“Family Portrait” is a series of loosely related vignettes that describe the narrator’s childhood and family life. First, he recalls being frightened of the television as a young boy. The second anecdote is surreal; in it, the land outside the family house disappears and the father falls into the void, only reappearing years later.
The narrator describes his sisters licking bits of discarded food off the table, although his parents and sisters claim this never happened. In the following vignette, the narrator compares his epileptic seizures to dancing. One night, the narrator’s mother refuses to let him in the house until he tells her whether he and his siblings will love her when she has died. As the narrator gets older, he sniffs gasoline with his sisters and learns to drive. The narrator’s father tells him about how growing up, he and his friends would often watch a TV in a store window that always played an advertisement with a singing woman. The narrator speculates that the singing woman represents forgiveness. The story concludes as the narrator notes that all humans simply wish to survive.
In “Family Portrait”, Alexie emphasizes the themes of forgiveness and compassion. Much of Alexie’s fiction addresses the question of how Native Americans can overcome centuries of historical injustice and live fulfilling lives despite the obstacles of racism, poverty, and alcoholism. Different stories offer different solutions to this quandary, but here, the narrator’s level-headed attitude toward his difficult upbringing is an example of how individuals can survive difficult situations if they empathize with those around them. The narrator’s insight at the story’s end - that all people share the same goal of survival - shows that while his parents are in many ways responsible for his dark childhood, finding common ground was his key to forgiving them.
“Family Portrait” is structured as a series of short vignettes. Alexie emphasizes thematic continuity rather than narrative continuity. In other words, the vignettes share common themes, like loneliness, alienation, and poverty, but they do not tell a conventional story with a beginning, a middle and an end. This structure allows Alexie to cover the narrator’s entire childhood and adolescence in a short and simple narrative. It also forces the reader to focus on recurring themes and situations rather than the plot. Alexie uses a similar structural device in “Indian Education” and “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation”.
Because the narrator recounts the story’s events as an adult, Alexie also has the opportunity to address the unreliability of memory. For example, the narrator, his sisters, and their parents all have different recollections of the potato-licking incident; the narrator and his brother insist that it happened although his sisters and parents do not remember it. Although one group must surely be wrong, Alexie suggests that the importance of the anecdote lies not in whether it actually happened, but in its significance to the narrator. Likewise, the narrator’s father’s story about the singing woman on TV only becomes symbolic in retrospect. Later in life, the narrator and his father come to believe that the singing woman represented forgiveness. Although they are imbuing the event with significance that it did not have at the time, Alexie presents their interpretation as valid. Memories, he suggests, are important not for their factual truth but for the value they have to the one remembering.