Sherman Alexie's 2007 novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, tells of fourteen-year-old Arnold's transition to a new high school off the reservation in his freshman year.
Arnold Spirit Jr. lives with his parents and older sister on the Spokane Indian reservation. At home he is called "Junior", but becomes "Arnold" when he transfers to the all-white school some twenty miles away.
He was born with excess cerebral spinal fluid in his skull, which he calls "water on the brain". This has left him with several physical problems, among them are a large head, seizures, poor eyesight, and extra teeth.
He suffers frequent beatings from the other kids, and is called "retard" and "globe", referring to the size of his head.
Arnold is angry because of the extreme poverty the people on the reservation are forced to endure. The Indian Health Services funds major dental work only once a year; the same for eyeglasses, and with only one style available - ugly.
Arnold is in need of both services. His extra teeth have to be pulled, and he has worn glasses since he was three.
He says his family sometimes misses a meal, and that "sleep is the only thing they have for dinner".
Arnold also says being hungry is not the worst thing about being poor, and gives this example of what is: Arnold's beloved dog, Oscar, is very sick. He begs his parents to take Oscar to a doctor, but there's no money for a vet.
When Oscar gets even sicker, and it's clear that he is suffering, Arnold's father, with tears in his eyes, gets the rifle and asks Arnold to take Oscar to the yard. Arnold tells him he loves him and carries him outside. Then Arnold runs--as fast and as far as he can.
But it's not far enough to outrun the sound of the rifle blast that kills his best friend.
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Arnold's best human friend on the reservation is Rowdy. Arnold says Rowdy is the "toughest kid on the rez". Rowdy's father regularly abuses him. In spite of his toughness, Rowdy is one of the few who treats Arnold with respect, and fights his battles for him when others pick on him.
Arnold loves to draw cartoons. He says he draws because words are limited. They can only be understood in the language in which they are written. He says everyone can understand a picture.
He says he feels important with a pen in his hand, and can maybe grow up to be somebody important. It might be his ticket to a better life.
His first day of high school on the reservation brings an unexpected change for Arnold, by way of poverty popping up in his face yet again.
This time it shows itself in his 'new' geometry book, which he is very excited about, until he opens it. There he finds his mother's maiden name written on the inside cover, which means his mother used the same book when she went to school. His geometry book is more than 30 years older than he is!
He throws the book, and though he doesn't mean to, he hits his teacher, Mr. P, in the face. Arnold is suspended from school.
Several days later, Mr. P comes to Arnold's house to talk to him. Arnold thinks he is about to get punished even more, but soon finds that is not the case.
Mr. P tells him he's the smartest kid in school, and that he needs to leave the reservation. He tells him that he also taught Arnold's sister, Mary. Mr. P says that she was smart, too, and had wanted to be a writer, (which Arnold did not know), but that she had given up on her dream.
Mr. P says that too many on the reservation have given up, and that he doesn't want that to happen to Arnold. He tells him he deserves better. He says to Arnold that he threw the book because "somewhere inside, you refuse to give up".
Arnold immediately transfers to Reardan - and a whole new set of problems. At the rich, all-white school, he is called names: "Chief", "Tonto", "Squaw Boy". On the reservation he is now seen as a traitor. Rowdy is furious, calls him "white lover", and will no longer be his friend.
A story of tragedy and triumph, there is a lot in this book that teenagers can relate to. There's loads of material for discussion in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian!
This young adult novel by Sherman Alexie has won a long list of awards, including the National Book Award.
As I write this (August 2010) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is banned in Stockton, MO.
A parent complained about violence, language, and some sexual content. The school board voted unanimously to remove it, not just from the high school reading list, but from the school library, as well.
and citizens have protested the ban, and more discussion is planned,
including a public meeting. The American Library Association has asked
the board to reconsider. A decision is expected next month.
Update: The Stockton, MO book ban has been upheld.
A public meeting drew approximately 200 people to the school gymnasium in Stockton, MO on September 8, 2010 to discuss The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. About 25 speakers aired their views for and against the book.
The school board voted 7-0 to uphold its decision to ban it from the school curriculum, and 7-2 against returning it to the high school library with restrictions.
The good news is that all the attention has increased interest in the book, and public libraries have long waiting lists of people eager to read it!