I haven’t even finished this book, but I want to talk about it now.
I just read page 189, and it made me want to stand up in my living room and shout “Yes!” to Vincent the cat who's sleeping on the sofa.
The book’s hero, Arnold Spirit, is getting ready to go into a basketball game where he must guard his former best friend, now an enemy, for the entire night.
“You can do it,” says the coach.
“I can do it,” says Arnold Spirit.
I don’t know if he does or doesn’t win the game, don’t know if his enemy gives him another concussion and sends him back to the hospital in an ambulance, as he did in their last encounter.
But I can say this: Arnold is a warrior, and his words go right into my heart:
“I can do it.”
Born with multiple birth defects, including hydrocephalus that makes Arnold’s head unnaturally large and vulnerable (he gets called “Orbit” and “Pumpkin boy” by bullies), he's fifteen years old and has a stutter, bad eyes, huge feet, zits, and alcoholic parents. Arnold lives every teenager’s nightmare of being different, an outsider. Moreover, his reservation’s a bleak and hopeless place, white kids hate him just because he’s an Indian, and his "Rez" has such a terrible school that the textbooks are thirty years old.
Arnold has three things going for him: he draws cartoons beautifully, and they help him connect with the world when his stuttering speech shuts him out; his parents, flawed and defeated as they are, love and listen to him, and have hope for him if not for themselves; and he’s very smart—the smartest kid in his awful school.
And being a warrior, Arnold takes a kind teacher’s advice and changes schools. “You’ve got to,” says his teacher.
When he tells his family he’s going to attend the new white kids’ school off the Rez , it’s Arnold’s wise grandmother who first calls him a warrior.
“It was the best thing she could have told me,” he says.
Arnold is more alone than most teenagers can imagine: he’s bullied and shunned at his new school and hated by his former best friend; he’s ostracized by even the grownups on the Rez for going to a white school—they call him an “Apple,” meaning red on the outside but white on the inside.
But Arnold has a warrior’s courage, and he goes up to people who have been cruel to him and he says bluntly, “Look, we have things in common. I want to be friends with you.”
The book’s only 230 pages long, but it’s packed with powerful life lessons for any teenager who wants to know how to fit in, how to be accepted in spite of his flaws and weaknesses.
I wish I’d had this book back when I was in ninth grade and hating my ugly hair and my clumsiness in gym class. I wish I’d had this book when I messed up in an art workshop and got taken to task by the scholarship chairman.
But, all these years later, I can still cheer for and learn from Arnold, who has a stutter and bad eyes, and who is showing me how to be a warrior.
Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a National Book Award winner, was published by Little-Brown in 2007.