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Arnold Spirit, Jr. (“Junior”) describes how he was born with excess cerebral spinal fluid, or “water,” on his brain. A surgery to remove the fluid during Junior’s infancy is supposed to make him brain dead, but the complications turn out to be relatively minor. As he grows up, he ends up having 42, instead of 32 teeth. When it comes time to have the extras removed, Junior learns Indian Health Services does major dental work only once per year. So Junior has all ten extra teeth pulled during one day. Junior’s white dentist thinks Indians feel only half as much pain as white people, so he gives Junior only half the normal amount of Novocain. In addition to having extra teeth, Junior is nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other. Indian Health Services has only one style of thick black eyeglass frames for him to choose. He is very skinny, but has enormous hands and feet. Other kids make fun of him for the size of his head.
The most serious complications of Junior’s brain damage, however, are his occasional seizures. Junior’s brain is already bruised, and these seizures keep it from healing. He also has a stutter and lisp. The other kids on the reservation (or the “rez”) call him offensive names and beat him up for it. This is why Junior belongs to the “Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club.” Junior’s favorite thing is to draw cartoons of himself, his friends, and his family. He draws because he thinks it might give him a chance to become rich and famous, and he wants to be rich and famous so he can leave the rez one day.
Junior wishes he could draw food and make it real. His family is poor. No matter how hungry he gets though, he knows eventually his parents will come home with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Being hungry makes food taste better, so hunger isn’t the worst thing about being poor. To show the worst thing, Junior tells the story of his “best friend,” his dog Oscar. Oscar is the most dependable thing in Junior’s life, more dependable than any person. But Oscar gets sick. Junior’s mom tells him everything is going to be all right, but Junior knows she is lying. The family doesn’t have enough money to take Oscar to the vet, and Junior realizes he couldn’t get a job to help pay even if he tried. Junior says, with better opportunities, his mom would have been a college professor, and his dad would have been a Jazz musician. After a long talk with Junior’s mom, Junior’s dad gets his rifle and takes Oscar outside. Junior sees that his dad is crying, and he runs away. Junior hears the gun go off behind him. A bullet, Junior concludes, only costs about two cents.
Junior wants to crawl in a hole and die after Oscar is shot, but his best friend, Rowdy, tells him to get over it because no one would miss him. Rowdy’s father is an alcoholic, and he beats Rowdy regularly. Junior says his parents are drunks too, but they never hit him. Junior doesn’t want to go to the 127th Annual Spokane Reservation powwow because he is afraid he will get beat up, but Rowdy tells Junior he’ll protect him and convinces Junior to go. Rowdy was born the same day as Junior. Junior says he was born broken, and Rowdy was born mad. At the Powwow, Rowdy falls into a minivan, and Junior laughs. Rowdy pushes Junior to the ground for laughing. Then he picks up a shovel that was lying around and attacks the minivan. Junior runs away and into the Andruss triplets’ camp. The three 30-year-olds push the 14-year-old Junior around, call him names like “Hydrohead,” and one knees him in the balls.
To get back at the Andruss triplets for hurting Junior, Rowdy hides outside their camp till the three pass out drunk at 3 AM. Then, Rowdy sneaks into their tent, shaves off their eyebrows, and cuts off their long braids. Rowdy starts a rumor that west coast Makah Indians did it. “You can’t trust them whale hunters,” Rowdy says, and he never gets caught. Rowdy isn’t just violent though—like Junior, he loves comic books, and he loves Junior’s cartoons. Junior says he thinks Rowdy might be more important to him than his family, and he calculates the time he and Rowdy have spent together: 40,880 hours. Junior tells the reader to trust him—he and Rowdy are inseparable.
Junior is both the narrator and the protagonist—or hero—of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. The novel is presented as Junior’s journal, though each entry takes the form of a chapter and begins with a thematic heading rather than a date. Junior tells his own story, the story of a boy growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington State. By describing the difficulties surrounding his birth and early infancy, Junior emphasizes three attitudes or conditions that are representative of his life as a whole. First, Junior feels lucky and blessed to be alive at all. It is easy for him to imagine the alternative universe where things happened as the doctors said they would, were he ended up being brain dead. Second, he feels that he is unique. It is a rare condition to be born with excess spinal fluid on the brain, to have 42 teeth, and this signals one way in which Junior is special. And, third, the ways in which Junior is unique single him out for special difficulties or challenges.
Read about Sherman Alexie’s own experience with hydrocephalus.
Chief among Junior’s challenges is Junior’s feeling that he is a walking contradiction. He feels that his being farsighted in one eye and nearsighted in the other is a physical, external manifestation of his internal contradictions. He is a mostly healthy boy, for example, who has heard he should be brain dead and who has infrequent seizures. He is an Indian who does not always feel like an Indian. Junior’s uniqueness, or, what Junior’s classmates and some members of his community see as strangeness, also results in Junior’s being picked on, bullied, and beat up. Though Junior does not say so, it is likely that Junior is picked on not just because he is unique, but because he also feels unique. Junior’s strong sense of individuality makes other children and adults feel threatened. One way that Junior escapes from, and copes with, his feeling of internal contradiction and the difficulties of his life is by drawing cartoons. He hopes that this metaphorical escape into cartooning will, one day, translate into a real escape in the form of money and resources for a better life.
Read an important quote about Junior using art to improve his life.
Poverty is one of the greatest hardships facing Junior and the other members of Junior’s tribe. Hunger is Junior’s gateway into talking about the problems of poverty, and Junior’s attitude about hunger—that it makes food taste better—reveals his generally positive, or optimistic, outlook on life. When Junior first introduces his “best friend” Oscar, readers are not expecting to find out that Oscar is a dog. In other words, Junior humanizes Oscar. This shows how deeply caring and empathetic Junior is. He is easily able to put himself into the position of people (or even animals) who are different or less fortunate than him. Junior’s attitude toward Oscar also invites readers to feel a stronger emotional reaction to Oscar’s death than they would if Oscar were presented as just a dog. Junior is so pained by Oscar’s death because he feels he was not given the opportunity to be there for Oscar when Oscar needed him even though Oscar was always there for Junior. The greatest challenge, then, of Junior’s poverty is not pain. Pain is easily relieved. The greatest challenge for Junior is powerlessness—Junior’s feeling that he is unable to do good for others.
Read more about Oscar as a symbol of powerlessness.
The next chapter, “Revenge Is My Middle Name,” introduces Junior’s best human friend, Rowdy. Like Junior’s feelings about his own identity, Junior’s relationship toward Rowdy is full of contradictions. When Rowdy tries to give advice and to comfort Junior after Oscar’s death, it seems that Rowdy is tough and cruel, but Junior is generous. Junior believes that Rowdy wants the best for him, but it is possible that Junior is practicing wishful thinking. Rowdy may not be as good a friend as Junior believes. After all, Rowdy pressures Junior into going to the powwow even though Junior says he would prefer to stay at home, then Rowdy breaks his promise to protect Junior by pushing Junior to the ground, vandalizing a minivan, and scaring Junior so that he runs into more danger. The Andruss triplets’ cruel nickname for Junior, “Hydrohead,” is a reference to Junior’s strange birth condition, his having had excess spinal fluid on his brain. The whole reservation knows the private details of Junior’s life. Junior chooses to see Rowdy’s revenge as proof that Rowdy has good intentions.
Read more about why Junior is so adamant about being Rowdy’s friend despite his contradictions.
The rumor Rowdy spreads that Makah Indians shaved the Andruss triplets braids shows that prejudice is not just something that Indians face from non-American Indian groups. Tribes also stereotype each other. Rowdy uses pre-existing prejudices as a way to cover for his own violence, and as a way of deflecting or channeling his own fears. Perhaps it is not Makah Indians, but Rowdy himself who is not to be trusted. But, Junior says, Rowdy appreciates his talents as a cartoonist. That makes Junior feel validated, and this validation may be the lynchpin of Junior and Rowdy’s friendship. When Junior tells readers to trust him, this alerts them that Junior may, in fact, not be entirely trustworthy. Junior is a somewhat unreliable narrator. He has many questionable, and often temporary, teenage attitudes. For example, Junior says friends are more important than family. The fact that Junior is so convinced that he and Rowdy are inseparable, despite the many examples Junior has given of Rowdy’s moodiness and volatility, strongly foreshadows the coming rift in their friendship.
Read more about racism as a theme.