Summary: Arnold (also known as Junior) is a teenage boy living with his family on the Spokane Indian reservation. When he was born, he had too much cerebral spinal fluid in is brain. Doctors performed surgery to remove the fluid, but he has been left with lasting health problems that make him the target of constant harassment and bullying. After a confrontation with a teacher at the school on the reservation, Junior leaves the school and transfers to a high school in nearby Reardan, where he is the only Indian student. His best friend Rowdy feels betrayed and hurt that Junior is leaving him and lashes out at him. Junior’s transition to Reardan is difficult. Eventually, he starts to make friends and even gets a girlfriend named Penelope. As Arnold deals with tragedies like the deaths of his older sister and grandmother, he finds that he has the support and love of his new friends, and eventually patches up things with Rowdy as well.
Alexie, S., & Forney, E. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Impression: Alexie’s book won the National Book Award in 2007, and it is easy to see why. The book is based on Alexie’s own experiences, and he has definitely captured an authentic teenage boy voice. Alexie doesn’t shy away from discussing all the things that teen boys are interested in— bodily functions, teenage girls, etc.— but he never does it in a graphic or gratuitous way. Junior is an extremely sympathetic character. Anyone who has ever been bullied or harassed will connect with Junior’s struggles on the rez and at Reardan, and they will cheer when things start looking up for him. (I was especially moved that he and Rowdy started to repair their friendship at the end of the book.) Also, Junior is an aspiring cartoonist, and the cartoons Forney has created to accompany the text are spot-on.
The line between dramatic monologue, verse novel, and standup comedy gets unequivocally—and hilariously and triumphantly—bent in this novel about coming of age on the rez. Urged on by a math teacher whose nose he has just broken, Junior, fourteen, decides to make the iffy commute from his Spokane Indian reservation to attend high school in Reardan, a small town twenty miles away. He’s tired of his impoverished circumstances (“Adam and Eve covered their privates with fig leaves; the first Indians covered their privates with their tiny hands”), but while he hopes his new school will offer him a better education, he knows the odds aren’t exactly with him: “What was I doing at Reardan, whose mascot was an Indian, thereby making me the only other Indian in town?” But he makes friends (most notably the class dork Gordy), gets a girlfriend, and even (though short, nearsighted, and slightly disabled from birth defects) lands a spot on the varsity basketball team, which inevitably leads to a showdown with his own home team, led by his former best friend Rowdy. Junior’s narration is intensely alive and rat-a-tat-tat with short paragraphs and one-liners (“If God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn’t have given us thumbs”). The dominant mode of the novel is comic, even though there’s plenty of sadness, as when Junior’s sister manages to shake off depression long enough to elope—only to die, passed out from drinking, in a fire. Junior’s spirit, though, is unquenchable, and his style inimitable, not least in the take-no-prisoners cartoons he draws (as expertly depicted by comics artist Forney) from his bicultural experience.
(2007, September/October). [Review of the book The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian, by S. Alexie]. Horn Book Magazine, 83(5), 563-564. Retrieved from http://www.hbook.com/
Use in library: A library could use The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as part of a discussion on banned and challenged books.
Annual Tony Nomination Post - 2018 Version
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