Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical narrative about a young native American boy torn between the hopelessness of his reservation and the promise of a better future at an all-white high school. The narrator, Junior, deals with serious topics with wit and wisdom that will have you laughing and also sometimes tearing up.

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I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as part of the 2022 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. December’s challenge was to read a book that takes place in the Pacific Northwest or Canada because that’s where a lot of Christmas trees come from. With its Washington state setting, this novel fit the bill nicely.

Junior (whose real name is Arnold) is just beginning high school at a reservation school. He’s a bright kid who’s looking forward to learning, but when his math teacher hands him a textbook that his mother previously used, he loses it and throws the book at his teacher, smashing his nose.

The old textbook is one of many symbols of the hopelessness of reservation life, where alcoholism and unemployment run high. Junior’s father is an alcoholic who goes on multi-day benders. His older sister, who once had dreams of being a writer, has checked out of life and spends most of her time in the basement. The family lives in poverty, often not having enough food.

Against this backdrop, Junior’s math teacher visits him one day and urges him to transfer to the white school 22 miles away. His teacher recognizes Junior’s potential and doesn’t want to see him lose hope like his sister.

To his fellow tribe members, including Junior’s best friend, transferring schools was a significant betrayal. While being ostracized on the reservation, Junior is also struggling to fit in with his new classmates. It’s a lot for a 13-year-old boy to handle, but Junior has an effective coping mechanism – he draws cartoons.

The cartoons allow Junior to sort out the events in his life with humor. Combined with his witty narration, they keep the story from being too grim. In fact, I would say the overall tone of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is humorously hopeful.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is yet another young adult (YA) novel that I enjoyed, however its tone is very different from something like I Must Betray You. This one had content you would expect from an adolescent narrator, including fart jokes. While fart jokes aren’t really my cup of tea, I really liked the book for its honesty, wisdom, humor, and glimpse of the struggles of reservation life.

How about you? Did you read a book set in Canada or the Pacific Northwest? Tell us about it in the comments section.

**Reminder – January’s challenge is to read a book that takes place in the future.

Happy new year, everyone!

12 thoughts on “Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

  1. I have heard of this book before and your review made me want to read it. The more I learn about the difficult situation of Native people in our country, the more I think we need to learn more. Sometimes, I’m surprised to remember I live 5 minutes from the Indian Residential School at the Shawnee Mission.

    In December I read a GREAT book set in Canada – A World of Curiosities – the 18th book in the Three Pines series by Louise Penny. Last year I read the first 17 books in this magnificent cozy mystery series in a great winter binge, and I was very excited when the latest book came out. Most people know about Penny’s books, featuring the great detective, Inspector Arnaud Gamache, set in the fictional town of Three Pines, located in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. While some of the books are better than others, this latest is a real gem. Tightly written, with a lot of history, as well as the usual characters doing what they usually do. Highly recommended!

    Happy New Year to all!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello & Happy New Year! I’ve been following your blog for a while — and really enjoy it, thank you! — but this is the first time I’ve posted. I listened to this book on audio 2 years ago and gave it 5 stars! (The author was the narrator and I liked hearing him read his own story; it’s a compelling story and sometimes I would forget that it was semi-autobiographical.) Fingers crossed I can join in on a couple of your monthly reading challenges in 2023! 🙂 Peace & best wishes to all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting! Good to hear from you! I like the idea of authors reading their own books, especially when the stories are very personal. I’ll have to check out the audio book.

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  3. Your review made me want to read this book, but it also made me want to examine more closely the reasons why Native American schools have been so neglected that they are unable, at least in some cases, to provide the foundation for hopefulness and accomplishment among Native American youth. Anybody have any suggestions on books that address the historical causes for this?

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    • Hi Joni. That would be a very interesting topic to explore. I wonder if reservation schools are plagued by some of the same issues as inner-city schools. If you find some good information, please pass it along.

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  4. Great review Michelle for a great book! I really, really enjoyed this book. There were times when I was laughing out loud – so much so that my wife finally asked me, what’s so funny? Yep, a couple of times it was because of the fart jokes… This book is a real gem! As you pointed out, it is a glimpse into reservation life which in many cases and depictions is quite depressing. The author clearly doesn’t shy away from this reality, but he also paints a picture where there can still be hope, joy and love. Junior is a glass half full kind of guy despite the odds stacked against him. He’s not a quitter. Also, despite his parents’ shortcomings, they did have a family with a lot of love for one other. I’m quite impressed how Alexie tackles such tough subjects, reservation life and adolescent angst, but does it with so much humor and love. One of my favorite books that we read this year! In fact, both of the YAF books that we finished up with were fantastic. Great pick!

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  5. I thought this book was enlightening and honest. Does that change because the author has been accused of sexual exploitation? No, but it is profoundly disappointing in the context of my believing his voice is honest in regards to the discrimination and disparate treatment he has experienced as a native American.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi! Thanks for commenting! I read about the sexual harassment charges after I read the book when I looked up information about the author. It’s really disappointing but, like you, I don’t think it diminishes the message in the book. It’s just very sad that someone who overcame so much could make such a bad mistake.

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  6. Great review! I thoroughly enjoyed this book– so much so that I read it in a single day because I couldn’t put it down! I thought Alexie did a great job of capturing the difficulties of life on the Reservation with nuance, while still making it a novel that Young Adults could digest and enjoy. The novel inspired the gambit emotions, from sadness to hope and plenty of hilarity.

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