To make clear that he hasn’t fallen in love with white people and still sees good in Indians, Junior compares his family to the families of his white classmates. He loves Mary and his mom and dad and grandmother. In spite of their flaws, he believes his mom and dad are good parents because they make sacrifices for him, care about him, talk to him, and listen to him—whereas many of his white classmates’ fathers ignore them.
Junior’s conscientiousness about representing whites and Indians fairly shows how his understanding of the world has broadened. Not only does he recognize that his different communities have their pros and cons, he also is beginning to see himself as a full member to both of them, with an insider’s understanding.
Another big difference between Wellpinit and Reardan is that on the reservation everyone knows and cares about each other, while in Reardan people can be strangers to each other even though it’s a very small town. Junior is realistic about the drawbacks of both towns, but believes after careful thought that it’s still better to live in Reardan than in Wellpinit.
Junior considers the complex pros and cons of both Wellpinit and Reardan, and decides that the close-knit tribal community doesn’t quite make up for the economic and social disadvantages Wellpinit has compared to Reardan. It’s important to Junior that this selection of where it’s “better” to live is based on reason, not emotion. Despite his conflicted feelings about leaving the reservation, the practical realities seem to make it a necessity.
Junior thinks the best thing about Reardan is Penelope—as well as Gordy, maybe—and the best thing about Wellpinit was his grandmother. He thinks his grandmother’s greatest gift was her tolerance, an “old-time Indian spirit” of forgiving and celebrating people’s differences that has been lost “since white people showed up and brought along their Christianity and fears of eccentricity.”
While Grandmother embodies the Indian spirit of tolerance, Penelope and Gordy also represent tolerance for Junior: Penelope because she doesn’t care that Junior is poor, and Gordy because he accepts and appreciates Junior’s weirdness. Thus, to Junior, the best aspect of any community is the people who are willing to open that community to others. In stating that Indians lost their tolerance because of whites, he also points out a “contagious” aspect of prejudice that’s similar to the self-perpetuating tendencies of poverty and alcoholism noted elsewhere in the novel.
Grandmother was always open-minded, loved meeting new people, and was famous at powwows simply for being loved by everyone she met—and, as Junior abruptly reveals, she was killed shortly after the holidays when she was hit by a drunk driver while walking home from a powwow.
The long lead-up to Grandmother’s death—including a detailed description of her most lovable qualities—makes the abrupt revelation especially surprising and affecting, and underscores the suddenness and randomness of her death.
The surgeon who works on Grandmother when she is brought to the emergency room tells Junior’s family that her last words were “Forgive him,” referring to Gerald, the drunk driver who hit her with his car. When the cops find Gerald, Junior’s family feels ready to kill him, but they honor his grandmother’s wishes and let Gerald be sentenced to prison. Gerald serves eighteen months, and moves to a reservation in California when he gets out.
Grandmother’s last words have a powerful impact. Much as Junior’s family might like to seek revenge, doing so would probably cause additional pain for them and for Gerald’s loved ones. Instead, Gerald is able to leave the rez and start a new life, in which he could potentially sober up and do something to atone for the accident. It’s like Mr. P forgiving Junior for throwing the book, but on a much larger scale.
To Junior, the fact that his grandmother was killed by a drunk driver is especially ironic because although many Indians die because of alcohol, she never drank alcohol in her life, which makes her, according to Junior, “the rarest kind of Indian in the world.” She used to explain that she didn’t want to be in the world “if I couldn’t touch the world with all of my senses intact.”
The manner of Grandmother’s death reflects that alcohol abuse doesn’t just affect alcoholics—it can also hurt innocent bystanders. Meanwhile, Grandmother’s philosophy of life is reminiscent of Gordy’s (and Junior’s) beliefs about books. They both want to experience things in full detail, whether they’re real or imaginary.