It is very rare to find a book that shatters your heart into a million tiny pieces and puts them back together whilst making you laugh at the same time, over and over again. One such book is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian. Apart from the numerous awards this book has won, Neil Gaiman’s quote on the cover: “I have no doubt that in a year or so it’ll be winning awards and being banned” is among the myriad of the reasons to pick up this book and give it a read. The semi-autobiographical, first person-narrative of this book, narrated by Arnold Spirit, Jr., the protagonist of the book, makes it an all the more interesting read. The purpose of this essay is to as convincingly as possible elaborate the literary worth of the book by providing an in-depth overview of the book itself and a detailed analysis of Arnold Spirit’s character.
Alexie’s book revolves around Arnold “Junior” Spirit’s life with his family on the Reservation, and how he ultimately decides to study at an all-white school just outside the Reservation. As Junior narrates, the dilemma of his life is that he is “half Indian in one place and half white in the other” (Alexie). Junior is torn between two worlds, since he has to reconcile his life as a Spokane Indian on the Reservation and cope with being the only Indian student in an all-white school. The heartbreaking begins from the very first page as Junior narrates that he was born with “water in his brain” because of which he has a bad eye-sight, an over-sized head, hands and feet, and he lisps and stutters while speaking. Junior finds it unbearable to be a fourteen year old teenage boy with the physical problems mentioned above. Other children constantly beat Junior up, bully him, and even call him a “retard.”
Alexie succeeds at shattering hearts by the second page. Junior tells us that he has 42 teeth instead of 32 because of having an over-sized head, and how he cannot eat normally because of this; instead, he eats “like some slobbering vulture” (Alexi). It is heartbreaking enough that he has to get “all ten extra teeth pulled in one day” at the Indian Health Service, but what is even more enraging is that the white dentist there gives him only half the Novocain (a local anesthetic drug), believing that Junior would feel half as much pain as a white person just because he is an Indian. One can only imagine the agony that Junior, even though he is merely a fictional character, would have gone through simply for being an Indian and being treated this way.
Junior continues narrating the story of his dirt poor life. His father, like a majority of the Indians living on the Reservation, is an alcoholic. It has been years since his sister Mary has been living in the basement of his house. Not only other children but even adults constantly bully and hurt him physically, and he feels threatened. The only best friend that Junior has is Rowdy, a teenage boy who has been his friend since childhood. Junior is fond of drawing comics and reading, and he tells us that someday he will become a cartoonist. According to Junior, “the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats” (Alexie). Throughout the book, there are a total of 65 of Junior’s comic cartoons that complement the narrative, adding necessary humor to the otherwise heartbreaking context of the book.
Through the narrative in this book, there is a lot that Junior reveals about himself and his personality. For instance, it is already known that he is hydrocephalic and his physical impairments because of this medical impairment are just one of the reasons that he struggles in life. Yet, the way he narrates his life makes him seem quite vibrant and witty. He even jokes about how he looks like “a capital L walking down the road” (Alexie) because of having a skinny body and very big feet. Junior is clumsy and he lacks confidence, at least until he decides to transfer to the all-white school, since he does not stand up to those who bully him, beat him, and frequently call him a pussy or a retard. Moreover, Junior thinks people do not understand him because of his lisping and stuttering. These are the reasons he spends most of his time at home, drawing cartoons, to avoid being bullied and to make others understand him.
It is obvious that Arnold wishes to be heard, and this is why he is enthusiastic about drawing and read, and has a strong thirst for knowledge. Unlike his sister of his best friend, he does not read to escape from reality, he reads to be able to express himself. Despite the fact that things keep going against Junior, he seems hopeful and does not think about quitting. He is a fighter and he fights to survive. Of course, the biggest conflict in his life is to reconcile his two versions, the Indian that he is while living on the Reservation and the half-white boy he is while he studies in an all-white school. Junior becomes somewhat of a scapegoat while living on the Reservation where things are Wellblamed on him and people are always picking on him. He becomes the scapegoat in chapters 20 and 25 during a faceoff between two basketball teams. Once again in chapter 27, Junior becomes the scapegoat once again when his own best friend blames him for his own sister’s death.
The most impressive thing about the book’s narrative is that readers will not find themselves shocked by or feel that there is too much drama in the book because of all the dreadful, tragic things that happen to Junior. Perhaps, the best thing about this book is that everything that happens to him seems natural or normal. The narrative is so well-written that readers will feel that Junior is actually sitting in front of them, telling them his story face-to-face. The narrative is the core of the story and the way it flows makes this book a genius in itself. Moreover, Junior’s storytelling apparently has a purpose. The easy way in which Junior narrates the story portrays Indians as good for nothing and what they have is what they deserve. Perhaps the most important challenge for Junior in his life is to overcome his self-loathing and poverty.
Junior does indeed succeed at escaping, not only the Reservation but everything that was holding him back. In chapter 4, he throws a second-hand book that belonged to his mother and it ends up his teacher, Mr. P. Ironically, it is Mr. P who tells Junior that he needs to “get away,” and that is when Junior transfers to an all-white school. Even more ironically, even though he is the only Indian student in the all-white school, he is not bullied there; in fact, the only problems he faces are back at the Reservation where he is pestered for his decision. Back in the all-white school Junior actually manages to make friends, gets a white girlfriend, and joins the basketball team too. To his dismay, he also ends up losing his best friend. Despite having the life he dreamed of, Junior feels guilty and even heartbroken, but of course, he does not give up and his struggles continue. All in all, this is what makes Arnold “Junior” Spirit’s character so captivating, and makes this humorous, raw, and unique book so appealing. Junior’s story is heartbreaking indeed but it is also full of warmth.
Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. 1st ed. New York: Hachette Book Group, Inc. , 2007. Print.
Samuels, Diane. “Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.”guardian.co.uk. Guardian News and Media Limited, 4 Oct 2008. Web. 31 Jan 2013.