Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian And the Need for a New Holden Caulfield

Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian And the Need for a New Holden Caulfield

A recent article in The Guardian asks the question, “Are today’s young readers turning on The Catcher in the Rye?” The short answer to this question is, yes. And the reason lies in Holden Caulfield’s lack of relatability. Holden is white, straight, male, and comes from a well-off family. Maybe Caulfield was never super relatable. Maybe part of The Catcher’s success lies in the fact that his adventure is enviable to most teenagers (running around New York city unsupervised), and that his angst, while specific to him, is relatable in a general sense to all teenagers. This post contains affiliate links which may provide me with a small kickback to help me maintain the costs of operating this website.

In the article, author Dana Czapnik argues that The Catcher in the Rye isn’t important because of Holden’s relatability but because of how masterfully Salinger portrays his imperfect protagonist. While this is a strong point, perhaps it is time to teach it in a creative writing course (or a course specifically about the art of character development). But as far as a novel that is both accessible and relatable to high school readers, what is the alternative?

There are probably countless alternatives to Catcher. In fact, Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey is a great alternative: A) Zooey, a young woman, is the main character and B) Its themes and ideas are more mature and sophisticated without being any less accessible. An even better alternative is the National Book Award-winning novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

The novel tells the story of fourteen-year-old Junior (Arnold) Spirit. He was born with a brain defect that, while not affecting his intelligence at all, left him with a series of physical defects, which would have made him a target for bullies while growing up. Junior is the epitome of an alienated teen. He’s alienated by the fact that he is Native American, both socially in terms of race and physically, as he and his family live on a reservation. But he is also alienated among his own people by his appearance.
Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian And the Need for a New Holden Caulfield

The novel starts with Junior getting expelled for throwing a textbook at his teacher out of frustration. It’s the first day of ninth grade, and Junior’s “new” textbook is over thirty-years-old. Junior feels as if he’s being smacked in the face with his own poverty and throws the book accidentally breaking his teacher’s nose. The teacher approaches Junior later, and instead of scolding him, he apologizes to him for how difficult his life is and encourages Junior to get off the reservation. He talks about how Junior’s older sister was one of the brightest students he ever had but that she did nothing with her life because she stayed on the reservation. This inspires Junior to enroll in the all-white high school twenty-two miles away and pursue his dreams of getting a good education and attending college.

It’s a heartwarming and inspiring story about a kid with everything stacked against him refusing to give up. Although this novel is written at a lower reading level, the material is very mature. Alexie is completely unapologetic about what life is like for a teenage Native American living in poverty on a reservation. There is no explicit gore, but readers will be exposed to alcoholic fathers who beat their children, the frequency with which Native Americans die in alcohol related circumstances, talk of masturbation, and a lot of physical fighting.

After all, Alexie warns us in the title that this is the absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian, not the abridged diary, so these elements, though possibly disturbing for some young readers, are essential to the crafting of Junior’s character and his world.

What makes Junior a “part-time Indian” is the change that occurs in how his family, friends, and neighbors view him once he begins attending the all-white school. Suddenly, it’s as if Junior isn’t Indian enough. Some even start to resent him and call him a traitor, as if leaving the reservation in search of a better life is equivalent to leaving in search of becoming white. Alexie approaches this question very interestingly because in a certain way, Junior takes on a whiteness. At his new school, after a rough start, Junior becomes fully integrated—He gets good grades, gets picked for the varsity basketball team, and starts dating one of the prettiest most popular girls in school, which then makes him popular by association. By the end of the novel, Junior’s classmates don’t see him as the only Native American student; they simply see him as their classmate. And this raises the important question of how do we tell when acceptance and assimilation become the erasing of an identity?

Although Alexie never attempts to answer this explicitly, it’s clear he is cognizant of it. Throughout the whole novel Junior struggles with feeling torn between two worlds and two identities. Despite all of the tragedy that occurs throughout the book, it still manages to have a happy ending. One in which Junior is accepted by his friends and family for his ambitions and for leaving the reservation while also being, not only accepted, but celebrated by his white classmates. It could be argued that Alexie’s message is that culture and identity are only secondary to love and friendship, but that seems a bit vapid for someone on Alexie’s level. More likely, it’s that Alexie doesn’t see a clear answer to this question and that it’s the type of thing Junior will struggle with for the rest of his life.

This is what makes Junior such a great modern-day alternative to Holden Caulfield. By the end of Catcher, Holden had his ultimate coming-of-age moment and is satisfied with it. But by the end of Junior’s story, he’s still lost, albeit a bit more comfortable with it. And that’s a much more realistic and relatable way of approaching the conundrum of growing up—It’s never over, we’re always growing, we’re always trying to find our way.

Writing Exercises

Have students write a mock-interview with Junior. They ask the questions and they write what they believe Junior would say. It’s a great exercise, not only in writing, but in empathy.

Have students write about identity. What is it? How does one obtain it?
Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian And the Need for a New Holden Caulfield