Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘Sherman Alexie

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?

ShermanAlexieHe’s the author of over twenty books, the producer of a movie that won the Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, and winner of a variety of book awards including the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, Sherman Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and now lives in Seattle. Tomorrow I’ll review his best-selling The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Save the date: February 26!


Born hydrocephalic (fluid on the brain), and expected to die, Alexie underwent surgery at six months of age. Though he survived surgery, Alexie suffered with seizures and bedwetting until the age of seven and had to take drugs. Because of his health problems, Contemporary Literature reports, Alexie did not fit in well with his peers and instead spent most of his childhood reading everything from auto repair manuals to classic novels like Grapes of Wrath.

His father was a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe and an alcoholic who often left the family alone for days. To support her six children, his mother who was of Colville, Choctaw, Spokane and European American ancestry sewed quilts and worked as a clerk at the Wellpinit Trading Post.


In the eighth grade, Alexie asked his parents to enroll him in Reardan High School, so he could better his education. The school was located twenty miles outside the reservation, and Alexie was the only Native American student. At Reardon, Alexie excelled not only in his studies, but he also participated on the debate team, was elected class president, and became a star player on the basketball team.

His academic achievements earned him a scholarship to Spokane’s Jesuit Gonzaga University, a Roman Catholic university in Spokane. Here, according to Wikipedia, he struggled to find his path. Originally, Alexie enrolled in the pre-med program with hopes of becoming a doctor, but found his anatomy classes made him squeamish. Law didn’t suit him either. The pressure to succeed led him to drink to cope with his anxiety. Finally, he Alexie found comfort in literature classes, as well as discovered an aptitude for writing.


In 1987, Alexie transferred to Washington State University, where he enrolled in a creative writing course. He began writing poetry and short fiction. His instructor, Alex Kuo, a respected poet of Chinese-American background, served as a mentor to him. Kuo gave Alexie an anthology entitled Songs of This Earth on Turtle’s Back by Joseph Bruchac. Alexie is quoted by Wikipedia as saying this book changed his life because it taught him “how to connect to non-Native literature in a new way”.

Alexie started work on what was published as his first collection, The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Viviane Poems, published in 1992 through Hanging Loose Press. Poetry Foundation reports that, with that success, Alexie gave up alcohol at the age of 23 and has remained sober since that time. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies and shortly thereafter received the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship.


In his short-story and poetry collections, Poetry Foundation describes Alexie as illuminating the despair, poverty, and alcoholism that often shape the lives of Native Americans living on reservations. In 1996, he was named to Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists list. Poetry Foundation notes that judges had liked Alexie’s work “because it had something to tell us. Native American life, life on the reservation, is a pretty under-described experience.”

Alexie also became active in film. Smoke Signals, written and directed by Alexie, was a major studio release and is considered the first all-Indian movie. The film took top honors at the Sundance Film Festival.

As noted at the start, Alexie has been the recipient of numerous literary awards too. In addition, Alexie is a highly sought-after public speaker and has been a guest on nationally-broadcast radio and TV programs. In 2005, Alexie became a founding board member of Longhouse Media, a non-profit organization described by Wikipedia as being committed to teaching film-making skills to Native American youth. He now lives in Seattle with his wife and two sons.

Allisons' Book Bag Logo

Thank You!

Allison’s Book Bag will no longer be updated. Thank you for eight years!

You can continue to follow me at:



Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 127 other subscribers