Banned Young Adult Book Silences Powerful Themes

Banned Young Adult Book Silences Powerful Themes

By Norah Laughter, Reporter

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is one of the most impactful coming-of-age novels for teens. It has won numerous awards, including the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Across America, schools have had people try to remove the novel from the library. Due to frequent mentions of sexuality, masturbation, race, and alcohol, concerned parents have taken their cases to school boards asking for the book to be pulled out of libraries. Banning this novel takes away opportunities for students in similar situations to read a relatable story about loss, racism, and self-discovery.

The main character, Arnold (or Junior, as he is known on the Indian reservation) is a young boy in his freshman year. He has been to 42 funerals in his lifetime. On his reservation, alcoholism is a common cause of death. During the events of the story, his grandmother, sister, and his father’s friend die of alcohol-related deaths. His grandmother, who “never drank a drop in her entire life,” was hit by a drunk driver. His sister burned alive after a party involving alcohol. His father’s friend, Eugene, is shot by his best friend after a petty argument in which he was under the influence.

On the first day of school, he throws a textbook at his teacher and receives a suspension. His teacher, an old Caucasian man who teaches on the reservation, comes to talk to him near the end of his punishment. He tells Arnold that he was the only student of his with hope of ever becoming more than his peers, who have essentially given up and accepted they would live on the reservation, where alcoholism, poverty, and abuse rates are high, for the rest of their lives. The teacher says that him throwing the book showed him that Arnold was still fighting, still trying to become more. This leads to Arnold deciding to go to a wealthier school with higher test scores and more opportunities than on the reservation.

This is one of the first themes the book demonstrates. Native Americans often don’t receive opportunities to be as successful, like many poorer students in school districts. Arnold, whose parents were living in poverty, continued to push forward and kept trying to go to college, get a job, and be something. He is a role model to students in situations similar to his. Even with the oppression he experienced, he persisted and went on to a school full of better opportunities. If students were denied access to the novel, they would miss the opportunity to learn from Arnold, a relatable character undergoing experiences similar to students.

The way the school on the reservation is written emphasizes how real-life reservation schools are run. They are chaotic and extremely poor. Students very rarely get opportunities to leave and go to other districts, and those in charge of the schools don’t put much effort into improving them. Some argue that this doesn’t draw comparisons to our wealthier school district, but it does provide an example of someone striving for more. It shows what someone did to improve their circumstances, which students in our district can do. Even if they stay in the same school, they have the power to pursue better grades. This book will resonate with students in a way that counselors and teachers cannot reach.

When Arnold arrives at his new school, he is immediately the center of attention. He’s a Native American in a school of primarily white students. Both his new peers and his teachers are quick to notice. A group of boys, led by a giant named Roger, picks on him in the hallway. Throughout the book, themes of racism and discrimination are brought up. From racist comments from friends to discrimination in basketball games, the book covers the hardships of being a Native American in a Caucasian school.

“Racism” is often viewed as a dirty word in society. Students in our own school view it as a word that shouldn’t be said and use it at a joke. “That’s racist,” and “you’re so black” are commonly heard from students. They don’t acknowledge that racism is an actual issue that affects billions of people every day, because they’ve always gone to a privileged school with middle- and upper-class kids. The years of American Indian removal has left an impact on their culture. They are still in poverty with horrific living conditions. What Americans did centuries ago left a mark that has cost thousands of innocents their lives. Racism from our past still lingers today, so we cannot discard it or forget what America has done.

This book puts into perspective the issue of racism in schools. It also provides a role model who is living in the real world, where racism is a prominent issue. It provides examples of how the racist comments and gestures impact a person and their self-esteem. This novel provides an instance of someone targeted by racism, but also highlights how racism is not a joke and is instead a real issue in the teenage community.

While a more blunt message in the novel is that alcohol is a terrible substance that can lead to death and murder, the meaning in this story goes deeper. Three of Arnold’s role models all die in one year. He experiences grief and depression. At some point in our lives, we will experience loss and sadness. The emotional trauma that grief can cause is numbing, but it’s also a part of life. Many people who you will encounter are going through loss or have experienced it in their past. Condolences from peers and counselors often can’t reach the same emotional level that someone (Arnold)  with similar experiences can. He provides an example of sadness and misfortune that kids will experience sometime.

The alcoholism on the reservation illustrates the living conditions in reservations. Historically, Native Americans have struggled with alcohol dependency. This book really brings to light how that can affect those who live on reservations, especially children who experience tragedy at such a young age. It brings the issue to many people’s attention, which is one of the first steps to better improving conditions on reservations. While the book has a storyline that readers can connect to, many students don’t quite understand the injustice, poverty, and addiction that Native Americans have faced for hundreds of years.

In just 230 pages, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian manages to convey themes of racism, loss, friendship, and perseverance that students can easily relate with. While some of the language in the novel is explicit, it brings to light many issues that aren’t as publicized as they need to be. It also provides themes that students can understand and relate their own life to. They can learn a lot from Arnold, so removing the book from libraries takes away a role model that could help students navigate high school and the rest of their life.