The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, A Review

I wanted to run faster than the speed of sound, but nobody, no matter how much pain they’re in, can run that fast.
— Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian

Summary: A great book about a teenager struggling between life on the rez and the allure of life off the rez. He chooses one over the other and experiences the repercussions of that choice, yet he does so to his benefit and ultimate triumph. A beautiful and honest story that contains a lot of pain told through the lens of an immature teen. Well worth a read and ultimately not worthy of being the third most challenged book of 2013. I read this book this past week to celebrate Banned Books Week and it was a good choice for celebration. 

There’s a lot of pain in this novel. From the struggles of growing up on the rez and wanting to leave to the incredible bondage that substance abuse has on Native peoples, this is an honest novel that is, at times, autobiographical of its writer Sherman Alexie.

Alexie himself was born with Hydrocephalus, a medical issue where too much fluid accumulates in the brain, and wasn’t expected to live that long after his first surgery at six months old. Likewise, Arnold Spirit Jr., the book’s protagonist, was born “with water on the brain.” Both Alexie and Arnold are, or were, poor indian kids from the Spokane rez who loved and were fairly good at basketball. And, presumably, both struggled with similar problems of life on the rez and wanting to escape. The autobiographical nature of this book is what helps it carry it’s poignant and harsh view of the world.

The honesty found in the book is hard to read.

Rowdy, Arnold’s best friend, is beaten by his alcoholic father:

“His father is drinking hard and throwing hard punches, so Rowdy and his mother are always walking around with bruised and bloody faces. ‘It's war paint,’ Rowdy always says. ‘It just makes me look tougher.’”

Arnold’s teacher, Mr. P, is making up for past wrongs where, as a teacher, he sought to destroy the indian culture:

“We weren't trying to kill Indian people. We were trying to kill Indian culture.”

Alcohol abuse and neglect is rampant:

“My father went on a legendary drinking binge.

My mother went to church every single day.

It was all booze and God, booze and God, booze and God”

And the thought of staying on the rez brings more regret than passion:

“The only thing you kids are being taught is how to give up.”

Yet, honesty doesn’t always mean pain. Honesty also deals with triumph and who says being victorious in something is easy? It takes a lot of work to succeed in life and it takes a lot of risks. Junior took one of the biggest risks of his life in choosing to listen to his teacher, Mr. P, and to leave his reservation.

Here Alexie strikes another honest note: leaving the rez makes one feel incredibly guilty for doing so.

There are people who may support your decision, but there are also those feelings of leaving your people. There are feelings of abandonment associated with leaving the rez. There are feelings of haughtiness and self-righteousness in leaving the rez. It’s a hard thing to do. And, it’s a hard thing to go back to sometimes.

Junior’s mom spoke well when she told him:

“‘You'll be the first one to ever leave the rez this way,’ Mom said. ‘The Indians around here are going to be angry with you.’”

And they were angry. One of the most painful aspects of this book is that Junior didn't have much by way of support from anyone on his rez. His parents cared for him, but his dad cared more for the bottle. His sister didn’t care. His friend Rowdy cared, but when told Junior was leaving, there was no support for Junior’s decision to leave the rez for a different and all-white school.

When Junior left the rez, he left all that he’d known and his only real relationship, with his best friend Rowdy, became strained:

“My heart broke into fourteen pieces, one for each year that Rowdy and I had been best friends.”

Readers are then treated to more of this tension between living on the rez and going to an all-white school off of the rez. There are a lot of emotions that surround both sides. There’s pity and enquiry in the all-white school while there is anger and resentment at the rez school. In the middle is Junior, who’s simply trying to find out what’s best for him in the midst of these battles.

However, we find that Junior is maturing in the midst of these struggles. Kids on the rez grow up a bit faster than other kids because of the things they have to deal with. A history of genocide has lasting repercussions that rez life holds on to. Wounds haven’t healed and indians are left to try to figure out how to overcome them. Sometimes, these solutions aren’t the greatest. Sometimes these solutions involve alcohol or other self-destructive behaviors.

Humor is a coping mechanism that many natives use to deal with their pain. Alexie presents this well throughout the book.

“During one week when I was little, Dad got stopped three times for DWI: Driving While Indian.”

“Can you imagine a place where white people are scared of Indians and not the other way around? That's Montana.”

“‘Hey, Dad,’ I said. ‘What do Indians have to be so thankful for?’ ‘We should give thanks that they didn't kill all of us.’”

Junior takes a pro-active stance in leaving the rez to start healing the wounds in his own heart and life. He left to experience something better, which he did. Junior gained support from his basketball coach at his new school even though he had lost the support of pretty much everyone in his reservation when he played against them. As Junior said about that day: “Jeez, I felt like one of those Indian scouts who led the U.S. Cavalry against other Indians.” This support greatly influenced Junior’s life and helped him to understand a better way to deal with his various issues and pain. To Junior, “Coach had become, like, the priest of basketball, and I was his follower. And I was going to follow him onto the court and shut down my best friend.”

Junior’s life is on the rez no matter how far he goes, but what can be learned here is that there are things to learn off the rez. There are reasons to leave the rez. There is a whole universe of information to not just be known but to be experienced. But, our life is still with our family. When the family struggles, we must be willing to take what we’ve learned off the rez and bring it to the rez to help restore broken hearts and broken lives.

Later in the book, Junior experiences such triumph only to be, once again, sucked into pain. He struggles to deal with it, but eventually overcomes. At times, all he could do is laugh despite the pain. He struggles with his immediate family and all his other relatives on the rez and their perceptions of him. He struggles to regain that friendship with his best friend. At the end, despite leaving the rez and being seen as a traitor, he finds himself, even if just a little bit at the moment, and is able to use what he learned off the rez to recreate life on the rez. Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is honestly a great read.

Steve Dragswolf