The Influences of Life of Sherman Alexie

The Influences of Life
Everyone’s previous experiences in life have an impact on the decisions they make. Whether it’s a fear of sharks keeping them from swimming, or something more extreme, everything people do is somewhat based on things they have already been through. This is commonly seen in authors and their writing. Many times they base events that occur in their books on similar circumstances that happened in their lives; sometimes purposely, and sometimes subconsciously. One author that does this in several of his novels is Sherman Alexie. He takes many of the events or situations he experienced throughout his life and puts them into the lives of the characters in these books. Sherman Alexie illustrates several of the obstacles that he faced in his life through the difficulties his characters encounter, particularly in his book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Sherman Alexie was born on October 7, 1996 in the tiny town of Wellpinit on the Spokane reservation in Washington (“The Lone” 54). Alexie faced many obstacles that he had to overcome in his childhood, but one of them in particular was a major setback. At six months old, Alexie was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, which required surgery (“The Lone” 54). While growing up, Alexie’s parents were not at home with him very often: “Alexie’s father, an alcoholic, was frequently absent from home, while Alexie’s mother worked as a clerk at Wellpinit Trading Post and sewed quilts to support Alexie and his five siblings” (“Because” 19). Alexie credits his difficult childhood for helping develop his imagination (“The Lone” 54). Although Alexie grew up in a poor area, he did not let that stop him from achieving academic success.

After receiving a poor education in Wellpinit, “Alexie transferred to a mostly white high school in Reardan- thirty miles off of the reservation- to get the credits he needed to attend college” (“Because” 19). However, Alexie found peer pressure to be overwhelming and “like many of his friends, he also developed a problem with alcohol” (“The Lone” 54). After graduating high school, Alexie decided to turn his life around: “In 1987 he moved to Seattle were he gave up drinking and enrolled at Washington State University” (“Because” 19). Alexie graduated and became a very successful and well-known author: “Alexie has been the recipient of numerous awards and
grants” (“Sherman” 4). Sherman Alexie is an inspiring author whose life story is both compelling and unique and could have very well influenced many components of his books. One of his novels that shows strong ties to his life is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

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In Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian he writes about the life of a boy named Junior. Junior is a reservation Indian born with a mental handicap known as hydrocephalus. As a result of this birth defect, Junior suffers from chronic seizures, speech impediments, and an awkwardly shaped body. He has horrible vision and has to wear unsightly glasses in order to see. Junior narrates this story in the raunchy, vulgar voice of the average teenage boy. Due to all of his disabilities, he is constantly called names and getting beat up. If he did not have his best friend Rowdy to defend him he would get beat up even more. Junior comes from a very poor family, which is a very common in Indian families on the Spokane Reservation. His father is a lazy alcoholic who spends whatever money he makes on alcohol or he gambles it all away. His mother is a loving woman, but she seems to have lost all hope. Most Indians on the reservation have accepted their misfortune. The one who provides the most insight on Junior’s life is his grandmother, who always finds a way to point him in the right direction. One day in school, Junior gets a textbook and sees that his mother used it when she was in the school. In his rage, Junior throws the book and hits his teacher in the face. The teacher visits Junior’s house and tells him about his sister’s previous passion for writing, which shocks Junior due to the fact that she spends most of her time in the basement now. Junior’s teacher will now tell him to do something that will change his life forever.

Once Junior’s teacher tells him that he must leave the reservation in order to keep his hope alive, Junior must make a tough decision. Junior follows his advice by attending Reardan High School. This is a big, rich, predominantly white school. The Indians on the reservation resent him for attending Reardan’s school, but this does not keep him from going there. After standing up to a racist white bully named Roger, Junior soon gains respect at the new school. Junior soon gets a semi girlfriend who is a
popular white girl named Penelope, as well as a geeky friend named Gordy. His sister leaves the reservation and marries a man on the Flathead reservation, which upsets Junior’s family greatly. Junior plays basketball against his Wellpinit Reservation team, and Rowdy, who used to be Junior’s best friend, hits him and intentionally knocks him unconscious. Junior’s once best friend now hates him more than anyone in the world. To add to this negativity, Junior’s grandmother is hit and killed by a drunk driver, which makes his whole family horribly sad. As if this is not bad enough, Junior’s sister and her husband die in a fire. Although Junior’s life appears to be going down the drain, he manages to turn his luck around.

Although it was not easy, Junior stays strong and leads his Reardan basketball team to defeat Rowdy and the Wellpinit basketball team. In this game he heroically leaps over Rowdy to score the first points of the game. After Junior’s sister’s funeral, Rowdy blames Junior for her death because he believes that he gave her hope to move away when he left the reservation. The book ends with Rowdy and Junior playing basketball together, signifying the reformation of their friendship. Many of the issues Junior faces throughout the novel come from Sherman Alexie’s own setbacks; including the lack of money. Sherman Alexie’s own monetary struggles he experienced throughout his life influence those that Junior faces. It is known that, “Indians living on the Reservation experience the most extreme poverty of any minority in the U.S.” (“The Absolutely” 1). Alexie depicts similar circumstances in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: “They [Junior’s parents] dreamed of being something other than poor, but they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams” (Alexie 7). The root of Junior’s struggles with poverty can be traced back to those of Alexie’s own life. Another example of the monetary struggles Alexie’s parents face is demonstrated when Alexie says, “My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people” (Schmitz 1). This same cynical view Alexie has on his own life resurfaces in his writing: “I am really just a poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spokane Indian Reservation” (Alexie 7). It is clear that Sherman Alexie’s view on his own life influences those of his character
Junior in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Alexie also writes, “It’s not like my mother and father were born into wealth. It’s not like they gambled away their family fortunes” (Alexie 11). This shows that, “The poverty that permeates the Indian reservation is an important focus of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” (“The Absolutely” 2). Although Alexie’s monetary struggles have a great influence on his writing, the impact on his writing created by the setbacks of living on a reservation are just as significant.

The setbacks of Alexie’s own life on the reservation reflect into Junior’s life. One of these similarities is expressed through the struggles in both of their reservation schools: “Alexie also left the reservation to attend high school in Reardan after discovering his mother’s name in an old text book” (“The Absolutely” 1). Alexie illustrates an analogous scenario in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: Mr. P says, “You can’t give up. You won’t give up. You threw that book in my face because somewhere inside you refuse to give up” (Alexie 43). This demonstrates the concept that many of the hindrances that challenged Alexie in his life inspire the setbacks he writes of in Junior’s. Furthermore, Alexie saw the reservation as a hopeless place while he was living there, describing the Spokane Indian Reservation as a landscape of “HUD shacks and abandoned cars” (Alexie and Marx). Correspondingly, Alexie writes of similar circumstances in his novel: “’All these kids have given up,’ he [Mr. P] said. ‘All your friends. All the bullies. And their mothers and fathers have given up, too. And their grandparents gave up and their grandparents before them. And me and every other teacher here. We’re all defeated’” (Alexie 44). This expresses the hopelessness that Alexie and Junior experienced while living on the reservation. As previously stated, “Alexie’s view of Indian life acquired more complexity when, in 1981, he enrolled at an all white high school in Reardan, a reservation border town unfriendly to Indians” (Alexie and Marx). Alexie takes this major event from his own life and incorporates it into Junior’s: “Travelling between Reardan and Wellpinit, between the little white town and the reservation, I always felt like a stranger. I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other” (Alexie 118). Here, Alexie’s novels show influence from events that occurred in his own life
once again. Even though living on a reservation did have a huge impact on Alexie’s writing, the struggles within his family had a large influence on his writing.

The family struggles that play a role in Junior’s life are derived from Sherman Alexie’s own difficulties. One of these setbacks caused by his family is alcoholism: “Alcoholism, a central concern of Alexie’s work, afflicted his family” (Alexie and Marx). Alcohol abuse is demonstrated by Junior’s father as well: “Drunk for a week, my father must have really wanted to spend those last five dollars” (Alexie 151). This demonstrates that the alcoholism that affected Sherman Alexie’s family contributed to the struggles within Junior’s family. Another family related difficulty of Alexie’s that influenced his writing was death: “Then there was his maternal grandmother, Etta Adams, who died when Alexie was eight” (Alexie and Marx). A situation in which the death of a grandmother occurs is also found in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: “Well, my grandmother has left this world and she’s now roaming around the afterlife” (Alexie 158). The death of Alexie’s own grandmother inspired the death of Junior’s grandmother. Signs of influence from the absence of Alexie’s father in his life can also be found in his writing: “Alexie’s father, an alcoholic, was frequently absent from home” (“Because” 19). This scenario shows direct correlation to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: “He [Junior’s Dad] left on Christmas Eve and came back on January 2. With an epic hangover, he just lay on his bed for hours” (Alexie 150). Alexie’s father’s alcoholism had great influence on the alcoholism in Junior’s family. Many of the struggles within Sherman Alexie’s family can be found in his writing. Alexie depicts some of the obstacles that affected his life in those of the characters he features in his novels, especially in his story The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. He is a man who lived a unique and significant life and told its story indirectly through the characters in his writing. Alexie and many other authors do this in their writing to incorporate their own saga in a distinctive way. For that matter, everyone expresses their own experiences diffusely without even knowing it. So the next time someone is talking, listen closely to hear what they are really saying.

Works Cited
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” Twenty-First Century Novels: The First Decade. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 2011. 1-5. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 25 Jan. 2012. Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Illus. Ellen Forney. New York: Little, Brown, 2007. Print. Alexie, Sherman, and Doug Marx. “Sherman Alexie: A Reservation of the Mind.” Publishers Weekly 16 Sept. 1996: 39. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Jan. 2012. “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimmy Hendrix Play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock.” Short Stories for Students. Ed. David Galens. Vol. 18. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 18-39. Print. “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Novels for Students. Ed. David Galens. Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 53-71. Print. Schmitz, Terri. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” Horn Book Magazine Jan.-Feb. 2009: 25. Literature Resource Center. Web. 27 Jan. 2012. “Sherman Alexie.” Contemporary Authors. Gale, 2010. Web. 7 Oct. 2011.

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The Influences of Life of Sherman Alexie. (2016, Dec 31). Retrieved from