Chapter 1: The Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club
The narrator, a fourteen-year-old Spokane Indian born with a birth defect that left him with a variety of physical disabilities, introduces himself as an individual who has had to overcome challenges from the the first day of his life. In addition to speech impediments and a proneness to seizures, the narrator suffered with ten extra teeth and impaired vision. Indian Health Service was supposed to help with these issues, but under its rules, major dental work was funded only once a year, and all ten teeth had to be removed at once with minimal anesthesia, since the white dentist believed that Indians “only felt half as much pain as white people did.”
As for eyeglasses, the narrator was able to get only “ugly, thick, black plastic ones,” which make him look “all lopsided.” Because of his physical deficiencies, the narrator is the object of much ridicule and bullying on the reservation where he lives, so he spends most of his free time hanging out alone in his room, reading books and drawing cartoons. He likes cartooning because “when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it” and because he feels that developing this talent “might be [his] only real chance to escape the reservation.”
Chapter 2: Why Chicken Means So Much to Me
Poverty characterizes the existence of the narrator, who is called “Junior” by the people on the “rez.” Hunger, though it is a reality, is not the worst part of being poor; the worst part is not having enough money to take his beloved dog Oscar to the vet when he gets sick. Junior describes his impotent rage when his father gets his rifle and puts Oscar out of his misery because, in contrast to veterinary care, “a bullet only costs about two cents.” Junior realizes, though, that he cannot blame his parents for their situation; he understands that they too once had dreams but never had the chance to be anything because reservation Indians do not get a chance to realize their dreams. They are “just poor” and have been poor so long that they believe they deserve nothing better.
Chapter 3: Revenge Is My Middle Name
Depressed and angry about the death of Oscar, Junior turns to his “best human friend,” Rowdy, “the toughest kid on the rez.” Although Junior’s parents are “a drunk and a former drunk” who sometimes ignore or yell at him, Rowdy’s father “drink(s) hard and throw(s) hard punches,” and Rowdy and his mother frequently sport “bruised and bloody faces” because of his abuse. As a result, Rowdy, who has protected Junior since the day they were born, spends a lot of time at Junior’s house.
On Labor Day weekend, Rowdy convinces Junior to accompany him to the annual powwow celebration, and Junior runs into the Andruss brothers, who beat him up. When Rowdy discovers what has happened, he exacts revenge on Junior’s behalf, waiting until the brothers are in a drunken sleep in their tent and sneaking in to shave their eyebrows and cut off their braids. Junior loves that Rowdy sticks up for him, but he also loves the sweeter side of Rowdy that no one else knows about. Rowdy likes comic books and is “a big, goofy dreamer, too,” just like Junior.
Chapter 4: Because Geometry Is Not a Country Somewhere Near France
Junior is excited about learning when he starts high school, unlike his sister, who “just froze” after she graduated and spends her days in the basement, doing nothing. Rowdy and Junior plan to go out for basketball together, even though Rowdy is a great player while Junior...
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is only mediocre. Junior is a little worried that Rowdy will start to hang out with the older boys and leave him behind, but on the whole, he is more excited than scared about high school and is especially looking forward to taking geometry.
The geometry teacher at Wellpinit High School is Mr. P, a forgetful, “weird-looking dude” whom students generally like because “he doesn’t ask too much of (them).” When Mr. P passes out geometry books on the first day of school, Junior opens his up and is shocked to see his own mother’s name written on the inside front cover. Realizing that the reservation school is still giving students the same books their parents studied from, Junior is overcome with rage and humiliation and hurls the book away from him, smashing his teacher in the face.
Chapter 5: Hope Against Hope
Junior’s act of rage earns him a suspension. As he sits on his front porch about a week later, Mr. P walks up the driveway and asks if he can join him. Mr. P tells Junior that hitting him with the book was “probably the worst thing [he’s] ever done” but says he forgives him. The teacher goes on to explain that when he first came to the reservation, he was given the objective of making the Indian children give up their culture. He confesses that he “hurt a lot of Indian kids when [he] was a young teacher” and apologizes to Junior, saying that it “was a different time . . . it was wrong . . . [he] was young and stupid and full of ideas,” much like Junior himself.
Mr. P then says that he taught Junior’s sister, Mary, too and that she was “the smartest kid [he] ever had.” Mr. P tells Junior that his sister liked Indian romance novels and wanted to be a writer but kept her work hidden because she was afraid people would make fun of her. Mr. P remembers Mary as “a bright and shining star” whose luster “faded year by year until you could barely see her any more.” He calls Junior “a bright and shining star, too,” the smartest kid in the school, and says that he deserves so much better than what the reservation offers. Mr. P tells Junior that he must get away from the reservation, because the only thing he is being taught there is to give up. Junior is unique because he still harbors a rare and precious element of hope, but in order to keep it, he needs to go where other people have hope too, far away from the reservation.
Chapter 6: Go Means Go
Junior tells his parents that he wants to transfer to Reardan, a high school in a rich, white farm town twenty-two miles away from the reservation. Reardan is one of the best small schools in the state, and the kids there are “the smartest and most athletic kids anywhere.” Knowing instinctively that if he does not act now, he never will, Junior insists that he wants to go immediately, and his parents support him because, despite their own deficiencies, they genuinely want better lives for their children.
Chapter 7: Rowdy Sings the Blues
When Junior tells Rowdy he is going to transfer to Reardan and asks him to come too, Rowdy utters a scream of “pure pain.” Rowdy “absolutely hate[s]” all the good things the kids at Reardan represent, because he has given up hoping for anything better for himself. When Junior reaches out to touch his friend, Rowdy punches him in the face.
Chapters 1–7 Analysis
The tone of the story is established immediately by the humorous, self-deprecating narration of the central character. Hamstrung by his race and myriad physical challenges, Junior is an outcast among outcasts, a denizen of “the poor-ass Spokane Indian Reservation” who is ostracized even by his peers. Despite his challenges, Junior somehow manages to remain resilient and optimistic, maintaining the belief that one day he “might grow up to be somebody important.”
Because he is an insider to the life he describes, Junior’s account is eminently authentic. Junior refuses to romanticize the experience of the reservation Indians, outlining succinctly the destructive and self-perpetuating cycle of oppression, poverty, and lack of self-esteem in which they are mired from birth and through generations. Junior is uncompromising in his observation that “poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance . . . poverty only teaches you to be poor,” and he palpably communicates his father’s resigned powerlessness and his own rage with the heartrending account of the death of his beloved dog Oscar.
Racism is a central aspect of his tribe’s woeful situation, as Junior describes the callousness of the white dentist who reduces his Indian patients to less-than-human status in his belief that they do not feel the same pain as their white counterparts and Mr. P’s open admission that he and his contemporaries were blatantly taught to make Indian children “give up being Indian.” Junior does not demonize individuals by virtue of their classification as members of the oppressive social element, however; he portrays Mr. P as part of the system that keeps the Indians in their downtrodden state but acknowledges in him an element of redemption as well. Although he has come to an understanding of the harm he has done, Mr. P remains defeated, but he does proclaim the truth, and in insisting that Junior recognize his own worth, he serves as the impetus that enables Junior to take the first step in escaping a future devoid of hope.
Junior is notable for his ability to find that which is good and noble in others. When his father shoots his dog Oscar, Junior wants to hate his parents but is unable to do so because he recognizes that they too are victims of a society that devalues their existence. Though he is mystified by his sister Mary’s inertia following her high school graduation, Junior perceives that she is “beautiful and strong and funny,” even before Mr. P gives him the insight that helps him understand her behavior.
Nowhere is Junior’s capacity for seeing the positives in people more evident than in his relationship with his best friend Rowdy. Regularly abused by his father and infamous for his own belligerent nature, Rowdy fights everybody and everything. Junior, however, sees a different aspect of his friend, a side that laughs and loves cartoons, and shares with him the characteristic of being “a big, goofy dreamer,” making it all the more poignant when Rowdy, unable to handle the news that Junior is in effect leaving him and the reservation, punches his best friend in the face.