Monday, April 26, 2010

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Part 2

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. 


  1. This sounds amazing. I'd love to check it out. I believe my school uses this as a core text in the Native Studies class.

  2. I was glad to locate this essay via Google, but you lost a fair bit of credibility when you labeled the school board idiots particularly when you provided so little information as to why the book was banned. I don't believe the book should have been banned either, but the use of the word "idiot" diminishes the impact of your piece.

  3. I'm afraid the information I've given above is all that there is with stars to the motivations behind the banning. It is clear, nonetheless, that the officials who banned the book ARE idiots. I've read it, and any educator who would chose to rob students of so valuable a learning experience is a cretin.

  4. I mean with "regards" to the motivations.

  5. As a parent of a child who was given this book as required reading, and an educator of 20 years myself, I understand the concerns people have with this book. I dont care if it IS real life situations the author heard, or if there IS worse language spoken in the hallways.. If I read the sentence "Indians are proof that ni$#@#@ fu*&$# buffalo in my classroom, I'd be FIRED, in context to the situation or not. This should NOT be required reading, rather, parents should be given a heads up that they may want to preview the book ahead of time. while the message of the writing is solid, although, not entirely original, I dont think it is appropriate for ALL incoming freshmen to read as is the case in our district. Had I been given a warning, I would have discussed the book with my wife, and made a decision for our child. I am 50/50 as to which way I would have went, but, since I wasn't given the choice, and he's already read it and was offended by the situations and language, no I am left to pursue other options in terms of required readings in school.

  6. Sorry, I taught HS English for 12 years, mainly to freshmen and sophomores, and I'd love to "teach" this book. It is both moral and human in the best sense. But then again, I was attacked for teaching "Flowers for Algernon" which is a great product of the Judeau-Christian tradition.
    Steve Rose

  7. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is real and should not be censured. It is unfair to harshly criticize a novel in which the events that take place are genuine. Adults underestimate the knowledge of children and teenagers when they should instead be treating kids with more maturity with the expectation that they will make good decisions. Sherman Alexie educates the reader on what it is like to grow up on an Indian reservation and provides insight to the differences between his life and the lives of students in other areas of the United States. Censoring this novel would be a crime because it is wonderfully written and an interesting story to read. It doesn't break any rules, but just bends them in the right way to make the novel well known.

  8. This book is reality for many teenage boys and shouldn't be censored. The reasons for it being censored in some schools is like it says above: violence, sexual content, addictions and foul language. FIrst, foul language is a normal part of a teenage boys life. Boys will be boys. Also, I agree with what someone said above about how the author did show some constraint and control with foul language compared to the foul language of real life high school hallways. Also, the sexual content is again controlled and everything mentioned is again a normal part of life for teenagers. It is normal for teenagers to explore their sexuality at that age. Finally, the violence is negatively portrayed as well as addictions. Violence is frowned upon as well as addictions. All alcohol addictions are portrayed as parents would want them to be, if you get really drunk you do stupid things like kill your best friend which happens in this book.

  9. Sherman Alexie's work definitely makes The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian one of my favorite books! Personally, I don't feel as though the book needs to be banned from young adult readers. The first time I read the book was in 8th Grade and as I read through the parts of masturbation, I simply noted to my self, "Oh, that's awkward…", and then moved past it, more intrigued by the drawings and humor within the book. I believe that if parents are concerned with their child reading this book, they need to have a personal discussion with them. But even so, parents need to realize that their child is growing up and they can't shield them from mature issues. As I mentioned to many others, the book provides wonderful life lessons that I believe are beneficial for students. Alexie creates a beautiful dynamic between poverty, alcohol, humor, and hope that makes the book a terrific read.