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

03/05/08, The Times

The works of the half-Native American writer Sherman Alexie, chosen as one of the top 20 American writers under the age of 40, in the first list compiled by Granta for the USA in 1996, offer a view of American life that is almost absent from contemporary fiction. They give us the true subaltern’s voice in the white colonisers’ language, an insider’s account of a unique postcolonial experience largely missing from the vast, burgeoning literature of and about it. In his first young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Alexie tells the autobiographical story of a fourteen-year-old Spokane Indian, Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, attempting to rise above the blighted life he is born into in the Wellpinit Reservation and make it in the wider white world and the fallout from this act.

Arnold is born hydrocephalic and an early surgery to correct this leaves him with a few problems. But nothing compares to the misery and the absolute dead-endness of the life that is the Indians’ lot in a rez: poverty, endemic alcoholism, absence of every possible opportunity, a crushing collective lack of self-worth … it is small wonder that Arnold, who is bright, spunky, and discontent with the cards handed him by life, seeks to go to the nearest white school, Reardan, twenty-two miles away, and get himself a leg-up in life. Dire consequences ensue. His best friend, Rowdy, becomes his enemy overnight and the rez community treats him as a kind of outcast for this seeming act of betrayal. Things at Reardan are no better to begin with: Arnold faces the typical racism that is marked for a native from a rez. To make things worse, he has a crush on the most beautiful (white) girl in school, Penelope. Assimilation does occur and baseball inevitably helps with it. But things back at the reservation go from bleak to hopeless.

It is a shame then that this tale of chutzpah and the indomitable human spirit should be marred by mawkish self-pity, a grinding stylistic repetitiveness, a tone of breathtaking condescension, and the fakest 14-year-old’s voice imaginable.