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Junior watches Penelope playing volleyball in a white shirt and white shorts, and he can see the outlines of her white bra and white panties. She is milky white, he says. Penelope’s Reardan team is losing to the Davenport Lady Gorillas, and Junior watches Penelope serve. Junior goes home and writes an email to Rowdy saying he’s in love with a white girl. He asks for advice. Rowdy writes back that he’s sick of Indians treating white girls like trophies. He tells Junior to get a life. Then, at school the next day, Junior asks Gordy for advice. Gordy says he needs to do some research first. Gordy finds an article about how there was a lot of news coverage about a white girl named Cynthia who disappeared in Mexico and no news coverage of the hundreds of disappeared Mexican girls in the same area. He concludes Junior is “just a racist asshole like everybody else.”
Junior spends half his time in Wellpinit, half in Reardan. He feels half white and half Indian. He says being an Indian is like his job, but only a part-time job that doesn’t pay well. He lies to the Reardan kids and never lets them know he’s poor. Junior asks Penelope to the Winter Formal. She says yes, but Junior is nervous because he has so little money. Junior can’t drive and has no gas money, so he tells Penelope to meet him at the gym. Junior wears his dad’s old suit, and Penelope loves it. She calls it retroactive. Junior and Penelope dance every dance together, and Junior intentionally avoids getting photos, photos he can’t afford. Junior is glad he hasn’t revealed his poverty, but after the dance Roger and his friends invite Junior and Penelope to the all-night diner. Roger offers to drive, and, after talking to Roger, Earl lets Penelope go.
Junior has $5. At the diner, Junior orders more food for him and Penelope than he can afford. He goes to the bathroom and throws up. Roger finds Junior in the bathroom and says he supposes Junior is sick with love. Junior says yes, but, also, he forgot his wallet. Roger tell him not to worry and lends him $40 on the spot. In the parking lot afterward, Penelope asks Junior if he is poor. Junior confesses. Penelope says that Roger guessed it and reassures Junior that Roger won’t tell anyone. Then, Penelope asks if Junior’s dad will really come pick him up. Junior says no, and Penelope cries at the thought of Junior walking home 22 miles at 3AM in the cold. Penelope tells Roger that Junior has no ride, and Roger takes Junior home.
In the computer lab at school one day, Junior takes a picture of his smiling face and sends it to Rowdy. Rowdy sends back a picture of his bare ass. Gordy sees the picture and asks if it is someone’s “posterior.” Junior says, no, it is a stinky ass. Junior tells Gordy how Rowdy hates him for leaving the rez. He says some Indians think you have to become white to make your life better. If that were true, Gordy says, wouldn’t all white people be successful? He tells Gordy people on the rez call him an apple—red on the outside, white on the inside—and Gordy says that life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community. For example, people avoid him and Junior because they’re weird. Junior wants to hug Gordy, but Gordy tells him not to be sentimental. Even the weird boys, Junior concludes, are afraid of their emotions.
For the first time, Junior is forced to reflect on his own prejudices. Penelope’s white-on-white-on-white volleyball outfit fuses to Junior’s feeling about her racial identity. Junior imagines that Penelope’s whiteness signifies opportunity, happiness, and success—all things that he desires. But, as both Junior’s Indian and white friends point out, Junior’s obsession with Penelope’s whiteness is reductive. More than a white girl, Penelope, too, is a full person—full of ambiguity, contradiction, and her own complex desires. Junior expects to get a harsh email from Rowdy. But when Gordy concludes, in similarly rough language, that Junior is a racist, it opens Junior’s eyes. Junior may be unique, but so is everyone else. Junior is flawed in ways he hasn’t even realized, just like the scores of reporters Gordy mentions who fell into the same trap of treating white girls as if they were more important or valuable than women of color. Junior’s self-realization—his recognition of his flaws—encourages readers to take stock of their own flaws. It forces the readers to consider whether there are ways in which they themselves have been racially biased without realizing it.
Read more about how racism is pervasive in the novel, even among its main characters.
In the “Dance, Dance, Dance” chapter, readers find an explanation of why Junior’s is the diary of a “part-time” Indian. Even though Junior never feels white, he only feels like an Indian some of the time, and, what’s more, being an Indian feels like work. Junior’s joke about part-time pay leads into his story about the Winter Formal. Junior’s poverty, and his feeling that he is poor, has a huge impact on his day-to-day life and takes up a great deal of his time and energy. Not only does Junior’s poverty fill him with anxiety about going to social events in the first place, it makes him feel like he can’t fully participate, or be fully present, at the social events he does attend. The limitations of Junior’s poverty are largely psychological—Penelope, for example, loves the old suit that Junior was mortified to wear—but the emotional and psychological toll of Junior’s poverty is equal to, if not greater than, the physical hardships like hunger that accompany it.
Read more about how Junior’s feelings about race change.
Even though Junior has an incredible time at the dance, he can never fully escape the biting anxiety that he has less money, and the simultaneous fear that he has less to offer as a result. Junior believes that he has kept his poverty a secret from his white friends at Reardan, but even before his confession to Penelope there are subtle hints that Junior might be deceiving himself. It is possible that Penelope is so enthusiastic about Junior’s suit because she knows he is embarrassed about it. Learning to ask for and accept help is another crucial part of Junior’s education. When Junior finally does admit his poverty, his friends respond, not with insults, but with compassion and support. This is a major turning point for Junior in his life at Reardan. Before, Junior felt mostly like a social outcast. Now, he must acknowledge that even the boy that said the most racist thing he has ever heard can be kind and compassionate.
Sometimes, Junior’s wisdom and early maturity make it easy to forget that he is an adolescent boy. At other times, Junior’s adolescence is glaring. Some of the contradictions in Junior’s life are related to his unique circumstances as the only Indian at an all white school. Some of Junior’s other problems seem universally relatable. Many teenagers, after all, feel like they are social outcasts. So far through the novel, this tension between being unique or being just like everyone else has been developed mostly through scene, through detailed, livable descriptions of the events in Junior life. Junior’s conversation with Gordy, however, brings the thematic exploration of the particular and the universal—or, as Gordy puts it, the individual and the community—into the story itself. This meta-fictional moment—a moment when a story seems to speak directly about itself—is followed immediately by a reminder of just how judgmental and harsh adolescent life can be. Junior wants to give Gordy a hug, but Gordy’s homophobia cuts short Junior’s temporary feeling of closeness and belonging.
Read more about the semi-autobiographical nature of the book.