At only 14-years-old, Arnold Spirit is already an accomplished survivor. Born with water on the brain, he suffers from brain damage. He formed ten extra teeth. His vision is horrible and he experiences debilitating headaches and seizures. He stutters and lisps. As if these problems aren’t bad enough already, Arnold’s also sporting an abnormally large head. Obviously, Arnold’s flaws make him a target of derision.
But his problems don’t end with his physical defects. Arnold and his family live on the Spokane Indian Reservation and must cope with the extreme poverty and alcoholism that plague everyone living on the rez. Arnold’s diary helps him understand his problems; in it, he explains the vicious cycle of poverty and alcoholism experienced by reservation Indians by writing that
It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Arnold, however, is going to do what no one else in his family has ever done before: he’s determined to break the cycle and escape the rez. He will not be defined by his past: Arnold Spirit will change his destiny.
After an altercation with a teacher, Arnold realizes that attending the all-white school over 20 miles away is his only hope. Desperate to attend a school that can provide him with the education he needs to escape the reservation, Arnold makes the daily trek to the neighboring school. His journey isn’t easy: some days his father is too drunk to drive him to school; other days, no one has money for gas. Sometimes Arnold hitches a ride into town, and sometimes he doesn’t make it at all.
Getting there is, of course, only part of the problem. Leaving the rez has made him an outcast, and he’s rejected by his fellow Native Americans at the same time he’s rejected by his new classmates. Furthermore, a series of personal tragedies continue to kick him when he’s down, each one caused in some way by the alcoholism that plagues the community. He won’t succumb to despair, however. Arnold copes by writing in his diary, allowing him to both escape and confront his problems. The result is Sherman Alexie’s first novel for young adults, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is also based on the author’s own experiences.
Using a blend of wit and wisdom that is perfectly tuned to a young-adult audience, Alexie chronicles Arnold’s first year of high school and his determination to take control of his life. Arnold’s diary is also a vehicle for the budding cartoonist in him to emerge, and Arnold will often illustrate key scenes from his life. Arnold explains that words are too limited and unpredictable and his cartoons, which he feels are the only way for him to better his life, “are tiny little lifeboats” in a world that is “a series of broken dams and floods.”
Since The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a novel for young adults, the prose is simple and light. While there are frequent moments of insight that add depth to the tale, Alexie perfectly mimics the voice of a ninth grader, and it is easy to believe that a 14-year-old has written the book. Readers will be pleased that, despite the overwhelming sense of hopelessness in many scenes, the overall tone of the book is upbeat and optimistic, and several scenes elicit genuine laughter. Even in his darkest moments, Arnold never succumbs to despair and provides an example of healthy coping, making The Absolutely True Diary a great read for teens. Furthermore, the illustrations are humorous and do not overpower the book; they do not appear too frequently and provide a nice complement to the text.
Adult readers will find The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to be a light, enjoyable read that won’t rock their worlds but will provide an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. Young adults will find an insightful tale that humorously confronts issues of identity and hardship. Readers of all ages can benefit from the novel’s message: our past need not define us. It is never too late to change your destiny.
Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie / Jennifer McKeown
Book Reviews | April 30, 2008 | Comments ()