Review written by Jonathan Lavallee.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian tells the story of Arthur Junior Spirit, a fourteen year old boy who decides after his first day of high school at Wellpinit High School that he’s going to go off the reservation and go to school at the white high school. Two things really set him on this course; the first is that he’s frustrated with the fact that he’s given the same text book his mother used which is now over thirty years old, and the second is a conversation he has with the teacher whose nose he broke. The rest of the book is Arthur Junior Spirit trying to navigate his life with one foot in the reservation and another foot inside Rearden High, the school that’s right in the middle of the rich, white farm town.
It’s a wonderfully complicated tale. It’s both sad and funny, frequently at the same time, and it covers a lot of tough issues when it comes to race, racial identity, and race relations in the freshman year of Arthur Junior Spirit. The story just flies by, although there were times when I had to put it down to take a break because of the subject matter, but that’s fine. When a book deals with tough topics, if you put it down and it makes you want to go back and continue reading it, that means it’s a great book. At no point do you feel that you’re dealing with a parable, or another “teaching” style of book. The characters are all beautifully complicated, and no one is a straightforward “type” that a heavier handed book would use to get a point across.
You probably won’t want to let your younger tweens read this; they might enjoy some of the bawdier comments that happen in the book, but they’re not going to get some of the more complex stuff. You might want to aim it at older tweens (we’ve let the eleven year old read it), but if you’re not comfortable talking about race relations—particularly those with First Nations—then you’ll want to make sure that you’ve read it first and can talk about it because this book will bring up a lot of questions. Probably a lot of questions. You’ll want to be able to answer them, at least as far as it pertains to the book.
What gives the book an added enjoyable factor are the illustrations. Because Arthur loves drawing—he says that words are too limited, you can draw a picture and no matter what language you speak the meaning can come across—so the book is littered with his art. He draws cartoons to try to make sense of things, he draws cartoons to try to make fun of things, and they look like the kind of drawings a talented 14 year old would draw. They’re irreverent, they’re cute, they’re funny, and they’re tragic.
This is definitely a book you want to read with your tween. You want to make sure that you’re there to help with the hard material, and especially if you want to start talking about First Nations with your tween. Beyond that, it’s a book that will have you all laughing and crying in equal measures and frequently at the same time.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Oh, boy. This is going to be a big one, so let’s break it down.
The whole book hinges on this topic.
There’s the central situation of Arthur being First Nations and living on the reservation while going to a wealthier school. There’s a lot of racism; in fact, one of the most racist things I have ever read is in this book. It’s Arthur retelling a “joke” that an older classmate said to him to make fun of him. I’m not going to repeat it, and you should read the book up to that point to get it, but it’s definitely one of those big blow moments in the book.
There’s the fact that one of the parents has quite a few racist things to say to Arthur when he starts dating someone from the school.
There’s the point in time where he deals with his cousins and family on the reservation who are treating him like a traitor.
There’s mention of the term apple, which is the First Nations equivalent of the slur used to describe someone who is “trying to be white.”
There are a lot of little moments that remind you that there’s just this casual amount of racism that happens. Words or comments that are said that get brushed aside by Arthur.
There’s talk about the abject poverty that’s found on most reservations.
A lot of the other subjects that you should be aware of can really all be tied back to racial issues, but I’ll explain the others in more detail.
Dying happens a fair bit in the book. Right at the beginning, Arthur’s dog Oscar is killed because they don’t have enough money to take him to a vet to get him some help.
Arthur’s grandmother gets hit by a drunk driver on her way home.
Arthur’s Uncle gets shot at by a friend arguing over who gets the last drink from the wine bottle.
Arthur’s sister gets burned alive after throwing a party; her trailer burns down and she’s too drunk to wake up.
Arthur mentions the amount of death he’s had to deal with. He says:
I’m fourteen years old and I’ve been to forty-two funerals.
That’s really the biggest difference between Indians and white people.
A few of my white classmates have been to a grandparent’s funeral. And a few have lost an uncle or aunt. And one guy’s brother died of leukemia when he was in third grade.
But there’s nobody who has been to more than five funerals.
Alcohol is the oft-spoke of elephant in the room in this book. All of the deaths in the book save one are alcohol related. Arthur talks about his father trying to hide because there isn’t any money for Christmas so he goes and gets drunk for a couple of days before coming back home.
It doesn’t go into a lot of detail as to why alcoholism is rampant, only that it is.
Arthur’s family does the best they can to help him out and be there for him. However, there is a lot of alcoholism and drinking in his family. His best friend’s father is an abusive drunk.
Arthur also recognizes the things that his family does do for him. He talks about how they’re there for every game, concert, or event that he’s a part of and that a lot of the white kids at his school have dads who just aren’t around at all.
The book explores the different views on family, such as the families in Rearden who don’t know each other, and the families on the reservation who know everything about each other.
There’s a fair bit of bawdy and problematic language in the book. Arthur calls himself “retarded” frequently through the first bit of the book. There are racist slurs and a lot of references to body parts.
There are a couple of sections where he talks about masturbation. There are a couple of sections where he talks about getting erections.
A lot of really good books deal with really troubling topics, and race is one of those topics that’s troubling for a lot of people. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is an excellent book on its own, but it’s also an excellent book to use to talk about these kinds of things with your tween. It will bring up a lot of laughter, a lot of tears, and a lot of questions about why things are the way they are. Wonderful moments to use to enjoy, love, read, and learn with your tween.
Again, this book is best for older tweens ready to tackle these issues, and you should plan on reading the book with your child, either aloud or simultaneously so you can help answer questions and work through issues.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Published in 2007 by Little, Brown and Company
Read the hardcover