Favorite Quote: Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.
First, a quick summary – 14 year old Arnold Spirit lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. He is a geeky, but clever kid who loves drawing and excels at school. He realizes that education on ‘the rez’ is hopeless and decides to transfer to the all-white school 22 miles away. The novel chronicles a year in his life as he learns how to be a ‘part-time’ Indian.
There is another world, but it is in this one. –W.B. Yeats
It’s really quite strange if you think about the fact that Americans are living among (but also separate from) a group of people who were systematically conquered and subjugated by the government. As a result of this rather complex and morally fraught situation, high quality literature about Native Americans can be hard to find. More often than not, it’s written from an outsider perspective that either denigrates or romanticizes them. Often Native Americans in fiction are relegated to the distant past, portrayed in broad caricatures, and/or treated as tragic victims.
So, it’s super refreshing to read a story BY a Spokane author about a modern, living, breathing Spokane boy. Arnold is not ‘the other’and his life isn’t exoticized or romanticized. Poverty is shown as the degrading, demoralizing and debilitating condition that it is. Early in the novel, Arnold’s dad has to shoot the family dog because they can’t afford to take it to the vet. There’s nothing charming or quaint about that.
Lest I make this sound like a drab and depressing slog-fest, let me emphasize that what makes this book truly special is how Alexie takes a heartbreaking story and makes it funny and relatable. It was interesting to read this around the same time I read American Born Chinese as they definitely have some parallels. They’re both about non-white people trying to navigate a world in which white is the default setting. They both use humor to get to heart of painful truths about race in America.
The other really fantastic thing about this book are the illustrations. This book just wouldn’t have the same impact without them. They are an essential part of building Arnold’s character and the overall feel of the book.
This was my second reading of this book. I read it about 5 years ago and loved it then and basically shouted it from the rooftops at that time. Recently Izzy discovered it in a stack of books I was sorting and begged for it to be our next read together. I’m a pretty liberal mom, but I really had to ponder this for a bit.
On one hand, the book has incredible tween/teen appeal due to both the illustrations and the remarkably authentic and humorous first person narrative. On the other hand, this book doesn’t shy away from explicit language and hot topics – mainly the two biggies: sex and death. To be clear, there is no explicit sex – just multiple references to sexual anatomy and masturbation. There are also three tragic deaths that are a direct result of alcohol abuse. Add to that, this book explores the uncomfortable topics of racism and poverty.
I don’t really believe in sheltering kids from the reality of these things and I think this book handles them superbly. That said, I believe in introducing these topics in an age appropriate way and at the appropriate time. Commonsense Media, whom I generally trust, recommends this book for ages 14 and up; Izzy is *almost* 13. I figured since we were reading it together, we could fudge the recommendation a bit. And, truth be told, I’m glad I did. It was a really enjoyable book to share with her and it sparked a lot of valuable conversation.
I just can’t recommend this book highly enough. I feel privileged to have read it twice and experience it and discuss it with my daughter.
Note: A great movie to pair with this novel is Smoke Signals. The screenplay was written by Sherman Alexie which he based on a short story from his collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven. It’s a great way for readers of ‘Part-Time Indian’ to see a visual representation of life on ‘the rez’. The other cool thing is that this film was acted and produced entirely by Native Americans. You can find a great discussion guide over at Teach With Movies. They recommend it for ages 12 and up so even if you’re not quite read for ‘Part-Time Indian’, this could be a great way to introduce this topic.