A well-known novelist, filmmaker, and poet, Sherman Alexie writes often about the plight of Native Americans, a subject he knows well having grown up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Believing he would get a better education, he decided to attend high school in Reardan, Washington, a mostly white town twenty miles from his home. Alexie drew on his experiences at Reardan High School in writing The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, his first work of young adult fiction. Alexie struck a powerful chord with critics and audiences, and his novel won the prestigious National Book Award in 2007.
The United States is home to 310 reservations like the one on which Alexie and his family lived. Although some reservations have prospered, living conditions on many are not that different from what Alexie must have experienced in his youth. Rates of unemployment and suicide are high; life expectancy is low. More than one million Native Americans, however, choose to remain on their reservations. Why they stay is both simple and complex.
Alexie’s novel speaks to many of the reasons they stay—and what might happen if they leave. Told in first-person by the book’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, Arnold “Junior” Spirit, True Diary maps the difficult terrain of growing up poor and Indian [Alexie’s term]: the alcohol and hopelessness endemic to his tribe; the loyalty that, for better or worse, binds reservation families together like “Gorilla Glue,” and the guilt and fear that come from leaving childhood friends behind in the course of pursuing a better life. “Plenty of people saw my leaving as a betrayal,” Alexie told The Guardian of his own experience. “I felt guilty, but I’ve forgiven myself, and most of my reservation has.” Throughout True Diary, Arnold grapples with a similar guilt, as he feels great love for the place he knows he must leave. He fears where he is going, but his hope in the future is stronger than fear.
As Alexie had done, Arnold chooses to leave the reservation to attend high school with strangers in a white community. Complicating his already difficult circumstances, he struggles daily with numerous physical disabilities, the results of a severe birth defect, hydrocephalus. He is a boy who was born fighting for his life, and he remains a warrior throughout the novel—defending his pride against the school bully, playing basketball amidst the jeering of his tribe, and walking twenty-two miles to go home after school when he can’t find a ride. Arnold often describes himself in self-deprecating terms, using humor to soften the blows of a very painful reality. He doesn’t deny it when something hurts, but he follows his brutal honesty with an ironic joke or turns a dark experience into a cartoon that mocks the insanity of the world in which he lives.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is honest but funny, depressing but ultimately hopeful. Arnold moves easily between laughing and crying, considering them naturally related experiences. “When it comes to death,” he observes, “we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing.” Arnold is a Spokane Indian who leaves his reservation, but as he points out, he is not the only person to leave home in search of something better. Many share his loneliness and fear. Anyone who has ever been caught between two cultures, or between the past and the future, can identify with Arnold Spirit’s struggle and join him as he moves from laughter to tears and back again—and then again. Moreover, anyone who values courage and determination will find in Arnold’s journey, sacrifice, and ultimate success an affirmation of daring to dream.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain the role of the tribe in Junior’s life.
2. Describe the obstacles and examples of encouragement on Junior’s path, and analyze their effects on his character.
3. Identify Junior’s methods of coping, and explain why he is able to persevere.
4. Compare and contrast the communities of Wellpinit and Reardan.
5. Compare and contrast the illustration styles throughout the book, and explain how they reflect Junior’s state of mind.