Posted by: Lizzie Ross | May 8, 2010

Adolescent angst

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie (2007), Little, Brown, 230 pp.

Arnold Spirit, Jr. is trying to live in two worlds and finding that neither one truly accepts him. His friends on the reservation think he’s deserted them when he decides to attend a white school, and the white kids at the school find it hard to get beyond their small town prejudices.

The message here is strong (“Adam and Eve covered their privates with fig leaves; the first Indians covered their privates with their tiny hands“), and the poverty of the Spokane Indians (Arnold never uses the term “Native Americans”) is clear. Alcohol and poverty, lack of opportunity and aspiration, all combine to press Arnold’s tribe into the dirt of the land on which they live. One brief passage gives a startling statistic: his schoolmates at the white school may have attended at most one or two funerals, whereas he’s been to over forty, and most of the deaths were alcohol-related.

Yet, this is a funny and optimistic book. Arnold is in so many ways a typical teen-aged American boy, and the joy of reading his story comes from being immersed in his world. Sports, friendships, first love, fights, self-doubts, discoveries. Throughout, Arnold’s drawings (created by Ellen Forney) don’t just illustrate what’s happening to him; they provide another layer of commentary in his diary.

Arnold’s voice is honest (he never hesitates to to show the problems “on the rez”, but also recognizes its close community, and is amazed at how little the fathers are involved in their children’s lives at the white school:

I’ve learned that white people, especially fathers, are good at hiding in plain sight.       I mean, yeah, my dad would sometimes go on a drinking binge and be gone for a week, but those white dads can completely disappear without ever leaving the living room. They can just BLEND into their chairs. They become their chairs.

This book deserves all the praise and awards it has received. Read it, and be reminded of the pleasures and discomforts of your own adolescence.



  1. Re the changing lives of the Northwest Indians, check out “I Heard the Owl Call My Name” by Margaret Craven (1973). Not a YA novel but short and excellent.

  2. Thanks for the tip. I’ll look for it.

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