I can’t believe I’ve waited so long to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie! The character of Junior is endearing and real. Alexie perfectly illuminates the elements that shape the lives of Native Americans living on reservations. To top all the novel’s other merits, the theme of acceptance is perfect for all audiences.
Junior was born with too much cerebral spinal fluid inside his skull. If that sounds bad, well, that’s because it could have been. Doctors predicted he wouldn’t live. And if he did live, he’d end up with serious brain damage that left him a permanent vegetable. Instead Junior survives, although not without repercussions. He grows up with a larger than normal skull, as well as huge hands and feet. In addition, Junior wears glasses and stutters. Finally, for several years, he experienced weekly seizures. All of these reasons are why everyone on the reservation bullies Junior by calling him a retard and even beat him up. He turns to cartoons as a way to escape.
If by this point you’re feeling sorry for Junior, let me make clear that there’s more to Junior than his disability. For one thing, like any average fourteen-year-old, he likes to look at girls and their curves. For another, the toughest kid on the reservation is Junior’s best friend. One night when three brothers beat Junior up at a powwow, Rowdy gets revenge on them by shaving off their eyebrows and cutting off their Indian braids. Then there’s the fact, Junior likes school. In fact, he wants so much to learn that discovering his mother’s name in a textbook angers him. To him, it was the saddest thing in the world to study from a book that old, and so he throws it at a teacher. He also likes team sports and literary classics, making him an interesting character. At the same time, Junior also gets scared and otherwise emotional to the point of tears but yet never gives up on what he wants, making him an inspirational character.
After a long talk with the aforementioned teacher, who actually forgives Junior and acts as a mentor, Junior asks his parents to take him to a school outside of the reservation. His reason? Because every adult whom Junior knows has given up on life. They’ve dropped out of school, taken low-paying jobs, turned to alcohol, and given up on dreams. And if Junior stays on the reservation, Junior will end up losing what little hope he still has too. So Junior starts attending an all-white school. Here’s where Alexie shows readers with crystal clear clarity the struggles that Native Americans like him face living on a reservation. If you think Junior had it bad before, now it gets worse. Everyone in his tribe, including his best friend, feels betrayed. And they all let Junior know how they feel through words and punches. On the flip side, no one at Reardon initially feels as if he belongs there either. After all, he’s poor, Indian, and stutters. Girls hold their noses as if he smells and guys tell racist jokes. And even when Junior finally does gain acceptance from his new classmates, it’s only at the expense of putting down his own people, who already have so little in comparison to rich white kids.
Last, but not the least of this novel’s merits, is the theme of acceptance. Over time, Junior comes to realize that his drunken parents do love him in their own way. For one thing, his parents scrimp and save to get Junior to his new school that is over twenty miles away. They also show up for all his basketball games and other special events. Then there’s a particularly poignant moment when he feels forgotten at Christmas, only to have his dad give him a last-minute gift. Over time, Junior earns respect at his new school. He wins the heart of a popular girl when he comforts her after she has a meltdown. By being willing to fight a bully, he actually earns respect of some of the bigger guys. And then once again, there’s an adult mentor, this time in the form of a basketball coach. When it looks as if the team will lose, the coach puts faith in Junior. One of my favorite passages in the whole book is this section: “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.”
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been on the best-seller list for months. High school English teachers have recommended to me. Back when I was working on a novel about a troubled teen, my writing group recommended it as a model. Now that I’ve read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, all the more unique because it’s actually based on Sherman Alexie’s life, I understand all the praise for it.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
How would you rate this book?