On My Bookshelf: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

October 03, 2016

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is the tale of an outsider determined to make his own path in life. The novel also provides opportunities for teens to reflect on the loved ones they've lost. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom application.
Basic plot from Amazon: Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.

Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author's own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character's art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.

With a forward by Markus Zusak, interviews with Sherman Alexie and Ellen Forney, and four-color interior art throughout, this edition is perfect for fans and collectors alike.

Why I liked it: Just before Junior, in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, describes finding out about his sister’s death, he reflects on his grandmother’s death and the death of Eugene, his father’s best friend. He makes this statement about funerals:

“I’m fourteen years old and I’ve been to forty-two funerals.

That’s really the difference between Indians and white people.

A few of my white classmates have been to a grandparent’s funeral. And a few have lost an uncle or aunt. And one guy’s brother died of leukemia when he was in third grade.

But there’s nobody who has been to more than five funerals."

What struck me here is that even death, a universal experience, is something Junior feels separates him from his classmates because of the number of deaths he has experienced (42 as opposed to their 5) and the cause, usually alcohol.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is the tale of an outsider determined to make his own path in life. The novel also provides opportunities for teens to reflect on the loved ones they've lost. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom application.On a personal level, I can relate to Junior’s experience here. I know I have been to more funerals than the average person my age though not all connected to a similar cause (though in my experience, one death in a family or circle of friends often leads to others). As a teacher, I think this could be a very powerful moment in the book for my students, many of whom have experienced death, too much of it, and are themselves just fourteen years old. The deaths in my students’ lives are usually one of two causes: violence or health issues (and though I am not a medical expert, I would bet many are poverty related health issues).

Classroom application: Before reading Linda Christensen’s Teaching for Joy and Justice, I might have let this moment pass in my classroom. To share my own experiences on this topic with my students would be painful. How would they respond? How would I react? What would the students share? How would they respond to each other? How would I react? (I am a cryer; I cry reading the newspaper.)

After reading Linda Christensen’s Teaching for Joy and Justice, I see this moment as an opportunity to engage my students in discussion and writing that is real and relevant to them. Students could reflect on the lives lost and write poetry to praise those individuals: a “metaphor” poem, a “write that I poem,” or a “mirror” poem. Christensen’s poetry lesson “For My People” could easily be steered in the direction of “For My Lost People” and praise a group rather than just an individual. Students could then address the reason for the lives lost: violence, drugs, disease, etc.

After writing poetry, students could turn the same topic into an essay like Christensen’s “profile essay,” used to honor ancestors. In this essay students would practice narrative writing skills like writing a physical description of a “character,” and showing a “character” in action. Students would also give important background information about that person, and the impact of that person on their lives and their futures. 

Through read-alouds students would share their writing and their experiences. Hopefully, students would walk away knowing “I am not alone.” When Arnold returns to school, he is overwhelmed by the kindness of his white classmates and teachers. He too learns, he is not alone.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here.

For more book suggestions for teachers and students:



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2 comments

  1. I plan on teaching this novel with my grade 10 students. Are there any suggestions or can you point me in the direction of online resources? Thanks

    Lisa

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  2. Lisa,
    I've never taught this as a whole class novel so I don't have any specific resources for it. As described above many ideas from Linda Christensen's Teaching for Joy and Justice would pair well with this novel. I Would also suggest using some of Sherman Alexie's poetry. He also has a new children's book out and recently did this interview with NPR: http://www.npr.org/2016/05/23/478223827/sherman-alexie-on-his-new-kids-book-and-the-angst-of-being-a-jr
    Hope that helps!
    Brynn Allison

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