This is a would-be writer’s look at an own voices novel. Spoilers abound.
“Just take a look at the world. Almost all of the rich and famous brown people are artists.”
That’s a line from Sherman Alexie’s novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
The title alone brings a smile to my face. The book purports to be a diary, but just a casual flip through the pages reveals that it’s nothing of the sort. The insistence that the contents of the book are absolutely true is doth protesting too much. And lastly, there’s something funny about having a part-time identity.
One simply is or isn’t something. Or so conventional wisdom says.
The book’s twee title also makes me feel as if I was about to crack the book’s spine and encounter a novel full of sentimental, quirky characters. And in some sense, that’s what I found. Weird is a word Alexie often uses about his Indian characters.
The characters are colorful too; only they are all colorful in the same way. The Indians dwelling on the Spokane Indian Reservation are mostly alcoholics or recovering alcoholics or people so depressed they can’t leave their basement bedroom. As you can see, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is something more than the usual bask in human sunshine typically afforded by twee art. The Indian reservation, or the rez as its inhabitants call it, is a place of death. The main character, Arnold Spirit Jr., who goes by “Junior” and is a clear stand-in for the author, at one point observes that the reservation wasn’t meant to be a place where Indians lived but a place they were concentrated so that they could die. In essence, it’s a place you try to survive, or at best endure.
At the start of the novel, Alexie presents us with two best friends. There is Junior, who is weak and at the bottom of the reservation totem pole (one of Junior’s jokes), and then there is his best friend, Rowdy, who is strong and athletic. They come from different circumstances: Rowdy’s home life is abusive, while Junior has loving, if extremely dysfunctional, parents. As a result, Rowdy is full of rage while Junior is mild mannered. But rage runs through Junior as well. Indeed, the novel’s inciting incident is an act of violence: in a fit of frustration with his condition in life, Junior throws a book at his quirkily named teacher, Mr. P, and breaks his nose. Mr. P forgives Junior, but also advises him to leave the rez before he self-destructs like the other Indians around him. Mr. P. goes on to suggest that Junior might be better off getting his education off the reservation at a nearby white school. With the blessings of his family, Junior does just that, but the other Indians on the reservation see this as betrayal. Rowdy takes it the hardest.
Thematically speaking, most books have a single through line; usually something simple like “love conquers all, trust is the foundation of everything, don’t give up” (see this blog on themes). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian explores aspects of staying and leaving, but Alexie gives this underlying theme an arc by sequentially exploring: finding the bravery to leave, landing in a space in between (i.e. being marginalized), feeling guilt as your life moves towards a hopeful future while the world you left behind continues to disintegrate.
Finding hope in knowing you’re not alone: finding a new tribe
As Junior leaves the rez, he feels fear. Not only does he worry what the other Indians will do to him, he worries if his new white world will accept him.
Leaving one’s tribe requires a certain faith: a belief that somewhere out there exists people who are just like you and who will accept you. When Junior leaves the rez, he faces racism, most notably from his teachers and other adults. While his classmates bully him for being an Indian, a lot of this antagonism disappears as he integrates into the community. In fact, Junior’s life outside the rez is a charmed one: he gets a popular white girl to fall for him and becomes a star basketball player.
But there’s only half acceptance. Junior always exists in a class apart. At one point, Junior ruminates about how his excellence is always marked by his Indianness. The small town where he goes to school is like many small towns in that it’s obsessed with local high school sports heroes. The townsfolk remember their former greats by comparing current greats to the past ones. Junior knows no such comparisons will exist for him. That no one will one day say of a promising young white basketball player, that he plays like an Arnold Spirit.
Survival: the guilt of leaving your old tribe behind
This half acceptance takes up the first half of the novel, but once Junior lands on his feet, something else overcomes him. He starts feeling guilty about leaving his family and his best friend behind in a place of death.
The second half of the novel is punctuated with deaths. One by one, three characters who loom large in Junior’s life die. His grandmother succumbs to old age, and with her, her clear memory of Indian traditions (she is the one adult Indian character who isn’t an alcoholic). Then his father’s friend Eugene dies. He’s a compassionate man and a happy spirit, but he dies in a tragically silly shootout over a bottle of booze. And finally, Arnold’s sister dies. She has dreams of being a writer, but she burns to death when her trailer catches fire. At the time, she’s passed out after a night of binge drinking at a party.
The novel’s last scene brings the two boys back together: the boy who left and the boy who stayed behind.
If life is a pattern of people being unhappy in the same way, we have a sense of what will be Rowdy’s fate.
Of course, we don’t know for sure.