Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the story about 14-year-old Arnold Spirit Jr. (or “Junior” as he goes by), a child of the “rez” or reservation, who is born with multiple physical handicaps (bad vision, oddly proportioned limbs, huge head filled with water, etc.) but with an unusually high intelligence. Junior is bullied almost daily, because he’s different, but his best friend is the toughest guy on the reservation, so he gets plenty of protection. Until he decides to go to the all-white farm town high school, 20 miles outside the reservation, instead of his tribe’s own school. This makes him an outcast everywhere – a betrayer of the tribe, and an oddity at his new school. After a year of experiences – deaths, new friendships and new “loves,” lots of masturbation – Junior learns to value himself and his talents, basketball and cartooning. Though all might not be well by the end of the story, the reader can see that there is certainly hope – Junior might just make it after all.
3 – Characters well developed.
When a book has such a touchingly terrific plot, the element that can really make it soar is its characterization. Alexie’s characters in ATDPT are realistic and genuine, both in their likeable qualities and in their flaws. The individuals, from Junior himself, to Rowdy, his best friend, and Penelope, his first girlfriend are all uniquely drawn and have personalities all their own. Characters on the periphery, too, such as Junior’s grandmother and sister, do not get much page time but come across clearly to the reader. Even the larger “character bodies,” of the tribe and the townsfolk are well-wrought so as to have cultural and societal personalities, discernible from the other. A bit of depth could have been added to the major characters and possibly a selection of the secondary characters, which would have created more meaningful relationships and possibly allowed for greater growth and development in general, but overall it was well done.
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.
This book has been on banned, challenged, or censored lists since its publication, largely because of its free expression of masturbation and sexuality. There are certainly quite a few “masturbatory moments,” let’s say – but what one should remember is this is a book, written journal style from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old boy. If you are a parent or school administrator, you are sadly mistaken to think that these thoughts are not on the teenage-boy brain nearly all the time. That being said, Alexie might be open to and with the idea, but he is never crude about it. There is a humor to it, an acknowledgment that these thoughts and actions take place and a metaphorical nod to his past or to those pre-teens and teens who might be reading the book now (“Hey, man, you’re not crazy – we all do it!”). This is just one example of why the prose is so good, and so effective. It is simple, honest, and delivers the story with a sense of complex-clarity that is not always found in MG/YA books. The book could possibly have benefited from a bit more complexity, even, considering the main character and one of his newest friends are the two most intelligent kids in school; however, the main character’s cartoons add an interesting, personal element to the narrative, as they are how Junior has learned to side-step his disabilities (stuttering, lisping) to communicate openly with the world.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
The greatest thing about the book is not its interesting and funny characters; it’s not the simple but effective prose, nor the clever inclusion of cartoons to help tell the story. It’s not even the story itself, so honest and sad, but hopeful. The best thing about this book is that it tackles real life issues and situations from a believable perspective. Junior has to deal with so much, in such a short time. He lives with an alcoholic father, an eccentric mother, and an absent sister. He faces bullies at his old school, bullies on his reservation, and being ignored and undervalued at his new school. He watches people close to him die and struggles to learn how to grieve, when his best friend has abandoned him. Despite all this, though, he also learns to value himself. He puts vigorous energy and effort into basketball and drawing. He refuses to sit by and let life pass him, instead choosing to engage with others, since they won’t engage with him. He makes new friends, earns the respect of others, and even dates the prettiest girl in school. This is a story about the sometimes horridness that is our teenage years, and it is a story of hope for all young readers – that they, too, can get through it. They can survive and, most importantly, they can find happiness.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: MG, YA, Adult
Interest: Reservation Life, Racism, Native American Culture, Coming-of-Age, Family, Death and Dying
“That’s right, I am a book kisser. Maybe that’s kind of perverted or maybe it’s just romantic and highly intelligent.”
“You read a book for the story, for each of its words, and you draw your cartoons for the story, for each of the words and images. And, yeah, you need to take that seriously, but you should also read and draw because really good books and cartoons give you a boner.”
“Well, I don’t mean boner in the sexual sense. I don’t think you should run through life with a real erect penis. But you should approach each book – you should approach life – with the real possibility that you might get a metaphorical boner at any point.”
“I used to think the world was broken down by tribes. By black and white. By Indian and white. But I know that isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not.”