The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a magnificent book. Although this is a novel, author Sherman Alexie draws heavily on his real-life experiences, giving the book an autobiographical flavor. The story is written from the perspective of a 14-year-old boy, and is intended for a young adult audience. Nevertheless, adult readers will find the book both touching and eye-opening.
The story is told from the perspective of a teenage boy growing up on an Indian reservation in Washington state. Seeking educational opportunities outside the reservation, he starts attending an all white school 22 miles away. He suddenly finds himself to be a teen without an identity, the “other” no matter where he goes, the one brown face at school, perceived as a traitor by many back home on the reservation. The differences in expectations and economic opportunity on and off of the reservation are starkly explored, in terms of both race and class. The evils of alcoholism are made plain, as they cause the protagonist tragic losses. But with all the struggles and losses, the story ends on a positive note, as he finds greater self-acceptance, and acceptance by others in both of the worlds in which he lives.
A reviewer for the School Library Journal wrote, “this kind of subject matter requires a seemingly effortless mixture of laughter and tears. Sherman Alexie manages to deliver this.” I heartily concur, having found the book illuminating, entertaining, and heart-rending all at once. This is also the kind of book educators love, since it can be mined for endless discussion topics. It is for these kinds of reasons that the book has won many awards, including a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, The New York Times Notable Children’s Books of 2007, The Los Angeles Times Favorite Children’s Books of 2007, and School Library Journal Best Books of 2007. On April 12th, the Walla Walla County Rural Library District began giving away 200 copies of the novel to teenagers who visited library branches.
It is not at all clear to me why the Stockton, Missouri, school district banned this book. One news article stated it was due to “violence, language and some sexual content,” but that is hard to believe. The book does contain a fair amount of rough language, reflecting the way teenage boys interact with each other. But compared to what is heard in real-life high school hallways, the author has shown restraint. Violence in the book is in no way glorified, is not portrayed in any detail, and there’s far less of it than one might see in an hour of prime-time television. Sexual content is limited to a few references to erections and masturbation, also not described in any detail.
I suspect that the book makes some parents and administrators uncomfortable because of the social, political, and religious commentary that is sometimes woven into the story. If I were to pick one passage most likely to rouse the ire of a censor, I’d bet on page 155. It has no violence, strong language, or sexual content at all. But it does include the following:
“Now, in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity. In fact, weird people were often celebrated.
“Epileptics were often shamans because people just assumed that God gave seizure-visions to the lucky ones.
“Gay people were seen as magical, too.
“I mean, like in many cultures, men were viewed as warriors and women were viewed as caregivers. But gay people, being both male and female, were seen as both warriors and caregivers.
“Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives!
“My grandmother had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians.
“’Jeez,’ she said. ‘Who cares if a man wants to marry another man? All I want to know is who’s going to pick up all the dirty socks?’
“Of course, ever since white people showed up and brought along their Christianity and their fear of eccentricity, Indians have gradually lost all of their tolerance.
“Indians can be just as judgmental and hateful as any white person.
“But not my grandmother.
“She still hung onto that old-time Indian spirit, you know?”
An able educator could easily turn just this passage into an hour of classroom discussion, exploring the assumptions the protagonist is making about human nature, sexual orientation, and differences in cultural values. The idiots running the schools in Stockton, Missouri, have chosen to deny their students this educational opportunity.