A Catalyst for Change

It is no secret that we all yearn to be part of a community; even history tells us that. Belonging to a community gives us an identity, a sense of belongingness. It is a birthright that we carry around wherever we go. There are times, however, when the communities we belong to pull us to the ground. Rather than helping us grow, they shackle us to the ground, stymieing our progress. It maybe not be always be intentional or conscious, but they deter us from achieving our dreams. Those who realize this and still want to chase after their dreams step out of their comfort zone. However, it is easier said than done.

In his award-winning novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Alexie Sherman shares his own experience through the short novel’s primary character, 14-year-old Arnold Spirit. Fondly referred to as Junior, he is a member of the Spokane Indian tribe living on a reservation. He was born to a dysfunctional family; most members of his family, including his parents, were alcoholic while his only sister dreams of escaping their ugly reality. At a young age, he had to deal with poverty and the frequent deaths in his family owing to their perversion with the bottle.

However, despite the reality he was wrapped in, Junior has a dream and he realized that the first step in realizing his dream is learning how to walk away from the reservation that fostered him since his birth. This was a breach in the unspoken rule of his tribe, “no one leaves the reservation.” Despite the backlash, Junior opted to leave his old school to study at Reardan High School, 22 miles away from the reservation. His parents consented to his request even though they did not have the money to fully support their son’s education. To get to school, Junior would sometimes hitchhike.     

“Grief is when you feel so helpless and stupid that you think nothing will ever be right again, and your macaroni and cheese tastes like sawdust, and you can’t even jerk off because it seems like too much trouble.”

~ Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary a Part-Time Indian

In choosing to go to Reardan High School, Junior was not only fighting for his dreams, but he was also making a statement. The reservation, especially his peers, were not the least entertained by his choice of climbing the wall over to the “enemy’s” backyard. When he turned his back, dagger stares virtually stabbed him. However, Junior was adamant; he wanted to succeed even if the path to success meant being labelled as “white” by his tribemates, including his best friend, Rowdy, and “Indian” or “outsider” by his new schoolmates.

One of the central themes of the narrative is the growth and development of Junior. Finding yourself in a new environment is nerve-wracking, something that everyone can relate to. Thrown into a new world, Junior must strive to succeed and survive at the same time. Thankfully, survival runs in Junior’s blood. He was given birth with a hydrocephalus, a condition in which cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) accumulates in the brain. He underwent and survived surgery when he was a baby.

Junior was cognizant that he was an outcast at Rearden High School. Being one already made him stand out from the crowd, although it was a badge he would rather not have. He knew that to gain everyone’s respect, he must excel. Fortunately, he was also good at two things – studying and basketball. Both skills proved useful and handy during the time he his adjusting to his new environment. His soon-to-be coach took notice of his basketball skills and placed him on a varsity team as a freshman. Junior’s plight underlines the sad reality, that for one to earn the respect of his fellow, he must not just excel, he must be outstanding.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is marketed as a young adult fiction, tackling themes of acceptance and belongingness. However, in relating Junior’s story, Alexie was not simply exploring profound themes that are relevant to young adults. The angst of a teenager may have permeated all throughout the story, but the novel explored mature themes such as coping with death, and grief, substance abuse, racism, and discrimination. It was also anchored on the domestic as it dealt with domestic abuse, and poverty.

“You have to get very comfortable with the idea of being lonely. For all of human history, we’ve always run away from being lonely and now there are even more distractions. But that’s the thing—if you’re going to make the decision to rebel against your tribe, you’re going to get very lonely.”

~ Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is about standing for yourself and breaking free from the shackles that hold us to the ground. At one point, Junior relates, “Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move onto reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear.” There was a sad honesty behind Junior’s words, especially when one realizes that the reservations are virtual and metaphorical prisons used to relegate native Americans. Despite the overwhelming odds, Junior’s spirit never wavered.

What made The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian stand out from its peers was its exploration of what can be deemed as the immigrant status of native Americans. It stands out in a literary world where the immigrant narrative has become commonplace. Let us admit it. When we have a discourse on the immigrant narrative, the last thing that comes to our mind are the native Americans. We can exhaust the Asian or the European or the African immigrant narrative, but not once would we consider American Indians as immigrants in their own country.

The novel managed to vividly depict the feeling and idea of being an outcast in one’s own country. There is subtle irony when native American take the status of immigrants, forced to adjust to the customs of a land that they were the original occupants of. The novel is an insightful and thought-provoking look into how native Americans have had to adapt to a once familiar land that is slowly becoming foreign to them. The irony of the plight of native Americans resonated all throughout the narrative.

Junior was a complex and interesting character, perhaps because he was molded out of the writer’s own image. Albeit filled with autobiographical elements, Junior’s story never reduced itself into a memoir. His story was further complimented by Alexie’s writing. His writing was engaging; the witty and entertaining prose gave justice to the subject matter. The perfect mix of humor and poignant atmosphere made the novel more engaging and riveting. Accentuating the narrative are cartoon strips which are equally witty and entertaining; Junior dreams of becoming a cartoonist. What is lacking, however, are cultural milestone that ties the narrative back to its origin.

“I draw because words are too unpredictable. I draw because words are too limited. If you speak and write in English or Spanish or Chinese or any other language, then only a certain percentage of human beings will get your meaning. But when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it. If I draw a cartoon of a flower, then every man, woman, and child in the world can look at it and say “that’s a flower.” So I draw because I want to talk to the world and I want the world to pay attention to me.”

~ Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary a Part-Time Indian

In writing the native American immigrant experience, Alexie was not asking his readers to extend pity to Junior, and to his fellow native Americans for their plight. There is no need to feel sorry for them, for the poverty they are experiencing, or for the racism that is being thrown towards them. The original occupants of the nation, they have survived on their own, overcoming years of oppression and impunity. They are survivors and they will still survive whatever is lobbed down their way. However, they must not be relegated to poorly managed virtual prisons lacking in amenities.

Through his experiences imbued in Junior, Alexie gave an insightful glimpse into the plights of the young native American in contemporary America. This entertaining and witty but powerful novel explored some of the struggles of native Americans. Despite the cynicism that lingered at the fringes, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian carries on with a hopeful and positive message. We can all dream, regardless of what our backgrounds are. We can fulfill these dreams if we only strive to.

Junior’s story, however, is about ushering in and being the catalyst for change. As he realized, “You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Things can and will change because change is the only thing that is constant. As Junior has demonstrated, barriers are made to be hurdled and we can all be the catalyst for change. “All of these white kids and teachers, who were so suspicious of me when I first arrived, had learned to care about me. Maybe some of them even loved me. And I’d been so suspicious of them. And now I care about a lot of them. And loved a few of them.”

Rating

91%

Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) – 26%
Writing (25%) – 25%
Overall Impact (15%) – 13%

I can’t remember when I first encountered Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. However, I can still recall how badly I wanted to read the novel. I was drawn by the interesting title, although it sounded a little childish. Actually, it was its eccentricity that pulled me towards it. For years, I kept crossing my fingers until I finally managed to purchase a copy of the book. Ironically, it would take me three years to read the novel (Haha). And I was simply astounded. I know, I am averse to young adult fiction but it is voices like Junior that still draws me in. I do lament the lack of references to Indian rites or traditions. The writing, the wit, and the humor, however, were all on point.

Whilst I loved The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I can’t say the same for the writer. The sexual abuse allegations hurled against him are serious and cannot simply be overlooked.

Book Specs

Author: Sherman Alexie
Publisher: Scholastic Inc.
Publishing Date: 2007
Number of Pages: 230
Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Coming-of-Age

Synopsis

Junior is a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation. Born with a variety of medical problems, he is picked on by everyone but his best friend. Determined to receive a good education, Junior leaves the rez to attend an all-white school in the neighboring farm town where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Despite being condemned as a traitor to his people and enduring great tragedies, Junior attacks life with wit and humor and discovers a strength inside of himself he never knew existed.

Inspired by his own experiences growing up, award-winning author Sherman Alexie chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one unlucky boy trying to rise above the life everyone expects him to live.

About the Author

Sherman Joseph Alexie Jr. was born on October 7, 1966 in Spokane, Washington. Alexie, whose father belongs to the  Coeur d’Alene Indian tribe, was raised in the Spokane Indian Reservation just west of Spokane.

Alexie attended high school in Reardan, Washington in the hopes of better education. His stellar grades earned him a scholarship in 1985 to Gonzaga University, a Roman Catholic university in Spokane. However, he dropped out in 1987 and transferred to Washington State University to take a creative writing course taught by Alex Kuo, a respected Chinese-American poet. Kuo would eventually become his mentor. A book Kuo gifted him changed Alexie’s appreciation for poetry. Shortly after the success of his first literary work, The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems, Alexie quit from the university just three units shy of a degree. The Washington State University, however, awarded him a bachelor’s degree in 1995.

1995 also saw the publication of Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues. It was awarded an American Book Award in 1996 and the Murray Morgan Prize. Perhaps his most successful and most renowned work is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, published in 2007. The novel won the 2007 U.S. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Alexie has an extensive bibliography which includes short stories and short story collections, poetries and poetry collections, novels, and a memoir. He has also credits in films and won a slew of literary awards for his works.

He currently resides in Seattle, Washington with his wife and two sons.