Study Guide

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Poverty

By Sherman Alexie

Poverty

Chapter 2

Poverty doesn't give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor. (2.54)

When it comes to being poor, Arnold doesn't try to make lemons out of lemonade. He does nothing to justify poverty; that is, he doesn't say that it makes him a stronger or better person. Instead, Arnold views poverty as something incredibly difficult to overcome, a condition that simply reinforces itself.

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. (2.53)

Arnold describes the vicious cycle created when being poor and being Indian become nearly indistinguishable. How does poverty create toxic thought patterns for Arnold? How does poverty make it difficult for Arnold to have hope?

But I can't blame my parents for our poverty because my mother and father are the twin suns around which I orbit and my world would EXPLODE without them.

And it's not like my mother and father were born into wealth. It's not like they gambled away their family fortunes. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people. (2.45-2.46)

Poverty, for Arnold, is generational. It is an inherited condition, and it is not a choice. Poverty is something that you are born into. Do you think this makes it more difficult to break out of poverty? To have hope?

Okay, so now you know that I'm a cartoonist. And I think I'm pretty good at it, too. But no matter how good I am, my cartoons will never take the place of food or money. I wish I could draw a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a fist full of twenty dollar bills, and perform some magic trick and make it real. But I can't do that. Nobody can do that, not even the hungriest magician in the world.

I wish I were magical, but I am really just a poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spokane Indian Reservation. (2.1-2.2)

Arnold's family is poor and this pretty much determines a whole lot about Arnold. Though he tries to see himself in a positive light, he ultimately comes to the conclusion that he is just a "poor-ass kid." Notice too that Arnold's economic situation isn't specific to his family: his entire reservation is impoverished.

Chapter 4

But my lips and I stopped short when I saw this written on the inside front cover: THIS BOOK BELONGS TO AGNES ADAMS. (4.52)

Junior discovers that his geometry textbook belonged to his mother, Agnes, and that his school is so poor that they have been using the same geometry books for the past 30 years. How does Junior react to this discovery? What would you have done?

Chapter 17
Penelope

"Arnold?"

"Yeah?"

"Can I ask you something big?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"Are you poor?"

I couldn't lie to her anymore.

"Yes," I said. "I'm poor." (17.109-17.115)

Arnold finally comes clean with his white friends when he confesses to Penelope that he's poor. What is Penelope's reaction? Is his life better once he tells them the truth about his family?

Everybody in Reardan assumed we Spokanes made lots of money because we had a casino. But that casino, mismanaged and too far away from major highways, was a money-losing business. In order to make money from the casino, you had to work at the casino.

And white people everywhere have always believed that the government just gives money to Indians.

And since the kids and parents at Reardan thought I had a lot of money, I did nothing to change their minds. I figured it wouldn't do me any good if they knew I was dirt poor.

What would they think of me if they knew I sometimes had to hitchhike to school?

Yeah, so I pretended to be middle class. I pretended I belonged. (17.9-17.13)

Arnold may be poor in Wellpinit, but in Reardan he is "passing" as middle class. To "pass" means to take on a group identity (whether race, class, gender) other than that of your own. For example, a poor person pretending to be rich. How do you think the act of "passing" is messing with how Junior sees himself? (Have a look at figure 17.1.)

Chapter 21
Mr. and Mrs. Spirit

I picked up the other boot and dug inside. Man, that thing smelled like booze and fear and failure.

I found a wrinkled and damp five dollar bill.

"Merry Christmas," he said.

Wow. (21.15-21.18)

Arnold's family is totally broke during Christmas, and his father disappears to go on a drinking binge. When he returns, he gives Arnold a five-dollar bill. It's a small sum of money, but it means a quite a bit. Why is the gesture so incredibly important to Arnold?

Chapter 25

And then I realized something.

I realized that my team, the Reardan Indians, was Goliath.

I mean, jeez, all of the seniors on our team were going to college. All of the guys on our team had their own cars. All of the guys on our team had iPods and cell phones and PSPs and three pairs of blue jeans and ten shirts and mother and fathers who went to church and had good jobs.

Ok, so maybe my white teammates had problems, serious problems, but none of their problems was life threatening.

But I looked over at the Wellpinit Redskins, at Rowdy.

I knew that two or three of those Indians might not have eaten breakfast that morning.

No food in the house.

I knew that seven or eight of those Indians lived with drunken mothers and fathers.

I knew that one of those Indians had a father who dealt crack and meth.

I knew two of those Indians and fathers in prison.

I knew that none of them was going to college. Not one of them.

And I knew that Rowdy's father was probably going to beat the crap out of him for losing this game. (25.248-25.259)

The basketball games between Reardan and Wellpinit are complicated for us, as readers, since we are cheering for Arnold, but we also kind of want the underdogs at Wellpinit to win. How are the two teams very, very different when it comes to class, money, and opportunities? Who did you root for in the game? Who do you think has "bigger hearts" (25.117)?