Junior decides that the biggest difference between Indians and white people is the number of deaths they experience; he’s been to forty-two funerals in his short life, while none of his white friends have been to more than five. He also disagrees with the Tolstoy quote he gets from Gordy about unhappy families, since “all Indian families are unhappy for the same exact reason: the fricking booze.”
The widespread poverty and alcoholism in Junior’s tribe means he has a much more personal understanding of death, loss, and sorrow than his white friends do, and in this way has been forced to grow up much more quickly. Just as he rejects the idea that poverty can teach you strength, Junior rejects the idea that there’s anything special or romantic about unhappiness. It de-individualizes and dehumanizes people just as poverty does.
Junior’s bitterness comes from the news he has just heard: one morning, Reardan’s guidance counselor, Miss Warren, comes to pull him out of class. When he asks what’s going on, she starts crying and pulls Junior into a hug, which gives him an embarrassing erection just before she tells him that his sister Mary has died.
Junior calls attention to his own control of the narrative in the way he points out his own bitterness and then explains where it comes from. His erection is another example of incongruous humor that makes a tragic scene more complicated, and thus more realistic and affecting.
With no experience counseling a student whose sibling has died, Miss Warren doesn’t know what to say to Junior and asks him to wait in her office for his father. Junior runs outside away from her, into the snow. As he waits, he becomes terrified that his dad will get into a car crash and die too on his way to the school. He is so relieved to see his father arrive that he begins laughing hysterically and can’t stop until they reach the reservation border.
Junior’s strongest feelings are always linked closely to their opposites, like his simultaneous love and hatred for Rowdy. Here, his intense grief that Mary is dead is mingled with intense relief that his father isn’t, and the tragedy of her loss is almost balanced by the joy of Dad’s arrival.
Junior’s dad explains that Mary and her husband had a big party in their trailer and passed out drunk in the back bedroom. While they were asleep, a curtain caught fire on a hot plate that had been left on, burning down the trailer before Mary even woke up.
Like Grandmother and Eugene, Mary dies accidentally, and indirectly because of alcohol abuse. The preventable nature of all of these deaths makes them even more painful for Junior.
Dad tries to comfort Junior by telling him that Mary was too drunk to feel any pain, but Junior finds this thought so far from comforting that he starts laughing again. He laughs so hard that he throws up a little in his mouth and, oddly, spits out a small piece of cantaloupe—a food Mary loved, that Junior never eats. It makes Junior laugh even harder, and he doesn’t stop until he suddenly falls asleep.
Though he often cries about things he feels strongly about, Junior seems to laugh at the moments when he feels the strongest. This might be because he doesn’t want to believe Mary’s death is real or anything more than a cruel joke, or that the laughter is a kind of catharsis and release of tension.
Junior dreams about how, when he was seven, he ate a bunch of cantaloupe at a school picnic and was stung in the face by a wasp that was sucking the cantaloupe juice off his cheek. He wakes up just as the car is pulling up at the house and tells his dad about the dream. Junior’s father remembers how scared the family was: they had to take Junior to the hospital, and Junior thought he was going to die.
Junior falls asleep and begins to dream because reality is too much to handle. His dream, however, is somewhat parallel to reality, both because of the fear of death and because it involves a sweet and happy experience abruptly turned painful—just as Mary’s joyous, hopeful new life was suddenly cut short.
Junior’s dad begins to cry, and can’t stop even though he is trying, Junior guesses, to be strong in front of his son. Junior doesn’t cry; instead, he wipes his father’s tears away. Junior and his dad say “I love you” to each other, something they rarely do.
Seeing Dad cry represents another role reversal for Junior and his father. This time, though—unlike with Dad’s alcoholism—it brings them closer together. It’s an important coming-of-age moment for Junior, since he and his dad approach each other as equals and Dad draws on Junior’s strength.
When Dad and Junior walk inside, the house is full of family. Junior’s mom pulls him into her lap and tells him never to leave her. Then she slaps him, making him promise never to drink. After that, she holds on to him for hours, crying, until all the cousins leave and Junior’s dad goes into his bedroom. Junior hopes to fall asleep again, thinking “any nightmare would be better than my reality,” but his mother falls asleep first.
Junior’s mom also sees alcohol as the cause of Mary’s death. Junior has often drawn a distinction between his hopeful dreams for the future and his grim reality, and now he hopes for literal dreams as a means of escape—a dynamic that in some ways recalls an addict turning to drugs or alcohol.
Mary’s funeral is held two days later. Junior feels like he is living in a fog—or, more accurately, a tiny, freezing room with greasy glass walls that he can’t see through—until the sighing sound of the coffin being lowered into the ground makes Junior panic and run into the woods.
Grief and loss continue to make Junior feel like he is living in an unreal, horrifying place. Dreams and loss seem to be directly connected—as when Junior’s desire to leave the reservation caused the loss of his tribe and his home, while losing loved ones causes nightmares and nightmarish sensations for him.
He runs straight into Rowdy, who has been hiding there to watch the burial, sending both of them sprawling. As they sit up, Junior realizes that for the first time in their friendship, Rowdy is crying, but Junior is not. When Junior comments on it, Rowdy tries to punch him and misses, which makes Junior laugh again and makes Rowdy cry harder.
This role reversal suggests that Junior and Rowdy, after being separated from each other and from the roles they always used to play, have actually grown as people, or at least learned to express different parts of their personalities.
Junior can’t stop laughing even though he wants to, and realizes that Rowdy thinks he is laughing at him. He does stop, though, when Rowdy accuses him of killing Mary: she is dead because Junior left. As Junior realizes that he might be right—Mary wouldn’t even have left the rez if Junior hadn’t done it first—Rowdy screams that he hates him and runs away, another thing Junior has never seen him do. Junior wonders if he will ever see Rowdy again.
Rowdy’s accusation brings the connection between dreams and loss full circle—Mary’s death is an indirect result of Junior pursuing his dreams. For Junior, who believes that the universe will take revenge on him if he’s done something wrong, this could easily be enough to convince him he never should have left the reservation.
The next day, Junior can’t bear to stay in his house, where he won’t be able to stop thinking that he killed his sister and where his extended family will commemorate Mary’s life by getting “drunk and unhappy.” He would like to be there for a sober ceremony, but knows that once again everyone will be “drunk and unhappy in the same exact way.”
Junior’s strong reaction against the traditional ways of mourning Mary’s death—besides being another example of his disapproval for alcohol abuse—shows that he’s already become somewhat separate from reservation culture. Before he went to Reardan, he might not have liked the drunken wake, but he wouldn’t have felt he had any other options but to attend.
Instead, Junior goes to school, where his white friends, including Penelope, offer their concern and sympathy. He is surprised, and touched, to find that he matters to them now, just as they matter to him. Still, he has no idea “what … you say to people when they ask you how it feels to lose everything.”
The fact that Junior willingly turns to his white classmates for comfort, and that they willingly offer it, shows that both he and they finally consider him a full member of the community. It’s a hopeful moment that emerges from a time of terrible loss.