Somewhere along the way, children’s literature and ya lit got misunderstood as “fluff” for children, and it’s one-dimensional and can’t represent any real social problems that young adults face. Obviously. And even in the more complex contemporary literature, you do get less complex narratives because they are more focused on middle-class story (think The Fault in Our Stars, which I still managed to cry over like most other humans). But Alexie gives us more than the stereotype. There’s a disability narrative, a trauma narrative, a racial narrative, a poverty narrative, and the list goes on and on and on. He weaves all this into an endearing 14 year old kid who really highlights how excruciatingly painful it is for anyone that does not fit into the heteronormative, white, middle-class story has to endure more in order to find where he belongs.
Take Mr. P, he’s an older white man with a position of power (as a teacher). Through his interaction with Junior, we learn about Mr. P’s guilt for coming to the reservation originally to “kill the Indian culture” (Alexie 35), and he’s trying to redeem himself by forgiving Junior and encouraging him to have a better life. But this version of “better” is extremely skewed. Instead of showing up to class, taking an interest in teaching his students, fighting for an actual education system on the rez, Mr. P encourages Junior to leave the rez and go to an all white school. While he has stopped beating the children, he is still trying to “kill the Indian to save the child,” just in a new way. Instead of encouraging him to excel on the reservation, he is pushing him away form it into this white culture, as if the only way to be better is to get as close to “white” as possible.
Moments like this where he has this extra pressure on him to abandon his culture and community, a community he already has trouble feeling a part of, creates a lot of distress for Junior. One of the moments you really see it is when he’s talking about his brain flooding. He’s at the powwow with Rowdy, but he “wanted no part of it” to begin with because “[t]hose rhythmless, talentless, tuneless Indians are most likely going to get drunk and beat the shit out of any available losers. And [Junior is] always the most available loser” (17). This fear is realized when three adult men beat him up. When Rowdy is checking on him and his brain, Junior thinks about how if he had been punched in the skull, he could “have flooded out the entire powwow” (21). So this condition of his brain sets him apart already—and not just in the medical sense, he also appears far more intelligent than others he encounters on the reservation—but when it is emphasized that he isn’t a part of the community, like when the Andersons beat him up, he is worried his differences will destroy his ties to the community he was born into, and leave him with nothing to connect him.
Junior also uses this “flooding” imagery to describe why he draws: “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats” (6). If the world is flooded because he struggles to connect with his community, he uses these drawings to understand and communicate because words fail him. He already has an established connection to the community through drawings because of Rowdy. One of the main components of their friendship is comic books, and Rowdy is much more, in Junior’s mind, the stereotypical Indian who lives on the reservation. By having drawings connect him to Rowdy, he has a concrete connection to life on the reservation. Granted, that connection is temporarily lost, but he is able to find it again.