A well-known novelist, filmmaker, and poet, Sherman Alexie writes often about the plight of Native Americans, a subject he knows well having grown up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Believing he would get a better education, he decided to attend high school in Reardan, Washington, a mostly white town twenty miles from his home. Alexie drew on his experiences at Reardan High School in writing The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, his first work of young adult fiction. Alexie struck a powerful chord with critics and audiences, and his novel won the prestigious National Book Award in 2007.
The United States is home to 310 reservations like the one on which Alexie and his family lived. Although some reservations have prospered, living conditions on many are not that different from what Alexie must have experienced in his youth. Rates of unemployment and suicide are high; life expectancy is low. More than one million Native Americans, however, choose to remain on their reservations. Why they stay is both simple and complex.
Alexie’s novel speaks to many of the reasons they stay—and what might happen if they leave. Told in first-person by the book’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, Arnold “Junior” Spirit, True Diary maps the difficult terrain of growing up poor and Indian [Alexie’s term]: the alcohol and hopelessness endemic to his tribe; the loyalty that, for better or worse, binds reservation families together like “Gorilla Glue,” and the guilt and fear that come from leaving childhood friends behind in the course of pursuing a better life. “Plenty of people saw my leaving as a betrayal,” Alexie told The Guardian of his own experience. “I felt guilty, but I’ve forgiven myself, and most of my reservation has.” Throughout True Diary, Arnold grapples with a similar guilt, as he feels great love for the place he knows he must leave. He fears where he is going, but his hope in the future is stronger than fear.
As Alexie had done, Arnold chooses to leave the reservation to attend high school with strangers in a white community. Complicating his already difficult circumstances, he struggles daily with numerous physical disabilities, the results of a severe birth defect, hydrocephalus. He is a boy who was born fighting for his life, and he remains a warrior throughout the novel—defending his pride against the school bully, playing basketball amidst the jeering of his tribe, and walking twenty-two miles to go home after school when he can’t find a ride. Arnold often describes himself in self-deprecating terms, using humor to soften the blows of a very painful reality. He doesn’t deny it when something hurts, but he follows his brutal honesty with an ironic joke or turns a dark experience into a cartoon that mocks the insanity of the world in which he lives.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is honest but funny, depressing but ultimately hopeful. Arnold moves easily between laughing and crying, considering them naturally related experiences. “When it comes to death,” he observes, “we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing.” Arnold is a Spokane Indian who leaves his reservation, but as he points out, he is not the only person to leave home in search of something better. Many share his loneliness and fear. Anyone who has ever been caught between two cultures, or between the past and the future, can identify with Arnold Spirit’s struggle and join him as he moves from laughter to tears and back again—and then again. Moreover, anyone who values courage and determination will find in Arnold’s journey, sacrifice, and ultimate success an affirmation of daring to dream.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain the role of the tribe in Junior’s life.
2. Describe the obstacles and examples of encouragement on Junior’s path, and analyze their effects on his character.
3. Identify Junior’s methods of coping, and explain why he is able to persevere.
4. Compare and contrast the communities of Wellpinit and Reardan.
5. Compare and contrast the illustration styles throughout the book, and explain how they reflect Junior’s state of mind.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
- The Study Guide is organized to study the novel in sections. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
- Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading the sections of the novel and to acquaint them generally with its content.
- Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
- Study Guide vocabulary lists include words from the novel that vary in difficulty.
1. The vocabulary lists are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them.
2. Working from the Study Guide vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each section that are most appropriate for them.
Essay and Discussion Questions
The essay and discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry.
2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small study groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion.
Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some multiple-choice questions address the factual content of the novel; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and contrasting; and drawing inferences.
2. The teacher may select specific multiple-choice questions and one or more essay questions to assess an individual student’s understanding of the novel.
3. The essay portion of the test appears on a separate page so that it may be omitted altogether in testing.
Teaching the Literary Elements
Before students read through the book, point out these themes, or universal ideas, that will be addressed in the novel:
- Coming of age
Talk with your students about how a motif is a recurring pattern or a repeated action, element, or idea in a book. As they read, have them look for the following motifs:
- Basketball games
A symbol is a concrete object or place that has significance in a literary work because it communicates an idea. Have students discuss how the author develops the following symbols and what ideas the symbols could suggest. Have them look for other symbols on their own.
- Junior’s brain
- Junior’s five-dollar Christmas gift
- Turtle Lake
- Ted’s dance outfit
1. Junior draws a realistic portrait of Rowdy reading a comic book, but he then scribbles over it with an angry face. What does this drawing reveal about the complexity of Arnold’s relationship with Rowdy?
2. Describe the different illustration styles used in the novel. What does each style say about Junior’s mental state?
3. What is significant about the names “Arnold” and “Junior”? Why do they make the narrator feel conflicted?
4. Describe three different ways that Junior copes with the world around him. Which do you think is the most effective? Why?
5. Mr. P says that when he first started teaching, he was expected “to kill the Indian to save the child.” What does he mean? How might the strategy have affected life on the reservation?
6. Mr. P says that Junior has been fighting since he was born. In what ways is Junior a fighter?
7. Describe three different incidences in which crying features prominently. What overall messages does the novel send about crying?
8. Do you think Rowdy was one of the people who jumped Junior on Halloween? Why or why not?
9. Describe Gordy’s influence on Junior. In what way does Gordy validate Junior’s decision to attend Reardan?
10. Junior goes into detail about things like masturbation, zits, and needing to have a bowel movement. Some readers feel these references are inappropriate, while others feel they are acceptable in the context of the novel. What do you think Alexie intended to achieve by including such graphic details in the story? Is he successful? Why or why not?
11. True Diary is considered semi-autobiographical. Sherman Alexie was born with hydrocephalus, he intentionally left the reservation to attend school in Reardan, and he is a basketball fanatic. What other parts of the book do you think might be autobiographical? Do you think there really is a Roger? A Penelope?
12. What makes Junior and his sister different from other Indians on the reservation?
13. The reader never learns the name of Junior’s coach at Reardan; he is referred to simply as “Coach.” Does omitting his name make a more general statement about the role of coaches in students’ lives? If so, what statement does it make?
14. Describe how Junior has changed by the end of the book, and identify the pivotal moments that bring about this change.
15. Junior reflects, “I think all of us are always five years old in the presence and absence of our parents.” In your own words, what do you think Junior means? Do you agree? How has your own experience with your parents or family confirmed or refuted Junior’s claim?
16. Why are those on the reservation so upset with Junior for leaving? Can you think of other circumstances in which one group might reject one of its own in this way?
17. Do you think Rowdy will ever leave the reservation? Why or why not?
18. What do the illustrations add to the book? Would your experience of the novel have been the same without them?
cerebral: pertaining to the brain
lisp: a speech defect in which s and z sound like th
orbited: traveled around in an elliptical path
rez: slang reservation; public land set apart for the use of an Indian (Native American) tribe
seizures: sudden attacks
susceptible: especially liable or subject to some influence
1. What was supposed to have happened when the narrator was six months old? What happened instead?
The narrator underwent major surgery when he was six months old, and he was supposed to have died or to have suffered serious brain damage. Instead, he lived and did not suffer major brain damage, but he does have a variety of physical problems.
2. Describe three things that are physically “wrong” with the narrator.
He grew ten extra teeth, and he needs glasses because his eyes “hate each other’s guts.” When he was younger, he was exceptionally skinny, yet he had a large head and large hands and feet. He is susceptible to seizures, and he has a lisp and a stutter.
3. Why is the first section of the story titled “The Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club”? What does the title suggest about how the narrator sees the world?
It’s titled “The Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club” because the narrator gets beaten up on a regular basis. The narrator is making a joke with his title, but in reality, being beaten up each month is very serious. The narrator uses humor to cope with distressing circumstances in his life.
4. Explain why the narrator prefers drawings to words.
He feels words are “too unpredictable,” probably because of his stutter. He also feels words are “too limited”; only certain people can understand speaking and writing, but everyone can understand drawings.
5. What does the reader learn about the reservation? What kind of place is it?
The reservation is clearly a place of poverty where basic needs, like dental and vision care, are not met. It is a violent place, as evidenced by the narrator’s frequent beatings. It is a place from which the narrator would like to escape.
6. Why isn’t the novel organized in numbered chapters?
The novel is written in the form of the narrator’s personal journal.
perseverance: steady determination
shroud: something that covers or conceals like a garment
1. The narrator puts himself in the position of the reader: “And now I’m sure you’re asking, ‘Okay, okay, Mr. Hunger Artist, Mr. Mouth-Full-of-Words, Mr. Woe-Is-Me, Mr. Secret Recipe. . . .’” What does the narrator’s referring to himself this way suggest about him?
The narrator is very self-deprecating. He is able to step outside of himself to see others’ perceptions and laugh at himself.
2. What is Junior’s relationship with his parents like? How does the incident with...
(The entire section is 364 words.)
bootleg: alcohol that is unlawfully made and sold
fry bread: bread cooked in a skillet over an open fire
powwow: a ceremony usually accompanied by dancing, feasting, and magic, performed for the cure of disease, success in a hunt, etc.
smirked: smiled in a smug way
war dancing: dancing involving mock combat
1. Identify three traits that best describe Rowdy. How is his friendship with Junior surprising?
Rowdy is tough, strong, and mean, while Junior is comparatively weak, hopeful, and friendly.
2. After a teacher asks Rowdy, “What’s wrong with you?” he...
(The entire section is 356 words.)
coot: slang a foolish or crotchety old person
decrepit: weakened by old age
isosceles triangles: triangles having two equal sides
minions: followers of a person in power
1. What happened to Mary after she graduated from high school? How does Junior feel about it?
Mary retreated from life after high school. She moved into the family’s basement and spends most of her time there. Junior feels sad about his sister’s situation. He believes she is smart, strong, funny, and capable of much more.
2. In the drawing Junior does of his sister, how does she attain most of her clothing?...
(The entire section is 279 words.)
humanoid: a creature having human characteristics or form
interrogating: examining by questions
mafioso: a member of a mafia
1. What does Mr. P mean when he says, “We were supposed to kill the Indian to save the child”? What effect does this information have on Junior?
Mr. P means that teachers were supposed to stifle the traits that made people Indian, effectively to destroy their culture. Teachers were supposed to force assimilation so that Indians might survive in a new culture. The information makes Junior furious. It makes him want to hit Mr. P again.
2. Why does Mr. P confess to Junior?...
(The entire section is 452 words.)
1. What characterizes Reardan High, the school Junior wants to attend? Why does he want to go there?
Although the high school is located in a “hick town,” it is very well funded, one of the best small schools in the state. It is made up of white students; Junior and his parents believe that white students have the most hope because they have the best education and opportunity.
2. Why does Junior feel he needs to change schools immediately?
Junior thinks that if he puts off transferring to Reardan, he won’t do it. It is clearly a difficult thing to do, and he doesn’t want to lose his courage.
3. Describe Junior’s...
(The entire section is 180 words.)
1. What is Rowdy’s reaction to Junior’s news about going to school in Reardan? Why does he respond that way?
Rowdy is disbelieving at first, and then he is hurt and upset. He feels that Junior is abandoning him, even though Junior wants him to come to Reardan, too.
2. What specific gesture on Junior’s part causes Rowdy to hit him? Why does it anger Rowdy so much?
Junior touches Rowdy’s shoulder for a second time. Junior is reaching out and being compassionate to Rowdy, who is clearly very upset. Rowdy is loath to let anyone or anything get too close to him.
3. Junior had to know that Rowdy wouldn’t take the news...
(The entire section is 166 words.)
ergonomic: designed to minimize physical effort and discomfort
pummeled: beaten with fists
translucent: permitting light to pass through
1. After Junior’s dad tells him that Junior is a warrior, Junior feels “It was the best thing he could have said.” Why is it the right thing for his father to have said?
Junior is frightened, and thinking of himself as a warrior gives him courage. Junior’s decision to leave the reservation of his heritage is difficult. The warrior reference may also make him feel tied to his heritage even as he moves beyond it.
2. What wry observation does Junior make about the...
(The entire section is 328 words.)
aboriginal: original or earliest known
alpha male: the dominant male animal or person in a group
combine: a harvesting machine
impending: about to happen
pony: slang a motorcycle
1. How does Junior feel about his grandmother? How can you tell?
Junior loves his grandmother and expresses his affection for her. His drawing of her is very loving, as he jokes about her basketball skills and her clothing and notes her bandanna habits. Also, the fact that he goes to her with his troubles shows that he feels close to her and respects her opinions.
2. What conclusion does Junior’s...
(The entire section is 221 words.)
1. What is Rowdy’s response when Junior opens up about his feelings for Dawn?
Rowdy doesn’t want to hear Junior’s confession. He hurts Junior by telling him his feelings for Dawn are stupid and fruitless.
2. How does Junior feel about himself when he cries? Why?
Junior feels bad about himself when he cries, and he even cries because he has cried. He feels crying is weak.
3. Rowdy’s behavior is harsh in this short chapter, but at its end, he is somewhat redeemed. In what way does he redeem himself?
Rowdy is trustworthy. He never tells anyone Junior’s secrets.
(The entire section is 139 words.)
assaulted: suddenly, violently attacked
1. What does Junior’s striking up a conversation with Penelope reveal about his personality?
Junior seems brave and fearless. Penelope has given him no encouragement and has even been mean to him, but he attempts to engage her in conversation anyway.
2. Junior says of the money he raised on Halloween, “The idea of giving it to poor people . . . had made me feel pretty good about myself.” Why would he feel good about himself, and how does Junior’s own poverty affect the way he feels about charity?
Raising money for the poor makes Junior feel honorable. Given...
(The entire section is 175 words.)
articulate: adjective clear
bales: large, tightly bound bundles of straw or hay
petrified: hardened; calcified
pyrotechnic: pertaining to fireworks
redundancy: unnecessary repetition
tautologies: needless repetitions of an idea using different words to say the same thing
1. What makes Junior feel like a zero at Reardan?
Junior is lonely. He is completely ignored by the other students.
2. Why does...
(The entire section is 475 words.)
secede: to withdraw formally from an alliance
1. What does Mary like about her new life?
Mary seems to love everything about her new life. Montana is beautiful, the reservation is larger than she is used to, and she has sampled some of the finer things in life by staying at a hotel on the lake and ordering room service. The world has opened up for Mary.
2. What strikes Mary as significant about the fry bread she orders? Why?
Mary is surprised she can order fry bread from a room service menu. Mary is not used to “Indian” things being mainstreamed and expects that when they are, they won’t be...
(The entire section is 130 words.)
1. What is Junior’s opinion of Thanksgiving? Why?
Junior thinks it’s odd that Indians celebrate Thanksgiving, given that the Pilgrims were only briefly friends with the Indians before they started shooting them.
2. Contrast how Junior interprets his drawing for Rowdy with how Rowdy’s father interprets it.
Junior’s drawing for Rowdy is meant to convey that he misses him and the way they used to be. It’s a gesture of friendship. Rowdy’s father thinks the drawing is weird and interprets Junior’s desire to be close to Rowdy as a sign of homosexuality.
3. Why does Junior interpret Rowdy’s flipping him off in a...
(The entire section is 145 words.)
anorexics: those with a pathological fear of becoming fat
bulimics: those who binge on food and then throw it up
monotonous: lacking in variety
scintillating: witty; interesting
1. Compare the illustration styles in the first part of the section with those at the end of the section. What does each style say about Junior’s mood?
In the first part of the section, the drawings are cartoonish and funny. At the end of the section, the drawings are realistic, suggesting that Penelope is becoming more real to Junior. He has strong feelings for Penelope and shows it in his portrait of her. He wants...
(The entire section is 221 words.)
coiling: curling around
1. Describe Junior’s experience watching Penelope play volleyball.
Junior is physically aroused watching Penelope play volleyball. He watches her “like she was a work of art.”
2. Why does Gordy consider Junior a racist?
Gordy tells Junior he is a racist because Junior is attracted to a white girl; therefore, he is as guilty as everyone else who thinks that white skin is preferable to other skin.
(The entire section is 78 words.)
digress: to get off the subject
penultimate: next to the last
radioactive: slang hot
retroactive: done after the fact
souvenir: a keepsake
theoreticians: experts in the hypothetical or abstract side of a subject
1. Why does Junior hide the fact that he is poor?
Junior hides the fact that he is poor because he wants to belong. He worries what people will think of him if they learn he is not middle class.
2. What changes Junior’s perspective on the suit he wears to the Winter Formal?
(The entire section is 329 words.)
primitive: ancient; original
repressed: held in
1. Compare Rowdy and Gordy, as they are represented in this section. What does Junior consider to be the virtues of each?
Rowdy is crass and unafraid to say or do what he thinks, even if it’s shocking to others. Gordy is presented in this section as thoughtful, analytical, and intelligent. Junior loves Rowdy’s craziness, and he also loves Gordy’s intelligence, which helps Junior see the world differently.
2. Describe Junior’s approach in dealing with Gordy’s formal, overly intellectual bearing.
Junior often teases...
(The entire section is 230 words.)
1. Describe Mary’s new house, as seen through her eyes and as seen through Junior’s. Why might Junior feel the way he does?
Mary thinks her new house is gorgeous; she is still delighted with her new life. Junior sketches her new house—a trailer—as a TV tray. He looks down on it and makes fun of her. He may feel hurt that Mary has such bad impressions of her childhood home. He also may feel worried for her, believing she is not thinking “big enough” by leaving one poor life for another.
(The entire section is 97 words.)
hydrocephalus: an accumulation of fluid within the cranium, often causing enlargement of the head
pelted: attacked with repeated blows
proportion: the comparative relationship between or among things
1. Explain how Junior’s first impression of Coach changes. How does he first appear to Junior? What kind of man does Coach prove to be?
Coach is skinny. He wears stained clothes and generally appears to be funny-looking. Junior learns, however, that Coach commands great respect from his players. They fall silent when he steps onto the court...
(The entire section is 395 words.)
1. Why is Junior hard on himself when his father comes home after the holidays?
When Junior’s dad apologizes for his absence, Junior tells him it is okay, when clearly it is not. Junior is angry with himself for letting his father off the hook.
2. Why does the five dollars that Junior’s dad gives him represent “a beautiful and ugly thing?”
Junior knows the restraint it must have taken for his dad to save the five dollars for him, which shows how badly his dad wants to do the right thing, yet the fact that saving the money took restraint is ugly, as it reflects his dad’s enslavement to alcoholism.
(The entire section is 114 words.)
eccentricity: an oddity or peculiarity
1. What good does Junior see in Indians, as compared to white people?
Junior thinks that Indians interact with one another and know each other in a way that the white people in Reardan do not. Junior also thinks that even though his parents have their flaws, at least they are there and they care, whereas white parents can be invisible in plain sight.
2. What does Junior say was his grandmother’s best quality? How did she display it?
His grandmother was tolerant. She acted in every situation without prejudice. She would talk to homeless...
(The entire section is 293 words.)
sheath: a protective case or covering
1. Why do people on the reservation treat Junior differently after his grandmother dies?
Junior thinks they see him less for his difference and more for what they all have in common. He has lost his grandmother; regardless of whatever else is going on in his life, he is sad. In effect, their respect for Junior’s grandmother extends to him.
2. Why does Junior find white strangers’ visits to the reservation “sickening” and “boring”? How does he characterize Ted?
Junior thinks that visitors try to glamorize Indian life or that...
(The entire section is 303 words.)
1. What tools does Junior use to cope with his sadness? Are they effective?
Junior searches for solace in books and in drawing. On their own, they do not lead him out of his depression. He also makes lists of what makes him happy, and these lists ultimately help him the most because they are a way of focusing on the positive things in his life at a time of so much negativity.
2. How does Medea’s line, “What greater grief than the loss of one’s native land?” apply to Junior’s grief about Eugene?
Junior feels that beginning with the loss of their land, the Indians know only “how to lose and be lost.” They lost their land, they...
(The entire section is 248 words.)
archrivals: chief opponents
cavalry: a military force made up of troops on horseback
David: biblical the second king of Israel who slew the giant warrior Goliath
Goliath: biblical the giant Philistine warrior famous for battling David
vial: a small container for holding liquids
1. Why does Junior become a better basketball player at Reardan?
Junior becomes a better basketball player because he is told he is good and wants to meet that expectation.
2. What is the difference between being scared and being nervous before a basketball game, according...
(The entire section is 416 words.)
1. What does the title of this section reflect about Junior’s voice?
This section is brief, as is Junior and Rowdy’s discussion. Junior is being sarcastic, as usual.
2. Why is the exchange between Junior and Rowdy relevant to Junior at all?
Junior interprets Rowdy’s insults as a little friendly. He is encouraged that their friendship may still be intact.
(The entire section is 63 words.)
rhetorical question: one not requiring an answer
1. Why does Junior think Tolstoy was wrong when he wrote that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”?
Junior thinks unhappy Indian families are unhappy for the same reason: alcohol.
2. Describe the different ways Junior responds to his sister’s death throughout the section.
Junior is at first in shock, and he doesn’t feel his grief right away. Then he begins to panic about his father’s safety. Next he laughs, irrationally and uncontrollably. When his true grief sets in, he is in a fog. He doesn’t cry.
3. Why does...
(The entire section is 289 words.)
1. Junior clearly did well academically his freshman year. How does he both highlight and downplay his success?
Junior shares the grades on his report card with the reader, but he treats his accomplishment lightly by making jokes, such as referring to Reardan as “Rear dumb (and high) School” and calling Woodshop “Woody Shop.”
(The entire section is 55 words.)
1. Why does Junior think he was able to leave the reservation while others couldn’t?
He thinks he was able to leave because he had enough arrogance. He felt that he was entitled to better than the reservation offered him.
2. What does Junior realize he has in common with other Americans who leave their birthplaces “in search of a dream”?
They are all lonely.
3. Describe Junior’s drawing of himself and Rowdy in this section. What does it express?
Junior’s drawing is of himself and Rowdy jumping into a lake, holding hands, and it says, “Boys can hold hands until they turn nine.” The drawing is...
(The entire section is 176 words.)
dormant: inactive, lying asleep
silty: filled with earthy matter
1. Why does Junior repeat the story of Stupid Horse in this section? How can the story of Stupid Horse be seen as a metaphor?
After the horrifying spectacle of Stupid Horse burning on the shore of Turtle Lake, no one swam in the lake for a long time. Ultimately, they returned. Junior writes: “People forget. They forget good things and they forget bad things.” Reclaiming Turtle Lake as a place to swim is a metaphor for moving on.
2. Describe Junior’s view from the top of the tree. Why doesn’t he want to come down, and what finally breaks...
(The entire section is 298 words.)
1. Junior has had all of the following problems EXCEPT
A. too many teeth.
B. fluid in his brain.
E. a stutter.
2. One of the reasons Junior likes to draw is that
A. his parents are encouraging about his ability.
B. he doesn’t want to compete with his sister’s creative writing.
C. the reservation has a special school for visual artists.
D. he usually places first in drawing competitions.
E. everyone can understand the message of a drawing.
3. Junior thinks that if given...
(The entire section is 1461 words.)
1. Throughout the course of the novel, Junior copes with hunger, racism, violence, alienation, poverty, alcoholism, and death. His life would be challenging for anyone, let alone a fourteen-year-old. Describe three different ways that Junior copes with the difficult circumstances surrounding him, and explain how each strategy helps him.
Junior copes with the world through his artwork and his humor. He tries to be proactive in solving his problems. He also strives to focus on the positives rather than the negatives in his life.
Junior’s artwork helps him cope by giving him a way to express his feelings without being overwhelmed by them. He describes the cartoons he draws as “tiny little lifeboats” that save...
(The entire section is 1728 words.)