The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a painfully revealing look into the life of a teenager named Junior who lives on a reservation. He wants to be more than what he sees. Junior opens up describing his health condition hydrocephalus. He talks about how he gets bullied and beat up by other kids on the reservation. He keeps to himself and draws cartoons all the time. “I draw because words are too unpredictable. I draw because words are too limited… so I draw because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me.” He describes being extremely poor and how that affected his dog Oscar who was dying for hours, but his family couldn’t afford to take him to the veterinarian so Junior’s father euthanized the dog. Junior talks about how his family has always lived on the reservation and in the same place, noting that “no one paid attention to his parents’ dreams” which seemed to be a generational cycle. Junior asserts: “But we reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams. We don’t get those chances. Or choices. We’re just poor. That’s all we are. It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that somehow you deserve to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. 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. Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”
When Junior contemplates running away his best friend Rowdy tells him no one would notice. Rowdy is described as the toughest kid on the “rez”. They hang out at his house and read comics together. On Junior’s first day of school at Wellpinit High School he gets so angry about receiving a geometry book that belonged to his mother when she was in high school that he throws it at his teacher Mr. P’s face. He gets suspended for the incident. Mr. P visits his house and tells Junior that he has to leave the rez forever! He tells Junior that his older sister Mary was the smartest student he ever had and that she wanted to be a romance writer. Now she spends all of her days in the basement. “All these kids have given up. All your friends. All the bullies. And their mothers and fathers have given up too. And their grandparents gave up and their grandparents before them. And me and every other teacher here. We’re all defeated.” Mr. P starts crying and says that the farther Junior gets away from the rez the more hope he’ll have. Junior decides to go to Reardan High School after his parents tell him white people have the most hope. “I had to multiply hope by hope.” Rowdy is angry that he is transferring and refuses to go with him. He screamed and punched Junior in the face.
Junior’s dad drove him to Reardan on his first day of school in his rundown truck. He feels worthless when he stands outside the school. While he attends his classes he develops feelings for a blond girl named Penelope and encounters a popular jock named Roger who makes an extremely racist joke about Indians. Junior is so angry he punches Roger in the face and makes him bleed. Roger and his friends leave. When Junior tells his grandmother what happened she tells him it means they respect you. Junior dresses like a homeless dude for Halloween and claims he’s going to raise money for the poor to impress Penelope. He does end up raising money, but gets jumped and robbed. Penelope feels sorry for him and touches apart of his back where he was attacked.
Over the next few months Junior feels invisible and talks about his struggles getting to and from school. He is shocked when his sister gets married and moves to Montana with her husband. Eventually Junior is tired of being lonely and approaches a nerdy boy named Gordy and asks him to be his friend. They become friends and mostly study together. Junior comforts Penelope after discovering she is bulimic. They start sort-of-dating and go to the Winter Formal together. Junior wears one of his dad’s old suits. They go to a diner and Junior feels sick about the fact that he doesn’t have any money. Roger figures out that Junior is poor and pays for him. Junior’s high school life changes dramatically when he makes the varsity basketball team against the odds. When he plays against his former high school Rowdy knocks him unconscious during the game and he goes to the hospital. Tragedy strikes his family when his grandmother gets killed by a drunk driver. His dad’s best friend Eugene gets shot and killed by his friend. Junior gets depressed and misses class a lot. Gordy stands up for him in school after his teacher says he shouldn’t miss class so much. The rest of the class drops their textbooks and leaves too.
The rematch against Wellpinit draws media attention and Junior gets interviewed by a reporter. Junior starts the game and blocks Rowdy’s opening game dunk and makes a three pointer. Reardan wins by a large margin and he celebrates with his team, but he feels guilty and ashamed when he thinks about Indians. He cries thinking about what the loss must have done to their spirits. Reardan goes undefeated for the rest of the regular season. Tragedy strikes again with the news of his sister’s death by fire. Junior becomes hysterical when his dad takes him home from school. Rowdy is crying and says “Your sister is dead because you left us. You killed her.” Junior’s classmates hug him and support him. Penelope cries and hugs him. At the cemetery with his parents Junior remembers his grandmother, Eugene, and his sister. “I mean, she was amazing. It was courageous of her to leave the basement and move to Montana. She went searching for her dreams, and she didn’t find them but she made the attempt. And I was making the attempt, too. And maybe it would kill me, too, but I knew that staying on the rez would have killed me, too.”
After many months of not speaking, Rowdy comes over to Junior’s place over summer break and says he’s bored. They play a basketball game and Junior realizes that Rowdy sees to accept Junior’s decision to go to Reardan when he calls him nomadic. Rowdy says he’s okay staying where he is. They don’t keep score of the game and play for hours.