Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of the most frequently banned-books in America this year. Last week was Banned Books Week. Hosted by the American Library Association, Banned Books Week is a celebration of books that have been banned throughout history where libraries and other participating organizations encourage their community to read banned books. Young adult fiction and non-fiction alike tend to make the banned books list every year and True Diary has been on my personal reading list. It is also the 2007 recipient of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

True Diary was an extremely short read (it took me about 8 hours total) and I was surprised, after finishing it, that it has caused such a volatile reaction among the public. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in young adult literature, identity struggles, Native American experiences, themes of Otherness, family, triumph and possibility. True Diary examines a young man’s choice to go to school off-reservation because he believes it will give him a better shot at going to college, and leaving the reservation – and all its truly devastating and life sucking problems – behind. He’s torn, however, because he loves his family and he is, after all, Indian. Alexie puts forth a stark narrative with a chatty, likable, nerd of a main character; the author immediately and completely disembowels any notion of a mighty and noble Indian warrior with wise grace and long braids. Arnold Spirit Junior, our cartoonist-diary-writer, also throws off the angsty, foulmouthed mantel so many male narrators of young adult fiction have thrust upon him. (I’m looking at you Holden Claufield.) Instead, Junior/Arnie presents his struggle with the facts: life on the rez sucks, and it’s not going to get better.

I was frequently reminded of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried as I read True Diary. Not because Junior/Arnie’s anecdotes were fundamentally disturbing or grotesque, but because I found myself wondering, “are these true stories?” The title of the book instantly calls into question how true the story contained within really is, but what does that even mean? Yes, the author certainly has a similar background to the main character. Just as Tim O’Brien served in Vietnam, so did Alexie grow up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Are the stories in True Diary really absolutely true? Did Alexie have these exact experiences in his own time on the rez?

It doesn’t matter! Sometimes, fiction can be Truer than the truth. Alexie’s novel makes the reader understand Junior/Arnie, not as the mystical creature, The Native American, but as a teenager struggling to figure out how to succeed in a life that was tossed to him off the back of a garbage truck. It’s not melodramatic, it’s not a teenager whining about his lot in life. It’s an examination of one boy’s absolutely true struggle to follow the American dream, which he should have inherited in the first place.

Maybe that’s why the book makes people so uncomfortable.

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