The novel is set in eastern Washington, not far from the city of Spokane. Most of the story takes place on the Spokane Indian Reservation. A smaller portion is set a little more than twenty miles away, at Reardan High School, whose students are mostly from rich, white families. The town of Reardan, Alexie writes, is “filled with farmers and rednecks and racist cops who stop every Indian who drives through.” Indians who do actually dare to drive through are pulled over for “DWI: Driving while Indian.”

No matter where Junior goes in the novel, whether to the reservation or to his new school, he feels uncomfortable, out of place, alienated. The Native American population as a whole feels imprisoned, unable to roam freely across the land as their ancestors once did, so they stagnate within the borders that have been imposed upon them—a constant reminder that they are a conquered people. The white world beyond the borders represents, at least in Junior’s mind, the hope of a better future. But when Junior is integrated into that world, he realizes that it lacks the love, warmth, and personal attention.