In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), Sherman Alexie recounts the trials of a Native American teenager, Arnold “Junior” Spirit, during his first year in high school. Using humor to soften the sometimes difficult and emotional story, Alexie creates a loveable, misfit protagonist whom readers cannot help but root for.
Junior lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation, where he discovers that alcohol is more important to most residents than an education is. Junior decides to transfer from his reservation school to Reardan High, a white school that is more than twenty miles away. Once he arrives, Junior finds that he is the only Indian (besides the school’s mascot) there. His best friend on the reservation, Rowdy, stays behind and vows never to speak to Junior—the “traitor”—again. Junior also knows that everyone else on the reservation thinks he is an “apple”: red on the outside but white on the inside. Meanwhile, most of the students at Reardan treat Junior as an outcast as well.
Although he is stimulated by the intellectual challenges of Reardan’s advanced curriculum, Junior must fight to improve his social standing both on and off the reservation. He accomplishes this accidentally when he goes out for Reardan’s basketball team. He surprises himself when, as a freshman, he makes the varsity team and eventually even becomes a starting player. Junior’s biggest challenge comes when he must play against his former basketball team from the reservation, whose star player is none other than Junior’s ex–best friend, Rowdy.
In the course of this young adult, coming-of-age story, Alexie highlights both the spiritual and psychological highs and lows of living on a reservation—a place of stagnation as well as a place of strong family roots and long-lasting love.
Chapter 1 Summary
In this first chapter, the narrator, Junior, introduces himself. He was born with "water on the brain", and when he was six months old had to undergo surgery which he was not supposed to survive. Obviously, Junior did survive the surgery, but he has a variety of physical problems resulting from brain damage sustained during the operation.
One of Junior's anomalies is that he ended up having forty-two teeth. He had to have the extra ones pulled out by the Indian Health Service dentist, but since the Health Service funded major dental work only once yearly, he had to have all ten pulled at once, with only half the usual amount of Novocain, because the white dentist believed Indians "only felt half as much pain as white people". Junior also has to wear "ugly, thick, black plastic" eyeglasses, and is extremely skinny, with huge hands and feet. His skull is enormous, and he is prone to seizures.
In addition to the above-named handicaps, Junior also has a stutter and a lisp, which make him the object of much teasing by his peers. At fourteen years old, he has been branded "a retard", and to avoid being beaten up regularly, he spends a lot of time alone in his room reading books and drawing cartoons.
Junior is a good cartoonist, who likes to draw because "words are too unpredictable...but...when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it". He also draws because he would like to become rich and famous, and he sees the arts as the only avenue by which someone like him might someday escape the reservation.
Chapter 2 Summary
Junior knows that his cartoons "will never take the place of food or money". He wishes he were magical and could make the things he draws - like "a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a fist full of twenty dollar bills" - real, but he knows he cannot. Junior dislikes being poor, because oftentimes he and his family must go hungry, but lack of food is not the worst thing about poverty.
The worst thing about poverty is not being able to help those you love. Last week, Junior's "best friend" Oscar got really sick. Oscar was "only an adopted stray mutt", but he was more precious to Junior than any person in his life. He told his mother that Oscar needed to see the vet, but his Mom regretfully told him there was no money for Oscar. Junior begged his Mom, offering to get a job and pay the doctor back, but then realized that there were no jobs that a reservation Indian boy could get. There was nothing he could do to save Oscar.
When Junior's Dad came home, he took his rifle from the closet and told Junior to carry Oscar outside. Junior was furious, but then noticed that his Dad was crying. Junior could not blame his parents for the family's poverty. They too once had dreams, but "they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams". Realizing that he was helplessly trapped in the cycle of poverty, Junior gently picked up Oscar and took him outside. He ran away as fast as he could so as not to hear the sound of the shot, but could not escape the "boom of (his) father's rifle when he shot (his) best friend". Bitterly, Junior reflects that a bullet "only costs...two cents...anybody can afford that".
Chapter 3 Summary
Rowdy, "the toughest kid on the rez", is Junior's "best human friend". Although he "fights everybody", he cares about Junior and always tells him the truth. Rowdy's father is a hard drinker and is always punching Rowdy and his mother. Although Junior's parents are drunks too, they are not violent, and, since Junior's house is a comparatively "safe place", Rowdy spends most of his time there.
On this particular day, Rowdy wants to go to the powwow. Junior likes the dancers and singers at the powwow, but he does not like the Indians who attend and get drunk and get into fights. Junior is also afraid someone he knows will recognize him and pick on him, but Rowdy, promising to stick up for him, convinces him to go. At the powwow, Rowdy trips and bumps into a window, and when Junior laughts, Rowdy goes into one of his infamous rages. Junior runs, but is accosted by the Andruss brothers, who, at age thirty, are "the cruelest triplets in the history of the world". The brothers make fun of Junior and beat him up, and when Rowdy finds out, he resolves to seek revenge for his friend. When the Andruss boys fall asleep in their camp, Rowdy sneaks in, shaves their eyebrows, and cuts off their braids, which is "about the worst thing you can do to an Indian guy".
Rowdy loves comic books, and Junior's cartoons make him laugh. Rowdy is a dreamer, just like Junior, and he only talks about his dreams with his friend. Junior thinks Rowdy may be the most important person in his life.
Chapter 4 Summary
Junior is fourteen, and is happy about starting high school. He is especially anxious to take his first geometry class. Unlike his sister, Mary Runs Away, Junior is excited about school and life in general. When Mary finished high school she "didn't go to college...didn't get a job...didn't do anything". Although she is "beautiful and strong and funny", she spends her days alone in the basement.
Mr. P, Junior's geometry teacher, is "a weird-looking dude". The tribe houses all the teachers at the reservation school in cottages on-site, and sometimes Mr. P forgets to come to school, and, when summoned, ends up teaching in his pajamas. Junior has had some strange teachers before, but Mr. P isn't like them. He is "just sleepy". Junior thinks Mr. P "is a lonely old man who used to be a lonely young man", who, like many lonely white people "love to hang around lonelier Indians".
When Mr. P passes out the geometry books, Junior is ecstatic. He cracks it open with great anticipation, and is stunned to read inside the front cover, "This book belongs to Agnes Adams". Agnes Adams is Junior's mother, and Junior is horrified when he realizes that the books are "at least thirty years older than (he) (is)". The awareness that he is not important enough to merit anything better than that "old, old, old...geometry book" hits Junior's heart "with the force of a nuclear bomb", and his "hopes and dreams (float) up in a mushroom cloud".
Chapter 5 Summary
Junior is suspended when, in a rage at realizing his geometry book is over thirty years older than he is, he throws the book and hits his teacher in the face. While he is serving his suspension, Mr. P comes to visit him at home. The teacher tells Junior that hitting him with the book is "probably the worst thing (he's) ever done", but then confesses that, as part of the white race, he himself has been greatly unjust to Junior and his people. Mr. P says that he "hurt a lot of Indian kids when (he) was a young teacher", having been instructed that the best way to deal with his Native American students was to "make (them) give up being Indian". He reveals to Junior that Junior's sister Mary, who spends her days watching television in the basement, was "the smartest kid (he) ever had". Mary had wanted to be a writer, but never found the courage or confidence to pursue her dreams.
Mr. P tells Junior that he, like his sister, is "a bright and shining star...the smartest kid in the school". He says that Junior deserves better than what Indians on the reservation are allowed, and that the only way he will find a better life is if he leaves the reservation. Mr. P tells Junior that the only thing reservation kids are being taught is "to give up"; his friend Rowdy has already given up, and that's why he's so mean. Junior, however, still has hope in his heart, and the only way for him to keep that hope is to "go somewhere where other people have hope".
Chapter 6 Summary
Junior thinks about his life and what Mr. P has told him. When his parents come home, he asks them, "Who has the most hope?" Both of his parents, without hesitation, answer that "white people" have the most hope. Junior then tells them that he wants to transfer schools.
Junior does not want to go to Hunters, a school on the west end of the reservation "filled with poor Indians and poorer white kids", nor does he want to attend Springdale, a school on the reservation border "filled with the poorest Indians and poorer-than-poorest white kids". He has set his sights on Reardan, which is located in a rich, white farm town twenty-two miles away. Reardan is "a hick town...filled with farmers and rednecks and racist cops who stop every Indian that drives through", but it also has one of the state's best small schools, with a computer room, big chemistry lab, a drama club, and two basketball courts.
Junior can't believe it when he hears himself saying he wants to go to Reardan. His parents, however, quickly agree to his plans. Junior realizes that his parents really do love him and his sister, and want to help them, and that, though his parents are drunks, "they don't want their kids to be drunks".
It will be hard for Junior to attend Reardan. There is no transportation, and the other Indians will be angry that Junior is leaving. Junior knows, though, that if he doesn't do this now, he never will.
Chapter 7 Summary
Junior tells Rowdy about his plans to go to Reardan. He knows that Rowdy might get angry, but Rowdy "was (his) best friend and (Junior) wanted him to know the truth". He tells Rowdy that he is leaving the rez, and that he wants Rowdy to go with him. Rowdy at first does not take Junior seriously.
When Junior thinks about Reardan, he has a picture in his mind of the school against which his own school played flag football, basketball, and baseball last year, and lost embarrassingly every time. The only student from his own school who had any success at all in any of those games was Rowdy. Junior remembers that even in the Academic Bowl competition in which the schools engaged the year before, his own school lost by "a grand total of 50-1". When Junior thinks about the kids from Reardan, he thinks of kids who are "beautiful and smart and epic...filled with hope".
Rowdy "absolutely hate(s)" the idea of Junior going to Reardan. He becomes violently angry, and when Junior reaches out to him, Rowdy starts crying. When Rowdy realizing that he is crying, he begins to scream, making a sound that is "the worst thing (Junior'd) ever heard...it was pain, pure pain". Junior tells Rowdy that he has to go, or he will die, and that Rowdy can go with him, but Rowdy, overcome by rage, punches his best friend in the face.
Chapter 8 Summary
Dad drives Junior the twenty-two miles to Reardan on his first day. He tells his son to just remember, that "those white people aren't better than (him)". Junior does not believe him, but he does gain strength from his father's obvious love for him. Dad tells Junior that he is "brave...a warrior". It is "the best thing he could have said".
There is no one at school yet when Junior gets there. When they white kids finally do begin to arrive, they just stare at him. Ironically, Reardan's mascot is an Indian, which makes Junior "the only Indian in town".
Junior is assigned to Mr. Grant's homeroom. Mr. Grant is "a muscular guy...a football coach". A blond girl asks Junior his name. Her name is Penelope.
When Mr. Grant calls roll, he calls Junior by his "name name", Arnold Spirit. Penelope is angry that he had told her his name was Junior, so Junior has to explain that "every other Indian calls him Junior", but he is both, Junior and Arnold. He tells her he is from the reservation, and she says he talks funny.
Most of the kids at Reardan ignore Junior, but the big jocks call him lots of names. One day, one of the boys, Roger, tells him a particularly offensive racist joke, and Junior punches him in the face. According to the unspoken rules of peer interaction with which he had grown up on the reservation, Junior had acted correctly, but the white boys are shocked, and walk away, saying Junior is "crazy". Realizing that the rules are different here, Junior is left completely confused.
Chapter 9 Summary
Junior goes home "confused...and terrified". If he had punched an Indian in the face, he could expect retaliation, but when he had punched Roger in the face, the white boy just walked away. Now Junior is afraid that Roger is going to kill him. He wishes he could ask Rowdy what to do, but Rowdy hates him for leaving the reservation. Junior talks to his grandmother instead.
Junior's wise grandmother thinks for awhile, and concludes that, by standing up to the "giant boy (who) is the alpha male of the school", Junior has earned his respect. Junior loves his grandmother, but thinks her idea is crazy.
The next day, Dad cannot drive Junior to school because there is no money for gas. Fortunately, his Dad's best friend Eugene just happens to be riding to Spokane on his motorcycle that morning, and he gives Junior a lift. When Junior arrives at school, he sees Roger. Certain that he is going to have to fight, Junior is surprised when Roger says, "Hey", and asks who that was who brought him to school. Roger is "actually nice", speaking to Junior with "some respect", and paying respect to Eugene and his bike as well. Junior thinks that maybe his grandmother's analysis of the situation was correct.
Feeling somewhat better about himself, he greets the beautiful Penelope when he gets into class. She at first ignores him, then makes fun of him. Ashamed, Junior realizes that though he "might have impressed the king...the queen still hated (him)".
Chapter 10 Summary
Junior remembers that when he was twelve, he fell in love with an Indian girl named Dawn. She was beautiful and the best powwow dancer on the reservation, but she didn't care about him, and was definitely out of his league. Junior recognizes that he is the type of guy who always falls in love "with the unreachable, ungettable, and uninterested".
One night, when Rowdy is spending the night at his house, Junior tells his friend about his feelings for Dawn. Rowdy, ever the realist, advises Junior that he is "just being stupid...Dawn doesn't give a shit about (him)". To Junior's embarrassment, Rowdy's blunt but truthful words make him cry; he has always cried too easily, when he's "happy or sad...(or) angry". Junior thinks he is weak, "the opposite of warrior", and Rowdy unceremoniously tells his friend to stop crying.
Later, Junior asks Rowdy not to tell anyone that he cried over Dawn. Rowdy responds that he has never told anyone any of Junior's secrets, and that he won't tell anyone that Junior cried "over a dumb girl". True to his word, Rowdy never did.
Chapter 11 Summary
On Halloween, Junior goes to school dressed as "a homeless dude". Coincidentally, Penelope goes dressed as a homeless woman. Penelope compliments Junior on his costume, telling him that he looks "really homeless", and he tells her that she looks "really cute". Penelope explains that she is not trying to be cute; her intent is to protest the treatment of the homeless in America. She is going to ask for spare change instead of candy when she goes trick-or-treating, and will donate what she receives to the homeless. Junior says that he is wearing his costume to protest the treatment of homeless Native Americans in this country, and that like Penelope, he will collect spare change as well. The two decide to send in their donations together.
Later that night, Junior goes trick-or-treating, and actually does collect a good amount of spare change as well as candy. Unfortunately, as he is walking home, he is attacked by three guys wearing Frankenstein masks, who beat him up and take his candy and money. Junior hopes that one of them is not Rowdy.
When Junior tells Penelope what happened, she is sympathetic. She touches "the huge purple bruise on (his) back", and says she will still put both their names on her donation when she sends it in. Junior hopes he and Penelope will become closer after this, but not much changes. He realizes that to make a "beautiful white girl" like Penelope love him, he will have to pretty much change everything about himself.
Chapter 12 Summary
Basically ignored by his peers, Junior is miserable in the weeks leading towards Thanksgiving. He does realize, however, with a small sense of gratification, that he is "smarter than most of those white kids". One day in geology class, he dares to correct the teacher during a lesson on petrified wood. The teacher, "dangerously angry" at being challenged by an Indian, no less, is further infuriated when the "class genius", Gordy, affirms that Junior is right. Junior later thanks Gordy for sticking up for him, but Gordy replies that he only did it in the name of science.
Transportation to and from school is difficult for Junior. Sometimes his Dad drives him, but more often than not, Dad has wasted his money on gambling and drink, and there is nothing left for gas. Sometimes Junior walks the entire twenty-two miles.
One day, when he gets home, Junior finds his mother crying. His sister has run off and married a Flathead Indian she met at the casino and has moved to Montana. Although he understands why his parents are devastated, he admires his sister's courage. She is "trying to live out her dream".
Inspired by his sister, Junior approaches Gordy the next day and says he wants to be friends. Gordy is "one weird dude" who loves computers and uses big words, but he, like Junior, is a social outcast. The two do become friends, not like Junior and Rowdy used to be, but friends nonetheless. Junior and Gordy study together, and best of all, through Gordy, Junior finds joy in learning.
Chapter 13 Summary
Junior receives an email from his sister shortly before Thanksgiving. She tells him that she loves it in Montana, and that Indians still ride horses there. She is looking for a job, and has sent out applications to all the restaurants on the reservation.
There are six or seven towns on the Flathead Reservation, and oddly, some of them are "filled with white people". Some of those white people are not fond of Indians, and one town, called Polson, actually once tried to secede from the reservation, but on the whole, Mary says that the people there are nice, "the whites and Indians".
Mary is especially excited about the great hotel on Flathead Lake where she and her new husband had their honeymoon. She describes their suite, which had a separate bedroom and even a phone in the bathroom, and most unbelievably, on the room service menu, there was Indian fry bread! Mary was so surprised to find fry bread on the menu that she ordered some, thinking it would not be very good, but as it turns out, it "was great...almost as good as grandma"s". Incongruously, the fry bread came on a fancy plate, and she ate it with a fancy fork and knife.
Mary ends her email on an ecstatic note. She says her honeymoon was "a dream come true", and that she loves her life, her husband, and Montana.
Chapter 14 Summary
On Thanksgiving, Mom makes a turkey, and Junior wonders why Indians celebrate Thanksgiving. He notes wryly that even though "the Indians and Pilgrims were best friends during that first Thanksgiving...a few years later, the Pilgrims were shooting Indians". He asks his Dad what Indians have to be so thankful for, and his Dad replies, only half-facetiously, that "We should give thanks that they didn't kill all of us".
Junior misses Rowdy, who for the past ten years had come over to the house on Thanksgiving to have a pie-eating contest with him. Later in the day, he draws a cartoon of himself and his former friend like they used to be. Junior goes over to Rowdy's, and when he knocks on the door, Rowdy's father answers. Rowdy's father is rude, and says that Rowdy is not home, but he agrees to give the cartoon to his son. As he walks away from the house, Junior looks back and sees Rowdy in the window of his upstairs bedroom, holding the cartoon. He is watching Junior, and there is sadness in his face. Junior waves, but Rowdy flips him off. Junior feels sad for a moment, but then realizes with amazement that Rowdy had not torn up the cartoon, which "would have hurt (Junior's) feelings more than anything". Junior is heartened to know that Rowdy still respects his cartoons, and feels that there is hope that maybe Rowdy still respects him a little bit too.
Chapter 15 Summary
During one especially boring history lesson, Junior excuses himself to go to the restroom. While he is there, he hears someone throwing up in the girls' restroom next door. He knocks on the door to ask if she is okay, and is told in no uncertain terms to go away. "Destiny" pulls him back, however, and he stops by the wall and waits.
It is Penelope who comes out of the restroom, chewing on a wad of cinnamon gum. She tells Junior that she is bulimic, but only when she is throwing up. Junior thinks she sounds like his father, who says he is an alcoholic only when he drinks. He tells Penelope, "Don't give up".
Penelope starts to cry and tell Junior how lonely she is, despite the fact that everyone thinks her life is perfect because she is "pretty and smart and popular". Junior thinks that Penelope is extremely attractive, and over the next few weeks, they become "friends with potential". Everyone at school is shocked that Penelope has chosen Junior to be her "new friend", and her father Earl, a racist, is livid. Knowing that if he reacts it will only make Penelope want to be with Junior more, Earl says nothing to her but warns Junior rudely what will happen if he gets her pregnant. Junior does not know what he means to Penelope, but he likes being with her anyway.
As they get closer, Penelope shares her hopes and dreams with Junior. She longs to get away from Reardan, and wants to go to Stanford and study architecture so she can build something amazing and be remembered. Junior is surprised that, essentially, they share the same dream - they both want "to fly". But most of all, he just knows that she is beautiful.
Chapter 16 Summary
Junior is enchanted by Penelope's beauty. He watches her play volleyball, noticing the whiteness of her skin and the outline of her white bra and white panties under her uniform, and is mesmerized by the way she tracks the ball with her blue eyes and twists and turns when she serves. Junior does not know how to deal with what he is feeling.
Even though he suspects Rowdy still hates him, Junior emails his former friend, telling him that he is in love with a white girl, and asking him what to do. Rowdy writes back immediately, saying that he is "sick of Indian guys who treat white women like bowling trophies", and he tells Junior to "get a life". This is not what Junior wants to hear, so he decides to ask Gordy what he thinks about the matter.
Junior tells Gordy, "I'm an Indian boy...how can I get a white girl to love me?', and Gordy, in typically predictable fashion, says he will do some research on the subject. He comes back with an article which points out that when "over two hundred Mexican girls...disappeared" one time, nobody much cared, but that "people care more about beautiful white girls than they do about everybody else on the planet". Gordy concludes that the attraction Junior feels for Penelope means he's just as racist as everybody else.
Junior is stunned. It appears to him that "Gordy the bookworm" is going to be every bit as tough on him as Rowdy.
Chapter 17 Summary
Traveling between Reardan and Wellpinit on the reservation, Junior feels like a stranger; "half Indian in one place and half white in the other". He has hidden his poverty well in Reardan, "no one knows the truth".
When Junior asks Penelope to Winter Formal, he wears his father's old polyester suit, and must ask his date to meet him at the dance because he has no transportation for her. Penelope is not too happy about the latter arrangement, but fortunately, she loves Junior's outfit. The two have a wonderful time, dancing every dance.
Junior is relieved to have made it through the evening without having had to reveal his poverty, but after the dance, "Roger and a few of the other dudes" invite him and Penelope to go out for breakfast. Penelope is thrilled, but Junior is worried because he only has five dollars. Throwing caution to the wind, he orders large meals for both himself and his date, then goes to the bathroom, where he runs into Roger. They talk, and Junior takes a chance and tells Roger he forgot his wallet; Roger hands him forty dollars.
Back at her house, Penelope confronts Junior. Roger has told her about Junior borrowing the money, and Penelope asks Junior point blank if he is poor. Realizing that she is just being a really good friend, Junior tells her the truth.
Roger, who is "a little bit racist" but is also basically a good, generous person, drives Junior all the way home that night, and "plenty of other nights too". Junior realizes for the first time that, "if you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing".
Chapter 18 Summary
Junior is really missing Rowdy, so he goes to the computer lab, takes a digital photo of his face, and emails it to his former friend. Rowdy responds by emailing back a photo of his own bare behind. Rowdy's stunt makes Junior laugh, but it makes it depressed as well. Compared to Rowdy, the kids at Reardan, who are always so worried about "grades and sports and THEIR FUTURES", seem to be so repressed.
Gordy comes by and sees Rowdy's email. He asks Junior why Rowdy hates him, and Junior tells Gordy that "some Indians think you become white if you try to make your life better, if you become successful". Junior wonders what would happen if Gordy could come home with him and meet Rowdy. Maybe Rowdy would beat him up, or maybe the three of them could become "a superhero trio".
Junior tells Gordy that at home, a lot of people call him an "apple...red on the outside and white on the inside". With typical insight beyond his years, Gordy comments that "life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community". He explains the importance of the community throughout history, and notes that "weird people threatened the strength of the tribe", and so have always been banished. Things are still that way today, with Junior and Gordy, "a tribe of two", existing in isolation because of their differences.
Chapter 19 Summary
Junior receives a letter from his sister. The letter is very brief. Mary says that she is still looking for a job, but has not had much luck finding one. She is caught in a paradoxical situation in which no one will hire her because she doesn't have enough experience, but she can't get any experience if she doesn't have a job. Mary does not appear to be discouraged, however. She has a lot of free time, so she has begun writing her life story. She will call it "How to Run Away From Your House and Find Your Home".
After asking Junior to tell everyone she loves and misses them, Mary adds in a postscript that she and her husband have moved into a new house, which is "the most gorgeous place in the world". Junior draws a cartoon of this "gorgeous new place" based on a photo she has included. Mary's new house is a small, cramped-looking trailer that "looks like a TV dinner tray".
Chapter 20 Summary
Encouraged by his Dad, Junior tries out for the basketball team at Reardan. Of the forty boys who are trying out, sixteen will be cut, and Junior figures that he doesn't have a chance. He is surprised to discover that, after the first drill, a marathon run, four boys drop out. He begins to think he might have a chance after all.
The second drill is a full-court one-on-one. Junior is paired with Roger, who is one of the best players on the varsity. Junior is at first pathetically over-matched, but he refuses to quit. With pure tenacity and smart strategy, he manages to hold his own against the much bigger Roger, and earns the respect of Roger, the coach, and a place on the varsity.
Ironically, Reardan's first game is against Wellpinit High School, Junior's old school on the reservation. When Reardan arrives at Wellpinit, the team is greeted by children who pelt the bus with snowballs filled with rocks, and when they enter the gym, the whole crowd is chanting, "Ar-nold sucks!'. When the Indians see Junior they become silent and turn their backs as one to show their contempt.
Before Junior even gets in the game, he is hit by a flying projectile, and must be removed because he is bleeding. He has Eugene stitch him up, and when he finally gets to play in the third quarter, Rowdy smashes him with an elbow and knocks him unconscious. Junior is taken to the hospital, where he learns that Reardan lost the game, largely due to technical fouls called by the referees, who were willing to do almost anything to pacify the unruly Indian crowd.
Chapter 21 Summary
There is no money for presents at Christmas that year. In an action that is the result of his feelings of inadequacy and that also frustratingly perpetuates the family's condition, Junior's Dad does "what he always does when (they don't) have enough money...he (takes) what little money (they do) have and ran away to get drunk". Dad is gone from Christmas Eve until the second day of the New Year.
Junior's Dad comes home and apologizes about Christmas, and Junior says "it's okay", but he realizes that it is not okay. Junior does not undertand why he keeps "protecting the feelings of the man who (has) broken (his) heart yet again". Then his Dad tells Junior that he got him something, and instructs him to look in his boot. Junior picks up his Dad's cowboy boot, which "smells like booze and fear and failure", and digs inside under the footpad. There, he finds "a wrinkled and damp five dollar bill".
Junior knows that, while he was drunk for that whole week, his Dad must have really wanted to spend that last five dollars, but he saved it, so that he could give something, at least, to his son. Junior recognizes both the beauty and the ugliness of his Dad's action, and thanking him, kisses him on the cheek.
Chapter 22 Summary
Junior has learned that there are good and bad things about being white, just as there are good and bad things about being Indian. He has noticed that there are white parents, "especially fathers, who never come to the school...for their kids' games (or) concerts", and that people in Reardan have a tendency to "be strangers to each other". In contrast, on the reservation, "everybody knows everybody".
Junior thinks about his grandmother, who was the most amazing person in his life at the reservation because of her great capacity for tolerance. Junior says that "ever since white people showed up...Indians have gradually lost all of their tolerance...(they) can be just as judgmental and hateful as any white person". His grandmother, however, "still hung onto that old-time Indian spirit...she loved everybody". Then she was killed by a drunk driver.
Before she died, Junior's grandmother told the surgeons to forgive her murderer, and that is the only reason Junior's father and other irate relatives left Gerald, the drunken Indian, alone to the justice system, which sentenced him to prison for eighteen months. After serving his time, Gerald left the reservation and was never seen again.
Junior reflects on the irony of his grandmother being killed by a drunk driver. Having never even tasted alcohol, she had been "the rarest kind of Indian in the world". Junior's grandmother loved the world, and could not understand why anyone would want to be in it if they couldn't touch it "with all of (their) senses intact".
Chapter 23 Summary
At Junior's Grandmother's wake, almost two thousand Indians show up, and they have to have the ceremony on the football field. Junior is surprised and grateful that, on that day, no one gives him a hard time about leaving the reservation, not even Rowdy. Sadly, Junior's sister Mary is not able to attend, but she promises to respect Grandmother in her own way, singing "one hundred mourning songs" in Montana.
Everyone has stories to tell about Grandmother. About ten hours into the wake, a "billionaire white dude" named Ted steps forward. The crowd groans inwardly as Ted proclaims how much he loves the Indian people, and explains how, as a long-time art collector, he came across "a very beautiful powwow dance outfit". Although Ted had wanted to keep it for himself, his conscience had tormented him, so he hired an anthropologist to determine the origin of the costume. The anthropologist had traced the outfit to Junior's Grandmother. Magnanimously, he has brought the artifact today, to Grandmother's wake.
Junior's Mom steps forward and politely says that although Grandmother loved to go to powwows, she never danced, thus exposing Ted as a fraud. Embarrassed, Ted packs up and hurries away, and for a few minutes, everyone is silent. Then, suddenly Junior's Mom begins to laugh, and two thousands Indians join her. Junior describes it as "the most glorious noise (he'd) ever heard", because "when it comes to death, (Indians) know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing".
Chapter 24 Summary
A few days after Valentine's Day, Junior's Dad's best friend Eugene is shot in the face in a fight over a bottle of wine. His death comes right on the heels of the passing of Junior's Grandmother. To deal with their grief, Junior's Dad goes on a drinking binge, and his Mom goes to church. To Junior, everything on the reservation seems to be about "booze and God, booze and God", and he feels helpless and stupid, and angry, especially at God.
Gordy shows Junior a book written by Euripides, from the play Medea. Junior is especially impressed by a line that says, "What greater grief than the loss of one's native land?" Junior realizes that this is what has happened to the Indians. They have LOST EVERYTHING...(their) native land...languages...songs and dances...each other". Junior reads on that Medea was so distraught that she "murdered her own kids", and he understands how she could have felt that way.
After missing fifteen or twenty days of school, Junior returns to Reardan, where his social studies teacher mocks him for all his absences. Junior is too broken to fight back, but his classmates are furious for him. Beginning with Gordy, they stand up one by one, drop their textbooks on the floor, and walk out in protest. Despite the fact that they leave him behind in the classroom, Junior is buoyed by their support. Before, he had believed that the world was divided by race, or by culture, but now he knows there are only "two tribes...the people who are assholes and the people who are not".
Junior begins to make lists, looking for "the little pieces of joy in (his) life". This becomes his "grieving ceremony".
Chapter 25 Summary
To his surprise, Junior has become one of the best players on the basketball team. He thinks it has something to do with confidence, and living up to expectations. Since their loss to Willpinit, the Reardan team has gone undefeated. His fellow teammates are becoming legendary in the town, and, although in some inexplicably way, he is still an outsider, Junior has hopes that someday, he will establish his own legacy, and the townspeople will be comparing some kid to him.
Reardan is scheduled to play Wellpinit again, this time at home. The Wellpinit team is unbeaten, and Rowdy is their star player. Reardan's coach decides to start Junior, and assigns him the job of guarding his old friend. Junior doesn't think he can do it, but Coach has faith in him, so Junior begins to have faith in himself too.
On the first play, Rowdy, intending to humiliate Reardan, gets the ball and races to the basket for a dunk. Determined, Junior outjumps Rowdy for the first time in his life and steals the ball as he is about to dunk. He then races across the court and outmaneuvers Rowdy to score a three-pointer. It is the defining moment in the game, and Reardan goes on to win in a rout.
Junior is the hero for Reardan's team, but when he sees the ragtag Wellpinit team watching as they celebrate their victory, he is ashamed. Junior remembers that the Reardan players have everything, and the Wellpinit boys have nothing, and that he has just "broken (his) best friend's heart". Fittingly, Reardan advances to the finals, but loses in a huge upset to an unknown, "tiny farm-town team".
Chapter 26 Summary
In this very short chapter, Junior emails Rowdy a few days after the end of basketball season, apologizing for how things turned out when their two schools last played each other. Rowdy responds with a typically insulting pledge to "kick (Reardan's) asses next year". Junior is heartened by Rowdy's reply. Although it is exceedingly brief and crude, it was also "a little bit friendly", reminiscent of the way the two friends used to interact before Junior left the reservation. Realizing that this is the first time that Rowdy has actually talked to him since that time, Junior is happy.
Chapter 27 Summary
Junior muses that the biggest difference between Indians and white people is that so many more Indians die young, and that of the deaths he himself has experienced, about ninely percent of them have been because of alcohol. As he sits in chemistry class one day, Junior is dealt the most devastating blow of his young life. The guidance counselor comes to tell him that his Dad is coming to pick him up, because his beloved sister Mary has died.
Mary and her husband had had a big party in their little trailer home in Montana. There had been lots of drinking, and Mary and her husband had been passed out in the back bedroom when the trailer burned down. At Mary's burial, Junior's Mom is hysterical with grief, slapping him with the admonishment that he is never to drink, then clinging to him for hours as if he were a baby. When she finally releases him, Junior flees the house where throngs of people have gathered; ironically, most of them are drunk, trying to drown their grief at the death of a beautiful young woman due to alcohol, with alcohol.
Junior runs full-speed into Rowdy, who is crying. Rowdy tries to punch Junior, but misses, which is something that never happens. He tells Junior that his sister is dead because when he had left the reservation, she had felt she needed to leave too. Carrying the guilt of his Mary's death on his shoulders, Junior returns to school where the teachers and his friends are sympathetic and supportive. Junior does not know how to react; he feels like "every planet in (his) solar system has exploded".
Chapter 28 Summary
Junior goes to the cemetery with his parents to clean up the graves of Grandmother Spirit, Eugene, and Mary. His Mom has packed a picnic lunch, and his Dad has brought his saxaphone. His parents kiss and hold hands, and when Junior tells them they "can't make out in a graveyard", his Dad replies sagely that "it's all love and death".
Junior's Mom tells him she is proud of him, and Junior thinks about his sister, who was courageous because "she went searching for her dreams...she didn't find them, but she made the attempt". He recognizes that in daring to transfer to Reardan, he too is making "the attempt"; he understands that maybe, like Mary, his own attempt will kill him too, but he has no regrets. Junior cries for his sister, and for himself, and for his tribe, because he knows that "five or ten or fifteen more Spokanes would die during the next year, and that most of them would die because of booze".
Junior weeps because he knows he "will have a better life out in the white world". He is "a lonely Indian boy", but he is not alone in his loneliness. Junior is one with "millions of other Americans who (have) left their birthplaces in search of a dream", and he belongs to many "tribes" - the "tribe of teenage boys...small-town kids...Pacific Northwesterners...poverty...beloved sons". His realization of shared identity with so many beyond his Indian heritage makes him know that he will be okay.
Junior takes one last moment to remember those who will not be okay. He misses Rowdy.
Chapter 29 Summary
The school year is over, and Junior is back on the reservation, which is beautiful. There are pine trees everywhere, and Junior remembers a day when he and Rowdy were nine or ten, and they decided to climb the tallest tree over by Turtle Lake. The tree was over one hundred feet tall, and they could have died, but they "weren't afraid of falling that day". Their original intent was to go swimming in Turtle Lake, which in itself was an extremely scary undertaking because of the weird legends that surrounded it, but as it was, they ended up climbing to the top of the highest tree. Looking back, Junior can't believe they did that, just like he can't believe that he survived his first year at Reardan. He misses his friends from school; he has already written Penelope "three love letters", and to his amazement, Gordy wants to come to the rez and "stay for a week or two". And most surprising of all, Rowdy comes to the house to visit! Rowdy says he is visiting because he is bored, and he and Junior go out to shoot some hoops. Junior asks Rowdy again to come to Reardan with him next year, but Rowdy declines. He tells Junior that he read a book about how Indians used to be nomadic, moving around "in search of food and water and grazing land". Rowdy doesn't think Indians are nomadic anymore, except for Junior. He says he always knew that Junior would leave in search of his dreams, and that he is happy for him. Junior will always "love and miss (his) reservation and (his) tribe". He prays they will forgive him for leaving, and that he will forgive himself. He cries a little as he wonders about the future. Then he and Rowdy play ball, without keeping score.
Summary and Analysis
Chapters 1-7 Summary and Analysis
The narrator, a fourteen-year-old Spokane Indian born with a birth defect that left him with a variety of physical disabilities, introduces himself as an individual who has had to overcome challenges from the the first day of his life. In addition to speech impediments and a proneness to seizures, the narrator suffered with ten extra teeth and impaired vision. Indian Health Service was supposed to help with these latter issues, but under its rules, major dental work was funded only once a year, and all ten teeth had to be removed at once with a minimum of anesthesia, since the white dentist believed that Indians "only felt half as much pain as white people did." As for eyeglasses, the narrator was able to get only "ugly, thick, black plastic ones," which make him look "all lopsided." Because of his physical deficiencies, the narrator is the object of much ridicule and bullying on the reservation where he lives, so he spends most of his free time hanging out alone in his room, reading books and drawing cartoons. He likes cartooning because "when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it," and because he feels that developing this talent "might be (his) only real chance to escape the reservation."
Poverty characterizes the existence of the narrator, who is called "Junior" by the people on the "rez." Hunger, though it is a reality, is not the worst part of being poor; the worst part is not having enough money to take his beloved dog Oscar to the vet when he gets sick. Junior describes his impotent rage when his father gets his rifle and puts Oscar out of his misery because, in contrast to veterinary care, "a bullet only costs about two cents." Junior realizes, though, that he cannot blame his parents for their situation; he understands that they too once had dreams, but never had the chance to be anything because reservation Indians do not get a chance to realize their dreams. They are "just poor," and have been poor so long that they believe they deserve nothing better.
Depressed and angry about the death of Oscar, Junior turns to his "best human friend," Rowdy, "the toughest kid on the rez." Although Junior's parents are "a drunk and a former drunk" who sometimes ignore or yell at him, Rowdy's father "drink(s) hard and throw(s) hard punches," and Rowdy and his mother frequently sport "bruised and bloody faces" because of his abuse. As a result, Rowdy, who has protected Junior...
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Chapters 8-13 Summary and Analysis
Junior's father drives him the twenty-two miles to school on his first day at Reardan. He reminds his son that "those white people aren't better than (him)," a fact which neither of them quite believe, but the expression of his love gives Junior the courage to follow through on his resolve. The white kids stare at him as they arrive, and Junior wonders what he is doing there at Reardan, where the only other Indian is ironically the school mascot. When Junior's homeroom teacher calls him by his given name, Arnold Spirit, Junior feels "like two different people inside of one body;" one, Arnold, who navigates in the white world, and the other, Junior, who lives on the reservation. An attractive blonde girl named Penelope asks Arnold where he is from, and comments on his "singsong reservation accent" when he responds.
During the following days, Junior is ignored at school by all of the "pretty, pretty white girls" and most of the boys as well, but one group of "jocks" torments him by calling him names and denigrating his heritage. When one of these jocks, a "giant" named Roger, subjects him to an especially degrading joke about Indians, Junior feels that he must stand up for himself, and punches Roger in the face. Following the rules of fighting that prevail on the rez, he then challenges his much larger opponent to finish the fight, but Roger, shocked, tells Junior he is crazy and walks away. Confused, Junior turns that evening to his grandmother for advice, and, after thinking deeply upon his account of the incident, she tells him that perhaps he has won Roger's respect. The next day, Junior is forced to walk to school because his parents do not have money for gas. Fortunately, his father's friend Eugene is heading to Spokane on his motorcycle, and offers him a ride. Eugene is like an uncle to Junior, but he is drunk all the time. When Eugene drops Junior off at Reardan, all the white kids just stare; Eugene has "braids down to his butt," and Junior speculates that the two of them on the motorcycle exude an aura of danger. As Junior approaches the school building, Roger appears, and Junior braces himself for a fight. Roger, however, is "actually nice," inquiring curiously about Eugene and his bike, thus paying them and Junior some respect. Junior, stunned, thinks that maybe his grandmother was right, and, feeling confident later that day, tries to strike up a friendly conversation...
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Chapters 14-19 Summary and Analysis
Junior wonders why Indians celebrate Thanksgiving, given the history between the Pilgrims and the Indians. With the dark humor characteristic of their tribe, Junior's dad tells him that they "should give thanks that (the Pilgrims) didn't kill all of (them)." It is a good day, and the family "laugh(s) like crazy." Junior misses Rowdy, so he draws a cartoon of the two of them "like (they) used to be" and takes it to his friend's house. Rowdy's dad says that Rowdy is not home, but takes the cartoon, and, after making a derisive comment about it, says he will give it to his son. As Junior is leaving, he sees Rowdy in the upstairs window, holding the cartoon. Rowdy looks sad, but when Junior waves at him, Rowdy flips him off. Momentarily hurt, Junior realizes that even though Rowdy had given him the finger, he had not torn up the cartoon, and he is encouraged, thinking that maybe Rowdy "still respect(s) (him) a little bit."
During class, Junior asks to be excused to go to the bathroom. While he is there, he hears someone vomiting in the adjoining girls' restroom. Junior knocks on the door and asks if whoever is in there is okay, but is told to go away. Junior, however, waits, and after a while, Penelope comes out. Disconcerted, she asks Junior what he is looking at, and Junior responds that he is looking at an anorexic. Penelope retorts that she is not anorexic, she is bulimic, and that she is actually only bulimic when she is throwing up. Junior realizes that she sounds just like his father, who says he is only an alcoholic when he gets drunk. He tells Penelope, "Don't give up," which is what he always says to his dad when his dad is drunk and depressed. Penelope starts to cry and talks about how no one understands that she is scared all the time, because "she's pretty and smart and popular." Junior and Penelope become a "hot item" at Reardan after that; they are not exactly a couple, but more like "friends with potential." Everyone is amazed that Penelope picked Junior to be her friend because he is "an absolute stranger...and...an Indian," and because the two of them are defying Penelope's father Earl, who is a racist. In reality, Junior is not sure what he means to Penelope, and wonders if she is using him just to counteract her pristine image. Even if this is true, Junior admits that he is using Penelope too, in a way. Because she has chosen him, the other girls think he is "cute," and the...
(The entire section is 1664 words.)
Chapters 20-24 Summary and Analysis
Convinced that he is not a good enough player, Junior almost does not try out for the Reardan basketball team, but his father encourages him to "dream big." There are forty boys trying out, and as there is no budget for a C squad this year, sixteen of the hopefuls will have to be cut. Coach is a decent guy and tells the boys that they are to play with dignity and respect, and that they will be treated with dignity and respect, no matter what happens. He then begins the first drill, which is to run a hundred laps around the gym, and before it is over, four boys drop out of their own accord. The players are then instructed to play full-court one-on-one. Junior is paired with Roger, who, as a senior, is much larger and is a star player. Junior takes a beating, but refuses to quit and impresses Coach with his tenacity and skillful shooting. Roger and Junior play hard, and Junior ends up making varsity; Coach says he is "the best shooter who'd ever played for him."
Ironically, Reardan's first game is against Wellpinit High, the school Junior was supposed to have attended on the rez. When the team arrives at the gym, the reservation basketball fans are chanting, "Ar-nold sucks! Ar-nold sucks!" Junior notes immediately that they are calling him by his Reardan name instead of his rez name, and feels intimidated until he sees his parents and grandma at the door. Even though Coach tells Junior he does not have to play this one, Junior is determined and inspired by his family, who are there "ready to walk through the crap with (him)." When Junior enters the gym, the fans fall silent, and, as one, turn their backs on him. Junior and his team are impressed with this preorchestrated display of contempt; Junior is at first angry, then, reflecting that "if these dang Indians had been this organized when (he) went to school here, maybe (he) would have had more reasons to stay," he begins to laugh, and Coach and his teammates laugh with him. Besides his family, the only Indian who has not turned his back on Junior is Rowdy, who stands glaring at the opposite end of the court, challenging Junior face-to-face. Halfway through the first quarter, Coach sends Junior in to play, and immediately, someone in the crowd throws a quarter at him, hitting him in the forehead and drawing blood. Furious, Junior is forced to return to the locker room, where Eugene, who had been a basketball legend in his own time and now...
(The entire section is 1821 words.)
Chapters 25-29 Summary and Analysis
Buoyed by confidence and his amazing shooting skills, Junior becomes a freshman starter on the Reardan varsity basketball team, and he credits the high expectations set for him at Reardan for allowing him to reach his potential. After losing their first game to the reservation high school, Reardan has gone on to win twelve in a row. The next game will be a rematch against Wellpinit, and Junior admits that he wants revenge. A local news crew comes out to interview Junior before the big game, and he tells them that he feels he has something to prove, "to the people in Reardan, the people in Wellpinit, and to (him)self." Junior declares boldly that he will never surrender to anyone, in basketball, and in life. Assigned by Coach to guard Rowdy in the game, he draws strength from Coach's faith in him and from the presence of his father, who "may not (love him) perfectly but love(s) (him) as well as he (can)." Junior plays his best game ever, stealing the ball from Rowdy just as he is about to dunk on the first play, and setting the tone for the rest of the game. Reardan wins by forty points, humiliating Wellpinit, and as his team celebrates, Junior looks over at the reservation team standing quietly on their end of the court. He realizes that all the members of the Reardan team "(are) going to college...(have) their own cars...three pairs of blue jeans...and mothers and fathers who...(have) good jobs," while most of the Wellpinit players live with drunken parents and might not have even had breakfast that morning; none of them are college bound. Ashamed that he had so desperately wanted to take revenge on Wellpinit, Junior retreats to the locker room and cries. A few days after the end of basketball season, Junior emails Rowdy and says he is sorry that Reardan had beaten Wellpinit so badly; Rowdy irreverently responds that Wellpinit will "kick (Reardan's) asses next year." Junior is encouraged, because the exchange is "a little bit friendly," and because Rowdy is actually talking to him, a notable occurrence since Junior left the rez.
Junior observes that the biggest difference between Indians and white people is the number of deaths they experience. While a few of Junior's friends at Reardan have lost a relative or two, Junior himself, by the age of fourteen, has been to forty-two funerals on the reservation, and the saddest thing about all these deaths is that ninety percent of them have...
(The entire section is 1870 words.)