The book follows one school year in the life of Junior, a fourteen-year-old boy living with his family on the Spokane Indian Reservation near Wellpinit, Washington. It is told in episodic diary style, moving from the start of the school year, through the major holidays, to the beginning of summer. It includes both Junior’s written record of his life and his cartoon drawings, some of them comically commenting on his situations, and others more seriously depicting important people in his life.
The current Spokane Indian reservationThe Absolutely True Diary begins by introducing Junior’s circumstances, including the fact that he was born with hydrocephalus and therefore is small for his age and suffers from seizures, poor eyesight, stuttering, and lisping. As a result, Junior has always been picked on by other people on the reservation. His family is poor, a condition Junior attributes to being from the reservation and not having opportunities to fulfill their potential; their poverty is displayed early when Junior’s dog Oscar gets heat stroke and has to be put down by his father because they cannot afford to take him to a veterinarian. Junior’s only child friend is Rowdy, a classmate who is abused at home and is known as a bully on the reservation. Despite his intimidating role, Rowdy often stands up for Junior and lets Junior see his vulnerable side, such as his enjoyment of such kids’ comics as Archie and Richie Rich.The story then moves to Junior’s first day of high school and to the incident that sets up the plot of the book: when his geometry teacher, Mr.
P, hands out the textbooks, Junior sees his mother’s maiden name written in his, meaning that the textbook is at least thirty years old. Angered and saddened by the fact that the reservation is so poor that it cannot afford new textbooks, Junior violently throws the book, which hits Mr. P’s face, breaking his nose. When he visits Junior at home, Mr. P convinces Junior to transfer to Reardan High School, sensing a degree of precociousness in the young teenager. The town of Reardan is far wealthier than Wellpinit—Junior is the only Indian at Reardan besides the team mascot. Although Junior’s family is poor, and although the school is 22 miles away and transportation is unreliable, they support him and do what they can to make it possible for him to stay in the new school.
Rowdy, however, is upset by Junior’s decision to transfer, and the once-best friends have very little contact during the year.Junior develops a crush on the school’s most popular white girl, Penelope, and becomes study friends with an intelligent student named Gordy. His interactions with the white students give him a better perspective both on white culture and his own. He realizes how much stronger his family ties are than those of his white classmates, noticing that many of the white fathers never come to their children’s school events. Junior also realizes that the white students have different rules than those he grew up with, which is evident when he reacts to an insult from the school’s star athlete, Roger, by punching him in the face. Junior hits him, as he would have been expected to do on the reservation, and he expects Roger to get revenge.
But Roger never does; in fact, Roger and his friends show Junior more respect. Junior also gets closer to Penelope, which makes him more popular with the other girls at the school.Roger suggests that Junior try out for the basketball team, and to Junior’s surprise, he makes the varsity team, which puts him against his former school, Wellpinit, and specifically Rowdy, who is Wellpinit’s star freshman. Their first match demonstrates to Junior just how angry the reservation people are at him for transferring: when he enters the court, they boo and insult him. During the game, Rowdy elbows Junior in the head and knocks him unconscious.
While suffering some injuries from the game, Junior and his coach become closer as Coach tells him that he admires Junior’s commitment to the team. Later on, his grandmother, who Junior looks up to the most on the reservation, is hit and killed by a drunk driver. After his grandmother’s funeral, a family friend, Eugene, is shot in the face by his friend Bobby after fighting over alcohol. After grieving and reflecting on his loved ones’ deaths, Junior plays in his basketball team’s second match against Wellpinit.
Reardan wins and Junior gets to block Rowdy. Junior feels triumphant until he sees the Wellpinit players’ faces after their defeat and remembers the difficulties they face at home and their lack of hope for a future; ashamed, he runs to the locker room, where he vomits and then breaks down in tears. Later, Junior receives news of the death of his sister and her husband who were killed in a fire at their trailer.In the course of the year, Junior and his family suffer many tragedies, all related to alcohol abuse.
These events test Junior’s sense of hope for a better future and make him wonder about the darker aspects of reservation culture. But they also help him see how much his family and his new friends love him, and he learns to see himself as both Indian and American. Meanwhile, Rowdy realizes that Junior is the only nomad on the reservation, which makes him more of a “traditional” Indian than everyone else in town. In the end, Junior and Rowdy reconcile while playing basketball and resolve to correspond no matter where the future takes them.