Chapter 20: Reindeer Games
Convinced that he is not a good enough player, Junior almost does not try out for the Reardan basketball team, but his father encourages him to “dream big.” There are forty boys trying out, and as there is no budget for a C squad this year, sixteen of the hopefuls will have to be cut.
Coach is a decent guy and tells the boys that they are to play with dignity and respect and that they will be treated with dignity and respect, no matter what happens. He then begins the first drill, which is to run a hundred laps around the gym, and before it is over, four boys drop out of their own accord. The players are then instructed to play full-court one-on-one. Junior is paired with Roger, who, as a senior, is much larger and is a star player. Junior takes a beating, but refuses to quit and impresses Coach with his tenacity and skillful shooting. Roger and Junior play hard, and Junior ends up making varsity; Coach says he is “the best shooter who’d ever played for him.”
Ironically, Reardan’s first game is against Wellpinit High, the school Junior was supposed to have attended on the rez. When the team arrives at the gym, the reservation basketball fans are chanting, “Ar-nold sucks! Ar-nold sucks!” Junior notes immediately that they are calling him by his Reardan name instead of his rez name and feels intimidated until he sees his parents and grandma at the door. Even though Coach tells Junior he does not have to play this one, Junior is determined and inspired by his family, who are there “ready to walk through the crap with [him].” When Junior enters the gym, the fans fall silent, and, as one, turn their backs on him. Junior and his team are impressed with this pre-orchestrated display of contempt. Junior is at first angry; then, reflecting that “if these dang Indians had been this organized when [he] went to school here, maybe [he] would have had more reasons to stay,” he begins to laugh, and Coach and his teammates laugh with him. Besides his family, the only Indian who has not turned his back on Junior is Rowdy, who stands glaring at the opposite end of the court, challenging Junior face-to-face.
Halfway through the first quarter, Coach sends Junior in to play, and immediately, someone in the crowd throws a quarter at him, hitting him in the forehead and drawing blood. Furious, Junior is forced to return to the locker room, where Eugene, who had been a basketball legend in his own time and now works as an emergency medical technician, offers to drive him to Spokane to get stitched up. Resolutely focused on getting into the game, Junior convinces Eugene to stitch him up right there, and in the third quarter, Coach puts Junior in to play once again. Junior steals a pass, drives for a layup, and is knocked unconscious by a hard smash from Rowdy. A melee ensues, and the referees, terrified of the crowd, penalize Reardan. Wellpinit wins the game by thirty points, and Junior ends up in the hospital with a concussion. Coach visits Junior in the hospital after the game and stays to keep him company; the two share stories until dawn.
Chapter 21: And a Partridge in a Pear Tree
On Christmas, Junior’s dad, depressed that he cannot afford presents for the family, takes what little money they do have and gets drunk. He returns after the first of the year and gives Junior “a wrinkled and damp five dollar bill” he has saved just for him. Junior, angry...
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at his father for abandoning the family during the holidays but knowing how much he must have wanted to spend the money, swallows his bitterness, seeing in the gift “a beautiful and ugly thing.”
Chapter 22: Red Versus White
In comparing life at Wellpinit to Reardan, Junior concludes that although it is “slightly better to live in Reardan than Wellpinit, there are good and bad aspects to both.” Despite the poverty and lack of opportunity on the reservation, the people whom Junior loves most have their roots there. Junior’s sister, parents, and grandma are from the reservation, and Junior realizes that, in spite of their shortcomings, his “folks are pretty good.” They listen to him and make sacrifices for him, and, in contrast, even in Reardan, there are “plenty of . . . kids who get ignored by their parents.” Indians are “really close to each other,” while in Reardan, people tend to remain strangers.
Junior reflects that “the very best thing” about Wellpinit is his grandmother. Known in particular for her tolerance for all people, she loves everyone, and everyone loves her. One night, while walking home from the Community Center, she is struck by a drunk driver. Before she dies, she expresses her wish that the Indian alcoholic who hit her be forgiven. Junior is devastated by his grandmother’s death and notes the irony that this revered matriarch, killed by a drunk driver, had never drunk alcohol in her life, making her “the rarest kind of Indian in the world.”
Chapter 23: Wake
Almost two thousand Indians show up for Junior’s grandmother’s wake, and the harassment Junior had been enduring because of his defection over to Reardan ceases from that day on. An odd visitor to Junior’s grandmother’s wake is “a rich and famous billionaire white dude” who claims to be in possession of an old powwow dance outfit belonging to the deceased. When Junior’s mother exposes him as a fraud, the whole tribe begins to laugh in unison, and Junior understands that “when it comes to death . . . laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing.”
Chapter 24: Valentine Heart
On Valentine’s Day, Junior gives Penelope a homemade card but receives nothing in return. A few days later, Junior’s dad’s best friend Eugene, “way drunk,” is shot and killed by one of his good friends, Bobby, who is himself “too drunk to even remember pulling the trigger.” In jail, Bobby hangs himself; Junior’s father goes on a drinking binge, and his mother goes to church “every single day.” Reeling from the tragedies in his life, Junior is joyless and furious at God. Believing that by leaving the tribe, he has somehow cursed his family and is responsible for all the deaths around him, he considers dropping out of Reardan but does not have the energy to make the move.
Junior returns to school after missing fifteen or twenty days and is sitting in his social studies class when the teacher, Mrs. Jeremy, makes a sarcastic comment about his absences. Too broken to even react, Junior sits there, mute, when Gordy comes to his defense, rising and loudly dropping his textbook to the floor in protest, and walking out of the classroom. Roger, Penelope, and eventually all the other students follow suit, and in their fervor, inadvertently leave Junior behind. Alone with Mrs. Jeremy, Junior begins to laugh, and when asked why he is laughing, he responds,
I used to think the world was broken down by tribes . . . black and white . . . Indian and white . . . but [now] I know . . . the world is only broken into two tribes . . . people who are assholes and . . . people who are not.
Having regained a sense of hope and “a little bit of joy,” Junior walks out of the classroom. He continues to search for “the little pieces of joy in [his] life” and manages to make it through that period of death and change. By listing things that bring him happiness and drawing cartoons of things that anger him, Junior creates his own grieving ceremony.
Chapters 20–24 Analysis
The effect of alcohol on the Indian population is excruciatingly evident in the two deaths that occur in Junior’s life during January and February. Junior’s beloved grandmother, “the rarest kind of Indian in the world” because she herself never touched alcohol, is killed by a drunk driver, and Junior’s father’s best friend Eugene is shot by a friend who is so intoxicated that he does not even remember pulling the trigger.
Junior does not equivocate in placing blame for the Indians’ destructive dependence on alcohol squarely on the historically racist policies of the white majority, policies which include de facto imprisonment on the reservations, the perpetuation of poverty, and the purposeful separation of Indian children from their culture. Because of the dearth of opportunity thus created on the reservation, Junior’s mother was never able to realize her dream of becoming a teacher, his father did not reach his potential as a musician, and Eugene, having reputedly never learned to read, could not advance his “legendary” basketball skills at the college level.
Despite the odds stacked against them, however, Junior does not absolve the Indians themselves from culpability for their dire situation; in his eyes, they bear a measure of responsibility as well, especially for “giving up” and allowing themselves to be victimized. It is tremendously difficult for Junior to obey his grandmother’s dying wish and forgive Gerald, “the dumb-ass Spokane Indian alcoholic who ran over her and killed her,” and when Junior finds the courage to leave the reservation for a better chance of success in life, he is chagrined to discover that the tribe resents him for daring to want more than the bleak future that will inevitably be his on the reservation and having the gumption to do something about it.
One of the many ironies in the Indian situation is that arguably the tribe’s greatest weakness is an offshoot of its greatest strength. Indians are known for their sense of community; as Junior says, they “they are screwed up, but [they’re] really close to each other.” Sadly, it is this powerful sense of unity that manifests itself in harassment when Junior leaves the reservation to go to Reardan. As “Gordy the bookworm” had so astutely observed, “weird people,” those who are different, threaten the strength of a tribe. The reservation community is firmly united, but aimless, and the ironic effect of this is that anyone who deviates from the norm by showing ambition and direction is, in effect, anathema.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Junior’s character is his ability to look beyond group identities and perceive people as individuals. Having experienced life on the reservation and at Reardan, he discovers that, in both places, there are people who are good, bad, and somewhere in-between. The Andruss brothers, thirty-year-old men who gang up on and beat up fourteen-year-old kids like Junior, and Rowdy’s dad, who regularly abuses his wife and son, are part of the same reservation that is home to Junior’s mother, father, and grandmother, who sacrifice for him and love him unconditionally. In Reardan, there are bigots like Penelope’s father and Junior’s social studies teacher Mrs. Jeremy, but there are also friends like Gordy, Roger, and Penelope, who stick up for him, and Coach, who preaches about dignity and respect and, as the most positive adult role model he has ever encountered, develops a rapport with Junior that he will treasure forever.