At first glance, Arnold Spirit Jr. has nothing going for him. Born with a number of physical maladies, he's the son of alcoholic parents living in poverty on Washington's Spokane Indian Reservation. He's beaten up on a regular basis. Arnold has two saving graces, though: his friendship with Rowdy, the local bully who takes a shine to him; and his gifts as an artist and student.
One day, in a fit of frustration, Arnold picks up his thirty-year-old textbook (which his mother had also used) and indiscriminately hurls it across his classroom, breaking the teacher's nose. The teacher, Mr. P, sees something more in the action (and the student) than meets the eye. While Arnold is at home serving his suspension, Mr. P visits with a suggestion: Leave the reservation school, he says, and go to school in the rich white people's school twenty-two miles away. "You have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope."
So Arnold does. Suddenly he finds himself split between two very different worlds: home on "the rez," with its rampant poverty and alcoholism, where people resent him for trying to better himself; and his new school and its wealthier community, where he is the only Indian (aside from the school's mascot).
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a teen book, and the misfit theme is nothing new in teen literature. But here's what makes it different, according New York Times reviewer Bruce Barcott: "Working in the voice of a 14-year-old forces Alexie to strip everything down to action and emotion, so that reading becomes more like listening to your smart, funny best friend recount his day while waiting after school for a ride home." Combined with "Arnold's" drawings (done by Seattle artist Ellen Forney), which illustrate the teen's anger, frustration, and humor, what might otherwise be a difficult or depressing story becomes a one of insight, possibilities, humor, and hope.
This is a terrific read for teens and adults alike.