by Nick Lontz, AmeriCorps member on the Westfield Capital Management team with Mildred Avenue K-8 School
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian begins at a Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. Life is tough on the rez—its citizens have been crushed beneath the weight of generations’ worth of poverty and tragedy; alcoholism runs rampant; and upward mobility—the “American Dream”—is a laughable notion.
Junior, the main character of Sherman Alexie’s novel, doesn’t quite fit into this community. Nerdy and weak, he endures a great deal of bullying from his cynical peers. More importantly, though, Junior is a dreamer—he wants to someday become a cartoon artist and break free from the vicious cycle of poverty—and this desire to escape, to "leave the rez," is what truly separates him from his community.
The book’s turning point comes when Junior has the opportunity to do just that—escape. After a classroom incident in which he hurls a thirty year old textbook at his absent-minded teacher, Junior is sent to a school off the reservation, in an affluent, white community. Aside from the basketball team’s mascot, Junior is the only Native American at his new school. Rather than alienate him, however, his differences inadvertently bring about a sense of belonging that he never experienced on the reservation. His willingness to fight earns him the respect of the local basketball star. And the token popular girl develops a romantic interest in him (albeit possibly only to anger her racist father). It isn’t long before Junior has joined the basketball team and established himself as part of the popular crowd at school.
And thus, Junior finds himself torn between two worlds—the white world that offers him new hope and opportunity; and the reservation, his home, that seems to be forever rooted in tragedy. The “part-time” of the title comes from the dissonance Junior encounters trying to balance these two aspects of his identity. The brutal paradox of his situation dictates that the more he excels in his new environment, the more resentment he accrues from those in the reservation. One scene sees him playing basketball against his old school—when he steps onto the court, rather than greet him with any kind of applause or fanfare, the people of the reservation turn their backs on Junior. He may inhabit two worlds, but so long as he does he can’t call either home.
Like all great YA authors, Alexie tackles heavy, complicated themes with humor and grace. Poverty, racism, alcoholism, white privilege, family, friendship—these weighty topics are rendered accessible by Alexie’s impactful prose. Not to mention, his novel is replete with funny cartoons and inappropriate diagrams, the way to any teenage reader’s heart. Alexie pulls off a tricky task—though his style apes Captain Underpants, his content is on par with most any adult literature. His tale of a young Native American boy mired in identity issues—striving to reach a better future without severing contact with his sickly roots—is one that every teenager should read.