Let’s Read Banned Books: Sherman Alexie
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian
by Sherman Alexie, illustrations by Ellen Forney
Little, Brown 2007, paperback 2009
reviewed by Seana Graham
“Excellent in every way, poignant and really funny and heartwarming and honest and wise and smart…I have no doubt that in a year or so it’ll be winning awards and being banned.” –Neil Gaiman
This blurb excerpt from Gaiman’s website post turned out to be doubly prophetic—Alexie’s book won the National Book Award in 2007 (as well as many other awards) and from 2010-2019 it was the most challenged book in the United States and was one of the top ten banned books in the country.
The Absolutely True Diary is a novel aimed at young adults, though very enjoyable for older adults too. It tells the story of Arnold Spirit, more commonly referred to as Junior, and his life on the Wellpinit Reservation in Washington state, and in the nearby town of Reardan where he ends up going to high school. The novel began as a memoir but Alexie was persuaded to turn it into a young adult novel instead. He perhaps jocularly estimates its biographical component at 78%.
Although the voice, tone and audience are somewhat different, this book reminded me of another book I reviewed here recently, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. There is the same sense of a bright young person with a foot in more than one world and not entirely at home in either. One difference between the two is that in Noah’s case it was his mother who decided to escape from the constricting conditions of the South African homelands, while in this book, Junior is the first one out of his family. He too comes from a loving but very poor background.
I was a bit surprised when I learned that this novel was aimed at a young adult readership, as this hasn’t been Alexie’s usual audience. It is illustrated by Ellen Fornay with several forms of comic and other kinds of drawn art (she describes her process in an interview in the back). It is appropriate because Junior likes to draw comics himself, and finds it one of the best ways to express some of the things going on with him and in his communities.
Alexie manages to weave a coming-of-age story that might be familiar to many an adolescent boy while also highlighting things that are occurring to him and his Spokane tribe specifically because he and they are Indian. The factor of alcohol looms large in what is often (but not always) a tragic tale. In one way, this is a tale of accumulating loss, but in another it is a story of resilience and determination. Junior (and Alexie) learn and in turn teach us that life is important even in the smaller moments, that dreaming big enough dreams matters, that friendships can be difficult but also worth the effort.
So what’s to ban? According to Wikipedia, the book has been challenged and, in some cases, banned for the following reasons:
- Acknowledging poverty, alcoholism, and sexuality
- Allegations of sexual misconduct by the author
- Offensive language/Profanity
- Cultural insensitivity
- Deemed anti-family
- Depictions of bullying
- References to drugs, alcohol, and smoking
- Religious viewpoint (anti-Christian content)
- Sex education
- Sexual references
- Unsuited for age group
The allegations of sexual misconduct by the author stand out as being a little unusual in these book banning challenges. I have put the reporting on this in a link below, but for my purposes, it is just interesting to think about book banning and cancel culture as related activities. Alexie is somewhat unusual for being a subject of both at the same time. As one person in our book group’s discussion mentioned, it is important to make some distinction between the artist and their work, or at least to think about what that distinction might be.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian gives us an excellent way of doing just that. Whatever Alexie’s own behavior towards and lapses in judgement about women may be in real life, none of this finds its way into the pages of the novel. Junior’s friendship with and crush on his classmate Penelope is from the most innocent end of the spectrum. Junior’s sister’s path out of the family and reservation is described sympathetically, and Arnold’s mother and grandmother are portrayed as loving and tolerant women.
So give it a go if you’re intrigued.
P.S. I read it twice.
(As always, feel free to contact me if you have a banned book you would like to review. No prior reviewing experience needed. Your interest and even passion for a particular book will be enough to start off with. And check the links at the bottom of the list below if you need ideas–there are plenty to choose from.)
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. She has published stories in a variety of literary journals. The recent anthology Annihilation Radiation from Storgy Press, includes one of them. Santa Cruz Noir, a title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.