Sherman Alexie’s dark comedy offers up insight about respect, identity and acceptance in unadorned, briskly paced language that will appeal to many teens. Junior Spirit is a Spokane Indian eager to begin high school on his reservation. His hopes of newfound knowledge and opportunities are dashed when he is assigned the same textbook that belonged to his uneducated, impoverished mother thirty years earlier, bringing on a sense of fatalism and despair. Urged by his teacher to respect his dreams and demand more from life than can be expected on the reservation, Junior bravely gathers his dignity and stands up for himself by transferring to a school in a distant town. So begins his search for identity and his place in the world, as “Junior Spirit”, traitor to his people, is ostracized on the rez for consorting with whites, while “Arnold Spirit Junior”, alone, navigates the racism and mystifying cultural rules of an all-white school.
“Absolutely True Diary” could easily become a litany of anger, pain and hopelessness; the poverty, alcoholism, violence and incredible death rate chronicled in the novel seems insurmountable. Yet for every tragic event, there is a detail to give us hope or even a laugh, and even the most debauched characters receive understanding and a chance at redemption. Arnold’s cartoon sketches of the people around him, drawn by artist Ellen Forney, amuse and meld seamlessly with the tone of the text.
Arnold’s spirit, however, is the most compelling aspect of the book, and his relentless determination to succeed in escaping the fate of his tribe lingers with the reader, making him one of the most inspiring characters in young adult fiction today. Arnold’s quest for a better life proves that acceptance is won by earning respect, and the first step in gaining the respect of others is respecting yourself.