The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Book Poster Image
Parents recommendPopular with kids
Funny, gritty, and powerful novel of growing up on the rez.

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 43 reviews

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 93 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Many details about Native American reservation life, culture, hardships. Discussion of plot of classic tragic play Medea by Euripides. Junior and his friend Gordy discuss reading the same book at least three times and what you'll discover when you do.

Positive Messages

Deep bonds of family, friends, community can get people through even the toughest circumstances. Grandma, even upon her death, teaches poignant lessons in tolerance and forgiveness. Racism and the harm it does are front and center here: White against Native American, and Native American against a local kid considered to be acting "too White." Also, how do we break past limitations placed on us by a racist world? Grief is examined in detail.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Junior is smart, good at drawing and basketball. He has ambition and hope for his future. His guilt for leaving family and friends behind almost gets in the way of his own aspirations. He's a kid straddling two worlds who faces discrimination from both sides and, with grace and good humor, learns to accept loneliness and complexity that comes with his situation.

Violence

Deaths of people close to main character; not described in detail but heavily mourned. All are related to alcohol abuse: a woman run over by a drunk driver, people burned alive in a camper, a man shot in the face by accident by his friend, talk of a friend hanging himself in jail. A beloved dog is shot and killed because they couldn't afford to take it to the vet, and it was suffering. Bullies repeatedly beat up the main character. Talk that his best friend's dad beats him. A concussion and stitches in a basketball game. Teacher hit in face with book; broken nose. Story of teeth pulled by White dentist who didn't give enough medication because he decided "Indians" didn't feel as much pain. Adults and one teen suffer depression; a teen girl is bulimic. Mention of brain surgery when main character was a baby.

Sex

Kissing and sexual thoughts. Mentions that main character loves to masturbate and has magazines with nude photos. When he hugs an adult counselor, he gets an erection. Bawdy talk with friend about erections and masturbation.

Language

Just about all the swear words, but the worst ones rarely. The "N" word used in a racist joke that gets someone punched. Words that demean particular groups including: "p---y," "f-g," and "retard."

Consumerism

Brands are mentioned and used to differentiate between poor and rich, Native American and White. Main character loves KFC, and they go to a Denny's restaurant.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Plenty of drinking and drunkenness, but none is glamorized or done by main teen characters. Alcoholism, drunk drivers, and drunk fighting are meant to reflect difficult lives of people on the reservation. Main character suffers when his father goes away on a drinking binge -- once through the Christmas holidays.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a National Book Award winner by Sherman Alexie. Alexie was accused of sexual harassment in 2018, 11 years after this book was first published; he doesn't deny the charges. Before that, the book was often banned for its mature content. It's a gritty look at the struggles of Junior, a teen living on a Native American reservation who decides to attend an all-White school. Junior mourns the deaths of many people close to him, all of whom die due to severe alcohol abuse. A woman is run over by a drunk driver, people are burned alive in a camper, a man is shot in the face by accident by his friend, and there's talk of his friend hanging himself in jail afterward. A suffering dog is shot and killed because the family can't afford to take it to the vet. There's a lot of fighting, too. Junior is often beat up. Characters swear frequently, using all of the usual suspects, though when one boy uses the "N" word as part of a racist joke, he gets punched in the face for it. Junior enjoys masturbation and looking at magazines with nude pictures. He also engages in bawdy talk with his friends and gets an erection while hugging a school counselor. There's lots of drinking in the story, but only by adults, and there's nothing glamorous about it. This book stands out for its unique voice in literature, for its brutal honesty -- it's based on Alexie's own experiences -- and for its poignancy. It explores the deep bonds of family, friends, and community and how they help people through even the toughest circumstances. It explores racism and how we break past the limitations placed upon us by a racist world, as well as grief, tolerance, and forgiveness. It's no wonder there are so many discussion guides on this book for school classrooms: There's lots to discuss. It's a shame that Alexie's harassment allegations have had to be added to the list.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byImprovingeducation September 9, 2013

Some educational value does not compensate for a low reading level crass and vulgar book.

I read this book because it was on my son's school required reading list. I felt it was incredibly juvenile for a 10th grade honors English class. The sw... Continue reading
Adult Written byMelissa C. October 17, 2017

Crucial Book For Teenagers and Young Adults

I read this novel as part of my Young Adult Fiction course at University. Of course, this book deals with difficult, often 'taboo' subjects, but that... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byjlerner20 October 14, 2020

Review

This book is defenitley not for a nice kid. This book has a ton of racial jokes, racial words. Even the kids who read it, did not feel comfortable with the type... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byfox10145 December 29, 2010

Great comedy

I choose to read this book for our "banned book" project. The masturbation mention seems to be the most controversial topic for this book. You should... Continue reading

What's the story?

In THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, teenage Junior throws a book at the teacher in his reservation school one day and gets suspended. He'd snapped when the teacher handed him a book with his mother's name written inside. Why couldn't their dirt-poor school ever have new books? When Junior's teacher shows up to his house with a broken nose, rather than yell, he proposes a radical idea: that Junior find a way out. The next day Junior heads to the neighboring farming town of Reardan to attend an all-White school. The move has immediate repercussions. His best friend, Rowdy, and the whole reservation hate him, his sister runs away to Montana to get married, and most of the kids in his new school are wary of him. But as Junior slowly makes friends with a basketball star and the smartest kid in school, he opens up to his strange new world.

Is it any good?

Racism, alcoholism, grief, identity, familial love, comics, basketball, and hope all mingle in this poignant story of a Native American boy attending an all-White high school. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian may be some readers' first look at life on a reservation. Author Sherman Alexie, who based the story on his own life, is unflinching in his descriptions of alcohol-fueled hopelessness and poverty. But it's not all hopelessness. Not as he describes Junior's love for his family or his love of learning and basketball. Junior also refuses to give up on Rowdy, who feels so betrayed by Junior leaving the reservation school that he punches Junior at every opportunity. Junior's attempts to win Rowdy back while still trying to fit in at his new school -- or even just make it the 22 miles to school each day when Dad is always running out of gas money -- really demonstrate the tough world he inhabits.

Readers who know that Alexie was accused of sexual misconduct in 2018 may see some of the book's sexual content in a different light than those who read it without knowing those details. A 14-year-old boy being obsessed with masturbation feels honest, but a scene in which Junior gets an erection while hugging a counselor now lacks the "gee, isn't it awkward to be a boy full of hormones" humor it once had. When this book first came out, it felt like a fresh voice and perspective. And it still feels like a valuable perspective for kids to experience. But whether it continues being read widely given Alexie's off-the-page situation remains to be seen.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the controversy around The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and its author, Sherman Alexie. Do circumstances like that affect your interest in reading a book? Why, or why not?

  • Have you ever read a book about life on a reservation or a book about Native American characters? If so, how did this one compare? What's the benefit of having diverse voices in the books you read?

  • How does the main character experience racism? How does he choose to deal with it most of the time?

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