The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Book Summary, by Sherman Alexie

Download "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Book Summary, by Sherman Alexie" as PDF


Set in 2006, this book is a semi-autobiographical novel by Sherman Alexie. In it, 14-year-old Arnold Spirit, Jr., known on the Spokane Indian Reservation as “Junior,” grapples with his dual-identity when he transfers to a rich, racist, white high school 22 miles from the reservation. At his new school, Junior is the only Indian (aside from the school mascot); on the reservation, the members of his tribe treat him like a traitor who thinks he’s better than his fellow Indians.

As Junior struggles with racism and isolation in his “white” world and poverty, alcoholism, and tragedy on “the rez,” he survives on the hope of a better life than the one he seems destined for. The book is a hopeful story about belonging, friendship, and the importance of dreams.

1-Page Summary of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Set in 2006, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a semi-autobiographical novel by Sherman Alexie. Although based on the author’s childhood, True Diary is a work of fiction.

14-year-old Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) lives in Wellpinit, Washington, a small town on the Spokane Indian Reservation, known to residents as “the rez.” Junior describes the rez as “located approximately one million miles north of Important and two billion miles west of Happy.”

Junior was born with too much cerebrospinal fluid in his brain, and the consequent brain damage has resulted in numerous complications, including:

  • Nearsighted vision in one eye and farsighted in the other
  • Seizures
  • A stutter and lisp
  • 42 teeth (most people have 32)
  • A huge skull

Due to Junior’s physical challenges and speech impediment, people on the reservation regularly beat him up and refer to him as a “retard.”

Junior’s Suspension

On the first day of his Freshman year of high school, Junior’s so excited about learning geometry that he opens his textbook to kiss it. As he leans in, he sees “Agnes Adams” written on the inside cover. Agnes Adams is Junior’s mom.

With horror, Junior realizes that the book he’s holding is at least thirty years old. To him, the fact that his tribe is so poor that students have to use the same books their parents did is the “saddest thing in the world.” He feels his hopes for the class, and for his life, evaporate.

Without really understanding why, he suddenly hurls the textbook across the room, hitting his teacher in the face and breaking his nose. Consequently, Junior’s suspended, the first time he’s ever gotten into trouble at school.

Junior doesn’t realize it at the time, but this moment of anger signals his refusal to accept the poverty, alcoholism, and poor education that his fellow Spokanes take for granted. The teacher whose nose Junior has broken is angry with Junior, but he also understands, better than Junior does, the feelings behind Junior’s anger. He advises Junior to leave the reservation, and Junior decides to transfer to Reardan, the rich, redneck, racist farm town where the white kids go to school.

Through Junior’s story, _The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian _touches on the themes of racism, identity and belonging, the importance of dreams, poverty, alcoholism, and friendship.

Racism

Junior’s old geometry teacher, Mr. P, can’t be too upset with Junior for breaking his nose. Mr. P, who’s white, still feels guilty for beating his students in the early days of his teaching career. All the teachers had been taught to “kill the Indian to save the child,” to beat all of the Indian’s culture out of him. Mr. P feels like he deserves to be smashed in the face with a book. He wants more for Junior than the reservation can give him. Junior needs to venture out into the world, even though he’ll encounter persistent racism there.

First Days at Reardan

**Junior’s the only Indian at Reardan, aside from the school mascot. **Racism, both subtle and outright, is rampant at Reardan. A few of the jocks pick on him. They never try to fight him—Junior suspects that even though he’s nerdy, he’s an Indian and, therefore, viewed as a “potential killer.” Instead of fighting him, they call him names like “Chief,” “Tonto,” and “Squaw Boy.”

One day, an older jock named Roger asks Junior if he wants to hear a joke: “Did you know that Indians are living proof that n*iggers fuck buffalo?”

Junior has never heard anything so racist. He punches Roger in the face.

Junior suddenly feels brave. He thinks maybe this is the pivotal moment in his life when he tells the world that he’s no longer willing to be a human punching bag. He later realizes that he’s earned Roger’s respect by punching him.

As Junior starts to find his footing at Reardan, he starts hanging out with Penelope, the most popular girl in school. Junior knows that she’s only “semi-dating” him because she’s tired of being perfect, and dating an Indian gives her a blemish, with the added benefit that it pisses off her racist dad. Junior doesn’t mind that Penelope is using him because, as he sees it, he’s using her, too. Penelope is his way into the social scene at Reardan. Once he starts dating Penelope, he becomes relatively popular.

Identity and Belonging

As he struggles to fit in at his new school, Junior feels like he’s split in two: He wakes up as an Indian (Junior) and arrives at Reardan as a nobody (Arnold).

He doesn’t feel like he belongs on the reservation, either. Many Indians think you become as good as white if you aspire to a better life, and Junior faces many people on the rez who think of him as a traitor for going to school outside the reservation.

Finding Belonging on the Basketball Team

Junior makes it onto Reardan’s varsity basketball team, and he finally starts to feel he’s found his tribe. As the team enters the reservation for their first game against Junior’s old high school, Wellpinit, Junior can hear the Wellpinit fans chanting. It takes him a moment to realize they’re chanting “Ar-nold sucks! Ar-nold sucks!” They’re making a point of calling him by his Reardan name, Arnold, rather than his reservation name, Junior.

When the team walks into the gym, the fans go silent. Then, all at the same time, all the spectators in the stands turn their backs on Junior, displaying their contempt towards his new identity. Junior’s angry, in part because he thinks that if his community had been this organized when it came to educating its children, he might still be there. Thinking about this irony makes him laugh, the sole sound in the gym. In a show of support, his teammates join him, and they laugh their way to the locker rooms. But Junior’s fellow tribe members don’t let up—a fan throws a quarter at Junior, leaving a gash that requires stitches, and Junior’s former best friend, Rowdy (who plays for the reservation team), knocks Junior unconscious within minutes of Junior’s return to the game. Reardan loses by 30 points.

Later in the season, Junior’s eager for Reardan’s rematch with Wellpinit, even though he feels like the “Indian scout who led the U.S. Cavalry against other Indians.” This time, Reardan destroys the reservation team, and Junior ecstatically compares himself and his team to David, who knocks out Goliath with a stone. But then he realizes something: Reardan isn’t David, the underdog; Readan is Goliath, the giant, the team with all the advantages.

Junior’s teammates drive their own cars, carry their own cell phones, have parents with good jobs, and will go to college. In contrast, more than one kid on the Wellpinit team probably didn’t eat breakfast. Two of them have fathers in prison. None of them will go to college, and Rowdy’s father will beat him for losing the game.

Having spent most of his life as the underdog, Junior’s now ashamed of his privilege. He continues to feel like only a part-time Indian.

Strength in Numbers

Junior eventually realizes he’s in the company of millions of Americans who’ve “left their birthplaces in search of a dream.” He’s a member of the Spokane tribe, but he’s also a member of many other tribes, including:

  • The basketball tribe
  • The bookworm tribe
  • The teenage-boy tribe
  • The poverty tribe
  • The American immigrants tribe
  • The tortilla-chip-lovers tribe

Understanding that his world is bigger than the Spokane and that he’s a member of many different tribes, Junior knows he’s going to be okay.

Poverty

Junior says that most people think the worst thing about being poor is being hungry. He acknowledges that sometimes, he and his family go upwards of 18 hours without eating because they don’t have the money for food. But Junior always knows that eventually, one of his parents will come home with KFC. And KFC tastes even better when you’re hungry.

For Junior, the worst thing about being poor isn’t hunger. It’s the inability to save his best friend, his dog Oscar. When Oscar gets sick, Junior begs his mom to take Oscar to the vet, but the family doesn’t have the hundreds of dollars needed for the operation. Junior’s father shoots Oscar to put him out of his misery. Bullets only cost two cents.

Junior sometimes wants to blame his parents for their poverty, but he knows he can’t. He knows his family’s poverty is not his parents’ fault, and he knows they dreamed of more. But no one on the reservation realizes their dreams. They don’t get the chance. They’re too poor. And that creates a cycle that’s hard to escape.

  • First, you believe you’re poor because you’re stupid.
  • Then, you believe you’re stupid because you’re Indian.
  • Finally, because you’re Indian, you believe you will always be poor, and the cycle repeats itself.

Poverty doesn’t make you strong or perseverant. Poverty just “teaches you how to be poor.”

The Importance of Dreams and Hope

Mr. P tells Junior that the only thing that white teachers and Indian parents are teaching reservation kids is how to give up. If Junior stays on the rez, his hope will be snuffed out. Mr. P tells Junior to take his hope and find others who have hope. And the further Junior goes from the hopeless reservation, the more hope he’s likely to find. This is how Junior ends up at Reardan.

Shared Ambitions

Reardan presents Junior with strength to chase his dreams.

Penelope and Junior have ambition in common: They’re both dreamers who feel trapped in their small towns. Penelope’s dream is to study architecture at Stanford; Junior’s dream is to become a famous artist. They both want to create beautiful things, and they bond over that dream.

In the second basketball game against Wellpinit, the Reardan coach admits that Wellpinit’s team is better, but that Reardan has more heart. He then announces Junior will be starting and he’ll be guarding his friend Rowdy, who is much bigger. Junior is terrified, but his coach keeps telling Junior he can do it. He realizes that this simple sentence, “You can do it,” is one of the most powerful sentences in English, especially coming from an adult.

Junior’s Sister Leaves

One day, Junior comes home from school to find his mother crying. Junior’s older sister, Mary, has gotten married to a Flathead Indian she’s just met at the casino and has moved to Montana. No one in Junior’s family has ever left the Spokane Reservation for good.

At first, Junior’s worried about his sister. But then he realizes that his sister is trying to live her dreams. In high school, she’s dreamed of being a professional writer, but after graduation, she’d moved into the basement, stopped writing, and had become a recluse. Junior sees that, now, she’s living the romance novel she always wanted to write. The move proves to Junior that Mary’s spirit hadn’t died.

Soon after her marriage, Mary and her husband die when their trailer burns down. Junior’s devastated, but he’s still inspired by her. She pursued her dreams. She never reached them, but it was the bravery of the attempt that mattered. Junior sees that, like his sister, he’s also making the attempt, and it also might kill him, but staying on the rez also would have killed him. Junior clings to his dreams, and this is a key to his survival.

Alcoholism

Junior’s family doesn’t have money for presents at Christmas, so his father does what he always does when there isn’t enough money for something: He takes what they do have and gets drunk. He’s gone from Christmas Eve until January 2nd.

When he gets back, he’s so hungover that he can’t get out of bed. Junior goes into his room to say hello, and his dad apologizes about there being no presents at Christmas. Junior tells him it’s okay, but it isn’t. He realizes that **he’s once again trying to protect the man who repeatedly breaks his heart, **but he also knows how much his dad loves him and how hard his dad tries.

Deaths Caused by Alcoholism

Junior’s world is filled with deaths caused by alcohol. Junior’s grandmother dies when she’s hit by a drunk driver. The best friend of Junior’s father, with whom Junior is close, dies in a drunken fight over a bottle’s last sip of wine. Junior’s sister is drunk when she dies, which is why she doesn’t wake up in the heat of the fire.

The day of Mary’s death, Junior’s mother is curled up on the couch, and Junior knows that she’s “now broken and that she’ll always be broken.” She pulls Junior to her and tells him that he better not ever have a drink of alcohol. Before he can respond, she slaps him. Then she slaps him again, hard, two more times. He promises not to drink, and she stops slapping him, but she doesn’t let him go. She cries and holds him like a baby for hours, soaking his hair and clothing with tears.

Friendship

Rowdy is Junior’s best (human) friend. (Junior’s best friend is his dog, Oscar.) Junior considers Rowdy to be the “most important person in [his] life,” even more important than the members of his own family.

Rowdy is the toughest kid on the reservation. He’ll fight anyone—girl or boy, child or adult, human or dog. He even throws punches at the rain. When Junior tells Rowdy that he’s transferring to Reardan, Rowdy is so upset that he ends up punching Junior and giving him a black eye. Rowdy and Junior become rivals on the basketball court and sworn enemies for the rest of the school year.

A New Friend at Reardan

One day, Junior approaches the Reardan “class genius,” Gordy. They eventually bond over their mutual love of learning. Junior thinks Gordy is weird, but he also thinks he and Gordy have a lot in common. Junior believes that, just like he is, Gordy is lonely and terrified. While they don’t become best friends, they start to study together, and Junior finally has an ally at Reardan.

Other Allies at Reardan

For the first half of the school year, Junior attempts to hide his poverty from his Reardan classmates. When he doesn’t have the money to pay for Penelope’s meal after the winter formal, Roger, the jock who’d told the racist “buffalo” joke, offers to loan him money. Penelope later aks Junior if he’s poor. Junior’s tired of lying and tells her that he is and that he was also lying about his dad picking him up from dance. He admits that usually, he either hitches a ride or he walks, and the thought of Junior walking the 22 miles home makes Penelope cry. Before Junior can stop her, she asks Roger to drive Junior home. This is the first of many nights that Roger will drive Junior home from school.

Junior realizes that while he’s been preoccupied with Penelope’s looks, she’s actually been concerned about him. This realization makes him feel shallow. Junior sees that when you’re honest with people, those people can turn out to be pretty incredible.

Rowdy’s Return

After the school year ends, Junior’s at home watching TV when there’s a knock on the door and Rowdy enters. Junior, surprised to see him, says, “I thought you hated me.” Rowdy acknowledges that he does, but that he’s also bored. He asks if Junior wants to shoot some hoops.

Rowdy says he was reading a book about how “old-time” Indians used to be nomadic. He thinks that Junior is the only true nomad on the reservation, and that’s pretty cool. This makes Junior cry. Rowdy, dry-eyed, is unperturbed. He just tells Junior to make sure to send him postcards as he travels the world.

Junior knows that what Rowdy says is true: he’s a nomad. Junior hopes that, someday, his tribe will forgive him for leaving, and that, someday, he’ll forgive himself.

Junior and Rowdy play a game of one-on-one. They play for hours, until the moon is high in the sky, and they don’t keep score.

Full Summary of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Shortform Introduction

Set in 2006, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a semi-autobiographical novel by Sherman Alexie. Although based on the author’s childhood, True Diary is a work of fiction.

Throughout, Alexie’s narrator, Junior, refers to the Spokane tribe as “Indians” rather than “Native Americans,” “American Indians,” or “Indigenous Peoples.” We’ve followed suit to remain faithful to the narrator’s voice.

A note on organization: _The Absolutely True Diary _is comprised of short, unnumbered chapters. We’ve organized these chapters into larger thematic sections for ease of reading.

A uniq…

—End of Preview—

Read the rest of the “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” summary at my new book summary product, Shortform.

Here’s what you’ll find in the full The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian summary:

I’ve been building Shortform for the past year. It’s the book summary product I always wanted for myself. I was never satisfied with the summaries from what was on the market, and so I built Shortform for myself and readers like you. If you like my book summaries, you’ll love Shortform.

Shortform has the world’s best summaries of nonfiction books and articles. Even better, it helps you remember what you read, so you can make your life better. What’s special about Shortform:

  • The world’s highest quality book summaries—comprehensive, concise, and everything you need to know
  • Broad library: 1000+ books and articles across 21 genres
  • Interactive exercises that teach you to apply what you’ve learned
  • Audio narrations so you can learn on the go
  • Discussion communities—get the best advice from other readers

Sound like what you’ve been looking for? Sign up for a 5-day free trial here.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Book Summary, by Sherman Alexie
Share:

Enjoy this summary?

Subscribe to get my next book summary in your email.

Want to get smarter, faster?

Subscribe to my newsletter to get free book summaries and startup notes.
x