The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Analysis

Sherman Alexie

At a Glance

Sherman Alexie set The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in his hometown of Wellpinit on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Like Alexie, the main character, Junior, grows up in Wellpinit but attends Reardan, a white high school off the reservation. Transferring schools stirs up racial tensions on the reservation, where Junior's old friend Rowdy turns against him, feeling betrayed by Junior's decision to leave. Metaphorically speaking, the reservation is a kind of prison preventing the Native Americans from being free like their ancestors or enjoying the same opportunities as whites. Upon crossing the border, however, Junior learns that the world beyond the reservation is not all it's cracked up to be.


The novel is set in eastern Washington, not far from the city of Spokane. Most of the story takes place on the Spokane Indian Reservation. A smaller portion is set a little more than twenty miles away, at Reardan High School, whose students are mostly from rich, white families. The town of Reardan, Alexie writes, is “filled with farmers and rednecks and racist cops who stop every Indian who drives through.” Indians who do actually dare to drive through are pulled over for “DWI: Driving while Indian.”

No matter where Junior goes in the novel, whether to the reservation or to his new school, he feels uncomfortable, out of place, alienated. The Native American population as a whole feels imprisoned, unable to roam freely across the land as their ancestors once did, so they stagnate within the borders that have been imposed upon them—a constant reminder that they are a conquered people. The white world beyond the borders represents, at least in Junior’s mind, the hope of a better future. But when Junior is integrated into that world, he realizes that it lacks the love, warmth, and personal attention.

Ideas for Group Discussions

1. Lead a discussion among your classmates as to what Penelope’s motivation was in developing a relationship with Junior. Do you think Penelope was merely curious about Junior’s culture? Do you suspect that her attraction to Junior would have been the same if he were white? Did she like him because he was different? Or was there some common quality or interest that they shared?

2. In what ways are Mr. P (Junior’s math teacher at Wellpinit) and the rich white man who showed up for Grandmother Spirit’s funeral (the man with the powwow costume) alike, and how do they differ? How do they relate to Native American culture? What do their actions and their words suggest about their personalities?

3. Why was Junior so driven to beat Rowdy at the final basketball game between Reardan and Wellpinit?

4. When Rowdy and Junior climbed the tallest tree near the lake, why was the view so astounding to them? Do you suspect that it might have affected Rowdy differently than Junior? How so?

5. What do you think the message was in the story of the dead horse in Turtle Lake? Can you find any way this story ties into Junior’s other experiences?

6. How did Eugene (the man who rode the motorcycle) affect Junior differently than Junior’s father did? How were the men alike? How did they differ?

7. Which character had the most profound effect on Junior’s life? Back up your selection with passages from the novel.

8. Why do you think Rowdy reacted so strongly to Junior’s leaving the reservation to go to school? What in Rowdy’s background leads you to believe this?

9. With whom do you think Junior had the closer relationship: Penelope, Roger, or Gordy? Use text to prove your point of view. How did these relationships differ? How were they the same?

10. What is the significance of Junior’s comment at the end of the book, when he and Rowdy are playing one-on-one basketball, and Junior says, “We didn’t keep score”? What are some of the implications underlying this statement? What does it say about Junior and Rowdy’s relationship?

11. Alexie often uses humor in his work, even when he writes about painful memories. Why do you think he does this? Look for examples where Alexie uses this technique in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Research the history of the Spokane Indians. How many different tribes did they include? What was the extent of the area they once lived in? How and why has that changed? Present a report to your class, using pictures of material that you have discovered, such as some of the tribes’ chiefs, pictures of the tribal land, and maps.

2. Research the problem of alcoholism in Native American populations. What do experts state as the cause? Is it physical or psychological? Are there programs in place to try to deal with it? How does it differ from alcoholism in other portions of the U.S. population? Are Native Americans more susceptible? Write a paper about your findings and read it to your class.

3. Read Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Do these short stories have similar themes as the novel? What are they? Write a report and turn it in to your teacher.

4. Junior used cartoons to help him express his feelings. Create a series of ten cartoons that express your emotional reactions to events you have recently experienced. Share the cartoons with your class, your teacher, or a close friend.

5. What is hydrocephalus? Research the medical side of this problem. Either draw diagrams or bring textbook illustrations of what this affliction entails and how it is corrected. What are the chances of recovery?

6. Junior’s sister liked to write romance novels. What is a romance novel? How does it differ from a literary novel? Are there other types of novels? What are they? If you were to write a novel, what type would it be and why? Present your findings to your class. Find out if anyone in your class has read a romance novel and ask them to explain what they liked about it.

7. Junior talks about how many funerals he has attended in his youth. Research statistics about the number of deaths recorded on reservations around the United States. What are the main causes of death? What is the life expectancy of Native Americans? How do these figures differ from the general U.S. population?

Techniques / Literary Precedents

Alexie has admitted, in an interview with author Rita Williams-Garcia, that he was afraid to write this book because it mirrored the truth of his own life. The story is very closely based on his personal experiences and memories. He says he wrote in the first person, despite his fear, because he did not like the literary distance he felt when trying to write this novel from a third-person perspective.

Part-Time Indian won the 2007 National Book Award, one of the most prestigious prizes the author has received in his writing career (which includes nineteen other publications). During his acceptance speech, Alexie said that maybe he should have written a young adult novel a long time ago. Although his other books have frequently found their way into younger readers’ hands, this novel is his first attempt to intentionally write for that audience.

Overall, reviewers have found that Alexie’s book is a rare foray into the emotions of a young teenage boy, a subject that is too infrequently covered. Writing for Publishers Weekly, an anonymous reviewer called this a young adult novel that all parents could trust to present a heartfelt account of a young boy’s life and also a book that does not compromise literary merit. Roger Sutton, writing for Horn Book, referred to this novel as one that hilariously blurs the line between “dramatic monologue, verse novel, and standup comedy.” Chris Shoemaker, for the School Library Journal, referred to the novel as one that must and should be purchased by all libraries. According to Shoemaker, Part-Time Indian “delivers a positive message in a low-key manner.” For the Kirkus Reviews, a reviewer stated that Alexie expertly blends wit with humor to create a book whose “fluid narration deftly mingles raw feeling with funny, sardonic insight.”

Related Titles / Adaptations

Nick Hornby (acclaimed author of About a Boy and High Fidelity) has written a novel, Slam, about a fifteen-year-old skateboarder who gets his girlfriend pregnant. Hornby, like Alexie, is great at mixing humor with other strong emotions. Reviewers give this young adult novel a thumbs-up.

Douglas Coupland’s 1996 novel Microserfs is a funny book about computer geeks who get together and try to find meaning in life outside of their normally digitalized settings. The story is told through the twenty-six-year-old protagonist’s online journal. The book provides an interesting journey into the world of several computer-savvy twenty-somethings as they attempt to integrate their virtual lives with that other thing out there: reality.

The Spokane Indians: Children of the Sun has been updated in its new 2003 edition. In this book, readers will find a history of the tribe and its relationship with the land as well as the challenges it has faced from the U.S. government.

Alexie’s first collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, covers some of the same challenges of life on the reservation that the character Junior talks about. This collection is aimed at an older audience, but the writing is still easy to read and just as ironically funny. Alexie’s second collection, The Toughest Indian in the World, provides a continuation of some of his best work.

For another—and much more adult—take on Native American culture as captured in fiction, try Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine or N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain.

For Further Reference

Barcutt, Bruce. 2007. Off the rez. New York Times Book Review, November 11, p. 39. This is a detailed review of Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, providing a brief summary of the text.

Carpenter, Susan. 2007. Misfit. Los Angeles Times, September 16, p. R-5. Carpenter found Alexie’s book to be moving and informative about subjects such as poverty and racism, which many authors are afraid to tackle with such honesty and humor.

Chipman, Ian. 2007. Review of The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian. Booklist 103 (22): 61. A short review in which Chipman praises Alexie’s book.

Ruiz, Gina. 2007. Review of The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian. News from Indian Country 21 (22): 29. A raving review of Alexie’s novel in which Ruiz claims the book is a must-read.

Young, Rebecca. 2007. “Part-time Indian” has a hero teens will root for. News Tribune (Tacoma, WA), November 6, p. E1. In this review, Young praises Alexie’s writing and his protagonist.