The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

by: Sherman Alexie

Chapters 1-3

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.

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.

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.

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.