Sherman Alexie’s first novel for young adults is the heart-wrenching/heart-warming story of Arnold, a 14-year-old budding writer/cartoonist living on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Life isn’t so great for Arnold or Junior Spirit. His dad drinks way too much as do many of the people on the rez. His mother is a recovering alcoholic.
Arnold Spirit Junior is a bit of a mess; he was born with water on his brain that caused a series of health problems. He’s skinny, wears glasses, has ten extra teeth and gets picked on all the time by the other kids. With all this he still manages to be wry, funny, discerning (especially with adults' problems) and completely endearing. He has one friend, the angry, abused boy Rowdy who is his defender, confidante and eventually his enemy.
Most of the people he knows are terribly poor. The reservation is so poor, in fact, that on his first day of school in his new geometry class Arnold discovers he’s been given the same geometry book his mother had when she attended that school some 30 years before:
"It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it."
In his rage, Arnold tosses the book across the room and manages to hit the teacher, breaking his nose. That serves as a catalyst for what Arnold decides to do with his life:
" 'If you stay on this rez,' Mr. P said, 'they're going to kill you. I'm going to kill you. We're all going to kill you. You can't fight us forever.'
" 'I don't want to fight anybody.' I said.
" 'You've been fighting since you were born,' he said. 'You fought off that brain surgery. You fought off those seizures. You fought off all the drunks and drug addicts. You kept your hope. And now, you have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope.'
"I was starting to understand. He was a math teacher. I had to add my hope to somebody else's hope. I had to multiply hope by hope.
" 'Where is hope?' I asked. 'Who has hope?'
" 'Son,' Mr. P said. 'You're going to find more and more hope the farther and farther you walk away from this sad, sad reservation.' "
Arnold decides to take Mr. P's advice, leave the reservation school and go to the middle-class all-white school twenty-two miles away from his reservation. There, he meets the beauteous Penelope and discovers a whole new world. The decision causes a lot of jealousy and resentment on the rez for Arnold, and he lives with a constant barrage of hatred from the children, including his once friend Rowdy. They think he’s sold out, turned white, and that’s something the kids on the rez can’t forgive. The rift with Rowdy is the worst of it, and Arnold suffers incredible loneliness and hurt, yet sticks by his decision. He's a brave boy.
Arnold battles through it all and finds he can triumph. He learns that even through the worst adversity, like the death of a loved one, he still has his education and his new friends, and that, when push comes to shove, his family and old friends on the rez are there for him. His optimism and hope shines through the pages and makes you smile.
Arnold’s engaging and entertaining diary tackles rough subjects like death, alcoholism, poverty, jealousy and racism with a deft hand. You can't but help fall in love with Arnold. The wonderful cartoons and drawings by Ellen Forney appear to be pasted onto the pages of his diary, giving it depth and life. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a must have book, and I can't speak highly enough of it.