Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Oscar is a symbol of the powerlessness that accompanies poverty. Junior tells the story of Oscar, the Spirit family’s pet dog, to explain why hunger is not the worst aspect of being poor. Hunger is no fun, but there’s a way in which going hungry for a while makes one appreciate food more—it even makes food taste better. For Junior, however, the worst part about being poor is not being able to help others. Junior says that Oscar is his best friend. He says that Oscar is more reliable than any of the people in his life, including his parents and his grandmother. Yet, when Oscar gets sick, the family has no money to take Oscar to the vet. What’s more, Junior realizes that, as an Indian boy on the reservation, there is no chance for him to get a job to make money to pay for Oscar’s veterinary care. Junior is not only incapable of helping Oscar in the present, he sees no way of helping Oscar in the future. Junior’s parents see no other options either. Junior’s dad takes Oscar into the back yard and shoots him. Oscar death, then, also represents the harsh realities faced by those living below the poverty line.
Junior’s dad’s last $5 represents the ambivalence—the double aspect—of human nature. Few characters in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are wholly bad or wholly good. Junior’s father is no exception. Around the Christmas holidays of Junior’s first year at Reardan, Junior’s dad disappears for a little over a week. Junior knows his father is on a drunken bender, and, when Junior’s dad returns after New Year’s and tells Junior to fish the last $5 he saved for him out of his boot, Junior recognizes how easy it would have been for his dad to have spent those $5 on a bottle of booze. Junior marvels at the self-control it must have taken his dad to save him this Christmas gift. He calls it “a beautiful ugly thing.” Accordingly, Junior’s dad’s gesture is both pathetic and heroic. The amount itself is also significant. $5 is not enough that it can change Junior’s life, but just enough that the gift is not an entirely empty gesture. Junior’s dad’s $5 shows the extent both of his faults and of his love.
Turtle Lake, at the center of the Spokane Reservation, is unfathomable—no one, not even scientists using a small submarine, has been able to measure its depth. In this way, it represents the deep mystery that resides with the Spokane people. Junior learns a frightening story about Turtle Lake from his father. A dumb, white horse nicknamed Stupid Horse drowned in Turtle Lake, only to wash up later on the shores of another nearby lake. When some people took Stupid Horse’s carcass to the dump to burn it, Turtle Lake caught on fire and Stupid Horse’s burnt body once again appeared on its shore. In light of this story, one might argue that Turtle Lake represents the incomprehensible and supernatural as they exist within nature. The divide between the “spiritual” and “natural” world is, after all, a European Enlightenment concept. For many of the American Indian groups displaced by white American settlers, the body and soul—the natural and spiritual—were indivisible. Turtle Lake, and its haunting presence at the center of the Spokane Reservation, points back toward that largely lost way of seeing the world that exists deep in the memory of the Spokane people.
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