“Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.”
Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Publication: September 12th 2007 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Summary from Goodreads:
Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.
Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.
The Absolutely True Dairy of a Part-Time Indian follows Junior, a fourteen-year-old Spokane Indian boy as he tries to find a place where he belongs. Junior was born with hydrocephalus, or as he calls it water on the brain. This disability caused him to have a large skull, a stutter, and seizures. Juniors disabilities have made him a target on the reservation where he lives, and when Junior has an outburst on his first day of school, his teacher advises him to leave the reservation. Junior decides to transfer to Reardan with the support of his parents, but those on the reservation begin to view him as a traitor. When he transfers, Junior joins the basketball team, which he, surprisingly, excels at. Arnold, or Junior as he prefers to be called, is caught between two worlds and identities: the reservation and the affluent school he now attends.
Major themes of this book include identity, belonging, racism, and poverty. Junior’s character arc is focused on him trying to figure out where he belongs and just what makes someone belong there. Is belonging part of birth? Choice? What is the power of a name? We see his struggle identity the clearest when he moves from the reservation to Reardan and is called Arnold rather than Junior. His decision to move splits his identity down the middle, and this novel is him trying to figure out who he is and who he wants to be. There is also a culture of defeat and poverty on the reservation. The poverty in this book, as a theme, is most clearly expressed by Arnold when he states: “poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”
The young adults as characters in this book embody the idea of identity. Junior is torn between his, as he reminds us over and over again: “I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other. It was like being Indian was my job, but it was only a part-time job. And it didn’t pay well at all.” Rowdy, on the other hand, almost embodies the stereotype of the “Indian kid” identity. He is tough, unapproachable, and a protector. He believes the reservation is the only way, and screams and punches Junior when Junior decides to change schools. Beyond that, the characters in this book are self-reliant. They have levels of autonomy, like Junior choosing to change schools with his parent’s support, that are sometimes absent from books. It made them feel like real people, like adults – or at least, like individuals capable of making the choices they did. But, at the same time, they were also inescapably teens. We see their emotions, the way they are willing to jump into a mob mentality against those who are different. It was a very interesting mixture.
Junior’s voice is wholly unique, and I think that is one of the most engaging parts of this book. His interesting perspective and the way he phrases things like “my brain was drowning in grease” when discussing his disability and how the “world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats” when explaining how his drawings bring him hope make him an utterly engaging voice to read.
Reading this book has shown me the importance of identity. It’s always a question, isn’t it? Who am I? It is something teens struggle with on a daily basis, and a majority of adults do to. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian shows that, while identity is important, it’s you who makes your identity, not your identity defines you.