“Do you understand how amazing it is to hear that from an adult? Do you know how amazing it is to hear that from anybody? It’s one of the simplest sentences in the world, just four words, but they’re the four hugest words in the world when they’re put together.
You can do it.” – Arnold Spirit Jr.
Everyone deals with their insecurities in their own way. Some people lash out at others, becoming bullies to hurt others so they don’t feel their own pain. Some people compensate with material possessions, or vices, or busy-ness, something to keep their minds occupied. For Arnold Spirit Jr., or Junior as he is known to most, comedy and comics are the way to cope. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the story of Junior, a fourteen year old boy who has a myriad of things to feel insecure about, such as his physical problems from being born with an excess of cerebrospinal fluid, or “water on the brain”, or his seizures, or his terrible eyesight requiring thick glasses, or his lisp, or his stutter, or the fact that he ends up leaving the reservation school to go to an all-white school of middle class kids where he doesn’t know anyone. With a list of insecurities that long, many would want to just curl up and cry, but Junior is a tenacious young man, and he doesn’t let his insecurities get in the way of his life, well at least he tries not to.
I will be honest with you, Absolutely True Diary is one of my all-time favourite Young Adult fiction books, so if you want to save yourself some time, just go buy it and read it and then use it in your classes…Are you still here? Okay, well, let me tell you why it is so fantastic. The coming-of-age bildungsroman story found within Alexie’s pages is so honest, realistically comical, and relatable that you can’t help but be drawn into the world of Reardan High School and the Wellpinit Spokane Reservation. Junior’s frankness is so fresh and awkward that fellow nerds, like myself, feel the connection that drives the continual turning of the page. The hope he shares within his “diary” shows a boy looking to the future, while being bogged down by a lack of hope living on the rez. The issues he faces and the almost-normalness of his life makes Junior so perfect as a protagonist that students can connect with.
The biggest theme in the book, for me, was the focus on race and the magnified differences between whites and First Nations. Throughout the story, Junior details the differences between life on the rez and life for the rich white kids he ends up going to school with. He talks about the lack of hope for the future on the rez and a life full of dreams and future prospects inside the white high school. He talks about the challenges of being the only aboriginal kid in a school where the only other First Nations person is the school’s mascot. And he describes the very heavy and heartbreaking issue of alcoholism on the rez, with some very sad results sprinkled throughout the story. Alexie deals with all these issues with great control and is able to show how damaging racism can be, but also how they can become non-issues with the right people.
Like I said, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of the best YA books I have ever read. It provides a great balance of relatability and comedy, of heartbreak and hopefullness. I have used this book in my class for silent reading and most students have really enjoyed it. There is easily enough depth to this novel to dive deep into it for Lit Circles as well, and a fellow teacher used it last year in his First Peoples English class. This book is great for students in grade 9 or higher, due to some PG-13 situations and humour that Junior uses, but I plan on using it this year in my classes. For Lit Circles, I would pair this book with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted, Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go, or Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, as they all deal with fitting in to a new culture or dealing with race or gender separation. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a fantastic story of challenging the expectations of those around you and overcoming the obstacles that life throws in your way, all with an immense sense of humour.