Review Blog

Jul 30 2009

The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie

cover image

Anderson Press, 2008. ISBN 9781842708445
Highly Recommended. Humour belies the undercurrent of poverty and despair tugging at the heels of the diarist, Arnold, as he tries to alter the accepted path for boys like him. He enrolls at a more academic school, twenty miles from his homeland. That the school is a white middle class institution in a town where Arnold and his people from the nearby Spokane Indian Reservation are not wanted makes for some cutting and deft observations about racism. Drawing heavily on his background, Sherman Alexie is able to nimbly circumvent political correctness and tell it like it is. Arnold's teacher gives out the geometry books on the first day of high school. Arnold is keen to get stuck into this new subject, and when he opens the book to find it was used by his mother, 30 years before, he knows that he will never break out of the mold. Opportunities given to Indigenous kids are just not there. At the nearby white school, he finds himself the only Indian student in a sea of white faces. The customs at his last school must be unlearned, his culture put behind him and his loyalties divided between the two worlds he inhabits. Some people on the 'rez' avoid him, his best friend deserts him, but some are proud, and his uncle calls him a warrior for doing something so brave.
In different hands this book could have been cheesy and even insulting, but Alexie's intimate knowledge of the reservation makes this a uniquely powerful read. The story cries out for recognition of the Indian plight. Moved to reservations with little opportunity for employment or activities, poor education and blighted by racism, Arnold speaks for his generation. The path he chooses is burdened with pitfalls however, in having to live a divided life, being seen as a traitor on one hand, and a curiosity on the other.
The debate over indigenous people writing their own stories flourishes, none more vocal than the website hosted by Debbie Reese in USA. She applauds the writing of indigenous people, particularly American Indians, and deplores the writing of non indigenous writers using an indigenous point of view. Her views are widely used and her website often quoted. The recent issue of Fiction Focus, an adolescent fiction journal from the Western Australia Education Department, outlines some of the current debate about indigenous writers writing their own stories, in an article called Whose Story? Indigenous Peoples in Fiction, and gives information about some of the books written by indigenous writers, including the excellent, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.To find out more about Sherman Alexie's background, go to http://www.fallsapart.com/. And to find out about the reservation he grew up on, visit, the official website for the Spokane Tribe in Washington.
Studying this novel in the classroom would be a knockout for lower secondary kids. It will turn their faces to the reality of living in an indigenous community whether in Australia or USA or New Zealand. Stories written by other indigenous authors could be studied, and some written by non indigenous authors could be looked at to compare the tone. As part of a unit of study about racism or prejudice or specifically North American Indians, this novel has all points covered. I would expect that many schools will buy this as a class set.
Fran Knight

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