Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Year of Publication: 2007
Genre Keywords: belonging, cartoons, First Nations, high school, popularity, poverty, teen, tragi-comedy, young adult.
Summary: Arnold Spirit – known on his Spokane reservation home as ‘Junior’ – is a smart guy. He knows he’s not quite strong enough to fit in with the other kids on the reservation, and he knows he’s never going to survive, much less succeed, unless he gets away. So he takes the first step: he asks to transfer to the nearby “rich white kid” school, Rearden High. He does a lot better there, making friends and even finding a girlfriend, and he’s a lot more likely to get a worthwhile education that might one day mean he can live his dreams of being a cartoonist. But the more he fits in at Rearden, the more unpopular he is back home, with people who think he’s sold out big-time. Is Junior strong enough to survive the judgment and rejection of his own people – and even if he does, will it give him a shot at rising above the crushing tragedy of Native American life?
Who’ll Love It: If you’re fed up with syrupy inspirational stories about ordinary people battling great odds, you may find this book refreshingly realistic. While most such stories focus entirely on whoever’s beating the odds, they tend to ignore the systemic problems that made the odds so darn bad in the first place, and they barely even glance at everybody else left below. But this is as much a story about other people’s failures as it is about Junior’s struggle to succeed, and it doesn’t shy away from depicting the hard knocks of reservation life: violence, poverty, alcoholism, and child abuse are just a few of the problems Alexie takes on through Junior’s eyes. I particularly loved the spin he puts on the familar “sports grudge match” sequence we know from the movies: does it really count as winning when you come from the team who has every advantage and your opponents probably couldn’t afford to eat breakfast?
The Real Story: The heartbreaking poverty in this story is a real and persistent problem for actual families and individuals living on reservations in North America. Spotlight on Poverty offers up an article on the topic, and the Property and Environment Research Center looks at some government-related problems that keep the problem alive. If you’re American, you can find the reservation nearest where you live on this interactive map. (Nothing nearly that nifty for Canadians, but at least we’ve got a list of bands available.) It’s strange to think that this level of poverty, comparable to what you find in Third-World nations, exists within a couple hours’ drive of where you’re sitting in front of your computer screen.