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.
Overlapping Opposites Theme Icon

Junior often sees himself and his world in terms of strict dichotomies: white versus Indian, friends versus enemies, rich versus poor. In his double life in Reardan and on the reservation, he feels “like a magician slicing himself in half, with Junior living on the north side of the river and Arnold living on the south.” Yet just as his true identity includes both Junior and Arnold, the divided extremes he describes often turn out to be blurred. Roger, the Reardan student who greets Junior in the schoolyard with a horribly racist joke, becomes a kind friend and role model; Rowdy is both Junior’s best friend and his worst enemy, and hates him because he loves him so much. Things like the crumpled five-dollar bill Junior’s alcoholic father gives him for Christmas are both ugly and beautiful, and the basketball game Reardan wins against Wellpinit becomes both a triumphant victory and a shameful moral loss for Junior when he realizes how many social and economic advantages his team has. Meanwhile, tragic events such as Junior’s sister Mary’s death have darkly comedic elements, and Junior’s ability to address topics like bullying, poverty and racism with humor is a key characteristic of his voice. For Junior, not to mention his friends Rowdy and Penelope, part of growing up is recognizing that the world is more complicated than a strict division of opposites. Realizing that it’s possible to be more than one thing—part of many different “tribes”—is what enables him to unify his split identity and, as someone destined to travel beyond the reservation, navigate the world both literally and figuratively.

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Overlapping Opposites ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Overlapping Opposites 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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Overlapping Opposites 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 Overlapping Opposites.
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. 


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Chapter 8 Quotes

“My name is Junior,” I said. “And my name is Arnold. I’m Junior and Arnold. I’m both.”
I felt like two different people inside of one body.
No, I felt like a magician slicing myself in half, with Junior living on the north side of the Spokane River and Arnold living on the south.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Penelope
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

When Junior gets to the high school Reardan, filled mostly with white students, he begins to experience a phenomenon that feels like splitting himself in half. He feels like he has to be a different person around white people than he is around Indians, and he feels like his true self doesn't fit quite right in either world. The difficulty with his name is emblematic of this feeling. The Indians in his community have always called him Junior, but his official name is Arnold, and the white students want to call him Arnold. Junior has to explain that both names are his – both are equally true – but it doesn't seem that anyone else can see everything about him that these two names encompass.

This shows the ways in which stereotypes and social norms constrict Junior's ability to be himself, and it also shows the tangible differences between his background and the backgrounds of the white students. While the white students are suspicious of his two names, Junior is delighted that white students can have names like "Penelope," which is a name that he would never find on the rez.

Chapter 17 Quotes

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 at all.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Travel
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout Junior's time at Reardan, he feels caught between worlds. At school, he is expected to act like a white kid (and, as will become relevant soon, he is expected to have money like white kids do). At home, he is expected to act like an Indian. He feels like a stranger in both places because he doesn't feel that he embodies either identity completely.

It's interesting that he says being Indian is "like a job." This indicates that his Indian-ness is something he feels that he has to work to put on or perform for others, but he doesn't necessarily feel Indian when he is unobserved. A big part of Junior's growth in the story is about learning to negotiate this tension inside himself; he has to come to terms with the fact that he'll never be the "stereotypical" Indian or white kid, but that he can be himself and exist in both worlds without needing to conform to other people's expectations.

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 25 Quotes

We had defeated the enemy! We had defeated the champions! We were David who’d thrown a stone into the brain of Goliath!
And then I realized something.
I realized that my team, the Reardan Indians, was Goliath.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Basketball
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the book, Junior has taken refuge in basketball as an area in which he can excel despite his being Indian. He views basketball as transcending race and class, and therefore being a fairer mode of competition than, say, classroom performance. Because of this, Junior has felt justified in wanting to crush the Wellpinit team (though of course he also wants to win because Rowdy, who has hurt him, is the best player on the other team), and he thought that achieving this goal would make him feel unambiguously good.

However, once he has done it he realizes that his team does still have unfair advantages over Wellpinit. The people on the Reardan team have stable families, nice things, and general security in the present and in their futures. The Indian players who do not have those luxuries don't leave their problems off the court; how could it not affect their playing if they are grieving a loved one or if they're hungry, for example? This is a humbling realization for Junior, because it is a moment in which he realizes that he has to be careful with the advantages he has been given and he has to prioritize empathy and kindness. Otherwise, he might become one of the people who are making Indian lives harder, and he can't bear to do that.  

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.