One thing Junior’s cartoons can’t do, however, is alleviate his family’s poverty. For all his talent, Junior is “really just a poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spokane Indian Reservation.”
Coming immediately after the poetic language about lifeboats, Junior’s harsh description of reality emphasizes the contrast between dreams and the real world—and the limitations of dreams—that he will bring up again and again throughout the novel. This pessimistic outlook and dismissive self-description reflects Junior’s state of mind at the start of the novel.
Junior makes it clear that hunger isn’t the worst thing about being poor. Even if his family sometimes goes hungry, he always trusts that his parents will eventually bring home a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Junior’s faith in his parents illustrates his love and trust in them, and also shows the family’s resilience. This passage also begins the novel’s definition of poverty, which hurts people not only with day-to-day physical hardships, but also by limiting and demeaning them as humans.
In fact, the worst thing about being poor is what happened when his “best friend Oscar”—the family dog—got sick. To Junior, Oscar was the only living thing he could depend on—more dependable than any of his family members.
The fact that Junior feels Oscar is more dependable than his family members hints at issues like his dad’s alcoholism. It also presents Junior as feeling alone in the world.
However, when Junior asks his mom to take Oscar to the vet, she tells him they can’t afford the hundreds of dollars it would cost. Junior is furious at the situation and the fact that there is nothing he can do, but he knows that he can’t blame his parents. Their family, like the other Indian families on the rez, has always been poor, “all the way back to the very first poor people.”
For Junior, the worst thing about being poor is being powerless—particularly being powerless to care for the people (and animals) you love. Because of this, poverty is also cyclical, as poor parents can’t do much to help their kids achieve their dreams. And, for Junior, poverty is also part of what it means to be Indian.
Junior describes what his parents might have been able to do “if someone had paid attention to their dreams.” His mom would have gone to college, and his dad would have been a musician. He includes a cartoon of his parents’ ideal selves, with his mother as “Spokane Falls Community College Teacher of the Year 1992-98” and his father as “The Fifth-Best Jazz Sax Player West of the Mississippi.”
Again, Junior draws—literally—a contrast between dreams and reality. Making cartoons of his parents’ ideal selves is his way of “paying attention” to the dreams that poverty barred them from in real life. The titles he gives them aren’t wild fantasies, but achievable goals, which adds credibility to the idea that his parents have unfairly missed out and been held back.
However, because of poverty, reservation Indians don’t get the chance to realize their dreams or any choice about who they can become. Junior describes how the cycle of poverty makes people feel that they deserve to be poor and are destined to be so. The only lesson you can learn from poverty, he says, is how to be poor and how to be defeated.
Although strength and resilience are indeed part of Junior’s character, he pushes back against the naive idea that poverty teaches life lessons like how to be strong. He begins to explain the widespread culture of defeat that will eventually make it necessary for him to leave the reservation.
Junior feels this sense of defeat when he says goodbye to Oscar, before his dad shoots the dog to put him out of his misery. After all, Junior notes, “A bullet only costs about two cents, and anybody can afford that.”
Oscar’s death is a moment of “coming of age” for Junior. He loses innocence in realizing that there are things his parents can’t fix, and feels the full impact of poverty for the first time in the loss of a friend. His comment about the cost of a bullet implies that when poverty cuts off hopes, dreams, and caring, violence and death may be the only options left.