Life and Death in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

What up, nerds? I am taking a little break from recapping the book series I am covering from the 1990s and early 2000s and am bringing you Shadyside’s first feature. Exciting, right? Before I get into it, though, I want to explain what a Shadyside Feature is. Unlike my recaps (Check out any entry here on Goosebumps or Fear Street) in which I attempt to write about anything and everything I have to say about a book, and unlike a review in which I focus primarily on my opinions on a book and if I would or would not recommend that book to others, a feature covers an aspect of a book I want to look into deeper. I might write about a recurring theme, a character’s development, or why a book should or should not be challenged by schools. Also, unlike my recaps and reviews, you may see me post more than one feature about a book. With features, I either do not have the time or energy to cover everything I want to write about a book, or I have so much to say about one aspect of a book that it warrants its own entry. For this book, the case is very much the latter.

I mentioned I might write about why a book should or should not be challenged by schools, and that is a great segue into the novel I am writing about in this entry, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. This book is heavily challenged in schools all across the United States for a multitude of reasons. No, I am not going to write about why this book should or should not be challenged (at least not in this entry). I want to focus on a plot device — a motif that I think helps push the novel ahead: death. Before I jump into that, however, I want to first, warn you that spoilers for this book are littered throughout the entry right after the plot summary, and second, give you that plot summary, an introduction to the book.

Plot Summary

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a coming-of-age young adult novel about a Spokane Indian boy named Junior who makes the decision to attend an all-white school to better his life. He meets resistance from those on his home on his reservation and from the white people at his new school.

Wait, that’s it, Todd? Yep. That’s all I’m giving you. Read the book! It’s so good. And don’t read this entry past this sentence if you have not yet read the book. 

<–Life | Death –>

I actually just finished reading this book for an Adolescent Literature course I am taking in college. In class this past Wednesday, we were divided into groups and asked to discuss various plot devices in the novel. My group discussed the book’s structure. We (three girls and me) decided that Alexie moved the novel ahead sequentially. Dr. Thomas, my professor, jumped into our break-out room and asked us to consider that the school year pushes the novel ahead. It is something we did not see ourselves at the time, because we had not yet finished the novel, but having finished it now, I can say she was right. The novel begins right before school and moves along with the school year, ending right after Junior’s first school year at Reardan ends. Right after reading the last chapter, something occurred to me. It can be argued that something else moves the novel ahead as well: a motif of death.

The contrast of death and survival is present from the very beginning of the novel. Junior begins the book telling the reader of his numerous ailments and surgeries, and how he was not expected to survive his surgeries, but did. He says, “I was only six months old and I was supposed to croak during the surgery. . . Well, I obviously survived the surgery” (page 2). Junior is a survivor.

In the very next chapter, Junior loses his dog. Not knowing much about the novel and having just started it, the death of Junior’s dog Oscar really shocked me as a reader. I think it is meant to shock the reader. As many of my classmates noticed and discussed, the novel is a light and funny read, and this serious and dark stuff hits hard as a result. Oscar is the first, but is definitely not the last death Junior would have to endure. The more and more he lives, the more and more he loses.

Mr. P., Junior’s math teacher on the reservation, says that he and the other white teachers were taught to kill the Indians. He says, “[We] didn’t literally kill Indians . . . We were trying to kill Indian culture” (page 43). He mentions how many people on the rez have given up, including Junior’s sister, Mary, who had so much drive and potential, and he urges Junior to leave the rez. He says, “If you stay on this rez, they’re going to kill you. I’m going to kill you. We’re all going to kill you” (page 43). At this point of the novel a dichotomy is formed: life verses death. The rez represents death. Leaving represents life. Junior is a survivor, as I wrote above, so his choice is not really a choice at all for him. Junior has to leave the rez and attend Reardan to survive.

I’ve been trying to think about what my favorite illustration in the novel is since comics are so important to Junior and the plot of the book. I think I have decided on this one, found on page 43:

It illustrates this dichotomy of life and death, and I think this one picture can sum up the book. The “rez” and “home” are to the left. “Hope” and something unknown are to the right. I think those question marks could read “life” or “survival.” Living is leaving the rez.

Something else about this illustration that is important is that hope is away from the rez. Hope cannot exist on the rez. This is something that is proven through the many deaths in the novel. Let me explain.

After Junior’s dog, the next death Junior incurs is the death of his friendship with his best friend Rowdy. This hurts Junior almost or just as much as the death of Oscar does, I’m sure. Junior stays determined, however, and he stays on course and attends Reardan. I think even if he does not realize it at this point, Junior has accepted that hope is giving him life. With hope, death is fueling that life.

In the chapters that follow, Junior loses his grandmother, his father’s friend Eugene, and most devastatingly, his sister, Mary. Important to note is that all three of these people are people who believed in what Junior was doing. They all had hope for Junior. Junior says on page 156, “My grandmother was the only one who thought [going to Reardan] was a 100 percent good idea.” She says, “I wish I could go with you. It’s such an exciting idea.” On page 71, Eugene says to Junior, “It’s pretty cool, you doing this.” Although his sister never specifically states she is proud of Junior, it is clear to him that she supports what he is doing by her own leaving the rez. On page 89, he writes of Mary, “I guess I’d kind of shamed her. If I was brave enough to go to Reardan, she’d be brave enough to MARRY A FLATHEAD INDIAN AND MOVE TO MONTANA.” Mary sends Junior a couple letters after she moves detailing her adventures and expressing her love for her brother.

Sadly, however, as I wrote, and as my favorite illustration illustrates, hope cannot exist on the rez. Junior loses all of these people who have hope for him.

It can be argued that Mr. P. also had hope for Junior and did not die, but Mr. P. is white, and not really part of the rez. While Junior liked Mr. P., he never saw Mr. P. as like him.

I want to also touch on Mary’s leaving the rez. By leaving the rez, she should have lived. I think the reason her death makes sense in this dichotomy is she left the rez for another rez. She was still surrounded by poverty and ugliness, including alcohol which would lead to her death. “Mary Runs Away” simply ran away to another rez with similar problems. She did not walk toward hope like Junior did.

A number of other people in the novel have hope for Junior, but they are all white and are away from the rez.

Junior’s parents allow him to live his own life, but as written in a quote I referenced above, only his grandmother was 100 percent on board with the idea. On page 46, his parents ask him, “Are you sure?” and offer other options like waiting and attending next year. They love their son, clearly, but I do not think it can be said that they fully support what he is doing.

Finally, I want to talk about the last chapter. Alexie describes in great depth the story of a horse who drowns in a lake and whose body keeps reappearing. Fittingly, Rowdy, whose friendship with Junior had died previously, reappears in Junior’s life in this same chapter. I think Rowdy is that horse symbolically. As a literature nerd, sirens went off in my head. They squealed, “ROWDY IS THAT DEAD HORSE.” Rowdy acknowledges that Junior is a nomad and will travel the world, but both he and Junior acknowledge that Rowdy will stay stuck on that rez. Rowdy says, “I’m not nomadic” (page 229). Like that horse’s body that reappeared, I think Junior’s friendship with Rowdy would reappear again and again if the novel continued, but Rowdy would never “100 percent” be in support of Junior like Junior’s grandmother was.

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