The main character and narrator of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is Arnold Spirit, and it turns out, he is aptly named. Arnold was born with “water on the brain,” too much cerebral fluid, lending him susceptible to seizures, and further brain damage. At 14 years old, he is awkward, “goofy-looking,” and speaks with a lisp. Yet, he tells his story with wit and self-deprecating humor. Arnold lives on the Spokane Native American reservation, “the rez,” which is stricken with poverty, fighting, and rampant alcoholism. On the rez he is nothing, “a zero,” except that he is exceptionally smart. He has nobody but his best friend Rowdy, a rough tough kid who takes his father’s beatings as a survival course.
One day, when Arnold discovers that the geometry books on the rez are more than 30 years old, he decides that he’s had enough, that he wants something better for himself. So, he transfers to the school for the rich white kids, 32 miles away: Reardan. To Arnold, Reardan represents, “hope,” vs. “bone-crushing reality.” But for Arnold, there is also a a price to pay for leaving his tribal members, and his best friend, behind. But there is even a greater price to pay for staying: losing hope, and perhaps even your life.
Readers will feel real sadness for Arnold’s situation, yet they will be compelled to keep reading by his frank storytelling and humorous voice, including ironic cartoons he draws about the people and situations in his life. These cartoons, much like the novel itself, are simultaneously hilarious and heart-wrenching.
While at times the novel feels mired in too much sadness, Arnold is there to put perspective on that sadness. The story is really about one’s ability to reach for higher goals, to pull oneself out of circumstances you are born into. The novel also depicts a reality not much discussed in America today: the lives of Native Americans on reservations. Sherman Alexie gives new insight into the Native American experience, one which echoes the trials and tribulations of humanity throughout history.
Arnold is a goofy, awkward fourteen year old who will be starting a new school, but not because his family moved or because they are forcing him: he’s doing it by choice. He will walk miles to get to and from school on some days. He will endure teasing and even the rejection of his own tribal members on the Native American reservation where he lives. It is a difficult decision, and you might wonder why someone might choose this fate? Because ultimately, Arnold wants something better for himself.
About the Author
Sherman Alexie was born on the Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit, WA, in 1966. Like his character, Arnold, Alexie was born hydrocephalic, and was susceptible to seizures as a child. He was an excellent reader, but was made fun of on the reservation growing up. Like Arnold, he also decided to attend Reardan. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is semi-autobiographical, and details some of Alexie’s experiences growing up.
After Reardan, Alexie went on to attend Gonzaga University on a full scholarship, and then transferred to Washington State University. He was awarded the Washington State Arts Comission Poetry Fellowship in 1991 and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship in 1992.
He has since seen his works adapted into films, won poetry bouts, and in 2003, he participated in a Museum of Tolerance project, “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves,” which focuses on celebrating American diversity.
Alexie continues to write poetry, and currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife and two sons.
Retrieved November 3rd, 2010 from http://www.fallsapart.com.
-Native American Politics
-Cartoons and Illustration
-Starting a New School
– Escaping Poverty
Reading Level/Interest Age
The book is appropriate for middle school readers, but the pacing and content makes it a good choice for older high school students, including reluctant or lower level readers.
Language, including racial slurs. The same frank voice which will draw teenagers in, may put some people off. The novel details aspects of alcoholism, including child abuse and fighting. Arnold also briefly discusses masturbation.
Response to Challenges: Developing Identity as well as Cross Cultural Identity
This book is a very good example of one that provides a means to understanding the perspective of someone else, someone of a different culture, and for good reason. It offers a glimpse into the life of someone who struggles, but whose struggles ultimately make them stronger.
- Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2008 ; Bank Street College of Education; Outstanding Merit; United States
Bulletin Blue Ribbons, 2007 ; The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books; United States
Capitol Choices, 2008 ; The Capitol Choices Committee; United States
Choices, 2008 ; Cooperative Children’s Book Center; United States
Horn Book Fanfare, 2007 ; Horn Book; United States
Kirkus Best Young Adult Books, 2007 ; Kirkus; United States
Kirkus Book Review Stars, July 15, 2007 ; United States
Middle and Junior High Schoool Library Catalog, Ninth Edition Supplement 2008, 2008 ; H.W. Wilson Company; United States
Notable Books for a Global Society, 2008 ; Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group IRA; United States
Notable Children’s Books, 2007 ; New York Times; United States
Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Books, 2007 ; Cahners; United States
School Library Journal Best Books, 2007 ; Cahners; United States
School Library Journal Book Review Stars, September 2007 ; Cahners; United States
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2008 ; American Library Association; Top Ten; United States
- Awards, Honors, Prizes:
- American Indian Youth Literature Award, 2008 Winner Young Adult United States
Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature, 2008 Winner Fiction and Poetry United States
Cuffies: Children’s Booksellers Choose Their Favorite (and not-so-favorite) Books of the Year, 2007 Honorable Mention Favorite Book to Handsell United States
Cuffies: Children’s Booksellers Choose Their Favorite (and not-so-favorite) Books of the Year, 2007 Honorable Mention Hottest Selling Book to Go Out of Stock United States
Cuffies: Children’s Booksellers Choose Their Favorite (and not-so-favorite) Books of the Year, 2007 Winner Favorite Young Adult Novel United States
Cybil Award, 2007 Finalist Young Adult Fiction United States
Delaware Diamonds, 2009 Winner High School Delaware
Los Angeles Times Book Prize, 2007 Finalist Young Adult United States
Mind the Gap Award, 2008 Best book overlooked by the United States
National Book Awards, 2007 Winner Young People’s Literature United States
National Parenting Publications Award, 2007 Gold Book Ages 12 & Up United States
Pacific Northwest Book Award, 2008 Winner United States
Thumbs Up! Award, 2008 Honor Book Michigan United States
- State and Provincial Reading Lists:
- California Young Reader Medal, 2009-2010 ; Nominee; Young Adult; California
Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award, 2009 ; Nominee; Colorado
Delaware Diamonds, 2008-2009 ; Nominee; High School; Delaware
Eliot Rosewater Indiana High School Book Award, 2009-2010 ; Nominee; Indiana
Florida Teens Read, 2009-2010 ; Nominee; Florida
Grand Canyon Reader Award, 2010 ; Nominee; Teen; Arizona
Green Mountain Book Award, 2009-2010 ; Master List; Grades 9-12; Vermont
Iowa Teen Award, 2009-2010 ; Nominee; Iowa
Kentucky Bluegrass Award, 2009 ; Nominee; Grades 9-12; Kentucky
Pennsylvania Young Readers’ Choice Award, 2009-2010 ; Nominee; Young Adult; Pennsylvania
Rhode Island Teen Book Award, 2009 ; Nominee; High School; Rhode Island
Sequoyah Book Award, 2010 ; Masterlist; High School; Oklahoma
Soaring Eagle Book Award, 2009-2010 ; Nominee; Grades 7-12; Wyoming
South Carolina Young Adult Book Award, 2009-2010 ; Nominee; South Carolina
Tayshas High School Reading List, 2008-2009 ; Texas
Volunteer State Book Award, 2009-2010 ; Nominee; Grades 7-12; Tennessee
West Australian Young Readers’ Book Award (WAYRBA), 2009 ; Reading List; Older Reader; Australia
Wisconsin Battle of the Books, 2008-2009 ; Senior; Wisconsin
- Retrieved November 3rd, 2010 from Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database at www.childrenslit.com.
Why Did You Include This Book?
American Indians in Children’s Literature recommends this title as number 1 in the list, “Top Ten Books Recommended for High School,” by Debbie Reese on her blog, www.americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com