It’s been a long time since a fictional character captured my heart as much as Arnold Spirit does in "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian". Arnold (closely based on the author, Sherman Alexie) is an intelligent and determined Native American boy growing up in the Spokane (Washington) Indian Reservation (“the rez”). A caring teacher and the fateful discovery that his eagerly anticipated geometry textbook is so out-of-date that it once belonged to his 44-year-old mother convince Arnold that he must do whatever it takes to avoid the fate of his parents and many of their friends; a fate defined by poverty, alcoholism, and despair. This is not to be the fate for Arnold, just as it wasn't for Alexie.
Sherman Alexie has written several books, poems, and a screenplay collaboration about his experiences as a Native American; most of them award winners. Although his writing focuses on the feelings of powerlessness of many Native Americans and their struggles against racism, Alexie writes with such a unique candour and humor that he is a pleasure to read. A great example of his style is this description of his sister's funeral: "How do we honor the drunken death of a young married couple? HEY, LET'S GET DRUNK!"
His story is filled with powerful and moving moments of laughter and love which he expresses through the cartoons that he loves to draw because "words are too limited. But when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it." He draws as a way of reaching out to a world beyond the "rez" - a world with more opportunity and chances for happiness. Those closest to Arnold have intelligence, talent, and promise of their own but lack his determination to break free of the “ugly circle” that is the fate of too many of the people he sees around him on the reservation. “You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor…and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
What could be a sad story is kept from being so thanks to the charming vocabulary and exceptional humor of 14-year-old Arnold. It is a story of hope told from the point of view of a young person full of promise and the courage to fulfill a fate of his own choosing. The illustrations by Ellen Forney also give the story a humorous and hopeful tone. Her depiction of Arnold with his nerdy looks are exactly right and the reader loves him both for his precocious personality as well as his vulnerable appearance. The most wonderful image of all is the one we are left with at the end of the story; Arnold is happy for now on the "rez" and happy also in his certainty of a future in a wider world.
Review by Kendra Runnalls, Community Librarian at the Revelstoke Branch of the ORL