This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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Who is Penelope in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? How do Penelope and Junior know each other, and how does Penelope help Junior come to terms with a part of his identity?
Penelope in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a friend of Junior’s at his new “white school.” Though Junior initially views her as just a pretty popular girl, the two grow closers and are able to help one another.
Read more about Penelope in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and her friendship with Junior.
Meeting Penelope in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Junior shows up for his first day at Reardan with a black eye and a swollen nose from Rowdy’s “good-bye punch.” Before Junior’s dad drops him off, he tells Junior to remember that the white kids are no better than he is. But they both know that’s not true. Junior knows that they both understand they’re Indians losers “living in a world built for winners.”
As Junior waits for the building to open, the other kids stare at him—he’s the only Indian at Reardan, aside from the school mascot. Once in class, Junior meets blonde, blue-eyed Penelope, the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen. As the teacher calls roll, Penelope in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian asks Junior what his name is. When he tells her, she starts laughing and telling her friends, and Junior realizes that they’re laughing at his name. It’s never occurred to him that he has an unusual name. On the rez, if you walk into a store and call out for “Junior,” seventeen guys and three women will answer.
Things get worse for Junior when the teacher, still calling roll, calls him by his “name name,” Arnold Spirit. Penelope angrily turns back to him and accuses him of giving her a fake name. He tries to explain that his name is both Junior and Arnold, feeling, as he does, like two different people: On the rez, he’s Junior; in Reardan, he’s Arnold.
Junior dresses as a homeless person for Halloween, mostly because it’s an easy costume for him, seeing as most of his clothes are pretty ratty anyway.
Penelope in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian also comes to school dressed as a homeless person. She compliments Junior on how truly homeless he looks, and Junior returns the compliment by telling her she looks cute, which annoys Penelope. She’s not trying to look cute. She tells Junior she’s protesting the country’s treatment of homeless people. She’s planning on collecting money instead of candy and donating it to the homeless.
Junior decides to impress Penelope in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by saying that his costume is also a political statement: He’s protesting the treatment of homeless Native Americans. He suggests they pool their money in the morning and send it to the charity together. Penelope isn’t sure Junior’s suggestion is sincere, but she agrees.
Back on the rez that evening, Junior collects a little spare change as he goes house to house in his homeless-man costume, and he even gets some encouragement from a few grandmothers who think he’s brave for leaving the reservation to go to a white school. But more often, he gets called names by his neighbors, who slam the door in his face. Many Spokane residents resent Junior for leaving the rez, seeing this as a betrayal of his Indian culture.
As he heads home around 10 o’clock, three kids in Frankenstein masks jump Junior, knocking him over, kicking him, spitting on him, and stealing his money. After they’ve left, Junior reflects that they didn’t beat him up too badly. Their goal wasn’t to put him in the hospital. They just wanted to remind him that everyone on the rez thinks he’s a traitor.
The next morning at Reardan, Junior apologizes to Penelope for not having the money. He tells her about the attack, and Penelope shows concern, asking where they kicked him. When Junior lifts his shirt to show her the bruises, she touches one and comments on how painful they look. Junior almost faints at her touch. Penelope feels sorry for Junior and promises to include his name when she sends in the donation.
After this intimate moment, Junior thinks he and Penelope will become close and that this will make him the most popular kid in school. But nothing really changes. Penelope continues to ignore him.
One day, Junior’s bored in class and asks to go to the bathroom. While he’s washing his hands, he hears the sound of someone retching in the girl’s bathroom next door.
He waits outside the bathroom to make sure the student is ok, and Penelope soon walks out chewing cinnamon gum, trying to cover the smell of vomit. When she asks him what he’s looking at, he tells her, “I’m looking at an anorexic.” She corrects him: She’s bulimic, not anorexic. There’s a difference. “Anorexics are anorexics all the time,” but bulimics are only bulimic when they’re throwing up.
This reminds Junior of the way his father always insists that he’s only an alcoholic when he’s drunk. He tells Penelope the same thing he tells his father when his father is drunk: “Don’t give up.” Junior thinks this advice is kind of corny, but it hits a nerve with Penelope, and she starts to cry. She tells Junior that she’s scared and unhappy but no one allows her to be scared and unhappy because she’s so beautiful and smart. As she tells Junior this, Junior contemplates the size of her ego, but he finds her self-confidence attractive.
After this incident, Junior and Penelope start hanging out and become “friends with potential.” Junior knows that she’s only “semi-dating” him because she’s tired of being perfect and dating an Indian gives her a blemish, with the added benefit that it pisses off her racist dad. Junior doesn’t mind that Penelope is using him because, as he sees it, he’s using her, too. Penelope is his way into the social scene at Reardan. Once he starts dating Penelope, he becomes relatively popular.
Penelope and Junior also have things in common: They’re both dreamers who feel trapped in their small towns. Penelope’s dream is to study architecture at Stanford; Junior’s dream is to become a famous artist. They both want to create beautiful things, and they bond over that dream.
Junior doesn’t know how to deal with his feelings for Penelope in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, so he emails Rowdy, even though he doesn’t expect to hear back. To Junior, Rowdy’s still his best friend, even though Rowdy hates him. Junior tells Rowdy he’s in love with a girl who’s white and doesn’t know what to do. Rowdy responds a few minutes later, telling Junior he’s just another Indian “treating white women like bowling trophies.”
The Winter Formal
Junior continues to feel like a stranger no matter where he is: In Wellpinit, he feels half white; in Reardan, he feels half Indian. At school, he doesn’t correct classmates who assume that he’s rich because there’s a casino on the Spokane reservation. He uses the fact that all white people think Indians get free money from the government to hide his poverty.
Junior worries his charade will be exposed when he takes Penelope to the Winter Formal. He knows that his $5 won’t pay for much during the night, but he also knows that if he doesn’t take Penelope to the dance, someone else will. So he decides to wing it.
Because he doesn’t own a suit, Junior wears one of his dad’s polyester, bell-bottomed suits from the 70s. He expects his classmates to make fun of him, but Penelope makes sure to loudly compliment his “retroactive” suit as soon as he walks into the dance, and suddenly, disco is cool at Reardan.
Pancakes with the Popular Kids: Learning More About Penelope in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
As the end of the night nears, Junior thinks he has successfully hidden his poverty, but then Roger, the big guy he punched, and some other popular students decide it would be the coolest thing in the world to drive to a Spokane diner for pancakes. Because Penelope is popular, she and Junior get an invite as well, even though they’re only freshmen.
Junior can’t pay for pancakes. But knowing that the jig is almost up, he throws caution to the wind and orders not only pancakes for himself and Penelope, but also toast, fries, orange juice, hot chocolate, and coffee.
Terrified at the prospect of being exposed, Junior feels sick and goes to the restrooms half-way through the meal. Roger comes in and hears Junior retching. Junior tells him that he’s feeling sick because he forgot his wallet at home and can’t pay for the meal. Roger tells him he should have said something sooner and lends him $40. Junior is grateful, and he can’t imagine what it must be like to be able to casually hand over that much money to a near-stranger.
At 3 a.m., Roger drives Junior and Penelope back to the school. Junior tells them his dad is on his way to pick him up, which is clearly not true. Junior and Penelope step out of the car for a private moment and Penelope tells Junior she knows Roger lent him money. She aks Junior if he’s poor. Junior’s tired of lying and tells her that yes, he’s poor. In response, Penelope kisses him on the cheek. She then asks if his dad is really coming to pick him up. At first, Junior insists that he is, but finally admits that he usually walks home or hitchhikes. The thought of Junior walking home makes Penelope cry, and before Junior can stop her, she asks Roger to drive Junior home. This is the first of many nights that Roger will drive Junior home from school.
Junior realizes that while he’s been preoccupied with Penelope’s looks, she’s actually been concerned about him. This realization makes him feel shallow. Junior sees that when you’re honest with people, those people can turn out to be pretty incredible.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian summary:
- How Junior gets split between two worlds when he goes to a mostly white school
- How Junior overcomes being an outsider to being part of welcoming social circles
- The tragedies of alcoholism and poverty that leave Junior with renewed strength