The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the first young adult novel by Sherman Alexie. It won the National Book Award, received best-book-of-the-year awards from a dozen institutions and publications, and, according to one critic, “it took [Alexie] only one book to master the [young adult novel] form.” This book has everything that it takes to become a popular and critically acclaimed YA novel in the current climate. And that is exactly why parents should guard against their children reading it.
Arnold Spirit, Jr., lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Eastern Washington State. He is a self-professed, sickly weakling, but, much like his older sister, he is also uncommonly intelligent and highly creative. Unfortunately, “Junior” and his talents are fated to be squandered at the reservation high school just like so many of his poverty-stricken, now alcoholic, neighbors. That is true until Junior’s in-class meltdown on the first day of high school leads a teacher to encourage him to transfer to the more affluent Reardan High in the white town just off the rez. While Junior’s attendance at Reardan jeopardizes his relationships with almost everyone on the reservation, it is his only hope of escaping the tragic circumstances and vices that grip his people.
This storyline is what makes The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian just the slightest bit readable; this is where it shows the good part of contemporary young adult fiction. Through his book, Sherman Alexie has introduced children to a marginalized population in our country and to the problems by which they are plagued. Teenagers particularly have a penchant for social justice and can have deep empathy for victims of injustice, cruelty, disaster, and misfortune. Life on Native American reservations is, today, for thousands and thousands of our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters, a life of poverty perpetuated by dismal schools, alcoholism, and broken homes. The character Junior exposes young readers to the reality of reservation life: a life of isolation, depression, hopelessness, and death. And the only way for Junior to overcome those things is to leave his family, his friends, his people, and his culture, and to become an alien. It is good for young people to read of such injustices.
But please, parents, if you’d like your children to learn of these things, look for a different source. For while The Absolutely True Diary exhibits this positive quality of YA Lit, it also contains many of the negative and revolting aspects of much of today’s teen-targeting popular media. To begin with, even though the issues with which the book grapples are complex, the writing style is very simple. A good author won’t “dumb down” his writing to make a book easier for the reader, while a great author actually elevates his audience through precise word choice and thoughtful structure. In this case, Alexie is neither good, nor great. Illustrating this point is the probable inspiration drawn from Diary of a Wimpy Kid — another example of the bad and the ugly of kids’ books, but for a younger audience and with tamer content — not only in championing physical and moral weakness, but also in terms of the cartoons and doodles that riddle The Absolutely True Diary’s pages, enabling the ever-shortening attention spans of its teenage readers.
The book makes mild jokes about Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular which, to a well-formed adult readership would be completely harmless, but are worth pointing out when dealing with a more impressionable audience. But these pesky jabs are nothing compared to the mature or, rather, immature sexual content present in this 20-plus-week New York Times best-seller. In the early pages of the book, in the midst of discussing his interest in mathematics, Junior shifts gears to champion pornography and boasts, at length, of his abilities of sexual self-gratification. Such perverted messages are unacceptable in any literature, let alone in a book that is meant to be read by twelve-year-olds.
So, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has a little bit of the good of contemporary young adult fiction, but way more of the bad and the flat out ugly. It really is a shame that Sherman Alexie and other authors feel the need to perpetuate horribly misguided ideologies like sexual “liberation” to young audiences, especially because it completely undermines any and all positive aspects of their books. This “award-winning bestseller” is just another example of why it’s so important to have a sense of what your kids are reading and to talk with them regularly about their books.
- Do you think Arnold is right to leave his high school and go to Reardan? Why does he do it? What does this do to his relationships with people on the reservation, like Rowdy?
- Describe life on the rez. What do you think are the roots of the many problems facing its residents?