The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Author: Sherman Alexie

Artist: Ellen Forney

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2007

I read it: February 2016


The basic premise is best summed up by the narrator at the beginning of chapter two: “I wish I were magical, but I am really just a poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spokane Indian Reservation.”

Junior has had enough of this lifestyle and the sad lives of those around him, so he gets it in his head to attend the mostly-white high school in the nicer nearby town. In this way he becomes a “part-time Indian,” who is not fully accepted in either community. During the school days he is known as Arnold, an extreme outcast. Is his diary “absolutely true”? Does he really counterbalance embarrassing moments with keen insights and dramatic gestures, like getting a sort-of girlfriend or winning over the local jocks? It’s a stunning title with a lot of implications for its contents.

Junior/Arnold’s journey is an example of what blurbs proclaim but which is rarely true: a story that will make you laugh and cry. I really do think I choked up and chuckled out loud multiple times. Arnold’s life is sad as hell, and the work is a distillation of all the topics that Sherman Alexie has covered in his adult writings: reservation life, alcoholism, depression, generationality, culture, Indian-ness, and the weight of death. The teenage protagonist navigates these realities with in-the-moment wit:

It was lunchtime and I was standing outside by the weird sculpture that was supposed to be an Indian. I was studying the sky like I was an astronomer, except it was daytime and I didn’t have a telescope, so I was just an idiot.

A half-page later comes an even better joke, but it’s better to discover it for yourself. Big realizations can also take the reader by surprise, like when Arnold reflects on why he draws cartoons (perfectly executed by Ellen Forney):

I take them seriously. I use them to understand the world. I use them to make fun of the world. To make fun of people. And sometimes I draw people because they’re my friends and family. And I want to honor them.

This is a quick read packed full of variations on truth, whether absolute or not. Another one of its magic tricks is surely the goal of most art: to reach universality by traveling roads of specificity. Arnold’s journey may seem one-of-a-kind, but it’s achingly human all the same.

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