I was an exceptionally awkward teenager. I typically had few, if any friends. I conversed more easily with adults twenty to thirty years my senior than I ever did with my compatriots. The only place I really felt like I belonged was on the football team, but even then, my tendency to read books in excess of 1,000 pages before, after, and sometimes during practice set me apart from my teammates. I rarely dated, though that trend continued even into my adulthood. I became used to being described as weird. And, while my experience was unique in its details, it is a completely normal experience for any teenager in America to feel like he or she doesn’t fit with the in crowd (even if you happen to be in the in crowd).
All of this served to make reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie all the more easy for me. While Mr. Alexie specifically wrote the non-fictional fiction for young adult audiences, his use of the awkward and lonely experience of Arnold Spirit, Jr. in his first year at high school made his story immediately accessible to me, though I have been out of high school for ten years. I can imagine that this was, of course, Mr. Alexie’s goal: to write a book that exposes non-Native youth to an experience that is at once intimate and unfamiliar, the life of a Native American teenager on a reservation.
Having lived in a city that is partially ensconced within the largest reservation in Michigan, I was more familiar with the topics of domestic violence, poverty, substance abuse, and low expectations than I think Mr. Alexie’s intended audience is in general. I also held a job at an institution owned and operated by the economic development corporation run by the tribe, and interacted with many of the archetypical characters found within Mr. Alexie’s novel. I met Arnold’s family, who dealt with substance abuse and poverty on a daily basis. I conversed with his Grandmother and Uncle Eugene. I even met many people who took the brave steps that Arnold did to break free of the cycle of poverty, and who probably had many of the same questions and trials as Arnold in trying to find their own identity.
This is the strength of Mr. Alexie’s novel. He uses the teenage quest for identity that we all experience to discuss issues that represent an epidemic of poverty among a part of America that the general public never really tries to understand. If they did, then no one would wear hats with the Cleveland Indians logo, or jackets that say “Redskins” in red and gold, Land O’ Lakes butter wouldn’t be on the shelves, and there wouldn’t be a concrete Tepee east of Cherry Valley on U.S. Route 20 in New York (where no tribes ever built tepees). But remedying these surface issues is only the start. If poverty and racism are going to end, then education and skill-building amongst all populations in the United States are necessary.