Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was probably one of my favorite books that I read when it came out a few years ago. It was the first book that I read by Alexie, which was neat, because I would encounter his short stories and adult literary novels in university courses, where, in discussions of Alexie, there were no mentions of his young adult novel (which won the National Book Award in 2007!). As much as I have really enjoyed the rest of Alexie’s work, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is still my favorite by far.
In Alexie’s novel, fourteen-year-old protagonist Arnold Spirit Jr. introduces himself by stating that he was “born with water on the brain.” The first chapter of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, titled “The Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club” introduces the reader to Junior’s personable and frank style of writing. He details his medical record, which reads long like a list of defects and problems, among them a stutter, seizures, and a large head that he describes as “Epic.” The novel follows Junior’s decision to leave the Spokane reservation that he lives on with his family to attend the nearby school of Reardan in order to complete his education at a predominantly white school. Although the decision to leave the reservation is made early in the book – on the occasion of Junior finding his mother’s name written in his school textbook, and his anger and frustration over the fact that the school cannot update even the textbooks – Junior has been thinking about the possibility of leaving long before he chooses to go to Reardan. Junior draws cartoons and pictures as a way to exercise his creative impetus and he notes, “I draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation.” Although Reardan represents a contrast of Junior’s experiences so far, he knows that leaving the reservation to attend school each day and return home at night will provide him with the opportunity he needs to get his education. It is a brave and informed decision, as Junior understands that he will be ostracized by his tribe on the reservation while Reardan is hardly a safe and welcoming environment for him. Junior describes Reardan as “the rich, white farm town that sits in the wheat fields exactly twenty-two miles away form the rez. And it’s a hick town, I suppose, filled with farmers and rednecks and racist cops who stop every Indian that drives through.”
This move exposes Junior to models of identity, both white and Indigenous, that continue to see-saw between the reservation and Reardan throughout the novel. In each place Junior responds to the rules, relationships, and organization that govern experience on and off the reservation. These differences are usually depicted in oppositional terms that desire a model of “compare and contrast” to describe them. Junior understands how the origins of racialized difference effect experience while also using “difference” as a lens through which he can view his adolescent identity. Junior constantly reevaluates his identity position between the reservation and Reardan, where he “woke up on the reservation as an Indian, and somewhere on the road to Reardan, I became something less than Indian. And once I arrived at Reardan, I became something less than less than less than Indian.”
One of the most affecting scenes in the novel comes because Junior makes the basketball team at Reardan, only to play the first and last games against Wellpinit, his old school on the reservation. Although they lose the first game, Junior’s Reardan team beats Wellpinit the second time in order to end the winning streak of the reservation school. At the end of the game Junior says,
"We had defeated the enemy! We had defeated the champions! We were David who’d thrown a stone into the brain of Goliath!
And then I realized something.
I realized that my team, the Reardan Indians, was Goliath."
Junior’s early recognition of difference unravels into his understanding of the difference between his experience as an Indigenous fourteen-year-old in comparison to the formation of white adolescence that he observes off the reservation. Junior’s ability to mature is directly connected to his ability to experience aspects of identity of those other people that he meets and understands, and he becomes cognizant of how difference is constructed. In his speech after winning the Horn Book Award, Sherman Alexie insists that this is a goal of the novel: to find a balance between opposing structures of identity. He writes, “And this book says something else: that as much as you can love your parents, as much as you can love your community, as much as you can love your family, you can also be radically different from them. It says that you can be part of your family and yet distinct from it, and that doesn’t change your love for your family, but it changes who you become. And I think that’s a lot of what teenagers have responded to: they see in a book that you can make your own decisions for yourself and still be a loving member of you family and your community.”
The novel points to Junior’s reconciliation with himself: the impetus to leave and the desire to hold onto the family, friends, and community that provide safety and reinforcement for him. At the beginning of the novel, Junior expresses a distinction between these two halves of his forming identity when he says, “I felt like a magician slicing myself in half, with Junior living on the north side of the Spokane River and Arnold living on the south.” At the end of the novel he realizes,
"And no matter how good I was, I would always be an Indian. And some folks just found it difficult to compare an Indian to a white guy. It wasn’t racism, not exactly. It was, well, I don’t know what it was. I was something different, something new."