The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian follows the Freshman year of Arnold Spirit AKA Junior, a Spokane Indian living on a reservation in Wellpinit, WA. After a teacher begs Arnold leave behind life on the reservation before he loses hope like everyone else there, Arnold transfers to an all-white high school 22 miles from his home on the reservation. His parents support his decision, but he's shunned by many on the reservation including his best friend, for his betrayal.
Arnold's wry sense of humor and entertaining cartoons keep the novel going and have caused a few critics to call this book Diary of a Wimpy Kid for the young adult set.
If I could get past all the language and all of Arnold's talk of spending hours in the bathroom pleasing himself (which is hard to do because Arnold likes to talk about it a lot, and I can't ignore because I've heard a lot of sites mention how this book is being used in classrooms and I'd like to know what teacher could get away with that in his/her classroom? No teacher I know would attempt it.), anyway, if I could get past that, I still couldn't get past the way American Indians are portrayed in this book. I mean, talk about feeding right into stereotypes, almost every American Indian adult in the novel is described as a drunk, some are nice, some are abusive, but they are all drunks. Many a book has drawn criticism among American Indians for perpetuating that stereotype.
I hate the way Alexie seems to support the idea that for Arnold to be successful or happy, he has to leave his culture and the reservation behind and go to a white school or he will be doomed to live a life as a poor alcoholic. It also bothers me that Arnold tries to duke it out with white kids at his new school because that's how he says all American Indians deal with their problems. They are not SAVAGES incapable of talking things out, and many a white kid still would have fought back when a kid much smaller than him punches him in the face, but Alexie portrays them as civilized and unwilling to result to physical violence, completely shocked at Arnold's behavior.
Now, I know the book is loosely based on Alexie's youth, but that doesn't make it right, does it? I searched some reviews by American Indians to see what they thought, and I was surprised to find his book has received very little criticism. In fact, it's recommended by Oyate, an organization that works to establish literature that teaches respect for Native peoples. On Her blog American Indians in Children's literature, Debbie Reese did say that on first impression she, "wished the depiction of Native life wasn't so bleak. It feeds stereotypical notions of the tragic victim. For that reason, many will keep reading, because it feels familiar to them, and in that save-the-Indian way some adopt, it nourishes that impulse." But in later posts she applauds the book and says she often gifts it to others.
Now I'm not saying this book belongs on Oyate's list of books to avoid, it does in fact dispel the stereotype that all American Indians are rich from Casinos on reservations, but it was such a hopeless portrayal of American Indians that still perpetuated many other hurtful stereotypes.