In Search of Hope: “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”

In my class, I asked the students to write professional-style reviews (a la the New York Times Book Review) on the books they have been reading in class.  I thought I’d post my own here.  FYI, the focus in the writing was on catchy, informative titles and attention-getting hooks.  They were also supposed to give a summary, talk about conflict and theme, and give their opinion and a recommendation. As you may or may not know, I like to do the assignments my students do.  When they read, I read, when they write, I write.  I think it helps motivate them, and it’s something I enjoy doing.  This is my review based on their assignment (note the 5-paragraph format).  Hopefully it’s up to par.

In Search of Hope: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

“’Son,’ Mr. P said. ‘You’re going to find more and more hope the farther and farther away you walk away from this sad, sad, sad reservation.’” This is the story of Arnold Spirit, affectionately known as Junior to his family and friends on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and his attempt to find a better life for himself.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by renowned poet Sherman Alexie, is a mostly-autobiographical young adult novel that focuses on Arnold’s struggle to fit in, both on the rez and in his new, mostly-white high school.  With Alexie’s beautiful and witty language, a poignant story, and some hilarious cartoons (illustrated by Ellen Forney) this book provides a wonderful read and some serious food for thought.

 

The story begins with Arnold as the narrator, describing his life in minimal detail and great humor.  He explains that he was “born with water on the brain” (also known as hydrocephalus), and that this condition affected the way his body developed, eventually turning him into “a capital L walking down the road” with “big feet and pencil body,” “ugly, thick, black plastic eyeglasses,” and “ten teeth past human” (he had 42).  Needless to say, Arnold feels awkward and is often picked on growing up.  But quickly after describing himself in great, humorous detail, Junior begins to describe life on the rez, and it is less than pleasant.  This reader has read few scenes that are as heart-wrenching as that in which Arnold describes “the worst thing about being poor” and tells the story of his dog getting sick (I don’t want to give this away – it is truly worth reading).  As the story progresses, the reader becomes Arnold’s friend – we learn everything about him, share his experiences transferring from his school on the reservation to Reardan High School, the rich, white school 22 miles away where he would be, along with the school’s mascot, “the only other Indian in town.”  In doing this, he alienates his own community and makes himself an alien in a new community, where he tries to fit in and find himself.  It is this struggle with being a “part-time” Indian that provides the main conflict in the story – between Arnold and Junior.  You may notice that these are both the same character.  In a sense, this is true – the same human goes responds to these two different names.  However, they also seem to refer to different persons within that human.  On his first day at Reardan, Junior has a realization when a beautiful girl laughs at his name. “I felt like two different people inside of one body. No, I felt like a magician slicing myself in half, with Junior living on the north side of the Spokane River [on the reservation] and Arnold living on the south [in Reardan].” It is this internal conflict that drives the story and leads to the story’s various smaller conflicts.

This internal conflict between “Arnold” and “Junior” is also the driving force in the various subtexts of the story.  Alexie uses this struggle to share with the reader his own struggles to adapt his own culture to the majority culture of white America.  Junior’s longing to be accepted and his search for identity is eventually upended by a series of trials, forcing him to realize that he can only be Arnold Spirit, Jr.  It is this realization – that we need to stop looking for acceptance elsewhere and learn to accept ourselves – that Alexie conveys so eloquently to his young adult readers.  He passes on his own struggles trying to find himself and trying to find a better life in the hope that his readers will learn from his mistakes and will find hope in their present circumstances.

As a whole, I felt that this was a fantastic book.  Conservative readers will quickly point to several crude scenes in the book, as well as some vulgar language as detriments, but Alexie does a nice job of turning these scenes into positive lessons for young readers.  One such example is when Arnold’s genius, white friend, Gordy, makes very overt sexual innuendos.  His point in doing so, however, is to convey a deep, urgent passion for reading, not just to be vulgar.  Scenes such as this may deter some readers, but others may find them very endearing.  Not surprisingly, Alexie’s language has a certain poetry to it – he often describes scenes in beautiful detail and his choice of words is often irreplaceable.  There are certain parts, however, that lapse into some less sophisticated language, often as a means of conveying the language of adolescence.  This, however, does not detract from the story in any way, as the story itself is the most powerful evidence of Alexie’s abilities as a writer. 

This powerful book is certain to win some major literary awards, and has already captured the National Book Award for 2007, but this is by no means its defining quality.  Rather, this book is worth reading because it makes accessible some of the hardest issues of our time – race, culture, poverty, identity, and community.  This book handles these most difficult issues with the utmost grace, and does it in such a way that the reader comes away a better person.  This is why I have no qualms giving this book 5 stars, and would recommend it to anyone willing to deal with some internal struggles in their own search for hope.

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2 responses to “In Search of Hope: “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”

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