Friday, January 16, 2009

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

For those of you who don't know, the official title of my MA is a Master of Arts in Language, Literacy, and Culture with an emphasis in Children's literature; which basically comes down to the fact that along with all my classes on children's literature and Literacy, I took a lot of classes about culture and race in the classroom and multicultural literature.  I am by no means an expert, but I have been trained to examine the ways different cultures are portrayed in literature and to question what the portrayal teaches children. I really had trouble with this novel.  I wanted to love it, but I did not.  

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.


Anonymous said...

I've had this book in my sights for a few months now, and you've given me some more things to consider.

A few years ago I listened to Alexie speak about his heritage and his work. He seems to consider himself evidence against the stereotype, but he also said the stereotype is there for a reason. He definitely looks on the current state of the culture, at least the Spokane Indian Reservation, with some disgust. He knows there are many factors that hold blame, but he seemed to have little sympathy for those who let themselves go.

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Stephanie,

I've got a "google alert" set up to let me know when information about my blog is posted somewhere. It makes it possible for me to join conversations at other blogs.

A few years ago, Wilma Mankiller (former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation) visited our campus (University of Illinois) to give a lecture. She talked about taking visitors around the Cherokee Nation. They expected to see poverty and despair, and that's what they saw. She helped them to see community and care. Those sorts of things are not tangible, thus, not easily discernible. That's what people do not see when they read Alexie, or when they watch SMOKE SIGNALS. There's raw honesty in terms of alcohol and pain, but the strength of community and relationships is there, too. And, in DIARY, a lot of history, too.

I hope you read it again, looking at what it offers in a glass-half-full frame rather than a glass-half-empty. Look at the humor, especially.

Stephanie Ford said...

I think that Sherman Alexie himself looks at the state of Spokane Indians in a glass-half-empty mindframe and that really shines through in this book. The poverty wasn't the disturbing part of this novel to me, it was the fact that out of the whole community, only Arnold clung to hope and the only way he could do that was to leave his community and culture behind.

As for the strength in community, there were glimmers of that when they mourned together and found humor at Arnold's grandmother's funeral together, but I don't think a strong community stands by as they know a boy is being physically abused by his alcoholic father, stands by as alcohol slowly kills everyone in the community, stands by as adult men beat Arnold up at a Pow Wow because they think it's funny. That spells out a pretty weak community to me.

Now, I still think this book has a lot of value and Arnold is very funny, I'd just like the parents and teachers of kids who are reading it to know more about it so they can talk to kids about the truths and the stereotypes. It would be great to see it paired with some of Oyate's materials dispelling the myths of the history of American Indians. I think that could spark a lot of great conversations about how Arnold's community got to that state of despair.

Okie said...

Thanks for an insightful review of this book. It's been recommended to me a few times but I haven't yet picked it up. I still plan on reading it sometime this year.

I think the conversation you've started in this blog post (and has continued in the comments above) will give me more to think about as I read it. I know I haven't read much about American Indians. I've read some books about Latino cultures, which is about as close as I've come. I think any book that deals with a minority culture in America has a struggle to decide the direction it wants to lean and the message it wants to portray.

I'm curious now as to whether I'll view the story/characters as optimistic/hopeful or cynical/bleak.

sara said...

I thought Junior was very honest. I think that it is very hard for white middle class adults to truly understand what is like for minorities. The effects of racism and poverty are hard to break through while the person feels loyal to his/herself and community. I inhaled The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I will not recommend it to my fifth and sixth graders due to the bathroom references, but I will find some 7th and 8th graders to hand the book off to.....

Anonymous said...

I think Junior is honest too. And I'm sad that you don't know any teachers who would attempt to teach a book that deals with masturbation (it's okay...we can say that word). All of the really powerful literature is real--and often hard to read. And it makes its readers feel uncomfortable. Change is impossible if people aren't uncomfortable.

Anonymous said...

I am a teacher who uses this book in my eighth grade classroom. I have found that it has encouraged the most amazing, honest, and powerful conversations. I teach at a school with very few minorities and this book has enabled those students to speak out and share their feelings about attending a "white" school. Many of my students have never experienced or witnessed poverty; this book gives them a window into what it is really like. Alexie even addresses the stereotypes that many of my students believe--that poverty can make people stronger, etc. The chapter when Arnold's dog is ill makes the kids understand poverty in a new way.
The history of how Native Americans have been treated in our country is a painful one to recount; my students are horrified when they learn about it. Alexie's view of today's reservation is indeed grim, but it is what he experienced. I think reading this book and other supplemental readings that talk about Native American culture, values, traditions, etc. only make the history more searing and disturbing.
Every chapter provides fodder for conversations about universal ideas, truths about our world, literary elements, and personal connections. Junior's voice is so honest; nearly every kid I teach can personally relate to him, or to one of the other characters, at some point in the novel.
Yes, the kids giggle at the masturbation references, but after we talk about why those words and references are in there the kids don't have any problems with them, and neither do I. We can talk about them like grown-ups, which I feel is a lesson in itself.
I have yet to receive a complaint from a parent; in fact I have received many parents thanking me for teaching this text.

I urge you to look at this book again; it is rich, beautifully written and one of the best young-adult novels I have read in a long time (and with a classroom library of over 1,000 texts, I have read a lot).

Thanks for your time.

Teen15 said...

Being a teenager myself, I honestly had no issues reading this in class. I'm a sophomore now and I'm a 15-year-old girl. If using worlds like "ass", "bastard" and "retard" are the issues, then you need to realize that we "kids" use those words every single day. I walk up and down the halls, listening to my peers call each other names like "faggot" and "fucker" all the time. Hell--I swear too! And it has nothing to do with the fact that my school allowed the book to be read that I'll assume that I am allowed to use the word "fuck" as freely as I want to since my school endorses it. That is just plain ridiculous! This is coming from a mouth of a teenager: THIS BOOK IS FINE! THERE'S NO NEED TO BAN IT PARENTS! I PROMISE I'M NOT GOING TO GO OFF AND MAKE RACIST COMMENTS AGAINST NATIVE AMERICANS.
Oh, and note: Just because in Romeo and Juliet, both teens committed suicide, I am not going to end my life because I learned in class!

Henry Park said...

I am a 9th grade student at Kamiak High school and my teacher also says how she got the book approved but i think the words aren't so bad and (Lets be honest here)its the words that makes boys to read now we are writing a essay to persuade other teachers to teach this book. what UR opinion

Anonymous said...

Stephanie Ford,

I don't want to discredit your MA, but this book is about real life. As much as we would like to protect children from it, it inevitable will see them. I am not sure if it is your parents moralistic views, or a a religous view, but things like masturbation, violence, and stereotypes are part of society. To think that a child will not simply want to cuss or self explore because you don't want them to is totally ludicrous.

I have led Jr.'s life, but worse off. I have lived on the streets, group homes, foster homes, and suffered every type of abuse that you can possibly concieve. Do you know why Sherman Alexie's book is so powerful? It is because it is blunt about real life, but like all of us that suffer he tries to have humor and make the best out of a bad situation. I am not writing this as an avid reader, but also as a published poet myself.

Real life is harsh, yet funny, and I think he does a wonderful job of expressing both. I have had a lot of friends throughout time, all nationalities, including Native American's and I think they would like it. But, his book isn't geared to that, the only reason he puts it in his book is too give you a glimpse of native American life. The true purpose that I think he wrote for is so people can relate, to give them hope, and understand that other people have gone through it too.

I really think you should take a look at the paragraph, sentence structure and tone throughout the book more indepth.

Steph said...

ok, Whoa. I guess I needed to be a bit clearer. I fully agree that bad language and masturbation are a realistic part of young adult life. The reason that I have a problem with these things in the book isn't because I think it's unrealistic, it's because a lot of teachers will feel like they can't use this book as a classroom read without backlash from angry parents. You may not like to hear that, but that's the plain truth. There are plenty of young adult reads out there with bad language and sex and they are being widely read, but most of them are not being used in classrooms. I wish this was a more appropriate classroom read because how many books can you think of with an American Indian main character and set in modern day that teachers CAN use in the classroom? Every kid out there deserves to read some books that reflect who they are; their own race, culture, religion, etc.. This is a well written book from the rare-seen perspective of an American Indian teenager so it kills me that a lot of teachers are going to feel like they can't use it.

And yes, I believe that having a lot of drunk, hopeless adults on the reservation may also be a realistic portrayal, but I wish there was an adult or two in there to defy the stereotype because there are adult American Indians living on reservations doing incredible things, and Arnold could use that example and hope and so could a lot of the kids reading it.

I still won't deny that the idea that Arnold has to leave the reservation and his culture behind in order to be successful really bothers me. And no one reading this review has denied that the idea that Arnold can only deal with problems in a savage, physical way and all the white kids at his school are shocked by his result to violence is offensive.

BIG B said...

I think everyones comments are great....
I am a Senior in high school, im doing this for a class, leaving this comment..

We read this book from front to back, we reflected every few chapters and what this book is about, its A snap shot of what kids his age go through. i know i didnt go through every little thig Arnold went threw but i forsure can say that i relate with what alot of whats said in the book.. If the problem is that parents find this book too much, or they dont want there kid reading that "junk" for whatever reason because it might somehow mess with there mind. Than that paret has alot more to deal with than what they think. if a parent thinks that there kid is perfect or what not than are completly off base. even if your a complete stright A student valid victorian we can still get caught up in ourselves and loose focus of reality. This book in my opionion lets you look at the big picture, of not just ONE kid but many around the world THIS IS HOW WE THINK, it just depends on WHO we are and how we FILTER are thoughts.

pixie girl said...

I do agree that this book had a lot of immature commentary and inappropriate content. But in my opinion, this book is an educational source for young readers. Problems Junior faces in the book are similar to what many teenagers face through out high school. Whether it is talking about sex, drugs or racism, Sherman Alexie explains what parts of the topics are okay and what part are not, instead of just telling kids what NOT to do. I am a teenager and I know that if an adult was going to try an explain these topics to me in a way of only telling me what is wrong about them, I probably would not listen as much as if they described both sides of the topic. I think this book gives a lot of really good advice for teens and it is appropriate enough for high school age groups to be reading.

Aidinas said...


Your blog skimmed the surface of exactly what it is that I am struggling with after reading "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. Here are some notes that I took after reading the book for a YAL class I'm taking. I agree 100% with you by the way. I'm getting a BA in English and Theatre and am minoring in Education.

>How are Native Americans being portrayed vs stereotypical beliefs?
>Is it realistic to believe that Junior is accepted into this school so quickly considering the way these children have been raised?
>Why does Junior have to resort to physical violence to gain the respect of his peers and why does he generalize his experience of defending his reputation and self to all Native Americans?
>Another problematic issue with this book is the fact that Junior has to become a basketball star in order to gain fame and notoriety. What about the kids who aren’t extroverts, or athletically talented?
>Humor: Is buying into preconceived stereotypes about Native Americans to elicit a laugh a cop out? Is the humor overshadowing larger themes? Does this not get redundant? If an author wrote a book about black people loving fried chicken and watermelon and are all on welfare but one kid gets out of the hood and succeeds by leaving the rest of his culture behind, would that be okay? What if the author was a black person? Does that make it OKAY?

Leaving out the uncomfortable or awkward themes, phrases or habbits: Masturbation, cursing, homophobic epithets, etc (Which all kids do anyway, REALLY…) I had a more serious problem with the major themes in the story and how they can lead people (Young adults and educators) to believe that they are creating awareness and are working towards social justice when the truth is, not all Native Americans are drunks, beaters, lazy, violent and poor. Only Juniors grandmother (Who then dies) was a positive role model for him in the reservation, and I think that paints a very unfair depiction of Native American life.
Cultural delicacy is not something Alexie does very well. It is one thing to be a comedian, and to profit from comedic shows, it is another thing entirely to portray a young adult book as a piece that is supposed to be thought provoking and enlightening. I think Alexie cheated his readers and allowed them to take the easily traveled road. By appealing to middle to upper class American children, he is able to generate significant income while being the representative for Native American people.

Lessons Learned: 1. Native Americans maybe don’t own all the casinos and make a bunch of money…(maybe)
2.Native Americans are definitely drunks, whew, glad I was right about that one.
3. You should be sad about that.
4. It’s the white man’s fault that they are poor and drunks and beaters and crazy.
5. Wait, I was wrong, maybe it’s not their fault, maybe it’s their own fault for losing hope.
6. Be good in basketball. Or be super smart.
7. Masturbation is normal…(Another whew, I was worried I was the only one)
8. Feel sorry for that poor kid who has dirty hair and has no friends. He’s probably poor. So, give him some money and adopt him like a stray. Show him the light…(Isn’t this what got the Native Americans nearly wiped out in the first place???)
9. Read!
10. If you want to be successful, you gotta leave the ‘hood (And maybe to a certain extent this is true)

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