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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian | Class #2, 2016

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianIn The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie tells Junior’s story with lots of humor but pulls no punches in depicting the brutal truths of alcoholism, poverty, and bigotry both on and off the reservation. In his article “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood,” Alexie talks about the importance of truth telling, and readers of the book have indeed responded powerfully to the book’s honesty. What are the different aspects of the novel likely to engage young readers, and what conversations would you want to have with them about this book?

Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.

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  1. Kate Palleschi says:

    One of the things that strikes me most about any of Alexie’s writing is the sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious anger that comes through, and I think that the frustrations the characters deal with in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are excellent example of that. I also think that is one of the many things that readers engage with in the novel, as well as the humor with which the story is told, the illustrations, and the struggle to understand your own identity, especially in the face of two distinct and different worlds both laying claim to you. One thing that I would love to discuss with students, or any young people who read the book, is the context of the novel – Native American life on and off the reservations, because it’s not something that, in my experience, really gets talked about and it’s important to understand, not just in terms of understanding the novel, but in terms of understanding our nation and our collective history and actions.

  2. Natalie Nihill says:

    One of the jarring aspects of the novel was the amount of death that Junior’s character experiences, all while he seems to be fighting to make a new life for himself. Death is a theme that runs throughout the novel- and everything seems to be dying around him: his tribe’s culture and dreams, his family members, his friends, even his dog. And the question where can the blame be placed for these deaths – is it poverty? alchoholism? fate?

    And, why is it that Junior has been able to escape the grip of death, starting from his illness at childhood. I think questioning the idea of how one’s life unfolds – whether it is accidental, destined, situational, or earned through choices or hard work is of particular relevance to adolescents who are emerging as active agents in their own lives, but who may be reflecting on how the situation of their birth is beyond their control.

  3. Kate Cunningham says:

    Perhaps because of my history background, I often think about how texts can be used to teach history as well as literature. Natalie’s point about using Absolutely True Diary to consider whether things that happen to us are accidental, destined, or through hard work, led me to think about using this book as an entry point to learning about white privilege and institutionalized racism. These are concepts I didn’t learn about academically until college, and the texts I used were interesting but not accessible for adolescents. Junior’s voice and poignant descriptions make him relatable to all readers, regardless of background. This makes his statements regarding hope being white and descriptions of rage at realizing he’s received his mother’s geometry textbooks resonate with readers. Teachers could use this to open a discussion about why the circumstances he describes are a reality today, and Absolutely True Diary could be paired with or followed by informational texts. It could also be followed by a debate of Sherman Alexie’s comment (in “The Best Books are Written in Blood”) that conservative critics who oppose his book want to protect “privileged children” and “privileged notions of what literature should be.” Overall, I appreciated the humor and honesty of this book. Alexie’s ability to seamlessly weave in topics that can be difficult to talk about makes Absolutely True Diary not only entertaining, but very, very important for adolescents to read.

  4. Alex Sucheck says:

    As Natalie has pointed out, death is one of Sherman Alexie’s central, underlying themes. Perhaps the combination of an adolescent’s entry into adult life–the discovery of sexuality, the survival of life-threatening diseases, the endurance of hostile, racist situations–makes the underlying death theme even more poignant. Death of family members, of people, of culture, of identity. But somehow mixed in with hope, or as Natalie points out, it gives us the chance to reflect upon how our lives unfold. It might an invitation to ponder on the weight of destiny–an extremely heavy word, especially in this cultural context.

    I didn’t think I knew Sherman Alexie, until I decided to do a brief research–about half way through reading this book–and found out that I had, unknowingly, seen one of his movies. “Smoke Signals” (1998) is an extremely moving and humorous movie, and its deep simplicity impacted me. It was the first movie I had ever seen with an all American-Indian cast. The storytelling of the plot is amazing, with a similar humorous-yet-dark-realistic tone as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This book offers non-American-Indian audiences a glimpse into life on “the rez,” giving a frank, depressing view on the realities of the socio-economic and health conditions of American Indians today. On the other hand, I imagine it offers American-Indian audiences a solid, constructive yet realistic voice of an American teenager, but one to whom they can relate immediately. I have rarely read a story told with so much comedy, realism, depression, racism, modernism all tied in as well as this.

  5. Faye Maison says:

    Sherman Alexie’s writing reads quickly. That is not to say that he writes plainly. Not at all. First reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is like embracing the words of a very excited fourteen-year-old who is anxious to explain the ins and outs of his life and community. As the story continues, Alexie’s characters draw out powerful, poetic, and deep thoughts about life and its realities while using common language with all of the vulgarities that comes along with it. It becomes apparent to the reader that how you speak can be beautiful, and you can write how you speak.

    I do think Kate is right that the book’s context can be used to talk about life for Indian Americans, since it is a subject often left out of the curriculum. Although the book takes place in a very specific community, it could be used to help students from other marginalized communities see beyond themselves. The themes from the book about life on reservations can be seen throughout communities across America that experience segregation and isolation.

  6. Shravya Mallavarapu says:

    What stood out to me right from the beginning was the title! And after reading the book, I couldn’t agree more with the title and how it made complete justification. All through the book, we could evidently see Junior struggling to fit in, in school since he was Indian and the difficulties he had back on the reservation since they almost treated him as a White! The author presented Junior with a unique responsibility making him the narrator and we can see the journey of Junior from feeling misfit right from his childhood since he was physically challenged from birth. I felt like I was peering into the actual journal of Junior, thanks to the comical illustrations which were perfect in contrast with the heavy things that sometimes were discussed in the book.

  7. Ilana Habib says:

    I absolutely LOVED this book. One of my favorites that I have read in quite awhile. I laughed, I cheered, I cried, I thought. I am so excited to share this book with others – both young and old! I would be so excited to discuss the expectations of high vs. low brow publications. The inclusion of comic like drawings and the discussion of taboo topics such as masturbation and alcohol provide a great jumping off point to discuss how literature does not only include texts written for, about, and by old white men. I think showing the “Single Story” TED talk in conjunction with this text also would provide a great opportunity to discuss how some stories are not often told. There has been a movement at Boston Latin started by students of color to discuss the experience of being the only representative of your own culture in a classroom and the problems that come with that. I’d love to see students think about Junior’s experience “off rez” and how they interact with their own peers. Other texts that I would love to see alongside of this include American Born Chinese (Graphic Novel) and Fresh Off the Boat (TV).

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