A decade after its original release, Sherman Alexie’s National Book Award winner, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown) is being reissued in a special anniversary edition, with 70-plus pages of bonus material including a new introduction from Jacqueline Woodson, family photographs, and—most intriguing—an excerpt from Alexie’s long-awaited sequel, Rowdy, Rowdy, Rowdy.
The title alone telegraphs the contents: this is a story that covers the same time period in Part-Time Indian told from the perspective of Arnold Spirit, Jr.’s best friend, Rowdy Polatkin, who stayed on the reservation when Arnold left for a better education at a predominantly white school 22 miles away. It begins, “Everybody loves a meteor, but hardly anybody cares about a meteorite.”
“The real surprise, from the beginning, is how much love there has been for Rowdy. He’s nearly as popular among readers as Junior is,” Alexie said. “I never intended to make him a hero or lovable and I’ve never written a true sequel. I’ve written six or seven different [versions], none of which I have even shown to Alvina [Ling, his editor]. It’s a deadly combination of arrogance and self-hatred; nothing is good enough.”
Now finishing the job will be tinged with deep sadness, too, because Alexie reveals in the new edition’s afterword that the childhood friend on whom the Rowdy character is based died last December in a car accident in rural Washington State. Randy J. Peone was 49.
“I had not spoken to Randy in many years,” Alexie writes in the afterword. “But I was instantly transported back in time, and I wept and wailed like a twelve-year-old boy whose best friend had just died.”
Earlier this year, Alexie had to cancel a portion of a tour promoting his new memoir to deal with recurring grief over the death of its subject—his mother Lillian Alexie, who died in 2015. “My analogy is that I pulled off the freeway when I was sleepy and got a motel room. I averted crisis, which is a shocking change of pattern for me,” said Alexie, who has been open in the past about his struggles with depression. “I’ve gotten a lot of letters from psychologists and therapists about how much my public decision to stop has affected them and their clients. I think perhaps in this year of so much public dishonesty, a little bit of public honesty was quite liberating for people. It definitely was for me.”
Alexie does plan to tour this fall in support of the new edition of Part-Time Indian.
“I think I will be okay. What was becoming harder and harder with the memoir was the performance aspect,” he said. “Mostly what I’m doing [for Part-Time Indian] is readings and panels and events that I am less emotionally invested in.”
The new edition will undoubtedly introduce the author to a new generation of high school students, since the book long ago became a staple of high school reading lists. Jacqueline Woodson wrote a new introduction, reporting that her daughter read the book for school and said, “This book is so good I cannot believe it was assigned.” Alexie finds that completely gratifying.
“One of the things I’m really proud of is that this book has reached so many people who are not readers because it was assigned reading,” he said. “[It] does amazingly well in ESOL classes, with first-generation immigrants, and with urban brown kids. It is a story about indigenous identity, but it’s also a story about educational ambition, searching for meaning, and overcoming a sense of alienation.”
Of course, being on all those school reading lists got some unwanted attention, too. A blurb from Neil Gaiman on the cover of the original edition—“I have no doubt that in a year it’ll be both winning awards and being banned”—turned out to be prophetic. Alexie said that even after a decade, there have been four or five new challenges to the book just this year.
“Some of my other books had been challenged when they were used in high schools but not on the same level as this one,” he said. “I didn’t see it coming in part because I was not part of the YA world when I wrote this book. I didn’t know about the intensity of the book-banning world. I’ve seen articles and interviews about people who want to ban the book who just make stuff up.”
Alexie said he sends books when people need copies in order to fight a challenge and donates to censorship-fighting organizations but otherwise limits his involvement. “I don’t know that I’d be a help or a hindrance to any particular school,” he said. “I’m usually far more offensive in person than my books are. It’s so quaint that people still want to ban books when any kid with a fully functioning smartphone has access to all the porn in the world.”
The critics, too, are far outnumbered by those who love the book. Alexie says he’s gotten hundreds of letters from kids who said it was the first book they ever finished. He hopes Part-Time Indian was their “gateway drug” to the world of literature.
“I had no idea the book was going to do this. I mean, I had a built-in audience. Some of my books had already been taught in advanced level classes in high school. I already had this great career,” he said. “But to write a book that sells millions? To win the Peter Pan [Prize] in Scandinavia? I had a letter from some kid, years ago, who said I’d written The Catcher in the Rye for Indians. It’s just been amazing.”
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, 10th Anniversary Edition by Sherman Alexie, illus. by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown, $20.99 Sept. 19, ISBN 978-0-316-50404-1