The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

In my last post, I described how I used the novels of Khaled Hosseini to “travel” to Afghanistan. Today I write about a different sort of travel experience through literature—an exploration of a culture within the United States unfamiliar to many. Sherman Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state, brings the contemporary American Indian experience to life in an eye-opening and poignant way. His novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is autobiographical. The story of his protagonist, Arnold Spirit, Jr., closely parallels the life of the author. Born with physical deformities which make him the object of ridicule by his peers, yet keenly intelligent and unsatisfied with the limitations of reservation life, Arnold makes the radical decision to leave the reservation school and attend Reardan High School in a white community twenty-two miles away. Doing so, he faces challenges from all sides. At Reardan, he encounters racist taunts and tries to hide his poverty. On the reservation, he is ostracized by his community for betraying his Indian heritage. All the time he contends with the social problems in the Indian community—poverty, alcoholism, violence, the untimely deaths of loved ones, hopelessness, and feelings of inferiority. Over the course of this novel, through the support of his family, his new and old friendships, his brains, and his newly discovered basketball talent, Arnold finds his way, grows, and thrives. While the subject matter of this novel is serious, the first-person narrator entertains the reader with his humorous tone and teenage perspective. As Arnold is a budding cartoonist, the book is also illustrated with “his drawings” (done by artist Ellen Forney).  But do not dismiss this book for its pictures or its teenage point of view—Alexie writes for all ages, and he has received some of the most prestigious awards in literature. The book reads quickly, but anyone who spends even a short time with Arnold grows to care about him and cheer for him as he reaches for his dreams.


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