The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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Themes and Colors
Identity, Belonging, and Coming-of-Age Theme Icon
Overlapping Opposites Theme Icon
Racism, Poverty, and Alcoholism Theme Icon
Confessions, Revenge, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Hope, Dreams, and Loss Theme Icon
Drawing, Writing, and Junior’s Cartoons Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Hope, Dreams, and Loss Theme Icon

It may seem contradictory to include hope, dreams, and loss in the same category, but in fact, in Junior’s experience, they’re very closely connected. At the beginning of the novel, Junior understands dreams and hopes primarily as lost opportunities: his mother and father, for example, “dreamed about being something other than poor, but they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams.” The same thing is true for his sister, Mary, who had plans and potential when she was in high school, but gave up and began living in her parents’ basement—a kind of symbolic burial. To Junior, the loss of hope is part of what it means to live on the rez and be Indian.

In the book, following one’s dreams, finding a place where hope can thrive, means leaving the reservation. Both Junior and Mary—whose nickname, Mary Runs Away, foreshadows her decision to leave—attempt to do this, although Mary’s death just after she’d begun to have hope again becomes yet another illustration of lost dreams and opportunities. Even for Penelope, who is white and thus, from Junior’s point of view, has hope as part of her birthright, having dreams means wanting to leave the place she came from. But the element of loss in hope is much stronger for Junior, whose decision to leave is seen as a betrayal by his friend Rowdy and many other members of the reservation community. It’s a denial of his heritage, a negation of identity almost like a death. By the end of the novel, Rowdy and others have made peace with Junior’s decision to go off in search of hope like “an old-time nomad”—that is, like one of his Indian ancestors. Even so, when Junior lists the people he will “always love and miss,” he includes Rowdy, his reservation, and his tribe as well as his loved ones who have died—a telling indication that in some ways, following his hopes and dreams ultimately means the loss of his friends, his family, and his home.

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Hope, Dreams, and Loss ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Hope, Dreams, and Loss appears in each chapter of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Hope, Dreams, and Loss Quotes in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Below you will find the important quotes in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian related to the theme of Hope, Dreams, and Loss.
Chapter 1 Quotes

I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

This poetic metaphor that Junior chooses to represent the world illustrates a lot about his personality. First of all, Junior clearly sees the world as a place of hardship and even despair, since he calls it a place of "broken dams and floods." We get the sense that Junior has been through a lot, particularly for how young he is, and that he has been deeply affected by living in an environment full of hopelessness and suffering.

However, Junior has developed a strategy for keeping himself from being consumed by his environment: making cartoons. When he compares his cartoons to lifeboats, he indicates that they have the potential to save him from the despair around him, and even from the fates of his family and peers. He says that his cartoons could get him off the rez by making him famous, but it's clear that they also save him in more everyday ways by giving him an outlet for his emotions and a source of hope. 


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Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Something that Junior wants readers to understand is that poverty is not only cyclical, but it is inseparable from race. Together, racism and poverty form a vicious knot that deflates self-esteem and makes it difficult to see a way towards a better life. Junior illustrates this by walking readers through the thoughts he has when he is feeling bad about himself. We see that he conflates poverty with being Indian and being stupid and ugly.

This is a telling set of thoughts because it illuminates some of the less concrete ways (not related directly to his housing or access to medicine, for instance) that being an Indian living in poverty affects Junior. For example, Junior's thought that Indians are ugly shows the ways in which the standards of beauty centered on whiteness, which are ubiquitous in the American media, harm minorities. Junior doesn't seem to have an image in his mind of Indian beauty – he thinks of white people as being the ones who are attractive, and because of that he cannot imagine himself as being anything but ugly. This self-deprecation feeds into his despair about the cycle of poverty his family is caught in, because, just as he doesn't have an image of Indian beauty, he doesn't have many role models of Indians who aren't poor. Here, racism and poverty are presented as psychological obstacles in addition to being material ones. The combination makes it hard to imagine and work towards a better life.

Chapter 4 Quotes

After high school, my sister just froze. Didn’t go to college, didn’t get a job. Didn’t do anything. Kind of sad, I guess.
But she is also beautiful and strong and funny. She is the prettiest and strongest and funniest person who ever spent twenty-three hours a day alone in a basement.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Mary Runs Away
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

For Junior, Mary is a sort of cautionary tale for the future. Junior looks up to Mary and believes that she is smart and capable enough to do something important with her life. However, Mary "froze" after high school and moved into their parents' basement, refusing to pursue her dreams. This underscores Junior's sense that the Indians living in poverty have few ways to make a better life. He sees his sister as having the personal qualities (smart, pretty, strong, funny) that might allow her to escape the reservation, but she doesn't.

Since he can't chalk this "failure" up to Mary's personal failings, Junior finds it emblematic of a social reality in which Indians don't have the kinds of opportunities that white kids take for granted. And this feeling of Junior's is substantiated by the realities he sees around him: other kids on the rez, including Mary, get substandard educations and don't go to college; don't get jobs and, in fact, often can't find good jobs because there aren't many ways to make an income on the rez.

There's a sense throughout the book that Junior feels that the world is sending him the message that he doesn't have a future to look forward to as he grows up, and Junior is rebelling by having hope and making radically different choices than his community to see if they result in a different outcome. 

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?

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a pivotal moment in the book because finding the geometry book that once belonged to his mother is a concrete example for Junior of the ways in which he, as a poor Indian, is being denied opportunities that he would have had were he white. His education is demonstrably substandard if the math books in his school haven't been upgraded since his mom was in school thirty years before, and education is one of the most effective ways to escape poverty.

So Junior isn't being melodramatic when he feels that the world has "declared nuclear war" on him – from where Junior is sitting, it seems that the world, in fact, is conspiring to keep him down. This is especially poignant because Junior is so consumed by his hopes and dreams, which we see from his dedication to his cartoons.

When he sees his mother's name in the book, Junior feels that his precious hopes are being crushed, which explains the violence of his reaction. Alexie is demonstrating here that the anger many minorities feel about the obstacles they face is not disproportionate to the unfair reality in which they live.

Chapter 5 Quotes

“You’ve been fighting since you were born,” he said. “You fought off that brain surgery. You fought off those seizures. You fought off all the drunks and drug addicts. You kept your hope. And now, you have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope.”

Related Characters: Mr. P (speaker), Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Once Junior has been suspended from school for throwing the geometry book at his teacher, Mr. P comes to see him and gives him, perhaps, the best gifts possible: forgiveness, and an outlet for the hope that had been crushed by finding the geometry book. Mr. P reminds Junior that he has already struggled through and overcome tremendous obstacles and that if he wants to live a better life he needs to take matters into his own hands and get himself off the rez to a world that might be able to offer him the resources and hope that could carry him out of poverty.

This lecture sticks with Junior and leads him to his decision to transfer to a white high school where he will have more opportunities. This part of the book shows how important it is to have mentors who can remind you to believe in yourself and give you advice about how to move forward. That this mentorship comes only in an extreme situation, and that the community's reaction to Junior's decision is so severe, suggests that the kids on the rez are not generally being told that they have access to these choices and resources. This is an example of the way poverty keeps people down, of how hopelessness can create a kind of cycle where those without hope actively work against those within a community who still have hope, and would have kept Junior down had Mr. P not intervened.

At the same time, it's important to note that Mr. P, a white person, is telling Junior that his only hope is to escape from his own people. Mr. P may be right, but it is an indictment of the world that has made the rez such a hopeless place that Junior is forced to choose between himself and his community if he wants to find a more hopeful future.

Chapter 7 Quotes

“You always thought you were better than me,” he yelled.
“No, no, I don’t think I’m better than anybody. I think I’m worse than everybody else.”
“Why are you leaving?”
“I have to go. I’m going to die if I don’t leave.”

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Rowdy (speaker)
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

Rowdy's friendship with Junior is one of the primary plot arcs of the book, and this is the moment in which it begins to fray. When Junior tells Rowdy he is changing schools, Rowdy takes it personally, suggesting that Junior's choice is an implicit judgment of everyone else and a rejection of Rowdy. Junior tries to explain that this is a choice not made out of superiority or arrogance, but one made because he feels desperate – he doesn't think he can make it, doesn't think he'll survive, if he stays on the rez.

Junior's assertion that he will die if he doesn't leave is a dramatic one, but the book proves its truth. So many people in Junior's life die over the course of the book, and most of them are senseless deaths due to conditions on the reservation. This drives home just how dire the poverty that Junior lives in is; it could literally kill him if he doesn't go to another school, so he has to make a choice that alienates his best and only friend in order to take a chance that he might find a better life elsewhere.

Chapter 11 Quotes

“Hey buddy,” I would have said. “How do I make a beautiful white girl fall in love with me?”
“Well, buddy,” he would have said. “The first thing you have to do is change the way you look, the way you talk, and the way you walk. And then she’ll think you’re her fricking Prince Charming.”

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Rowdy (speaker), Penelope
Related Symbols: White
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

Junior realizes he has a crush on Penelope and, while he doesn't know how Penelope feels about him, she is being nice to him which gives him hope that they could end up together. He thinks about emailing Rowdy to ask advice since Rowdy is his best friend (even though they are fighting), but he thinks better of it, perhaps because Rowdy's tough love approach has begun to seem pessimistic rather than realistic.

Junior imagines Rowdy telling him that the only way for a white girl to fall in love with him would be if he were white, too, and essentially a different person. While that would seem to be the racist reality that he and Rowdy grew up with, being at Reardan has changed what seems possible for Junior (which is, in part, why he transferred there in the first place). This is both a moment of hope, in which Junior is beginning to see possibilities that were unthinkable before, but also a moment of sadness in which Junior is still reckoning with a racist reality that could keep him from the things he most wants. And both of those things – hope and reality – continue to be embodied in Junior's suddenly difficult friendship with Rowdy.

Chapter 22 Quotes

I mean, the thing is, plenty of Indians have died because they were drunk. And plenty of drunken Indians have killed other drunken Indians.
But my grandmother had never drunk alcohol in her life. Not one drop. That’s the rarest kind of Indian in the world.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Grandmother Spirit
Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the book, Junior's grandmother has died because she was run over by a drunk driver. He was close to his grandmother, who (like Junior) was a bit of an outlier among Indians. His grandmother didn't drink, which set her apart, and she was beloved for her open mind and her kindness. Her death is a particular cruelty for Junior because his grandmother avoided drinking – the vice that so often gets Indians in his community killed – and yet she was still killed by alcohol.

His grandmother's senseless death leads Junior to a new hopelessness, as he sees that even with a good faith effort to separate herself from the violence of the rez, his grandmother could not save herself. At the same time, her death galvanizes Junior's anger at the situation on the rez and his desperation to escape it. His grandmother's death suggests that even if he were to have stayed at his school on the rez and made good choices and tried his best, he still could have been consumed by the cycle of poverty and violence that destroys Indian lives. 

Chapter 23 Quotes

Two thousand Indians laughed at the same time. … It was the most glorious noise I’d ever heard.
And I realized that, sure, Indians were drunk and sad and displaced and crazy and mean, but dang, we knew how to laugh.
When it comes to death, we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the book, Junior has leaned heavily on humor to deal with tragedy and hardship. Before this moment, we have only seen this in his drawings and narration, but this scene (when a billionaire embarrasses himself at Junior's grandma's wake) shows that this quality might be common to the entire community on the rez. Junior clarifies that laughing at the wake is not disrespectful, but rather another form of mourning; "laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing," he says.

This scene is a moment of unity on the rez when Junior doesn't feel outside of his community, and it suggests that Junior might have more in common with them than he thinks. This moment also points out the tremendous strain that Indians are under. There are so many tragedies and hardships that laughter has become a common response in the face of grief or the casual racism of whites. It seems that, for Junior and his community, learning to laugh at pain and suffering is one of the only ways they can move forward.

Chapter 28 Quotes

I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms.
And to the tribe of cartoonists.
And to the tribe of chronic masturbators.
And the tribe of teenage boys.
And the tribe of small-town kids.
And the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners.
And the tribe of tortilla-chips-and-salsa lovers.
And the tribe of poverty.
And the tribe of funeral-goers.
And the tribe of beloved sons.
And the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends.
It was a huge realization.
And that’s when I knew that I was going to be okay.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a watershed moment for Junior in which he can finally let go of his tendency to relentlessly divide the world into Indian and white. He has been so perturbed by his inability to decide whether he is more white or more Indian, or which side of himself he should bring out in a particular context. Here, he is finally realizing that his identity (and the identities of others) cannot be reduced along a single axis. Junior has many interests and qualities that connect him to others and those are sufficient connections to transcend race and class.

Junior knows at this moment that he has the power to define himself and his choices. Junior understands, too, that this revelation does not apply to everyone; just because Junior has broken free of a worldview limited by the racism directed towards Indians does not mean that his Indian friends will be able to do the same. Junior recognizes that his success means he will have to leave some people and realities behind, so even as it is empowering there is also an element of sadness. Junior knows that he is going to be okay, but as part of that "okay-ness" he is going to have to leave behind things that he loved.

Chapter 29 Quotes

“You’re an old-time nomad,” Rowdy said. “You’re going to keep moving all over the world in search of food and water and grazing land. That’s pretty cool.”

Related Characters: Rowdy (speaker), Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.)
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moment, Junior and Rowdy have finally made up. Rowdy has come to terms with Junior's decision to leave the rez, and Junior has accepted that Rowdy is not choosing the same path. Over a game of basketball, the two of them settle into a new dynamic in their friendship in which they can enjoy each other's company without being possessive or co-dependent. Their personalities can evolve independently, in other words, which shows that they've both grown up tremendously.

In this passage, Rowdy is offering Junior a kind observation, that Junior's choices remind him of nomadic Indians of pre-reservation times. Throughout the book, Junior has had a hard time reconciling his choices with his community. His need to leave the rez has made him feel not Indian enough, but Rowdy has now given him a way to think about his choices that connects him deeply to Indian history. This is the ultimate form of acceptance that Rowdy could give Junior.

I would always love Rowdy. And I would always miss him, too. Just as I would always love and miss my grandmother, my big sister, and Eugene.
Just as I would always love and miss my reservation and my tribe.
I hoped and prayed that they would someday forgive me for leaving them.
I hoped and prayed that I would someday forgive myself for leaving them.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Rowdy, Mary Runs Away , Grandmother Spirit , Eugene
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

This book refuses to give readers easy answers to complex problems, and its conclusion is no exception. Junior has grown and matured and he has made brave and difficult decisions that have put him on a path to achieving his dreams. However, Alexie does not pretend that this comes without cost or that Junior's problems are all solved.

Even though Junior has come to deep realizations about the complexity of his identity and his ability to connect to others, he is still not immune from feeling guilty about the choices he has made to separate himself from his community, and Alexie's placement of this statement at the end of the book indicates that Junior likely never will. Junior's ability, though, to sit with his ambivalence and declare that both things are true at once is a tremendous evolution from the Junior at the beginning of the book who could only see the world divided into separate categories.