Part-time identity

I’ve been meaning to read this book for some time, so I was excited when I was semi-forced to read it by two coincidental things.  One, I started my book challenge, and this counts as an “X” author.  And two, I was doing an article for a school magazine and interviewing a teacher about teaching this book, so it made sense to read it first.  It was great!  A really fast read–I was done in one night and a wonderful weekend afternoon while my husband played with our son.  The book covers a lot of issues, mostly about culture and American identity, what it means to be a native American in the modern world, and what it means to find yourself.  It’s a coming-of-age novel for a kid who thought he’d never come of age to be anything other than poor and drunk.

Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Genre: Fiction
Age Group:
12 and up, Young Adult

Summary and Review:

Junior is growing up on an Indian reservation outside of Spokane, Washington.  It isn’t an easy life—he sees absolutely no hope for himself and no future for anyone he knows, other than to become poor and drunk.  He hangs out with his best friend Rowdy whose father is abusive and neglectful.  And then, during one of his first days in high school on the reservation, he looks at the copyright date on his math book and notices its the same book used to teach his parents.  He is outraged at how little he and his people has and throws the book in anger, accidentally hitting the teacher.  The teacher, though, has an unexpected response, and counsels Junior that he can have a future, and that he should transfer to a school off the reservation.

Junior takes his suggestion, and is immediately seen as a traitor to his people.  He hitchhikes or walks most days to the school, some 30 miles away, except on the rare occasions when his dad manages to (a) get the car running, (b) find enough gas money, and (c) remember to take him to school.  He is immersed in a white world where he must learn new rules of teenage society and try to fit in.  At the new school, he feels like an outsider, but when he comes back to the reservation each night, he is treated even more like one.

Junior, now called “Arnold”, his official name, manages to make some friends at his new school, and even joins the basketball team.  The dramatic games he plays against his former teammates and reservation friends highlight the tension between the Native American world and the white world right outside.

The book is an excellent portrayal of the tragic fate of Native Americans in this country and will make any kid think about it.  It’s also a wonderful book about growing up and finding out who you really are—and what defines that.  Junior’s search for a future is something anyone will identify with, and something all young adults will benefit from reading about.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and can’t wait to read more Sherman Alexie.

Follow-up with the kids:

There are months of conversation you could have about this book, and where you want to go with it probably depends on who you are and who your kid is.  A classroom or kids in a homeschool environment could read this book and have some great discussions about ethnic conflict, the history of Native Americans in this country, what it means to be an immigrant, and how circumstances really unlevel the playing field when it comes to the “American Dream” which for the kids Junior knows, is just a myth or a truth for people other than themselves.

If you are reading this at home with your kids, you can still talk about that, and I would encourage you to, but you can also take the conversation on a more personal level.  Ask your child what their dreams are.  What holds them back or pushes them forward?  Is there a way in which they are an outsider or an immigrant themselves?  How does that define who they are?

A great activity to do when talking about who you are is to draw a series of concentric circles.  Then brainstorm a list separately of adjectives that describe you (male, teenager, black, white, soccer-player, nerd, dog-lover, son, brother, etc.) and then put those adjectives in the circles, with the one that means the most and describes the most profound part of you in the center circle and working out accordingly.  This is an exercise that can mean a lot to kids and teens and help them think about their place in the world and where (and who) they want to be.  Sometimes they will surprise themselves at the adjectives they put close to the center and you can ask them about what it means to them to define themselves in such a way.  (For example, a kid might put “brother” as an identifier and be surprised when he realizes how important that piece of him is.  Why does he define himself as a brother so strongly and what is it about being a brother that shapes who he is?)

Possible Issues:

This is a young adult book told from the point of view of a ninth grade boy.  It’s honest.  He talks about masterbating (a lot), boners (also a lot), and some minor girlfriend lust, although they never actually do anything physical together.  There is also a lot of talk about drinking on the reservation and what alcohol has done to his family and his friends.  It’s all pretty minor stuff, and nothing unusual for a YA novel (unless it’s unusual for having LESS sexual content than many I’ve read).

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