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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 Memetic Badass 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.



  • 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: Rowdy’s dad physically abuses him on a regular basis.
  • 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: Two 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.
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  • Author Avatar: Sherman Alexie had hydrocephalus as a kid, and went to a white school, much like Arnold.
  • The Beautiful Elite: Penelope. Not really "evil" like they usually are, just seriously messed up.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Contemptible Cover: The book itself doesn't have one, but the trope is discussed. Mary likes to read romance novels about love affairs between virginal white schoolteachers/preacher’s wives and half-breed Indian warriors. Arnold draws an example of a cover for such a book, featuring a swooning woman (with very visible cleavage) in the arms of a muscular Indian wearing a stereotypical feathered headband.
  • Computer Wars: Dear God, don't get Gordy started on Mac vs. PC.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Early in the book, Junior mentions he is very good at masturbating.
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Romance Novel: Parodied with Mary's romance novels.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • 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 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.


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