Hope and dreams
Throughout the novel Junior shares his dreams with the readers. In the first chapter, he dreams of becoming a cartoon artist in order to get rich and escape the cycle of poverty and abuse on the reservation. The idea that hope exists off the rez is echoed in later chapters, where Junior finds himself caught between home on the reservation and pursuing his dreams in the outside world. Junior asks his parents, “Who has the most hope?” to which they answer “White people”.[h] The rez is characterized by lack of opportunity and poor education, the solution to which appears to lie in the Western world. Hence, the novel explores the theme of hope and dreams through Junior’s struggles to find a path to break free of his seemingly doomed fate on the reservation.
Junior admits that being a target of bullying due to his appearance and medical history (lisp, seizures, water on the brain). He reveals this information in a way that is both comical as well as sympathetic; he invites readers to share and relate to his experience being bullied. After transferring to Reardan High School, Junior must also deal with being the only poor Native American student in a school full of rich white people, and the pressures of keeping up appearances for fear of losing his peers’ social acceptance.
Junior lives under the constant threat of physical violence. Although he attempts to assuage the threat through his drawings and light-hearted approach to the problem, he is nevertheless subjected to regular beatings by members of the reservation, including the adults. But violence serves as a form of communication in the reservation. Junior believes it is the Indian’s acknowledgement that they are going nowhere that fuels their violence. Thus, like Rowdy, physical violence is also communicative.
The novel uses humorous narratives and comics to convey the theme of race. It explores racial issues such as stereotyping of Native and White people, the use of indigenous culture as sports mascots, interracial friendships, and cultural tokenization. For example, Junior notes that the only other “Indian” at Reardan was its school mascot, calling attention to the ubiquitous use of indigenous symbols in sports (see “List of sports team names and mascots derived from indigenous peoples”). Although Junior often dichotomizes Whites and Indians, Alexie reveals the stereotyping that occurs while still blurring the lines between races. Junior eventually establishes friendship with many of the White Reardan students, who see past race and accept him for his caring nature, his intelligence, and his basketball talents.
Alcohol abuse is an issue salient to the Spokane reservation. It is directly responsible for the character deaths in the novel and the deaths of most of the Indians on the reservation.[i] The novel highlights the destructive nature of alcohol abuse and its major contribution to the stagnation of progression at the reservation and dysfunction of the family. Junior voices his disapproval for its widespread use and considers it to be directly responsible for much of the disarray in his own family.
The portrayal of alcoholism in the novel is representative of the problem Native Americans have with the use of alcohol. Much of Sherman’s desire to explore and address the issue of alcoholism derives from his own experiences with alcohol in the reservation. When asked if he feels the need to address alcoholism as a Native American, he replied "the whole race is filled with alcoholics. For those Indians who try to pretend it's a stereotype, they're in deep, deep denial," and by addressing it that "with the social hope that by writing about it, maybe it'll help people get sober, and it has."
The centerpiece of the novel is the friendship between Junior and Rowdy. In the first chapter, Junior says, "Rowdy might be the most important person in my life. Maybe more important than my family.[j] In the absence of his drunk, emotionally-distant father and eccentric mother, Junior finds solace in Rowdy. But as the novel progresses, Junior begins to make friends at Reardan High and learns just how crucial it is to build new relationships with different people, as they each serve an important role or function in his life.[k]
Writing and literature
Writing and literature play an important role in the lives of Junior, Rowdy, and Mary. Rowdy reads comics as a way to escape from his abusive, dysfunctional home: “He likes to pretend he lives in comic books.”[l] Similarly, Mary reads and writes romance novels in order to escape (and run away) from her reality. In contrast, Junior draws cartoons and writes because it makes him feel important and is his way of communicating with the world. Writing, drawing, and reading are activities that are cathartic to them and also function as coping mechanisms to make the dysfunction, violence, and abuse in their lives bearable.
Oscar is Junior's stray mutt, best friend, and "the only living thing he can depend on."[m] He is euthanized by Junior's father at the beginning of the novel because they are unable to afford to take him to a vet. Oscar is a symbol of the struggles and consequences of being poor. Junior's inability to aid his friend reminds him of his poverty and the poverty he believes he is destined to inherit.[n] However, Oscar's death is also a turning point for Junior as it acts as a catalyst for his change.
In the novel, basketball is a symbol of improvement. Before his arrival to Reardan, Junior was, by his own words, "a decent player."[o] While at Reardan, Junior improves because of the expectations set by his coach and teammates and becomes a valuable asset to the team. By the end of the novel, Junior believes he will be able to best Rowdy someday. The transformation Junior undergoes through the sport is a testament of his will-power and dedication to better himself.