At numerous points in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, an unnamed narrator reflects on his challenging relationship he had with his father while growing up. While some of the difficulties arose from his father’s personality, the narrator realizes that a more fundamental problem was the family’s poverty and his father’s frustration at not being able to overcome it. In “Family Portrait,” he shows how their limited material possessions—which often were far from new—became symbolic of that frustration. At the same time, the objects that represented contact with the world beyond their home and community were especially important, because they offered a window to other ways of life and potential opportunities.
In the 2020s, modern technology that can connect people with limited resources to the world has become even more important. The story emphasizes the television—both the sets themselves and the broadcasts they received. Today, flatscreens, cellphones, and tablets along with the internet connections to use them are crucial communication devices as well as status symbols, and Native American rural communities often have very limited connectivity.
The narrator describes his father’s efforts to teach him to drive and the ongoing difficulties that man and boy had in communicating. Today, such driving lessons may still be common occurrences for adolescents, even though few cars have stick shifts, which presented a huge challenge for the boy. The gaps in communications and emotional connection between the generations are emphasized by the father’s continuing reference to subjects not related to their lives, including television. These kinds of communication and generational gaps remain common today and are probably exacerbated by excessive screen time.