Banned Book Review: The Absolutely True Story of a Part-time Indian

A Note from the Blog Editor
by Catherine H. Armstrong

As we continue our Celebration of Banned Books Week 2012, we bring you the following review of  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.  *This book was originally challenged in Crook County, Oregon when a parent copied several pages from the book and presented them to the school board.  The pages depicted masturbation.  Upon reading the content out of context, the school board immediately took steps to remove the book from the school district’s library shelves.

Upon receiving this decision, the Crook County High School Principal responded by stating the following:

“I’ve been directed by the board to pull the book, and I will comply with their directive, but I respectfully disagree with what they are doing. It’s a slippery slope if you take one or two pages out of context; I mean ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is about two teenagers who are having a relationship. It’s a dangerous precedent”.

For more information about this book and the attempts to challenge and ban it from bookshelves, you can use this link.

*Information cited was obtained from the bannedbooks.world.edu website.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
A Review by Gail Manahan

Okay. So imagine this. You are born with hydrocephalus – water on the brain – and a really HUGE head. At six months old, you survive surgery that vacuums the excess water out of your brain, but leaves you with seizures, one eye that’s near-sighted, one that’s far sighted, and ten extra teeth. Yes, TEN. You grow into a very short, skinny body with a HUGE head, feet, and hands; you stutter and lisp. Are you in for trouble? Yes, you are. It gets worse. You are an Indian. A reservation Indian. On the Spokane Indian reservation. An Indian born into generations of poverty, alcoholism, violence, and despair. As a kid, you belong to the Black Eye of the Month Club because the other kids see you as a “retard” that needs to be put in his place. You have exactly one friend; well, two – one is your dog, Oscar, and the other is Rowdy – a kid born in the same hospital and on the same day as you and who is so angry and mean that everyone else is afraid of him. Thank god for Rowdy. You’d be dead by now if he didn’t protect you and smash up every kid that picks on you. Even so, you spend a lot of time in your bedroom drawing cartoons because it’s safer. Pictures speak a thousand words and you want to be heard.

Thus begins the first person narrative of our protagonist, Arnold Spirit Jr. aka Junior – a moniker so common locally that if you step into a rez bar and holler “Hey, Junior,” fifteen guys would turn around.  Junior is fourteen and beginning his freshman year of high school in his hometown Wellpinit, Washington. His only claim to fame is his belief that he’d be the top draft pick of the Professional Masturbators League, if there were one; he’s ambidextrous.  His older sister, Mary Runs Away, bright and beloved by her family, has been holed up in the basement for the past seven years since she graduated from high school, unable, it seems, to make a move. Junior’s father is a kind, mostly decent alcoholic who dreamed of being a jazz musician. His mother aspired to college and teaching.  He calls her a “human tape recorder” – a voracious reader with an expansive memory. And his grandmother, tolerant and well-loved by the thousands of Indians that she has met in her years of attending powwows across the country, asks forgiveness of the person responsible for her death. But… no one ever leaves the reservation – not for education or another life.

Like all the other reservation Indians, the Spirit’s are poor. There often isn’t enough food in the house and gas for the car. But the worst part about being poor, according to Arnold aka Junior, isn’t the lack of food or gas, the occasional parental neglect, or the Safeway tennis shoes and the Kmart jeans; it’s the lack of hope. Spurred on by his guilt-ridden Anglo geometry teacher who recognizes Arnold’s talents and beseeches him to leave the reservation, Arnold asks to transfer to Reardon, a town off the rez where he’ll be the only Indian in school. Because if he doesn’t go now, he knows he never will.

So begins Arnold’s new life – one foot in the Indian world by night and the other in the white world by day. The rez Indians see him as a traitor to the tribe – an apple – red on the outside, white on the inside. He’s no longer welcome. And how can he make inroads in the all-white school when, after the first day or two, he is pretty much ignored?  Although the deck seems stacked against Arnold Spirit Jr., he has moxie to spare. Surprising things happen. The novel is a roller-coaster ride of angst, grief, hilarity, Anglo-bashing, and a keen take on racism of various forms. If you tend toward the empathic, keep the tissues close by. But be prepared to snort with laughter before you finish drying your eyes.

This book is available at the Rochester Public Library.

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