The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Note: Last month Aarti over at Booklust and I had a long discussion about Native American literature. We both talked about how little of it we read and we wanted to change that. Starting this month we’re reading at least one book by a Native American author. It’s not a lot but it is a start. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was chosen because it’s a book that’s received rave reviews. Instead of doing a more formal review of the book, Aarti and I decided to just have a discussion of the book and an interview that Alexie did with The Iowa Review in 2000. The interview isn’t available online but if you know your way around your library’s database, you can get a copy of it.
Short review: Arnold Spirit a.k.a Junior is a Native American teenager with a host of medical problems. Because of this he’s basically an outcast on the reservation. When he receives his textbook in class, Junior soon realizes that it’s the same textbook his mother received thirty-five years ago when she was in school. But leaving the reservation to go to another school means Junior will be labeled a traitor by most people on the reservation. What happens is a funny and thought-provoking journey.
Aarti: I’m so glad we set a date to read this one together, Natasha, as it was such a good book and I don’t know how long it would have been lapsing on my shelf if we hadn’t made a joint effort to read more Native American literature! I thoroughly enjoyed Junior’s story- it was witty, funny and heart-warming- just as all successful coming-of-age stories are. I loved how generous and kind Junior was- it was so refreshing to read about a teenager who didn’t have a lot of internal drama or angst. I also loved how different all of his friends were. What did you think of the characters?
Natasha: Because we see the character’s through Junior’s eyes, there weren’t any that I hated – though the guy that showed up at the grandmother’s funeral was an ass! I was just amazed at Junior’s acceptance of his family and his loved ones. It makes me wonder now that more time has passed since I read it, was this willingness to see and accept everyone for who they are, more apart of who Alexie is as an adult than who he was as a teen since so much of the book is based on the author’s life.
Aarti: I wonder that, too! I wonder how much of this story is true to Alexie’s life. If he really did attend an all-white school from the reservation (and walked 22 miles sometimes to get there!), that is very impressive! I think Junior had a lot of confidence and gumption- he went after what he wanted, and I think that drew a lot of people to him. I agree that man at the funeral was completely ridiculous, but that whole scene was so funny! It really hit home for me that a lot of people who may be considered experts may be nothing of the sort. And the theft aspect of the war dance costume was pretty significant, too. I think the way Alexie hit on Native American treatment at the hands of the US government was very telling- he only really hinted at it, but made his opinions very clear.
Vasilly: The funeral scene did the same thing for me too. I don’t think I can ever look at a person who’s a different race from a culture as “the” expert ever again! In the interview I sent you, Alexie talks about writing from a woman’s perspective and also about whites writing from an Indian perspective and more. Part of the answer he gave about whites writing from an Indian perspective is that they don’t know anything about being Indian but Alexie knows about being white because he had to know if he was going to make something of himself. It goes back to what we’ve talked about being: having to adopt “white” characteristics to have a better life. This is a really interesting author. I’m hoping to read his short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven soon.
Aarti: Yes, that is a great interview that I’m still reading through, and it definitely touches on many of the aspects we’ve talked about before- for example, how so many different cultures have terminology for people who are “colored on the outside, white on the inside.” Here, it was an apple (red on the outside, white on the inside). I said that for Indians, it’s a coconut (brown on the outside) and you said for African-Americans, it’s an Oreo (black on the outside).
This is the first half of the discussion. You can find the rest of the discussion over at Booklust.