Wednesday, July 4, 2012

YA Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My first exposure to Sherman Alexie was in the mid-90s when I saw the film Smoke Signals and then went back and read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (the book the screenplay was built on). Both the screenplay and novel struck me as beautiful writing. I remember, “He could see his uncles slugging each other with such force that they had to be in love. Strangers would never want to hurt each other that badly.”

And I had to pull the novel off the shelf, but I remember the feelings I had reading this passage over fifteen years ago:

"How much do we remember of what hurts us most? I've been thinking about pain, how each of us constructs our past to justify what we feel now. How each of us constructs our past to justify what we feel now. How each successive pain distorts the preceding. Let's say I remember sunlight as a measurement of this story, how it changed the shape of the family portrait. My father shields his eyes and makes his face a shadow. He could be anyone then, but my eyes are closed in the photo. I cannot remember what I was thinking. Maybe I wanted to stand, stretch my legs, raise my arms above my head, open my mouth wide and fill my lungs. Breathe, breathe. Maybe my hair is so black it collects all the available light."

And then this brilliant moment near the end of the screenplay:

"How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream. Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often? or forever when we were little. Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage. Or for making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage there at all. Do we forgive our fathers for marrying, or not marrying, our mothers? For divorcing, or not divorcing, our mothers? And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness? Shall we forgive them for pushing...or leaning? For shutting doors, for speaking through walls, or never speaking...or never being silent? Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or in theirs? Or in their deaths, saying it to them, or not saying it? If we forgive our fathers, what is left?"

The "forgive our fathers" moment in the film seized me fifteen years, and then Sherman Alexie faded out of my consciousness until this past year, when I saw quite a few of my students reading his YA novel The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian. I read reviews--and adults and educators loved it. My students mostly gave it favorable reviews (a couple of boys balked at the conclusion).

But I had avoided it...and kept picking up something else, even though it sat on my desk, ready for me to read.

I felt a similar moment when I discovered Vonnegut--I started to consume all of it, and then feared nothing would be left if I read it all too fast, too soon. And then I put Vonnegut down...swore off Vonnegut for years.

I felt the same thing as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian stared at me and I stared back. Kids started borrowing it from my desk..."well, if you aren't reading it, I'd like to."

And then it disappeared into lockers for weeks...only to resurface and be scooped up again by another student.

Finally, when it resurfaced for a few days in a row I set my mind to read it over a weekend--and I did. And loved it for the following reasons:

a) Alexie's unique voice
b) the exposure I receive to Native American fears, hopes...realities
c) the humanity in his craft
d) every story he tells needs to be told
e) at their core, his stories are about survival, forgiveness, family, loss, and strength

One difference between The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is in the the YA novel, the language is grittier. The youth curse. They make fun of each other. The narrator talks (briefly) about masturbation. The word "boner" appears a few times...both as a mistake, and as a teenager's physical reaction to a woman hugging him. Some adults may be offended or sour their faces at those facts--the point, in my opinion, is that this may cause some parents to steer their 12 and 13 year olds away from the book. And quite honestly, I respect that. If and when some parents want to fence out some literature because their son or daughter is too young in their estimation, that is their right. I guess, I want to say here that these pieces and bits of language are authentic to some teenagers--they are the language of some teens. It resonates as true. They can identify and connect.

And they can laugh about it.

The fact is, Alexie is an artist with language. So much of his text is poetic, powerful, and evocative.

I keep coming back to the young boy who wrote and said to me that he was disappointed in the conclusion. In my mind, he was disappointed because he read it with his own eyes and life experience, and did not have the rich experience of discussing the novel with others his own age, or even with an adult. I think he missed the nuance...he missed the craft...he missed the reward and beauty of Alexie's story.

That's a shame. I wished I had read it before him, so that I could have had that conversation with him.

I definitely recommend this for your older middle school or high school book shelf (as long as you understand what you are getting into with some of the language choices.)

View all my reviews


  1. This is my Respomse to Lit book and my kids eat it up. First we judge it by its cover (pun intended) then by its words. I get so much story telling out of this in Council circles and in their journaling. This follows our reading of Night which is a gritty pairing, I deal with the language component by saying this is part of your life and no one denies it. Also this is at the end of our year together so I think there is a stronger trust factor in place,

    Why only 4 stars?

    1. My GoodReads stars finger-click went too're right, it is a 5 star rating for me. I changed it on GR.