Frequently banned novel is added to English curriculum


Book cover pictured on left; Sherman Alexie pictured on right

By Parima Kadikar, Watchung Hills Regional HS, Warren, N.J.

“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie is a semi-autobiographical novel about a Native American teenager growing up on the Spokane Reservation. It won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the 2008 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction and Poetry, and the 2009 Odyssey Award as the best audiobook for young adults.

Three years after it was published, it became one of the top 10 most frequently banned books in America.
So why is a young adult novel causing so much dispute? The book is about protagonist Junior Spirit’s shockingly taxing journey through life on the “rez.” Containing messages about drugs, alcohol and violence, as well as (given that it is narrated by a teenage boy) mentioning masturbation — parents around the nation have complained that the book is inappropriate for its audience.

Mrs. Goodson, a sophomore English 2 Honors teacher, admitted that when she first heard about the book she thought that it would be a light, easy read. As she proceeded to read it, however, she realized that the underlying tone and theme were far more meaningful than she had initially expected.

At first I thought the fiction was overdramatized, until I read more about alcohol and abuse and the complete lack of hope that exists on so many Native American reservations and realized that [Alexie] was drawing from real-life experiences.”

— Mrs. Goodson, English teacher

She said, “At first I thought the fiction was overdramatized, until I read more about alcohol and abuse and the complete lack of hope that exists on so many Native American reservations and realized that [Alexie] was drawing from real-life experiences.”

An example of a local conflict caused by this novel took place in Westfield in 2012. Parents within the school district complained about the addition of Alexie’s book to Westfield High School’s curriculum for the same reasons that parents all over the nation have complained about the book. Except the difference in this case was that one WHS junior actually wrote an article on the Westfield Patch, defending the novel and explaining its importance. Supporters of Alexie’s book say that the main themes and lessons are eye-opening in a world where so little is known about realistic Native American culture, and that the “vulgar language” simply makes the book more authentic.

When asked about whether or not the novel’s content outweighed its controversy Mrs. Goodson responded, “I absolutely think the message is more important. I mean if people think this book is controversial then they don’t really know what’s going on in the lives of their 16 year-olds. My job as a teacher is to widen your world, the world of 16 year-olds, not to restrict and shelter.”

As of now, the novel has been quite well-received by the WHRHS community. Mrs. Goodson says that while some were a bit taken aback at first, students reading the novel generally appreciated what Alexie was trying to convey. “The bitter tone of despair and hopelessness, but at the same time continuing to hope — holding those two different ideas at once in this novel really sets it apart.”

However, even considering the language and adolescent obscenities depicted in “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” the factor that renders most shocking is the sheer irony that Alexie presents. Native Americans are the most underrepresented minority in their own homeland, and they are faced with issues about which there is almost no awareness. Sherman Alexie chose to use dark humor and teenage innocence to get his point across, which is why parents and administrators seem to be distracted from the underlying theme. What the focus should really be on is how Alexie raises concerns about Native American hardships and, purposely, does not address them at the end.

The novel leaves readers with a feeling of uneasiness at the end, because nothing is really resolved. While this may upset some people, the entire point of the novel is its honesty — and to sacrifice that for a happy ending that just wouldn’t exist in real life would contradict its theme.

Mrs. Goodson and her colleagues plan to continue teaching the novel, after fully appreciating the value that it holds beneath its more controversial surface. “Both parents and teachers have a responsibility to open the eyes of children to all the issues of the world, not just our own private agendas and what colleges we’re going to. Not everyone has to focus every single issue at hand, but we should at least be aware of issues outside our little community.”