The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Analysis
- Sherman Alexie set The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in his hometown of Wellpinit on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Like Alexie, Junior grows up in Wellpinit but attends Reardan, a white high school off the reservation. Transferring schools stirs up racial tensions on the reservation, where Junior's old friends feel betrayed by his decision to leave.
- Metaphorically speaking, the reservation is a kind of prison preventing the Native Americans from being free like their ancestors or enjoying the same opportunities as whites. Upon crossing the border, Junior learns that the world beyond the reservation also has its limitations.
Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 890
The novel is narrated in the first person, from the point of view of Junior, the protagonist. Junior’s adolescent and ironic voice enables the writer, Sherman Alexie, to introduce serious themes with honesty and dark humor. Junior’s narration is vivid and filled with figures of speech such as metaphor and hyperbole. For instance, in the beginning, he compares his brain to a “giant French fry” because he was born with excessive fluid on the brain. At a funeral, Junior notes wryly that “Somebody dies and people eat your food. Funny how that works.” Junior also frequently uses and quotes colorful expressions and cuss words, which gives the narration the rhythm of spoken, living language.
This makes the narrative voice especially strong, in the tradition of distinctive, truthful adolescent voices such as in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Further, the novel has many of the features of a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story: a troubled but ambitious protagonist, important and devastating experiences that force them to grow up, and a change that cannot be reversed. Like a bildungsroman, the novel is narrated in flashback and begins with Junior recounting his history and early childhood. After his transfer to Reardan and his sister’s death, Junior realizes he needs to accept and own both his “part-time Indian” and off-rez personae. However, crucially, he also realizes that he will end up leaving the reservation completely. Thus, he makes a critical and enormous change.
Alexie structures the novel as a series of diary entries and intersperses the text with drawings by Junior. The drawings are of his parents, his sister, Rowdy, and other people on the rez. Later, they feature his Reardan classmates. The drawings often use black humor to depict grim realities, such as the death of Mary. This narrative device mirrors the Indigenous tradition of using humor as a coping mechanism. The illustrations, by Ellen Forney, are confident, accessible, and funny. Their existence in the text shows the centrality of art in Junior’s life. As Junior states: “I draw because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me. I feel important with a pen in my hand.” Art is a safe outlet for Junior, since it enables him to express himself in ways he cannot in words. (According to Junior, if the novel were to be written as if he were speaking it aloud, it would contain many repetitions and elisions because of his stammer.) The drawings bypass the troubles of speech and represent a more direct form of communication. At the same time, drawing keeps Junior from devolving into violence and bad habits.
While the narrative voice is fresh and irreverent, and favors shorter, pithy sentences, the key concerns are adult and serious. The novel examines themes such as racism, poverty, alcoholism, eating disorders, grief, and more. Frank sexual references are also included, since the diary is about the innermost thoughts of a fourteen-year-old youth. The mixture of the serious, the funny, the somber, and the explicit is meant to reflect life in all its multiple aspects. Junior and his friends, such as Gordy, often make surprisingly insightful observations. Thus, the text does not talk down to young people or present them patronizingly. Further, young people are often shown possessing a keen understanding of the world around them. Junior knows that his parents are poor because they are stuck in a cycle of poverty. He observes with dark humor that “we Indians really should be better liars, considering how often we’ve been lied to.” Young people know that the world...
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is unjust and that they have to learn to navigate it somehow.
Junior and other characters often allude to the systematic racism faced by Indigenous people in the United States. These allusions are best understood in the context of history. Historians now term the violence against Indigenous Americans a genocide, a crime which attempts to destroy an entire community, race, or national group. Ever since the Spanish began to colonize the countries of South America in the late sixteenth century, millions of Indigenous people across North and South America died of disease, starvation, and violence. By 1900, the population of Indigenous people across North and South America had been reduced by at least eighty percent. Indigenous people were also displaced from their territories, forcibly enslaved, and deliberately infected by diseases such as smallpox and cholera to which they had no prior immunity. Further, white colonizers from Europe and those who settled in the United States often tricked Indigenous people into parting from their territories. They also devalued the religion and rich, oral culture of the Indigenous peoples, deeming them uncivilized. Mr. P alludes to this very civilizing mindset when he says that he was trained to “kill the Indian” (meaning Indigenous cultures and languages) to save the child. When Indigenous peoples refused to vacate their territories, sometimes armed forces killed entire villages. In the twentieth century, most of the Indigenous peoples of the United States settled in designated reservations. However, in the face of continuing racist attitudes and without adequate state rehabilitative support, alcoholism and poverty remain major problems among reservation communities. The text is cognizant of all these realities when it makes important points about the relationship between historic injustice, inequality, poverty, and substance abuse.