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Literature / The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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Imagine you're an American Indian. No, not a Noble Savage or Magical Native American. No, imagine you're born with hydrocephaly, ten extra teeth, and you've had glasses since age 3. And you have a lisp and stutter even in high school. Now imagine you go to a white school. And your reservation friends hate you for it. And even there, you're smarter than the teachers.

That is the world of Arnold Spirit Jr. in Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Though acclaimed and awarded at its release, it has also been frequently banned for its frank depictions of alcohol, bullying, teen sexuality, and profanities.


  • Abridged for Children: An edition of the book published by Scholastic omits an incident of racist language (Did you know that Indians are living proof that niggers fuck buffalo?) and refers to it simply as "a joke involving Indians, African-Americans, and buffalo."
  • Abusive Parents: Rowdys dad physically abuses him on a regular basis, which is implied to be why Rowdy is so quick to violence.
  • Age-Gap Romance: Arnold's parents met when his father was five and his mother was thirteen.
  • The Alcoholic: Arnold's dad has such a bad drinking problem that he abandons his family on Christmas Eve and uses the little money they have to binge-drink until January 2. Arnold's mom is a recovering alcoholic. He comments that almost everyone on the rez is an alcoholic.
  • Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: Three of Arnold's family members and his dad's best friend die in alcohol-related incidents. Grandmother Spirit gets run over by a drunk driver, Eugene gets shot by his best friend Bobby over the last sip from a wine bottle, and Mary (and her husband) burn to death in their trailer after someone heats up soup on a hot plate, forgets about it, and a gust from an open window knocks the hot plate onto the ground.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Many, many people at the reservation turn on Arnold for leaving for Reardan and deride him as a traitor, to the point that the students at his old high school chant "Ar-nold sucks!" and turn their backs on him when he shows up with his new basketball team to play against theirs.
  • Author Avatar: Sherman Alexie had hydrocephalus as a kid, and went to a white school, much like Arnold.
  • Badass Native: Arnold gets to be a Memetic Badass for one day when he scores the goal for his team in a game against his previous school, complete with beating Rowdy in the match. He regrets it when he realizes what he's done is like kicking the other team when they're down, as they're poor Native Americans from the reservation and his team is all white, rich preppy kids, comparing himself unflatteringly to Goliath for it.
  • The Beautiful Elite: Penelope. Not really "evil" like they usually are, just seriously messed up.
  • Berserk Button: Do not make racist jokes about Native Americans around Arnold. He punches out a senior for making one, which ironically earns him the guy's respect.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Grandmother Spirit, Mary, and Eugene die (in three separate alcohol-related accidents), but Arnold survives his first year at Reardan High, earns the respect and friendship of his white classmates, and repairs his friendship with Rowdy.
  • Black Comedy Burst: After Mary's death with her husband in a fire in their trailer, Arnold draws a parody romance novel cover of her and her husband in an embrace in a fire. Because drawing is his way of making sense of the world, it's all but outright stated he drew it as his way of grieving: he blames himself for her death because she only ran off to get married after he left for Reardan, as it was what inspired her to finally do something with her life as well.
  • Brains and Brawn: Arnold is socially awkward but highly intelligent, and Rowdy is the toughest kid on the reservation who beats up people just to get his anger out, and frequently defended Arnold from bullies by beating them up.
  • Bully Magnet: Arnold used to get beat up in the Rez by some kids who made fun at him due to the fact that he has hydrocephalus since he was born. When he attended at Reardon High School, he never got bullied there ever since.
  • The Complainer Is Always Wrong: There's scene where Mr. Dodge, the geology class teacher (though Arnold suspects he's just a random teacher who was never actually trained in geology and was just made a geology teacher to fill in a vacancy), claims that petrified wood is wood that's turned into rock. Arnold, working through his stutter and lisp, corrects him, saying that it'd actually more accurate to say the wood was replaced by rock. Mr. Dodge angrily snarks at Arnold for trying to correct him, and the rest of the class mocks Arnold for it, except for resident Teen Genius Gordy, who explains that Arnold is actually more or less correct.
  • Computer Wars: Dear God, don't get Gordy started on Mac vs. PC.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Arnold's dog, his father's best friend, grandmother, and romance novel loving sister do not survive the novel. Heck, the Shoot the Dog moment happened at the beginning of the novel.
  • Don't Look At Me: Rowdy hates it when Arnold tries to draw him.
  • Easily Forgiven: Arnold's grandmother's last words are to ask her family to forgive the man that ran her over. Arnold is surprised and shocked that even to the end, his grandmother was still kind and selfless even towards her killer.
    • Played somewhat straighter with Rowdy at the end, who shows up at Arnold's door and expects to hang out with him, as if he hadn't spent two-thirds of the book furious with and haranguing Arnold for leaving him and the reservation to go to Reardan. He even claims he still hates him, and the only reason he came was because he was bored. Arnold contemplates telling him off or making him apologize, but decides not to because "[Rowdy] was never going to change", and after everything he's gone through up to this point, he's just glad their relationship has gone back to normal again.
  • High-Pressure Emotion: Arnold's drawing of Mr. Dodge giving a Death Glare compares Mr. Dodge to a volcano, and Arnold quips that his face got so red that it made him wonder why Indians are called "redskins" and not whites.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Arnold thinks his parents and sister could have had more successful lives, if only they hadn't been born Indian and poor. One of his drawings is "what my parents would have been if someone paid attention to their dreams".
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Rowdy's abusive drunken father never got his comeuppance at the end of the book.
    • Arnold never got detention nor got expelled after he punched Roger in the face telling a racist joke in front of him.
    • The three older boys from the Rez wearing Frankenstein masks beat up Arnold on Halloween night, stole his candy and donation money from him, and got off Scott free.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Arnold's interactions with other children are rarely wholly positive. At best they condescend him, and at worst they beat the shit out of him and mock his disability.
  • Kick the Dog: After Arnold's grandmother dies, Arnold loses the motivation to go the school for quite a while. When he returns, one of his teachers puts him down as one of those kids that like skipping school. Arnold's classmates aren't having it.
  • Lampshaded Double Entendre: Arnold's dad tells Junior how his mom used to help him get a drink from the water fountain when they were kids, then remarks, "Your mother helped me get a drink from the water fountain last night, if you know what I mean," disgusting Junior.
  • Magical Queer: Discussed, when Junior says that Indians used to think this. In his culture, men are considered warriors, and women are considered caregivers, and since they saw gay people as being both male and female, they were as seen as both caregivers and warriors. When his tribe picked up Christianity, he says, that's when they started seeing homosexuals as abominations.
  • Meaningful Name: Rowdy is, well, rowdy, being violent and quick to throw punches when he gets mad. Mary's nickname is Mary Runs Away, which is significant on two levels; she's called that in the beginning because she's "crazy and random", but it becomes meaningful when she literally runs away with a man to live in Montana.
  • Misery Builds Character:
    • Defied. At one point, Arnold delivers a tirade against the idea that poverty builds character, saying it really just makes people feel powerless and hate themselves rather than making them stronger.
    "It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it. Poverty doesn't give you strength of teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor."
    • This is also reflected by various parts of the storyline. For example, for much of the book, Arnold pretends his parents are always there to pick up him at the end of the school day, when in actuality, he usually just hitch-hikes, since his family is barely scraping by and can't always afford the gas money to take him to and from school. This experience doesn't teach him patience or anything; it just reinforces the fact that he's poor and can't keep the charade of being middle-class going for long, which are things he knew already. When he opens up about being poor, he actually does learn something, namely that the people at his school are kinder than he thinks and that they're willing to help him if he just asks.
  • Missing White Woman Syndrome: Discussed with Gordy in one chapter; when Arnold asks him for advice on what to do when he's in love with a white girl (Penelope), Gordy comes back to him with a completely off-topic report about an article he found about the case of a white girl named Cynthia whose disappearance in Mexico was all over the news, which was compared to the disappearances of two hundred Mexican girls in that same region over the past few years that were nowhere near as noticed or talked about because they were not seen as privileged. He uses this to conclude that Arnold is a "racist asshole" like everybody else.
  • Mock Millionaire: Well, Mock Middle-Class but the dynamic is still very much there. Arnold pretends that he's middle-class just like the other kids at Reardan and gives all the manner of excuses for not spending money on things (e.g. claiming Indians are allergic to sugar to explain why he can't buy treats for a bake sale fundraiser, saying he's too sick to pay to attend a field trip, pretending he has to go to an "Indian ceremony") He knows full well that he can't put on the charade for long ("Lies have short shelf lives", as he puts it) and fears Penelope will break up with him if he tells her he's actually poor, but he feels pressured to do so anyway because the white people at the school assume the Indians on the rez get a lot of money from their casino and government handouts (in reality, the casino is losing money, and they don't get any government money, which are both very much Truth in Television.) When Arnold confesses to Penelope and Roger that he's actually pretty poor after the Winter Formal, they're sympathetic to his plight, much to his surprise. Roger even drives him home that night, and many more nights afterward.
  • Nerd Glasses: Arnold draws himself with enormous ones, which illustrate his weak-looking, gawky appearance and vulnerability to getting beaten up by bullies.
  • Noble Savage: Discussed and ultimately deconstructed by Arnold — he hates his family's poverty, and says that while they didn't have technology, that didn't mean they were perfectly happy the way they were and had a contempt for technology.
  • Noodle Incident: A Scholastic edition describes a racist joke told to Arnold which provokes him to punch the Jerkass who tells it as "involving Indians, African-Americans, and buffalo" rather than repeating it.
  • Racist Grandma: Inverted, as Arnold's grandma is the only character besides Arnold who is tolerant of homosexuals.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Rowdy is the tough, physically violent and short-tempered red to Junior's awkward, nerdy social outcast blue.
  • Romance Novel: Parodied with Mary's romance novels, which are all about an innocent white settler woman who runs away with a handsome Noble Savage stereotype. Arnold draws a hypothetical cover of such a novel three times: the first when he finds out from a teacher about it, the second when she elopes with a Flathead tribe man to Montana shortly after he starts going to Reardan, and the third, after she dies in a fire with her husband and he's still struggling to cope with his grief.
  • Satellite Family Member: Rowdy's father is an abusive father and alcoholic. The abuse he had received from his father made Rowdy into an angry bully.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Gordy has a vocabulary that Arnold finds better suited to a college professor than a high school freshman.
  • Shoot the Dog: Arnold's dog Oscar gets sick very early in the book, and since they can't afford to take him to the vet, the only thing they can do is take him out back and shoot him.
  • Shout-Out:
    • While Arnold is grieving Eugene and Grandmother's deaths, Gordy shows him the play Medea, where the title character says, "What greater grief than the loss of one's native land?" Arnold heartily agrees: not only have Indians lost so much of their native land and culture, but he himself can readily sympathize with her being so struck with grief that she killed her own children.
    • At another point, Gordy also gives Arnold a copy of Anna Karenina. Arnold is not impressed by its famous opening line (translated in this book as "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."); he says every unhappy Indian family is unhappy for the same reason, that being booze.
  • Signature Laugh: Arnold likes to hear Rowdy laugh (although he doesn't laugh often), describing it as "an avalanche of ha-ha and ho-ho and hee-hee."
  • Tacky Tuxedo: Because his family is too poor to afford a new outfit for him, Arnold has to wear one of his dad's hand-me-downs to the high-school dance; a tacky disco-style suit his dad bought in the 1970s.
  • The Teetotaler: According to Arnold, his grandmother is one, which is extremely rare given his tribe's propensity for being The Alcoholic (including his own dad).
    "Drinking would shut down my seeing and my hearing and my feeling," she used to say. "Why would I want to be in the world if I couldn't touch the world with all my senses intact?"
  • Take That!: During Grandmother Spirit's wake, a man referred to as "Billionaire Ted" makes a fool of himself by boasting about how much he loves the Indians and trying to return a stolen powwow dance outfit he purchased, only for Arnold's mom to tell him it was made by a totally different tribe, causing him to flee in humiliation. The illustration and discussions of his wealth suggest this could be Ted Nugent.
  • Trauma Conga Line: The death of Arnold's grandmother, followed by that of Eugene and Arnold's sister. Given that all these deaths involved alcohol and the frequency he attends funerals, he extends this one to his entire people.
  • Unknown Rematch Conclusion: Junior and Rowdy become rivals after the former transfers to Reardon high school. Junior wins a basketball game against Rowdy and his team, but their friendship is fixed when they got out of school for the summer. The boys play a basketball game one on one, with the winner being left unknown.
  • Wham Line: Arnold starts talking about his grandmother and then casually says that she was hit by a drunk driver and didn't survive.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Penelope's eating disorder is mentioned once, early in her and Arnold's acquaintance, and it baffles him — then never comes up again.
  • The Worf Effect: Junior punches Jerk Jock Roger and gives him a bloody nose. He expects to get his ass kicked, but Roger just stares at him in shock. His cronies are too afraid to touch the kid. Later Lampshaded by his grandma when Junior goes to her for advice.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: What motivates Arnold to transfer to Reardan. After Arnold throws a book that accidentally hits Mr. P, Mr. P, to Arnold's surprise, comes over to Arnold's house and tells him that he's stronger than he thinks and has great potential. He urges him to find a better life for himself rather than give up like everyone else on the reservation (including Mr. P himself.) Arnold is not sure what to think of it at first (he's still stuck in the mindset that he deserves to be poor), but he eventually realizes he has to transfer schools if he wants to succeed in life.
    "I want you to say it," Mr. P said.
    "Say what?"
    "I want you to say that you deserve better."
    I couldn't say it. It wasn't true. I mean, I wanted to have it better, but I didn't deserve it. I was the kid who threw books at teachers.
    "You are a good kid. You deserve the world."
    Wow, I wanted to cry. No teacher had ever said anything so nice, so incredibly nice, at me.
  • You Keep Using That Word: Gordy says he has a "boner" for books. However, he later reveals that he uses it to mean "joy."
    Junior: Did you just think books should give me a boner?
    Gordy: Yes, I did.
    Junior: Are you serious?
    Gordy: Yeah... Don't you get excited about books?
    Junior: I don't think you're supposed to get that excited about books.