Like so many books (and so many books that are banned) “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie is an important look into the world of a marginalized people. It follows, in a semi-autobiographical pattern, the story of Arnold Spirit, a teenage Spokane Indian living on a reservation. He is plagued by all the disadvantages that too often come to, not only all people, but most especially those who live on reservations. His family, neighbors, and schoolmates are no strangers to the unfortunate trials of physical, mental, and sexual abuses; alcoholism; gambling; poverty. As a result, the very bright but under challenged Arnold is resigned to a subpar education. In fact, when he is handed a textbook at the beginning of the year, he sadly discovers that his own mother’s name is in it. The school has not been able to afford new textbooks in thirty years.
After some cajoling and hesitation on everyone’s part, Arnold transfers to a public school off the reservation where there is greater (academic/social) opportunity for him but also challenges he was unprepared for. While at the reservation school he stood out academically but also understood the delicate social balance familiar to his upbringing. Don’t mistake this as a quality childhood; his was rife with bullying and sorrow. By transferring to the public school though, his challenges multiplied. Not only was he bullied on the reservation for his own physical and medical differences, the general pressures caused by impoverished alcoholism, and outlandish fear. He was bullied on the reservation for having the audacity to leave it. This was added to his being bullied at the public school for being the only Indian (besides the mascot).
This book has a fairly decent trail of banning behind it despite only being published in 2009. This article from Marshall University does a fine job of outlining its history. Most predominately, this book finds itself on banned books lists because of its moderately graphic masturbation scene as well as racial and sexist language. There is also a great deal of negative publicity surrounding Alexie’s portrayal of life on the reservation citing that he is simply reinforcing negative stereotypes of “his people.” An April 2014 article from The Guardian comments on how, though this is a challenging read with its disruptive content, it also portrays young adulthood accurately, allowing the main character to evolve, to question, to wonder, and to exercise his absolute right to make mistakes. In fact, it was so poignant with teens in an Idaho school that they presented a student-led petition to allow the work to continue to be s part of the curriculum.
In accordance with its frequent challenges and bans, “Part-Time Indian” sits firmly at the top of the American Library Association’s most frequently banned list.