An Absolutely True Primary Post about the Absolutely True Diary

My mother-in-law is staying with me this weekend. She is a clinical social worker at an in-patient crisis unit for teens and children in Washington County, Maine, the poorest of Maine’s numerous poor, rural counties. It’s up on the Canadian border and virtually the only opportunities for employment are small-scale fishing and the blueberry crop, neither of which provides more than a meager income.

I bring her up because she was describing life in her town, which is sandwiched between two Passamaquoddy reservations, and on her unit, which treats numerous children and teenagers from these communities. While at the clinic, kids don’t have access to phones, the internet, or TV (beyond a group movie screening on the weekend), and she was explaining that they read voraciously–though large books are used less often for reading than for “paper ball tennis,” which is exactly what it sounds like, though perhaps more bloodthirsty than you’d expect. I was asking about what kinds of books they have on the unit, and it’s basically a potpourri of whatever is donated to them. She was really excited to hear about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, because she feels they don’t have anything that directly speaks to the experiences of her Passamaquoddy clients and she intends to buy a copy for the unit.

While I wholeheartedly endorsed the book, particularly for its humor and its frankness about topics that adults often hedge about when speaking with children or teens–death, addiction, racism, etc.–there’s a small voice in the back of my head that wonders who this book was written for, and what it means for young Native American readers. I don’t know if I would’ve had this question had we not read the selections from Bradford’s Unsettling Narratives. I was so struck by author Cynthia Leitich Smith’s discussion of self-censorship, and particularly her questions quoted in Chapter 2: “Is there any place in children’s books for writing that reflects Native idiosyncracies? Or rather, if diversity of voice matters at all, does it only apply to diversity that appeals to the mainstream audience?”

This issue of “diversity that appeals to the mainstream audience” popped into my mind every so often when I was reading The Absolutely True Diary. Arnold/Junior’s clarifying “That’s about the worst thing you can do to an Indian guy” about Rowdy’s braid-cutting, or how common his nickname is among Native Americans seem like explanations included for a presumed non-Native audience. And while I think that having this book on my mother-in-law’s unit will benefit Passamaquoddy and non-Passamaquoddy clients alike, I have to shake my head a bit at the idea that Native American readers can only read Native American stories when the publishing industry deems them interesting enough/accessible enough for a white audience as well.

(I also realize that this is somewhat counter to the spirit of Alexie’s poetic musing later in the book about how he is a member of many of humanity’s different tribes. I don’t think he expects or wants this book to speak ONLY to Native American young adults.)

I was also thinking in particular about the Passamaquoddy girls on my mother-in-law’s unit reading this book, and what they might think of it. I tend to read a book and notice its treatment of female characters first, and in many ways I think Alexie does a wonderful job. Considering we get them only through Arnold/Junior’s perspective, I think his sister and his grandmother come across with great depth. I flinched a bit at Penelope’s characterization, though. Readers know little more about Penelope than her beauty, and her bulimia is a convenient shorthand for the universality of pain (and he characterizes it in terms of addiction, which is not quite right) and it’s never mentioned again.

Again, I know it’s not realistic for Alexie to give every character and every situation in this book the vibrant, layered treatment he gives Arnold. But this is a book for young adults, and some young adults are young women. Native American teen girls may see aspects of their culture reflected in this book, but not their gendered experience. And other books that reflect their gendered experience will almost certainly not reflect their culture, given publishing trends. What I am left with is all the more conviction that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is an excellent book, but a book that should be surrounded with shelves and shelves of other excellent books that reflect more Native American experiences, amid a library of truly diverse literature for children and young adults.