The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sherman Alexie's 2007 novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, tells of Arnold's transition to a new high school off the reservation in his freshman year.

book cover

In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Arnold Spirit Jr. tells us of his life with his parents and older sister on the Spokane Indian reservation. At home, he is called "Junior," but becomes "Arnold" when he transfers to the all-white school some twenty miles away.

He was born with excess cerebral spinal fluid in his skull, which he calls "water on the brain."

This has left him with several physical problems. Among them are a large head, seizures, poor eyesight, and extra teeth.

He suffers frequent beatings from the other kids. He is called "retard" and "globe," referring to the size of his head.

Arnold is angry because of the extreme poverty the people on the reservation are forced to endure. The Indian Health Services funds major dental work only once a year. The same applies to eyeglasses, and with only one style available -- ugly.

Arnold needs both services. His extra teeth have to be pulled, and he has worn glasses since he was three.

He says his family sometimes misses a meal and that "sleep is the only thing they have for dinner."

Arnold also says that being hungry is not the worst thing about being poor, and gives this example of what is. Arnold's beloved dog, Oscar, is very sick. Arnold begs his parents to take Oscar to a doctor but there's no money for a vet.

Oscar gets even sicker and it's clear that he's suffering. Arnold's father, with tears in his eyes, gets the rifle and asks Arnold to take Oscar to the yard. Arnold tells him he loves him and carries him to the yard. Then Arnold runs as far and as fast as he can.

But not far enough to outrun the sound of the rifle blast that kills his best friend.

* * * 

Arnold loves to draw cartoons. He says he draws because words are limited. They can only be understood in the language in which they are written. He says everyone can understand a picture.

He says he feels important with a pen in his hand, and can maybe grow up to be someone important. It might be his ticket to a better life.

His first day of high school on the reservation brings an unexpected change for Arnold, by way of poverty popping up in his face yet again.

This time it shows itself in his 'new' geometry book, which he's very excited about until he opens it. There he finds his mother's maiden name written on the inside cover, which means she used the same book. His geometry book is more than 30 years older than he is!

He throws the book, and though he doesn't mean to, he hits his teacher, Mr. P, in the face and Arnold is suspended from school.

Several days later, Mr. P comes to Arnold's home to talk to him. Arnold thinks he is about to get punished even more but soon finds that's not the case.

Mr. P tells him he's the smartest kid in school and that he needs to leave the reservation. He says he also taught Arnold's sister. He says she was smart too and wanted to be a writer. But she had given up on her dream.

Mr. P says too many on the reservation have given up, and that he doesn't want that to happen to Arnold, that he deserves better.

He says to Arnold that he threw the book because "somewhere inside, you refuse to give up."

Arnold immediately transfers to Reardan -- and a whole new set of problems.

At the rich all-white school, he is called names, "Chief," "Tonto," and "Squaw Boy."

On the reservation, he is now seen as a traitor. His best friend is furious, calls him "white lover," and will no longer be his friend.

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A story of tragedy and triumph, there's a lot in this book teenagers can relate to. There's loads of material for discussion in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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This young adult novel by Sherman Alexie has won a long list of awards, including the National Book Award.

It's also one of the most frequently challenged. Complaints include vulgarity, racism, anti-Christian content, and offensive language.

In August 2010 The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was banned in Stockton, MO. A parent complained about violence, language, and sexual content.

The school board voted unanimously to remove it from the reading list and the school library as well.

Teachers and citizens protested the ban. The American Library Association asked the board to reconsider.

A public meeting on September 8, 2010, drew approximately 200 people to discuss the book.

The school board voted 7-0 to uphold its decision to ban it from the school curriculum and 7-2 against returning it to the high school library with restrictions.

The good news is that all the attention increased interest in the book. Public libraries had long waiting lists of people eager to read it!

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