Study Guide

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Literature and Writing

By Sherman Alexie

Literature and Writing

Chapter 1

I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats. (1.56)

Arnold uses a great image to describe his cartoons. He sees them as "tiny little lifeboats." How are Arnold's cartoons like real-life lifeboats? What can they save him from? Where might they take him?

I draw all the time.

I draw cartoons of my mother and father; my sister and grandmother; my best friend, Rowdy; and everybody else on the rez.

I draw because words are two unpredictable.

I draw because words are too limited.

If you speak and write in English, or Spanish, or Chinese, or any other language, then only a certain percentage of human beings will get your meaning.

But when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it.

If I draw a cartoon of a flower, then every man, woman, and child in the world can look at it and say, "That's a flower." (1.44-1.50)

Arnold has a lisp and a stutter, so words prove a bit difficult for him when spoken. We find here that he even prefers drawing to writing, mainly because more people can understand him. Why might Arnold want as many people as possible to understand him?

Chapter 3

But before you think Rowdy is only good for revenge, and kicking the s*** out of minivans, raindrops, and people, let me tell you something sweet about him: he loves comic books.

But not the cool superhero ones like Daredevil or X-Men. No, he reads the goofy old ones, like Richie Rich and Archie and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Kid stuff. He keeps them hidden in a hole in the wall of his bedroom closet. Almost every day, I'll head over to his house and we'll read those comics together. (3.114-3.115)

Comic books are very important to Rowdy, but not the superhero ones with all the tough-guys flying around in capes. Rowdy likes the sweet and cute comics like Casper the Friendly Ghost. Why would such a tough-guy read something so warm and fuzzy? What do comic books give Rowdy that he's missing in his real life?

Chapter 5
Mary Spirit

"Oh, she loved to write short stories. Little romantic stories. She wouldn't let anybody read them. But she'd always be scribbling in her notebook."

"Wow," I said.

That was all I could say.

I mean, my sister had become a humanoid underground dweller. There wasn't much romance in that. Or maybe there was. Maybe my sister read romances all day. Maybe she was trapped in those romances. (5.92-5.95)

Arnold's sister Mary loves the genre of romance so much that she even writes her own stories. Mary, though, doesn't show her writing to anyone. She hides her reading, her writing, and most important of all – herself. (Down in her parents' basement, that is.) How is Mary's relationship to reading and writing different from Arnold's? Is Mary really "trapped" in those romances? What is she trying to escape?

Chapter 12

And my sister had married one of those crazy Indians.

She didn't even tell our parents or grandmother or me before she left. She called Mom from St. Ignatius, Montana, on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and said, "Hey, Mom, I'm a married woman now. I want to have ten babies and live here forever and ever."

How weird is that? It's almost romantic.

And then I realized my sister was trying to LIVE a romance novel.

Man, that takes courage and imagination. Well, it also took some degree of mental illness, too, but I was suddenly happy for her.

And a little scared. (12.104-12.109)

Change has come for Mary: she's no longer living in her parents' basement; instead, she has gone out and found herself a husband and moved to Montana. (Whoa!) Also, she's no longer reading or writing romance novels. Instead, as Arnold points out, she's attempting to live one. Arnold is happy for her, but also a little scared. Why? How do you feel about Mary's decisions?


"There are three thousand four hundred and twelve books here," Gordy said. "I know that because I counted them."

"Okay, now you're officially a freak," I said.

"Yes, it's a small library. It's a tiny one. But if you read one of these books a day, it would still take you almost ten years to finish."

"What's your point?"

"The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don't know."

Wow. That was a huge idea.

Any town, even one as small as Reardan, was a place of mystery. And that meant Wellpinit, that smaller, Indian town, was also a place of mystery. (12.199-12.205)

Oh, the joy of knowledge! Gordy helps Arnold embrace this concept by taking him to the library and showing him just how much there is in this world that Arnold doesn't know. Crazy, right? We see how through books, the world –"even the smallest part of it" – becomes huge and filled with mystery. For Gordy and Arnold, books are not a means to escape the world; instead, books make the world bigger and more exciting.

Chapter 19

I have a lot of free time, so I have started to write my life story. Really! Isn't that crazy? I think I'm going to call it How to Run Away from your House and Find Your Home. (19.1)

According to Mary's letters, she has finally found herself among the Flathead Indians in Montana. And she's writing her memoirs! Why does she give this title to her book? Do you think it will be like a romance novel? Why or why not?

Chapter 24

Okay, so it was Gordy who showed me a book written by the guy who knew the answer.

It was Euripides, this Greek writer from the fifth century BC.

A way-old dude.

In one of his plays, Medea says, "What greater grief than the loss of one's native land?"

I read that and though, "Well, of course, man. We Indians have LOST EVERYTHING. We lost our native land, we lost our languages, we lost our songs and dances. We lost each other. We only know how to lose and be lost."

But it's more than that, too.

I mean, the thing is, Medea was so distraught by the world, and felt so betrayed, that she murdered her own kids.

She thought the world was that joyless.

And, after Eugene's funeral, I agreed with her. I could have easily killed myself, killed my mother and father, killed the birds, killed the trees, and killed the oxygen in the air.

More than anything, I wanted to kill God.

I was joyless. (24.21-24.31)

Euripides' Medea is a Greek tragedy about a woman who is abandoned by her husband and has her homeland taken away. This situation turns into a snowball of destruction that leads her to kill her own children. Arnold can relate – at least in part. His people also had their land taken away and have become very destructive. They haven't killed their children, but they do have a tendency to kill each other. How, though, is Arnold's ending different from Medea's? Is Arnold living in a tragedy? (For more, see our section on "Genre: Colonial Literature.")

I made a list of my favorite books:

1. The Grapes of Wrath
2. Catcher in the Rye
3. Fat Kid Rules the World
4. Tangerine
5. Feed
6. Catalyst
7. Invisible Man
8. Fools Crow
9. Jar of Fools


In order to cope with the loss of his grandmother and the loss of Eugene, Arnold makes a list of his favorite books. Why does listing his favorite books bring him joy? What are your favorite books?

Chapter 27

Gordy gave me this book by a Russian dude named Tolstoy, who wrote: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Well, I hate to argue with a Russian genius, but Tolstoy didn't know Indians. And he didn't know that all Indian families are unhappy for the same exact reason: the fricking booze.

Yep, so let me pour a drink for Tolstoy and let him think hard about the true definition of unhappy families. (27.11-27.12)

Why, according to Junior, is Tolstoy wrong? How has alcohol destroyed Junior's family?