Arnold Spirit (nicknamed Junior) is a 14 year old Native American boy, living on the Spokane Reservation. He comes into the world with lots of disadvantages—beginning with fluid on this brain which prompted some physical issues. His family (like most of the others on the reservation) is extremely poor. Arnold is a budding cartoonist and stellar student. He attends an Indian school with outdated textbooks and poor resources. A teacher urges him to pursue his education in the white community, which leads to complications and obstacles—such as getting to and from school each day (often he must walk miles), being further ostracized by his native community (including his only friend), and learning to fit in his new environment. Through it all, Arnold learns about himself, his culture, and his community (both his white school and his Indian homeland).
Sherman Alexie has created an amazing voice in Arnold. I was immediately sucked into his story and his world. First, I was intrigued by his early life and, then, the story of his dog just got me! I could not put this book down! I really felt for Arnold. He is bullied. He is poor. He is largely alone. Despite all of it, his spirit overcomes even as he deals with personal challenges, family difficulties, and tragic loss. His depiction of Native Americans is raw but moving.
Another dimension to the narrative is Arnold’s drawings, which are a creative and emotional outlet for him. They often reveal further insights into his world and his feelings. The cartoons also epitomize his character. Sometimes they are funny. Other times touching, revealing his tender heart. They are always honest and entertaining.
Several complex issues are dealt with, such as alcoholism, poverty, bullying, and death. With those awful and often heartbreaking matters, there is always a sense of hope and humor. A couple controversial issues may turn some people off. There is some occasional profanity. The biggest concern for many will be the references to physical arousal and self-pleasuring. They are not graphic and only sporadic. I would have preferred them not to be a part of the narrative, but I guess it is not entirely out of place since they are facts of life and reflective of the age of the protagonist.
Despite a handful of unpleasant words and references, I highly recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for mature audiences (15 and up). The story prompts insight and compassion. You will not soon forget Arnold or his friends and family members.