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Tradition, Change, and Kinship in Sherman Alexie’s [The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian]

Front cover of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007)

Front cover of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007)

Few young adult novels manage to tackle deep and complex issues with as much heart and nuance as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (henceforth PTI). Initially, PTI can be approached as an autobiographical coming-of-age (graphic) novel that centers on the growth and development of Arnold Spirit Jr., a fourteen-year-old cartoonist and student who is born and raised in the Spokane Indian Reservation located in the Washington state area. The novel, which is told from Arnold’s first-person perspective, immediately lets the reader know that he is not considered normal from racial, physical, or social standards. He discloses that he was born with a condition known as hydrocephalus (the accumulation of water in the brain), he grew forty-two teeth instead of the thirty-two that most adults have, and the brain damage originated by his condition causes him to have seizures and to have a near-sighted eye and a far-sighted eye. Besides his physical ailments, Arnold reveals that his family is not only very poor, but also that his father is an alcoholic and his mother is a recovering alcoholic. These conditions lead Arnold to prefer a solitary life away from other members of his tribe, usually because they approach him as “a retard” (4) or as different. Arnold spends most of his time reading books, drawing cartoons, and spending time with his hypermasculine and stubborn best friend, Rowdy.

The main tension of the novel is triggered when Arnold decides to transfer to Reardan High, a school populated exclusively by white, middle-to-upper-class students–making Arnold the only non-white student in the school. Arnold’s decision to leave the high school situated in his reservation is not only fueled by the fact that people are brutally violent towards him in the reservation (he literally fears his life when dwelling the reservation, and he is bashed by peers and adults alike), but also by a growing awareness of the stagnancy and immobility promoted by the reservation. Arnold is aware that nobody in his reservation has gone to college, and he is also aware of how social diseases such as alcoholism infect his environment to the extent that it kills people he holds dear, such as his grandmother and his sister. As he points out towards the end of the novel:

I cried because so many of my fellow tribal members were slowly killing themselves and I wanted them to live. I wanted them to get strong and get sober and get the hell out of the rez. It’s a weird thing. Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move into reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear. But somehow or another, Indians have forgotten that reservations were meant to be death camps. (217)

Leaving the reservation’s high school is seen as a betrayal by most of the Spokane residents. To make matters even more complicated, Arnold soon realizes that as the only Indian in Reardan High, he is seen by others as an outcast.

Image from page 63 of PTI, in which Arnold illustrates himself being verbally abused by his white peers at Reardan High.

Image from page 63 of PTI, in which Arnold illustrates himself being verbally abused by his white peers at Reardan High.

Arnold thus develops and grows in cultural borderlands–he isn’t white, and he isn’t Native American. However, Arnold’s choice to leave the reservation isn’t a matter of “arrogance” (217) as he later implies in the novel, but rather, it is a decision driven by the desire for a livable life. The notion of cultural forgetting becomes an important element in the novel, especially when focusing on the reservation as a space of death, alcoholism, and destruction. Arnold recognizes that the reservation does have some beautiful qualities, especially when it comes to the preservation of ancient customs and traditions. However, he comes to understand that this preservation and conservation comes with a price: immobility, death, and stagnancy.

Something I truly love and appreciate about this novel is the fact that it is in no way driven by binaristic forms of thinking. True, there are moments in which binaries are highlighted in PTI, particularly binaries of race, color, culture, and belief–but they are highlighted only to be obliterated at certain points of the narrative. Returning to the notion of mobility versus stagnancy and tradition versus innovation, Arnold doesn’t take a definite stance when it comes to these issues, and at times, he even seems to contradict himself when judging tradition and conservatism as positive or negative. He recognizes that immobility and tradition are sometimes self-sabotaging and at times irrational, but he also takes care to point out instances in which tradition seems to be even more enlightening and liberal when compared to contemporary and more “evolved” forms of thinking. This is particularly seen when Arnold describes his grandmother, who adhered to more traditional ideologies:

Now, in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity. In fact, weird people were often celebrated. Epileptics were often shamans because people just assumed that God gave seizure-visions to the lucky ones. Gay people were seen as magical, too. I mean, like in many cultures, men were viewed as warriors and women were viewed as caregivers. But gay people, being both male and female. were seen as both warriors and caregivers. Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives! (155)

It is here that one of the root problems of Arnold’s society is exposed. He points out that with the advent of Christianity in the reservation, people grew to fear eccentricity and lost their ability to be tolerant. With this in mind, the tension of the novel is based not on the battle between tradition and change, but rather on the struggle between appreciating difference and eliminating difference. I think it would be too simplistic and naive to approach Arnold’s departure from his reservation as an act of assimilation or as a manifestation of a white-washing sentiment. I’d rather approach his departure as an effort to strive for difference, as an effort to live, and as an escape from complete assimilation. Furthermore, Arnold’s departure leads him to realize that he does not belong to one tribe, but to many: “I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms. And to the tribe of cartoonists. . .” (217). Thus, rather than trying to adhere to notions of identity as a individualized entity, Arnold comes to understand, through his escape, that the self is pluralistic and multifaceted.

Besides a story of growth, development, and maturation, I would also classify PTI as a very unconventional love story. However, rather than focusing on love in romantic terms, the book focuses on the love that develops through the kinship between two boys. With this, I am specifically referring to the love between Arnold and Rowdy. This love is not romantic or sexual in any sense, but it is perhaps the most intense and problematic love expressed in the novel. Rowdy is one of the many people who views Arnold’s transfer to another school as a betrayal–and it ultimately leads Rowdy to develop an intense animosity towards Arnold and everything that his actions represent. This hatred leads Arnold to constantly reflect on his relationship with Rowdy, and the void that his absence represents in his life. Arnold’s relationship with Rowdy inspires and ignites the novel’s deepest reflections on notions such as gender, masculinity, and culture–and it also pushes Arnold to question unwritten social rules when it comes to boys crying or expressing any type of affection to each other.

Image on page 219 of PTI. The image shows Rowdy and Arnold jumping into turtle lake when they were in third grade. It is important to note that unlike many of Arnold's other illustrations, this drawing depicts a realism that differs greatly from the other "cartoonish" drawings that Arnold usually includes in his diary.

Image on page 219 of PTI, depicting Rowdy and Arnold jumping into turtle lake when they were in third grade. It is important to note that unlike many of Arnold’s other illustrations, this drawing depicts a realism that differs greatly from the other “cartoonish” drawings that Arnold usually includes in his diary.

Arnold’s relationship with Rowdy becomes an element that allows the protagonist to assess the limits of relationships, but even more so, it allows him to reconfigure his conceptions of notions such as kinship and family. Early on, Arnold confesses that Rowdy is the person that he feels closest to, and he questions whether it is acceptable to love some who is not connected to you through blood or DNA: “I think Rowdy might be the most important person in my life. Maybe more important than my family. Can your best friend be more important than your family? I think so” (24). When Arnold tells Rowdy that he is transferring to Reardan High, he is conflicted with the emotions that he feels because he doesn’t deem them to be culturally acceptable, especially when it comes to Rowdy, who tends to be very macho and very violent: “I wanted to tell him that he was my best friend and I loved him like crazy, but boys didn’t say such things to other boys, and nobody said such things to Rowdy” (48-49). As the novel unfolds, Arnold not only grows to understand the gender politics that reign in different cultures, but he also grows more comfortable with recognizing and validating his own feelings even when others fail to acknowledge them. Arnold’s recognition of the unwritten social rules of gender doesn’t stop him from admitting that he loves Rowdy, and more importantly, experience doesn’t stop Arnold from labeling his affection towards Rowdy as love. As he states in the last page of the novel: “I would always love Rowdy. And I would always miss him too. Just as I would always love and miss my grandmother, my big sister, and Eugene” (230).

In sum, Sherman Alexie’s The Asbolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a rich, heartfelt, and complex novel that I would definitely recommend to my colleagues and peers. I learned a lot about Native American culture from reading it, and it gave me yet another insight into the unique relationships that humans can develop with their cultures and with other people. I loved the clever incorporation of art into the novel (drawn by the talented Ellen Forney), and I appreciated how these drawings added interpretive nuance to the novel, rather than simply illustrating the novel’s events. Much like a graphic novel, the drawings in PTI contribute to its meaning just as much as words do.

You can purchase a copy of Alexie’s novel by clicking here.

Work Cited

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007. Print (hardcover edition).

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