Banned Book Highlight: “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”

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Cover art for "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie.

With a world full of coming-of-age young adult novels, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” stands out. It’s a very light, fun and interesting read that can aim a critical eye on poverty in American Indian reservations while still telling a story that most readers will find easily digestible.

But for some reason, the book stays on banned book lists because of its references to masturbation, use of illicit materials, promotion of pornography and experiencing an awakening of sexual maturity.

Depending on your core values you may agree or disagree on if school children should have access to that. And I’m not going to challenge those values.

Instead, I’m going to take a look at how Sherman Alexie challenges those values, and how that adds to a story with a focus on self-discovery and independent growth.

Alexie’s novel tells the story of Junior, who is a young boy living on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He is introduced to us as a baby born with too much “water on the brain” and from that origin is labeled as a freak.

As his world grows around us, so does us our understanding of his reality. His mother and father were considered “too smart for the reservation” but were trapped in a “death camp devoid of hope.”

At school and around the reservation he is bullied constantly. For him, life does not exist outside of the reservation because no one in his life has ever left it unless they were being placed six feet underneath the cold frozen soil. Hope is a distant fantasy.

Pretty dark stuff? To me, what makes this book already stand out from the endless wave of young adult fiction is that it’s based in reality. This is not a dystopian world far away from us whose only connection to our own human experience is a sexy teen bad boy.

And with a story connected to reality, it’s necessary to address that reality. The world that we live in is not full of innocence. Especially for a young boy in an endless desert of alcoholics where death seems to lurk around every corner.

Dark, sexual, de-masculinizing, destructive, demonizing, homophobic and hateful topics come up. These topics play a role, not only as ideas and themes of the novel, but also as the antagonists of Junior. They move the story along.

Those topics are all a part of Junior’s life and help develop why he desires change. So much change, that for us to learn his true identity he has to transfer schools and recreate himself. He later reintroduces himself as Andrew.

When now-Andrew struggles between his old life on the reservation and his new life at school, he falls back on those tragedies and remembers why he is trying to escape that world.

This is a story of salvation. Salvation from a poverty that is seemingly truly inescapable in our own reality. Some reviewers have considered this a form of autobiography from Alexie.

A story that addresses our sometimes-cold reality and teeters on the edge of non-fiction and fiction is sure to spike controversy.

But one thing that these banned book lists seem to forget is that, most of the time, the reason explicit ideas are mentioned is more as a literary tool than to simply mention sex.

Alexie’s exploration of explicit context gives Andrew character. It makes him human, susceptible to sin and temptation. Exploring is something that most people have most likely gone through, even if they are too ashamed to admit it.

What’s important to recognize is that by the end of the book, Alexie stops mentioning topics that invoke censorship. Why? Because Andrew as a character has grown past that.

Addition of explicit content allows this story to explore depth of reality, the development of Andrew and our own personal beliefs.

The reason why I didn’t throw this book across the room after reading the first three pages was because I found that it actually captivated me. It makes the reader think back on their own experiences and start to reinterpret them in the context of Andrew’s journey.

In a story that pits a young boy against his family, tribe, friends and entire way of life, it is important to appreciate how Alexie uses controversial topics to show how important it is for Andrew to escape.

Rowan Jones is a freshman in mass communications. The views and opinions expressed in this review are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

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