10/09/2009

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie: Book Review

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie
Little Brown
2007
National Book Award Winner

I meant to review this during Banned Book Week. It too is a great piece of literature that'as been challenged, though given starred reviews by no less than Horn Book Magazine, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal. In addition, it received the National Book Award for young people's literature in 2007.


Yet it was challenged. Why? Because of the “M” word: masturbation, and the “B” word: boner. Those words made some people really nervous, and maybe still do. The irony of it, as I heard Sherman Alexie himself say, was that the challenged passage wasn’t even talking about literal masturbation. The main character, Arnold, gets mentally stimulated by—reading books! The only way he can describe it to his best friend Rowdy is to do it in terms that Rowdy would understand.

In the book, Arnold’s been given the chance to escape poverty, alcoholism and early death on the Spokane Indian Reservation, in Welpinit, Washington. He wants to leave it behind, and yet that also makes him feel like a traitor to his tribe. When he finally does enroll in a white school, 20 miles away in the small town of Reardon, he truly does become an outcast with his people, and completely alienated from Rowdy.

For a while, Arnold doesn’t fit in anywhere, which is understandably hard to take. He’s the only Indian in a white school whose mascot is an Indian. Eventually some of the white kids accept him, but it’s small consolation when his people, even his own father and sister, are literally dying from the effects of alcoholism. If nothing else, Arnold wishes Rowdy would forgive him. Or at least talk to him. In the end, a basketball game between the whites and the Indians—Arnold playing on one team, Rowdy on the other—becomes a thrilling showdown, and the ultimate destruction—or renewal—of the boys’ friendship.

There are both laughter and tears in this genuinely moving story. It’s only partially autobiographical, but I know it’s solidly rooted in truth. I grew up on land owned by the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation in Auburn, Washington. I was certainly not from a rich white family, but compared to the Indians, who often couldn’t come to school because they didn’t have shoes, we had adequate food, clothing and shelter.

In those days, few Indians went beyond the eighth grade. The building of the Muckleshoot Gambling Casino, largest Casino in the state of Washington, and only three blocks from where I grew up, has since made the tribe enormously wealthy. I hope they’ve spread the wealth among their people, and that all Muckleshoots now have enough food to eat and clothing to wear. I hope they live in houses with indoor plumbing, and  that have roofs that keep out the rain.

2 comments:

  1. I LOVE this book. I studied Alexie's adult fiction in college and found it both funny and moving. I think THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY... is that way, too! It's something everyone ought to read.

    As for the "content" issues: If I'm reading a book and there is (what I consider to be) content, then there better be a darn good reason for it. I despise books that have gratuitous violence, sex, even cursing. I don't think this novel indulged for the sake of indulgence. Thanks for reviewing this one!

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  2. Thanks for your great comments! Did you know he graduated from WSU? He was getting his undergraduate degree in English when I was getting my M.S. in English. I didn't know him, but he was already being talked about as a very talented young man.

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