Bill Roberts: ‘Part-Time Indian’ a full-time teenager

Sherman Alexie’s controversial book gives a kid’s view — occasionally unnerving — of Native American life.

broberts@idahostatesman.comApril 8, 2014 

My knowledge of Native American life and culture is shamefully shallow.

From history classes, I learned that Indians lost their land to encroaching white people. From an outdoor drama in North Carolina titled “Unto These Hills,” I understood a smidgen of the pain Cherokees must have felt when President Andrew Jackson ordered their removal to what would become Oklahoma. I understand that life on the reservation can be hard and alcohol abuse can be widespread.

Over the weekend I got a much deeper sense of what it is like to be a Native American on a reservation from a teenager: Arnold “Junior” Spirit, the central character in Sherman Alexie’s book “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” The book is facing challenges in the Meridian School District from some parents who object to their 10th-grade students reading it.

I learned there is no nobility in poverty and likely no reward for perseverance in trying to overcome it. I learned that hope doesn’t grow on the “rez” like the sprouting of grass each spring. I learned that taking a step off the reservation, into the white-dominated world, as Arnold does when he decides to attend a nearby all-white high school, means facing harsh criticism from both worlds.

I may not know a lot about Native Americans. But I know something about teenagers, having raised two.

Arnold is all teenager. He’s authentic in his vision and snarkiness.

Arnold is tactlessly honest. He spots hypocrisy at a thousand yards. He is braggart one moment and unsure of himself the next.

His emerging hormones occasionally score a coup on his brain … and other parts of his body.

That’s right. Arnold admits — even boasts — that he masturbates. His confession, referred to only slightly in Alexie’s 230-page book, along with his potty mouth, have gotten him in trouble in the Meridian School District, where a number of parents urged the trustees last week to yank the book out of the district’s curriculum. They asserted that Alexie’s book was pornographic and filthy.

It is neither.

It is, in places, edgy — like most teens. It pushes a couple of hot buttons, sort of to see how you react. Just as most teens do.

At one point, Arnold is the subject of a nasty racial slur by a white student who later becomes his friend.

I won’t criticize people who look on Arnold with disdain. Parents who spoke in opposition to Alexie’s book at the hearing last week were heartfelt and obviously coming from deeply ingrained values that have no place for this kind of thing. They want to protect their children, and some of those children want to protect themselves.

But what confuses me is the rush to cast Arnold out, to dump all of Arnold’s value for a few troubling lines in the book.

When I was a high school student, I read J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” — another often-challenged book around the country. It is about Holden Caulfield, a boy who gets thrown out of prep school and then goes on a bit of a bender. He smokes. He flirts with having sex with a prostitute.

I was raised in a small, Northern California town by conservative parents from English and Welsh stock. So while much of the world may have decided Holden Caulfield was a great literary figure, I did not. In my view of the world — shaped by my upbringing — I thought Holden Caulfield was an impudent, spoiled brat.

I didn’t like him. I didn’t like the book.

But I read the book.

Arnold is not Holden Caulfield. He looks around at his troubled world and assesses both its pain and nuttiness. He longs for something better and takes steps to get there, hoping all the time he will have a place in his Native American world. Courage and fear and sadness are intermingled in his world, and that’s not limited to the rez.

Meridian School District officials are reviewing all 200-plus books on the district’s supplemental reading list in the district’s sixth- through 12th-grade English curriculum after some parents and children condemned one book. The district expects to have its work done by fall.

I’m not sure that would sit well with Arnold, who says: “No matter how much you learn, you just keep on learning there is so much more you need to learn.”

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

Roberts has covered education in Idaho for much of the past two decades. He and his wife raised two daughters, both of whom went to school in the Boise School District.

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