of parents who insisted that the book was offensive?” I came up with a lot. I asked myself if any of the language, subject matter or if even the mere tone of this book could cause potential harm to a young adult reader. I talked to my own sixteen-year-old son about the book, which he’d also loved. He asked why it had been banned and I told him that most articles I found online cited that parents were offended by the mention of masturbation. My son replied without a trace of sarcasm, “Oh, are there still teenagers out there who don’t know what masturbation is?” This made me laugh, but it also got me thinking; how much of this censorship has anything to do with the young readers its intended for?

I’ve been a bookseller for four years, and it’s very common parents to ask me if a book is “appropriate.” I can’t begin to tell you what an uncomfortable question that is to answer. How am I supposed to know what a complete stranger considers appropriate for her teen son or daughter? Basically what I have to do is go through a list of assumptions of anything that might be found offensive or inappropriate. The basic assumptions are: sex, drugs, violence and swearing or any other kind of lewd or crude language. Case in point: The mother of a thirteen year old girl asks me if the book Twilight is appropriate for her daughter. I answer that there’s no swearing, drug use, or premarital sex, and the book is a go and the doll faced girl is delighted. However, if we are to discuss the big picture, the story and its themes as a whole, it might be a different matter. Girl falls in love with vampire. Girl gives up all other friendships and relationships. Girl marries vampire and becomes pregnant right out of high school. But as long as there’s no premarital sex, mentioning of masturbation, drug use or alcoholism, I assume it gets the stamp of approval. I can’t help but ask myself if what maybe some parents are really asking when they ask if a book is “appropriate” is actually this: “Is there anything in this book that I’m not ready to discuss with my child if he or she asks? Is there anything that will make me uncomfortable?” Because, let’s face it, if your child is attending a public high school, chances are he or she has been exposed to terminology and subject matter beyond your control from peers. Maybe that’s what it comes down to, being able to filter and control that which is vulnerable to control: the arts. Maybe the parents who pushed for Part Time Indian to be banned are also parents who feel their control over what their children are exposed to is ever-shrinking, and this was one thing they could “do” something about.

I’m not trying to say that parents shouldn’t play a conscientious role in what they allow their children to read. What I am questioning are the motives behind a handful of parents deciding that Part-Time Indian is unsuitable reading material for an entire class of high school students. What I want is to incite discussion about overall themes, what a reader will learn from the actual story told. What if we were to discuss the whole picture found in the story of Part Time Indian rather than just the mention of boners or masturbation (which seems natural considering the narrator is a teenage boy belonging to a culture that doesn’t project the same levels of body shame or fear as the culture which most readers belong to)?

What are the themes of Sherman Alexie’s book? Poverty, racism, culture clash, bullying, coming of age, and alcoholism to name a few. Let me start off by saying that I fell in love with this book immediately; the tone, the underdog story, the voice, the so on point, hilarious, poignant voice of sharp witted, almost hopeful, fourteen-year-old boy living on a Spokane Indian reservation. It’s also important to understand that while this book is fiction, it is actually a fictionalized memoir. This means our protagonist and narrator; one Arnold Spirit is based on the man who is now an award winning poet, novelist, and speaker, Sherman Alexie. It means that Arnold Spirit aka Sherman Alexie, transcended poverty, a family history of alcoholism, bullying and turned around and wrote this book as a gift to others, specifically, to other youth who could be an Alexie in the making.

Banning his book means we are robbing youth of the opportunity to read about the life of a man who had every excuse to fail, to fall into despair, but instead, turned his unique experience of suffering, into a darkly humorous story, one that relates not only the particular struggle of his Native people, but of outsiders and minorities of all kinds. By banning this book we are robbing students of the opportunity to experience empathy and compassion for a culture, an experience, and a life they may not be exposed to otherwise.

Other book reviews by Kristy Webster:

Looking for Alaska, by John Green; review by Kristy Webster; Thursday Review; July 11, 2014.

The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida; review by Kristy Webster; Thursday Review; September 30, 2013.