Isolation is one of the main themes of Part-Time Indian. First, there is the isolation of the Native Americans, a people who were rounded up like livestock and forced onto sectioned-off pieces of land. There is also the isolation that Junior feels as an individual, a boy who was born with multiple physical impairments, including water on the brain, which causes him to have seizures, poor eyesight, a stutter, and a lisp. Junior also has an intellectual curiosity that is unmatched by most of his peers; this makes him an outcast among his own people. And when Junior transfers to Reardan, he is the only Native American at the school. Picked on and bullied, he must learn new social codes in order to fit in, but he soon discovers that he never will be fully accepted by white society, no matter how hard he tries.
The other main theme of this novel is loss, which comes in many different forms. The most predominant is loss through death. Junior loses his grandmother and his sister, as well as his father’s best friend, who is like an uncle to him. Death is quite common on the reservation, Junior says, as he counts up the number of funerals he has attended in his young life. The constant presence of death leads to a loss of hope, which Junior struggles throughout the story to regain.
There is also the loss of friendship that Junior suffers when Rowdy, a boy who had always protected Junior as the two of them were growing up, does not understand why Junior wants to transfer to a white school. Rowdy has trouble forgiving what he sees as Junior’s abandonment of the reservation and, more importantly, the abandonment of their friendship.
In some ways, there is also a loss of identity when Junior goes to Reardan. Junior feels white when he is on the reservation, but he feels red when he is at school. He has to learn to integrate and redefine himself.