Over the next few weeks in Reardan, Junior endures what he describes as “the loneliest time of my life,” during which he begins to feel like “the opposite of human.” He describes how each day when he leaves the reservation, he becomes “something less than Indian” on the way to Reardan, and then “something less than less than less than Indian” once he arrives—a characteristically extreme statement that shows how deeply being ignored by the white kids affects him.
Junior’s sense of alienation eats away at his identity. If others don’t recognize him as one of them, he feels, then he might as well not exist at all. He’s made it clear that the extreme poverty on the rez is dehumanizing, but isolation is dehumanizing too. Right now it seems like leaving the reservation—and giving up a sense of community in the process—might not have been worth it for Junior.
However, during this time he does learn that he’s smart—smarter than most of the kids in his classes. Once, he is able to correct the geology teacher, Mr. Dodge, with an explanation of how petrified wood is formed. Rather than the wood transforming into rock, as Mr. Dodge says, Junior states that rock replaces the wood, with minerals keeping the shape of the tree as it disintegrates.
Junior’s description of the petrified wood is symbolic of his situation, because he feels that the core elements of who he is are being stripped away. Mr. Dodge’s explanation, in contrast, presents a more optimistic but overly simplified view of transformation. Wood can’t just turn into rock, just as Junior can’t simply turn into a white kid.
Furious at being contradicted, Mr. Dodge belittles Junior’s education from the rez, and calls on Gordy, the “class genius,” to explain the truth. When Gordy confirms that Junior’s explanation is correct, Mr. Dodge thanks Gordy instead of Junior for sharing the fact. Junior shrinks back in his chair and remembers “when I used to be a human being … when people used to think my brain was useful.”
Here Mr. Dodge displays a not-so-subtle form of racism, which hurts Junior deeply. Junior’s idea of being human—that is, afforded full dignity and respect—includes being “useful”—valued for playing a role (such as “class genius”) in the community. At the very least Junior wants to be recognized as existing.
Junior tries to thank Gordy for standing up for him, but Gordy just says that he did it for science. Feeling snubbed, Junior compares himself to a piece of petrified wood, waiting “for the rocks to replace my bones and blood.”
The fact that Gordy chooses to protect an abstract concept instead of relating to Junior on personal terms doesn’t help Junior’s sense of being less than human. This moment adds another element to the symbolism of petrified wood: not only has a change taken place, but the parts of the wood that once were growing and living are being replaced by cold, dead rock.
Junior takes the bus to the edge of the reservation and hitchhikes home. As he explains in a self-contained cartoon, getting to and from school—twenty-two miles away—is a frequent struggle for him, since his parents often don’t have gas money or the car isn’t running. He is usually able to catch a ride home, but sometimes has to walk.
Junior’s struggle to get to school is one example of how his poverty causes difficulties that his wealthier white classmates don’t even have to think about.
When he gets home on this day, Junior learns that his sister Mary has married a Flathead Indian and moved to Montana without saying goodbye to anyone. His mom and dad are “absolutely freaked”: they feel that they have now lost two kids to the outside world. Junior is equally surprised—what she’s done, he notes, sounds like something out of a romance novel—but recognizes that his act of bravery in leaving the reservation must have shamed and inspired his sister.
In Mary’s marriage there is an intriguing overlap between dreams, art, and reality, as she’s actually living out a storyline from one of the books she dreamed of writing. This could work to disprove Junior’s belief in the strict divide between reality and dreams. It’s also a very hopeful moment, since it shows that Junior’s choice to leave the reservation can inspire others to do the same—although, as Junior’s parents’ reaction shows, the act of leaving still represents a loss.
Feeling shamed and inspired in turn by Mary’s dramatic act, Junior decides to face up to a confrontation and asks Gordy to be his friend. In their initial conversation, both Gordy and Junior annoy each other—Gordy is impatient and critiques Junior’s language, Junior is frustrated by Gordy’s superior attitude, and Gordy thinks Junior is asking him out rather than simply asking for friendship. However, when Junior points out that they have a lot in common, Gordy also recognizes that both of them are weird, and so the two begin studying together.
Again, “multiplying hope by hope” has positive effects. Mary’s brave and hopeful act inspires Junior to attempt another one. The degree to which Junior and Gordy annoy each other while establishing a friendship is what makes their conversation funny, but it also shows the depth of their characters, and demonstrates—like Junior’s other friendships with Rowdy and Penelope—that very different people can still have a lot in common.
Gordy teaches Junior how to read books: first for the story; then for the words, taking every one seriously; and finally “because really good books and cartoons give you a boner,” or inspire joy. Junior decides to approach not only books, but also the rest of the world with this attitude of curiosity, joy, and respect.
This realization brings Junior closer to achieving his dreams, not only by making him a more dedicated student, but also by helping to break down the divide between the wonderful things he reads about and hopes for and what he sees as being possible in reality.