Junior thinks about the beauty of the reservation, particularly the many tall, beautiful pine trees that are hundreds of years old. When he and Rowdy were ten, they climbed one of the tallest—the 150-foot “monster” by Turtle Lake. On that day, Junior remembers, they weren’t afraid of falling, even though they probably should have been and Junior is usually terrified of it.
For most of the novel, Junior’s narration has been fast-paced, sarcastic, and focused on action, and so this quiet moment of introspection is a significant shift in tone. It freezes the present-day narrative in place and leaps back into the past—a psychologically appropriate move, given that Junior is now preparing to leave that past behind. Junior’s memory also involves some parallels to his current situation, as the tree then, like adulthood now, was a seemingly insurmountable challenge that he wasn’t afraid to face.
That July, when Junior is ten, it is “crazy hot and dry,” and he and Rowdy spend a lot of time hanging out in the basement. They talk about what they would do if they were rich and famous and had air conditioning, and Junior tries to build up Rowdy’s confidence about the possibility of a pro basketball career, since “Rowdy didn’t believe in himself.” One day, they decide to go swimming in Turtle Lake, a volcanic crater so deep that no one has ever been to the bottom even in a submarine.
This flashback reveals that Junior was a much more supportive friend to Rowdy than Rowdy has been to him, but it also illustrates the private discussions of dreams that Junior had identified as a hallmark of their friendship. It speaks to the boys’ poverty (and thus to the obstacles against their dreams) that they imagine air conditioning, something many people take for granted, as the height of luxury.
Junior is afraid of the lake, not only because of its depth but also because of the legends surrounding it, such as the story of Stupid Horse. According to Junior’s dad, the horse (so named because it was so stupid) drowned in the lake one day, disappeared, and washed up a few weeks later on the shores of another lake, ten miles away. The body was burned, but a few weeks after that, Turtle Lake suddenly caught on fire—and the body of Stupid Horse appeared on the shore again, unburned. Junior doesn’t think anyone should swim in Turtle Lake after that, but “people forget. They forget good things and they forget bad things. They forget that lakes can catch on fire.”
The story of Stupid Horse is an odd, isolated episode, yet it also works as an important metaphor. The horse, like Junior, is incredibly persistent: it keeps coming back no matter what is done to obliterate it (and it’s in keeping with the novel’s sense of humor that this hopeful message is delivered by such a silly figure as Stupid Horse). As for the forgetfulness Junior rants about, he’s complained elsewhere in the novel about a lack of cultural memory—like Indians’ willingness to stay on reservations despite the fact that reservations were created as death camps—but in this case there’s a hopeful, redemptive element to the forgetting as well. The lake, like the horse, can always start over again, no matter what.
Since Junior doesn’t want to tell Rowdy he’s scared, they walk the five miles from Junior’s house to Turtle Lake. When Junior admires the monster tree, Rowdy suggests that they climb it—which, according to the rules of their friendship, means they must.
This is an example of Rowdy being a positive influence, and pushing Junior to face his fears and leave his comfort zone. In fact, the bravery that enables Junior to leave the reservation probably has a lot to do with what he’s learned from Rowdy, though neither of the boys would know it.
They make it to a spot within ten feet of the top, from which they see the whole reservation—their entire world. In Junior’s words, “our entire world, at that moment, was green and golden and perfect.” Even Rowdy says it’s pretty—the only time Junior’s heard him talk like that. Junior thinks they could stay up there until they died, but after a while Rowdy breaks the spell by farting, and they climb back down.
The moment Junior and Rowdy share in the tree is a moment outside of time. In reaching the top, they’ve just achieved a big dream of theirs, and for a while they don’t need to worry about having to grow up or what the future might bring for each of them.
Looking back, Junior can hardly believe that he and Rowdy climbed that tree. He then says that he also can hardly believe that he survived his first year at Reardan.
Junior draws a clear analogy between climbing the tree and going to Reardan. Both were risky, frightening challenges that he hardly dared dream of completing, but he ultimately succeeded at both.
Junior spends the first part of summer reading comics and missing his white friends—Penelope, whom he’s written three love letters although she hasn’t written one in return yet; Gordy, who wants to come to the rez and stay with Junior for a week or two; and Roger, who has willed Junior his basketball uniform and told him he’s going to be a star.
Though they’re now Junior’s friends, the white kids retain many of their associations with hope, as Roger has an eye toward Junior’s future as a star, and Penelope remains unattainable. Junior’s friendship with Gordy, though, is more of an equal give-and-take. Having welcomed Junior into his world of books, Gordy now wants to see Junior’s world too.
One day, Junior hears a knock on his front door, and Rowdy walks in, saying that he still hates Junior, but he’s bored and wants to play some basketball. Junior considers trying to make Rowdy apologize for the way he’s acted, but decides that he is never going to change.
After all the changes Junior has gone through in the past year, it’s surprising to hear him dismiss the possibility that Rowdy could ever change. On the other hand, though, his choice to forgive Rowdy after their long battle for revenge shows he still deeply cares about his friend.
After they shoot hoops for a while without talking, Rowdy suggests they play one-on-one. Rowdy adds that Junior has never beaten him in one-on-one, but Junior tells him that’s going to change someday.
This exchange between Rowdy and Junior recalls their exchange on the basketball court—Rowdy reminds Junior of the past and how their relationship has always been, and Junior reminds him of the future and how people can change.
Rowdy passes Junior the ball, and before he begins to play, Junior asks Rowdy once again to come to Reardan with him, stating that a lot has changed since the last time he asked. Rowdy looks like he’s going to cry, but says instead that he was reading a book about how Indians used to be nomadic. He doesn’t think Indians are nomadic anymore—except for Junior, who he always knew was going to leave.
Junior and Rowdy finally address the fight they’ve been having throughout the novel, and Rowdy acknowledges that he’s come to terms with Junior’s decision to leave. The moment is bittersweet, however, since Rowdy makes clear that he believes he and Junior are destined for different things.
Rowdy says he had a dream about Junior a few months before. Junior was standing on the Great Wall of China, looking happy, and Rowdy was happy for him. He tells Junior, “You’re an old-time nomad … You’re going to keep moving all over the world in search of food and water and grazing land. That’s pretty cool.”
Comparing Junior to an “old-time nomad” puts Junior’s guilt and fears about being labeled a “white-lover” to rest. Rowdy is suggesting there is something essentially “Indian” about the desire to seek a better life, and that Junior embodies that. Rowdy’s literal dream about Junior traveling far away to fulfill his metaphorical dreams shows how deeply the boys still identify with and care about each other, even though (as the image of the wall suggests) they are growing apart as they grow up.
Hearing Rowdy say that he is happy for him makes Junior begin to cry. He feels he will always love and miss Rowdy, just as he will always miss his grandmother, Mary, Eugene, his reservation, and his tribe. He hopes and prays that they will one day forgive him for leaving them—and that he will one day be able to forgive himself.
Interestingly, Junior includes Rowdy (and his entire tribe) on a list of his dead loved ones, as if his separation from them after he leaves will be just as complete. His caveat that he hopes he’ll forgive himself points out an important element of forgiveness that hasn’t been discussed before now: that it’s just as important, and often harder, to forgive yourself than for others to forgive you. Arguably, Junior’s confessional “diary,” which explains everything he’s done to an unknown audience, is his way of understanding and accepting his choice to leave.
When Rowdy tells Junior to stop crying, Junior asks if they will still know each other when they are old. Rowdy responds, “Who knows anything?” and throws him the ball. They play one-on-one for hours, until dark, without keeping score.
This game of one-on-one with Rowdy, like the moment the two share in the tree, is a moment outside of time. The fact that they don’t keep score adds to this—not only are they no longer out for revenge or “settling the score,” but they also aren’t keeping track of the time that’s passed or the choices they’ve made, both of which would be represented by keeping score. Instead, the only thing that matters about the game is the fact that they’re playing it together.