81 pages • 2 hours readSherman Alexie
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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a young adult novel by Sherman Alexie, published in 2007 with art by Ellen Forney. Alexie, a Spokane/Cour d’Alene Indian (a term he prefers to “Native American”), began the book as a memoir inspired by experiences he had growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, and attending the predominantly white Reardan High School in Reardan, Washington. The book received much praise and many accolades and was the recipient of the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
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The book is in first-person diary format, narrated by Arnold “Junior” Spirit Jr., a 14-year-old American Indian and aspiring cartoonist who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Born with hydrocephaly and expected to die in infancy, Junior survived with several lasting effects. As a child, he grew 42 teeth (and had 10 pulled) and had frequent seizures; as a 14-year-old, he has a stutter and a lisp, a large head, and poor eyesight for which he wears thick glasses. On the reservation, his peers bully him for his differences, and he is frequently beaten up. Mostly Junior stays home and draws cartoons of his family and his best friend, Rowdy. He dreams of becoming a great cartoonist, and he believes making art is the only way he might someday escape the reservation. Junior includes his humorous drawings throughout the novel, offering further insight into how he sees the world.
Junior and his family live in inescapable poverty, which he illustrates early in the novel with an anecdote about his sick dog, Oscar. Without the money to take Oscar to the vet, his parents decide Junior’s father must shoot Oscar with a rifle. Although devastated by losing Oscar, Junior loves his parents and explains, “we reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams” (13). With more support, Junior thinks his mother would have been a college professor, and his father would have been a musician. Junior also lives with his Grandmother Spirit and his older sister, Mary, who moved into the basement after high school despite her intelligence. Their family calls her Mary Runs Away because she is “so crazy and random” (28).
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After Oscar’s death, Junior’s best friend Rowdy convinces him to walk to a powwow and promises to protect him. Junior feels closer to Rowdy than he does to his family, even though Rowdy is “mean as a snake” (15). Rowdy is also a “big, goofy dreamer,” and loves comic books as much as Junior does (23). Rowdy frequently gets into fights, but Junior suspects Rowdy would never hurt him. Rowdy’s father, an alcoholic, beats Rowdy, and though Junior’s father is also an alcoholic, Junior know his father would never do the same.
At the powwow, Rowdy vandalizes a minivan; afraid of getting in trouble, Junior runs away into the Andruss brothers’ camp. The Andruss brothers beat Junior up, and Rowdy and Junior get their revenge by cutting off the Andruss’ brother’s braids after they fall asleep.
On Junior’s first day of high school on the reservation, he receives a geometry textbook that belonged to his mother. Frustrated by the impoverished school system, Junior hurls the book at his teacher, Mr. P, who has him suspended. One week into his suspension, Mr. P approaches Junior and insists that he leave the Indian reservation. Mr. P apologizes to Junior for his past racist behavior, including beating Indian children at the school and failing to adequately encourage and support Junior’s sister, Mary. Mr. P tells Junior that the farther Junior gets from the reservation, the more hope he’ll find.
Junior decides to transfer to Reardan High School, a predominantly White high school 22 miles away; it’s one of the best schools in the state. His parents warn Junior getting there will be difficult, and his fellow Indians will be angry he’s leaving the reservation. Junior tries to convince Rowdy to transfer with him, but Rowdy calls Junior a slur and punches him in the face, giving him a black eye.
At Reardan, the White students stare at Junior; he’s the only Indian member of the school community, besides the mascot. Junior meets a pretty, White, blonde girl named Penelope, but he otherwise feels “like a magician slicing himself in half,” his identity split between Junior north of the Spokane River and Arnold to the south (61). He gets into a fight at school because a few White boys, including an older student named Roger, call Junior racist slurs. Junior punches Roger in the face, and his Grandmother Spirit suggests that Roger might respect him now because Junior has challenged the “alpha dog.”
Junior now often feels half-Indian and half-White. The members of his tribe reject him for having “betrayed” the community, and they physically accost him on Halloween. At Reardan, Junior keeps his poverty a secret, continues to draw cartoons, and misses Rowdy desperately. Junior often has difficulty getting to school because his father doesn’t have money for gas. He walks part of the way or hitchhikes, getting rides with members of the reservation. His father’s best friend, Eugene, gives Junior a ride on his motorcycle one day, and after seeing all the White students, tells Junior he’s cool for attending Reardan.
Junior discovers that he’s one of the smartest students in his grade during one memorable science class; he corrects his science teacher, Mr. Dodge, on geologic process involving petrified wood. Gordy, the class genius, stands up for Junior, though he tells Junior he “did it for science” (87).
Shortly before Thanksgiving, Mary Runs Away spontaneously marries a Flathead Indian and moves to his reservation in Montana. Inspired by her bravery, Junior befriends Gordy, who teaches him how to study and find joy in books and hard work. Junior also develops a pseudo-romantic relationship with Penelope, which deepens after he discovers she has bulimia. She shares she wants to study architecture and attend Stanford, and they attend Winter Formal together. By the end of the night, Junior reveals he’s poor to her and his former bully, Roger, and Roger starts driving him home occasionally. Junior has a few brief email exchanges with Rowdy, and he receives an email and a letter from Mary, who is happy in her new life.
Junior joins Reardan’s basketball team. When Reardan plays Wellpinit, Junior’s tribe literally turns their backs to him. On the court, Rowdy elbows Junior in the head and knocks him unconscious. Junior bonds with his basketball coach, who stays with him in the hospital. Later, Reardan wins against Wellpinit in a rematch, but the win is hollow for Junior, who understands the White Reardan players—and now Junior—have more advantages than the Indian players.
At Christmas, Junior’s father goes on a drinking binge, and in the months that follow, a series of tragedies befalls Junior’s family. Grandmother Spirit is killed by drunk driver, and Eugene is shot and killed by one of his good friends, supposedly over the last sip in a bottle of wine. At Grandmother Spirit’s funeral, Junior’s tribe members give him peace, and a White man named Ted makes a speech that causes the Indians to laugh together in a powerful moment. A few weeks later, Mary dies in an alcohol-related housefire. At her funeral, Rowdy blames Junior for Mary’s death. Junior is devastated and reflects on the pervasive and destructive nature of alcoholism on the reservation.
Junior finishes the school year at Reardan with a strong report card, and he knows he’ll return the following year. He recalls important memories from his childhood: climbing a tall pine tree with Rowdy, and stories his father told him about Turtle Lake. Despite the year’s great losses, Junior feels hopeful about the future. In the book’s final scene, Rowdy compares Junior to an old-time Indian, and Junior says he’ll always love the reservation and his tribe. Rowdy and Junior play basketball and don’t keep score.
By Sherman Alexie