The novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is about a young boy named Arnold Spirit aka Junior who was raised on a reservation near Spokane, Washington. Junior lives a poor lifestyle and was born with multiple medical problems, making it harder to accept himself since he was always getting bullied by other kids on the reservation. That is until he decides to switch to a high achieving school attended by wealthy white kids, called Reardon. This is the decision that really put Junior’s future in a new perspective when realizing he did not want to follow in everyone else’s footsteps on the reservation who didn’t change lifestyle.
The author of this novel, Sherman Alexie, reflects on living between two cultures and goes into depth about the challenges it partakes. Themes of identity, hopes and dreams, and wealth inequality can all be explored through Junior’s hardships and life experiences and overall help him succeed.
Throughout the novel, Junior spends time trying to figure out his identity, as the way he views himself ranges from his physical medical problems to just wanting to fit in.
He wants to belong in a place where he feels potential within his own self-confidence and to not be judged by others. Such as, “They stared at me, the Indian boy with the black eye and swollen nose, my going-away gifts from Rowdy. Those white kids couldn’t believe their eyes. They stared at me like I was Bigfoot or a UFO.
What was I doing at Reardan, whose mascot was an Indian, thereby making me the only other Indian in town?” (Alexie 56). This demonstrates that Junior feels the need to isolate and view himself as an outsider compared to other kids at Reardon, he has an instinct that there was no way he could ever belong. Junior also spends a lot of time drawing out a picture of the contrast between whites and Indians.
For example, “Traveling between Reardan and Wellpinit, between the little white town and the reservation, I always felt like a stranger. I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other. It was like being Indian was my job, but it was only a part-time job. And it didn’t pay well” (Alexie 118). This quote explains two sides of Junior, on the reservation, he is beaten up and considered an outcast while at Reardon he earns respect by his peers by standing up for himself. As well as by later joining the basketball team. Even though he still feels guilt for leaving, he doesn’t have regrets. Junior’s identity makes him stronger both physically and mentally by finding resilience in the tough circumstances he faces such as the betrayal of his best friend, Rowdy. He believes he belongs in multiple different tribes that shape who he is as a person. As the journey through identity is not easy for Junior, he learns to view himself not simply as “Junior the Indian” or a “traitor” on the reservation, but as someone who portrays multiple different roles in life. He moves locations between home and Reardon like a nomad. Overall, by seeing himself this way, Junior resolves his split personality crisis and finds a substantial, less confining form of identity.
In this novel, the concept of hopes and dreams is seen throughout the novel as Junior develops and positive attitude and a willingness to remain true to what he believes in. While on the reservation, Junior had always viewed hopes and dreams as primarily lost opportunities rather than a goal he can achieve. Junior watches everyone else on the reservation who threw their lives away by not desiring to do anything out of the normal. Junior didn’t want to turn out like them so he left by the advice of Mr. P, who encouraged him to leave the ‘sad’ reservation. For instance, “And let me tell you, that old, old, old, decrepit geometry book hit my heart with the force of a nuclear bomb. My hopes and dreams floated up in a mushroom cloud. What do you do when the world has declared nuclear war on you?” (Alexie 31). This is the turning point in the book which really puts into perspective that Junior wants to leave and create a new life for himself after seeing that his mother’s old book at school. Junior was seen as a traitor to all of the other kids on the reservation, but his decisions were still supported by his family.
Especially to Rowdy who became resentful as he thought he was choosing wealthy white people over him. Primarily, Junior uses his mother and father as a reference since they fall in the category of those who once “dreamed about being something other than poor, but they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams” (Alexie 11). This pattern applies to his sister Mary as well. She who had plans and potential to become a writer, but gave up and began living in the basement as a kind of symbolic burial. To Junior, the loss of hope is part of what it means to live on the reservation and be Indian hence why Junior found a place of meaning to leave the reservation and aspire to do something else. As Junior reconnects with Rowdy near the end of the novel, he realizes that in order to follow his hopes and dreams, he has to face the consequence of possibly losing that comfortable connection that he’s used to with friends, family, and ultimately the place where he grew up and feels the safest.
Wealth inequality can also be viewed as a recurring theme with not only Junior’s individual family, but along with the effect it has on an entire community struggling financially. Especially how alcoholism is brought to the reservation and causes death and despair. Along with his grandmother, sister, and Eugene’s death which put a big toll on his outlook on the quality of the reservation. Although he does wish situations were different, Junior seems to express the attitude that there is nothing he can do about his poorness. For example, “It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it” (Alexie 13).
Junior is also embarrassed to admit to his classmates that he is poor because he simply wanted to fit into an economic status so that he can belong. Junior dwells on his poorness and views it as a barrier that is stopping him from becoming successful in the future. As Junior says, “Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor” (Alexie 13). Junior is in the belief that the state of being poor is unfixable and that it doesn’t make one stronger or a better individual. He partially blames the fact of being Indian as the reason why he’s so poor, but then he realizes that his white peers such as Penelope and Gordy have problems of their own. They become sympathetic to Junior after learning about his situation. Poverty sheds a negative light on the reservation because of the spread of alcoholism, which makes that the main cause of why so many Indian families are unhappy. Not only does Junior’s first hand experience on poverty affect how he views his own family, but it includes how he sees the broken reality of other families and their wealth status as it is simply difficult to overcome.
In conclusion, throughout the novel, themes of identity, hopes and dreams, and wealth inequality are brought up and represented in numerous ways. From his medical history to lacking self-confidence, Junior deals with some obstacles throughout his life. But in the end all he really wants is a good future for himself whether that is becoming an artist or just simply playing basketball. Wealth in Junior’s life is seen as a burden but doesn’t mean he can’t continue his education and make the best of himself by seeing the brighter picture of events while facing the rough side of consequences.