Because Sherman Alexie writes about sexual awareness and awakening in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, one could understand why parents, librarians, school administrators and even some students deem the book as inappropriate. To suggest the book for a more mature audience might seem reasonable enough. The reality is that the main character, Arnold, is a freshman in high school and speaks in a relatable voice for young adults. The situations in the book correlate to real world experiences of high school aged people. As Alexie says, “I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that.” This is why we chose to read this title as January’s Banned Book Club selection.

sherman alexie

Arnold is a teen boy growing up in poverty on the Spokane Indian reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Arnold’s father is an alcoholic, his mother works at the trading post, and his grandmother and older sister live in the same house as the rest of the family. A condition at birth left him with extra “brain juice” and so he suffers from seizures and bed wetting as a child and has a slightly larger head than the rest of his peers. This situates him as the brunt of any joke on the reservation as well as the targeted punching bag for bullies. Arnold sees this as his future until an incident with a reservation teacher fills him with the encouragement to request to transfer schools to a neighboring town. This isn’t a regular coming of age story. This is the story of a boy who overcomes poverty, race and the loss of family and friends to follow his dreams and live up to his potential despite the lack of encouragement and support.

Reardan, the all white school Arnold transfers to, is 23 miles off the reservation. This means he either has to hitchhike or walk because his family can’t afford the money for gas. Not only is he the poorest kid in his new school, he’s also the only Indian. While Arnold never stood up to his bullies on the reservation, he does at Reardan. To his surprise, he gains the respect of his classmates. He excels in his academics, joins the school basketball team and dates the most popular girl in school. Sounds like a nice story, right? Yet it is one of the most challenged books in recent years.

The use of profanity and the multiple mentions of masturbation may deter some from allowing their children to read this book, but then they would miss out on valuable lessons spoken in a language that’s easy to understand and relate to. Themes of friendship, acceptance (cultural, genetic, economic, ability), and forgiveness run strong in Part Time Diary. This book touches on issues most teens face daily. What’s really amazing about Arnold’s story is his wit and humor throughout the whole thing. A young man sets out to do the unthinkable and, though he encounters hardships, he’s able to laugh at the end of it.

There’s an incredible sense of hope throughout Arnold’s story. This is why so many schools and libraries did a turnabout in their requests for removal of this book. Alexie pulls on the little strings attached to our hearts and make us realize it’s all about the outlook we have. If Arnold can overcome generations of poverty and bigotry, if he can lose his best friend over his decision to better himself and forgive a drunk driver for the death of his grandmother, then surely we can accept the use of the word “fuck” every so often.

The next meeting of Banned Book Club takes place at 5:30 p.m. on February 15 at Bookmans Ina. The book club selection is A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.