Summary: Tears of a Clown

Junior remembers how, at the age of twelve, he fell in love with a Native American girl named Dawn. Dawn is the best traditional powwow dancer on the rez, and she has beautiful braids. One night, when Rowdy is sleeping over Junior’s house, Junior tells Rowdy he’s in love with Dawn. Rowdy tells Junior he’s just being stupid, Dawn doesn’t give a shit about him. Junior cries. Rowdy tells Junior to quit bawling. Junior asks Rowdy not to tell anyone he cried, and Rowdy keeps Junior’s secret.

Summary: Halloween

Junior goes to school dressed as a homeless person for Halloween. Penelope does too. Junior points out that they have the same costume, and Penelope smiles. She tells Junior that she chose her costume in order to raise money for the homeless. Instead of asking for candy, she is going to trick-or-treat for spare change. Junior says he’s wearing his costume to protest the treatment of homeless Native Americans, and says he’ll trick or treat for change too. They can raise money together. Junior trick-or-treats for change on the rez, but three guys in masks jump him for his candy and money as he’s walking home. They shove him to the ground and kick him a few times. He feels stupid for not foreseeing the attack. Then he wonders if one of his attackers was Rowdy. The next day, he tells Penelope what happened and shows her the bruises on his ribs and back. Penelope tells Junior she’ll put both their names on her donation. Junior says that it feels good to help people.

Summary: Slouching Toward Thanksgiving

The next few weeks, Junior says, were the loneliest of his life. On the rez, Junior feels he is an Native American, but each day on the way to Reardan, he becomes something less than Native American. At Reardan, he is smarter than almost all the other students. He tells a story how in geology class, he corrects the teacher, Mr. Dodge. Mr. Dodge says petrified wood is wood that turns into rock, but Junior raises his hand to say that the wood is replaced by minerals. Mr. Dodge challenges Junior to explain and the class laughs at him, until Gordy, the class genius, says that Junior is right. After class Junior thanks Gordy for sticking up for him, but Gordy says he was sticking up for science. Junior rides the bus to the end of the line—the reservation’s border—where Junior’s Dad is supposed to pick him up. Junior’s Dad doesn’t come, so Junior walks home. Junior says he sometimes walked the whole twenty-two miles home from Reardan without being picked up as a hitchhiker.

A white man from the Bureau of Indian Affairs gives Junior a ride home from the bus stop, and when Junior gets inside, his mom is crying. Mary has gotten married and run away to Montana. Junior imagines that Mary felt ashamed for living in the basement for seven years after he started going to school in Reardan. Junior is impressed by his sister’s courage. He says even white people are afraid of Montana Native Americans. Inspired by his sister’s strength, Junior walks up to Gordy the next day and Junior asks Gordy to be his friend. Gordy tells Junior he isn’t a homosexual, and Junior clarifies he just wants to be friends. The two start studying together, and Gordy explains to Junior how books should give him a metaphorical boner. Gordy helps Junior study, encourages him to draw cartoons, and to take joy in literature. Junior feels that in Wellpinit, he is a freak for loving books but, at Reardan, he is a joyous freak.


The Absolutely True-Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a bildungsroman—a novel that traces the development of its hero from infancy into adulthood or, more simply put, the story of a person growing up. Junior’s romantic interests are part of his development. But Junior often stresses, almost as if to remind himself, how much more important his friendships are than his infatuations with girls. Junior has more to say about talking to Rowdy about Dawn then he has to say about Dawn herself. Then, despite the sensitivity with which Junior treats his friendship with Rowdy, Rowdy rarely responds in kind. Rowdy gives tough love, and it is impossible to know whether Rowdy’s cold advice keeps Junior from getting hurt or discourages him from pursuing good opportunities. In all likelihood, Rowdy’s harshness does both. Rowdy’s cold attitude is a sign of how much he has had to close himself off from the world. Rowdy doesn’t think he has the luxury to hope. At any rate, Junior thinks that Rowdy makes up for his insensitivity by being trustworthy. Junior takes Rowdy’s trustworthiness as a sign that, however volatile their friendship may seem on the surface, it is built on a strong foundation.

Read how the novel parallels the author’s own youth.

For the well-off Penelope, going to school dressed as a homeless person is an abstract, political statement. Junior is poor. For him, dressing as a homeless person is not a political statement. It is just the easiest costume given his limited resources. Junior uses his attraction to Penelope to excuse himself for telling a few small lies. At Reardan, Junior’s poverty is still a secret, and his false claim that he has worn his costume to help raise awareness about homeless Native Americans is as much an attempt to impress Penelope with the (false) similarity of their interests as it is to mask his true identity and his real social standing. Junior’s mindset after the robbery works to reveal how dispiriting life can be on the reservation. Junior is as mad at himself as he is at his attackers. He feels he should have known, as soon as word got around that he was carrying money, that he would be robbed.

Read an important quote containing Junior’s criticism of those who romanticize poverty.

Junior’s remark to Penelope—that it feels good to help people—is a window to the compassion at the core of Junior’s character. Because Junior’s compassion and resilience underscore much of the hardship, abuse, and tragedy in the novel, readers may still see The Absolutely True-Diary of a Part-Time Indian as an inspiring and uplifting story. Junior’s remark about helping others at the end of the “Halloween” chapter is especially moving because it is tinged with irony. Junior has not succeeded in collecting money—in helping others—at all. Penelope is adding Junior’s name to the donation out of pity. But Junior is optimistic enough that imagining the possibility of helping others temporarily lifts his spirits. Then he plunges into loneliness. Neither Junior nor the reader can know for sure whether Rowdy was one of Junior’s attackers, but the fact that Junior suspects Rowdy already begins to emphasize Junior’s loneliness on the reservation. In so many ways, Reardan is the polar opposite of Wellpinit, but the two towns have Junior’s loneliness in common. Gordy, who has been rejected by many of the other students at Reardan for being a nerd, is even reluctant to identify with Junior.

Read more about how poverty and privilege thematically intersect in the novel.

While other students at Reardan may find their physics tests to be the hardest challenge of the school day, for Junior, the hardest challenge is sometimes just getting home from school. The twenty-two mile walk would have taken him around eight hours. Though there is no doubt Junior’s decision to go to Reardan has had a major impact on his life, it is worth considering whether he he exaggerates the effect it might have had on Mary. Junior’s own vanity and his genuine love for Mary colors his opinion of her decisions. It is generous to see Mary’s overnight wedding to a Montana poker player as courageous, but her decision to get married and run away to Montana might also be seen as rushed, reckless, or foolish. Junior’s optimism borders on naiveté, but it is possible that this naiveté, or blind optimism, is exactly the secret to Junior’s success. He chooses to see his sister’s decision in the most positive light, and he tries to imitate her courage by asking Gordy point blank to be his friend. This small step helps Junior rediscover joy and begin to feel he belongs in Reardan.

Read an in-depth analysis of Mary.