2 May, 2011
Challenges to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical National Book Award winner The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was one my favorite books from this entire semester. The endearing protagonist, Junior, is a fourteen-year-old Spokane Indian living in absolute poverty on the reservation with his family, his best friend Rowdy, and a whole tribe of close-minded Indians who bully him constantly for being too smart or too different. Junior, an avid cartoonist who draws much of the content in this diary, realizes he has to get off “the rez” if he ever wants to do anything with his life. To his entire community’s shock and chagrin, Junior abruptly decides to transfer to an all-white high school, twenty-two miles from home and a lifetime away from anything he knows. Quickly finding himself as an outsider in both worlds, Junior struggles to keep his Indian spirit alive while forging his way toward a better future.
What really makes this story soar is Junior’s vision and narration. He’s an extremely multi-faceted character: loving and caring to his family and friends; respectful towards adults (most of the time), women, and girls; funny, and both self-aware and self-deprecating; and above all, willing to convey a completely honest depiction of flawed emotions, home life, and experiences. As this story is presented in the format of Junior’s diary, the reader is privy is his innermost thoughts – thoughts that should be expected from a realistic teenage boy. Inwardly, Junior experiences situations that any boy would, like constant thinking about girls and exploring a changing body. Outwardly, Junior’s life is fairly disheveled. “Schoolyard-like” violence is a staple on the rez (Junior even provides an extensive list of Indian “fisticuffs” rules and is stumped when he learns that his new white classmates don’t seem to have similar rules of their own), issues like racism and homophobia run rampant in both communities, and alcohol abuse is responsible for at least three deaths in Junior’s inner circle. Despite experiencing such a difficult existence, Junior somehow remains positive and inspired – he’s a survivor.
While Junior’s story ultimately is quite uplifting, there are several elements of this book with which parents and school communities have taken offense in the past four years since its release. As more high schools have added this title to their reading lists (at times, to specifically encourage reading from a demographic which often struggles with the desire to read – teenage boys [Fuller, 2009]), the number of challenges to the appropriateness of its content has catapulted the book to the number two position of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom’s Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books list of 2010 (Perez, 2011). The three most-publicized challenges have come from schools in Chicago, Stockton, Missouri, and Prineville, Oregon; and all three challenges have raised the most alarm about explicit sexuality– with inappropriate language, racism, and violence cited as equal concerns (Dake, 2008; Fuller, 2009; Penprase, 2010).
In re-reading this book, I was able to make come up with about a page of notes highlighting possibly questionable elements. The one instance that seems the worst, and the one with which most challengers seem to take issue, is Junior’s honest, openly positive attitude towards masturbation. On the day Junior starts high school, he’s so incredibly excited because he loves to learn, and especially looks forward to his geometry class. “Yep, I have to admit,” Junior writes, “that isosceles triangles make me feel hormonal. Most guys, no matter what age, get excited about curves and circles, but not me. Don’t get me wrong. I like girls and their curves. And I really like women and their curvier curves (p. 25).” Junior continues for the next sixteen lines (about half a page) discussing his love for the activity, including, “…if God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn’t have given us thumbs.” Despite this admittedly open and frank discussion, Junior ties it all back to geometry: “But the thing is, no matter how much time my thumbs and I spend with the curves of imaginary women, I am much more in love with the right angles of buildings (p. 26).” In the entire rest of the text, there’s only one more mention of masturbation at all – towards the end of the book, Junior makes a list of tribes to which he belongs, and includes the phrase “the tribe of chronic masturbators,” right along with “the tribe of teenage boys,” “the tribe of tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers,” and “the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends (p. 217).”
One other slightly sexual exchange comes between Junior and his friend Gordy, discussing their mutual love of books. Gordy strangely equates this passion with “getting a boner.” As the boys talk the concept through however, it really makes a lot of sense. Gordy explains, “Well, I don’t mean boner in the sexual sense…I don’t think you should run through life with a real erect penis. But you should approach each book – you should approach life – with the real possibility that you might get a metaphorical boner at any point…When I say boner, I really mean joy (pp. 96-98).” I can certainly understand that taken out of context, word-for-word, any of these concepts or exchanges could be considered inappropriate for school-based reading. When the context is considered, however, I would argue that these issues turn into an entirely different subject. Yes, the concepts of masturbation or boners may be difficult to explain to a young reader unfamiliar with these terms, but in these cases, Junior and Gordy use them as metaphors to describe their excitement towards school and books. They transform the rush of energy associated with sexual-based hormones into a ferocious desire to learn.
Besides these limited, metaphorical instances of sexuality, the topic remains absent from the rest of the book. Further on in the story when Junior has a girlfriend, even he is too much of a gentleman to discuss that side of their relationship – when asked bluntly if he’d “done her yet,” Junior responds calmly: “I don’t really want to talk about that stuff (p. 125).” To be honest, in the realm of sexuality, Junior seems extremely mature and polite for a teenage boy. He understands the issue and respects it, rather than needing to experiment with or abuse others. Junior’s relationship with his own body, though maybe objectionable to ultra-conservative or religious parents, seems quite healthy.
One of the other most prevalent complaints about the book is that it’s filled with inappropriate language. This issue is even quoted by a student from the Oregon school where the book became an issue. Stated freshman Jozee Moss: “Personally, I think we’re having two things taught to us…We have the principal telling us, ‘I don’t want you cussing in this way or you’ll get a referral.’ And yet this book talks about all these things in crude ways (Dake, 2009).” When one truly examines the content, however, it seems that if this book is trying to give any sort of lesson about using profanity, it’s knowing when or when not to use it. Of the dozen or so slurs actually printed in the book, almost all of them are either used playfully in conversation between Junior and his best friend Rowdy, or in Junior’s private, non-verbalized thoughts. There’s only one instance of Junior using any sort of profanity in public, which occurs when one of his teachers making a snide remark about Junior’s absences right after his sister’s untimely death. Junior stands up and declares, “I used to think the world was broken down by tribes…by black and white. By Indian and white. But now I know that isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people are not (p. 176).” Is this appropriate language to use with a teacher at school? Certainly not – but Junior’s position feels justified, and his presentation is at least eloquent.
As for the other claims that have been brought against this book – that it highlights racism, violence, and alcohol abuse – when one reads the book in its entirety, it becomes clear that while these elements do exist in Junior’s reality, his experiences with each of them help him and the people surrounding him grow and learn from the mistakes of their communities. Such as with the use of profanity, if the story presents a lesson from any of these elements, it is that they should be avoided. There are all issues that young adults will face at some point in their lives, and being exposed to them for the first time through Junior’s positive spirit seems much safer than facing any of these crises in the real world unprepared or unaware.
At this point, all three of these book-challenging communities have come up with different solutions – in Prineville, Oregon, the book is banned from classroom use, but remains in the school and public libraries (Dake, 2009); in Chicago, the book remains on the school reading list, but parents (or students) who oppose it may choose an alternate book (Fuller, 2009); in Stockton, Missouri, the book, which has drawn fierce community debate and protests on both sides, is completely banned from school premises (Penprase, 2010). When thinking about this issue, and how I might go about handling it myself one day if faced with such a controversial book, I agree strongly with the feelings of Young Adult literature expert Michael Cart. Though it is up to each individual parent (or set of parents) to determine what happens in the lives of their children, “I draw the line when parents unilaterally and adamantly decree that not only their own children but also those of other parents may not have access to materials (Cart, 2010, p. 162).” For this reason, I can respect the opinion reached in Chicago – age-appropriate reading material, as determined by an experienced teacher or a school librarian, shouldn’t be forced upon on unwilling student or family, but also shouldn’t be kept from eager and open-minded students. Junior’s touching story has motivating lessons for all young readers, wrapped in an enticing package of comics and humor by an inspired and likeable young narrator – keeping it hidden away from the teens who need it the most would be a terrible tragedy.
Alexie, S. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Cart, M. (2010). Young adult literature: From romance to realism. Chicago: American Library Association.
Dake, L. (2008, December 11). School yanks book from class after complaint. The Bulletin. Retrieved from http://www.bendbulletin.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081211/NEWS0107/812110432/1041&nav_category.
Dake, L. (2009, January 13). Book still suspended from Crook County classrooms. The Bulletin. Retrieved from http://www.bendbulletin.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090113/NEWS0107/901130420.
Fuller, R. (2009, June 22). Some parents seek to ban ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.’ Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2009-06-22/news/0906210159_1_part-time-indian-absolutely-true-diary-ban.
Penprase, M. (2010, September 9). Stockton book ban upheld 7-0 in packed public forum. News-Leader. Retrieved from http://www.news-leader.com/article/20100909/NEWS04/9090375/Stockton-book-ban-upheld-7-0-packed-public-forum.
Perez, N. (2011, April 11). 2010 most frequently challenged books list. Retrieved April 30, 2011, from http://www.oif.ala.org/oif/?p=2008.