Junior lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation, where he discovers that alcohol is more important to most residents than an education is. Junior decides to transfer from his reservation school to Reardan High, a white school that is more than twenty miles away. Once he arrives, Junior finds that he is the only Indian (besides the school’s mascot) there. His best friend on the reservation, Rowdy, stays behind and vows never to speak to Junior—the “traitor”—again. Junior also knows that everyone else on the reservation thinks he is an “apple”: red on the outside but white on the inside. Meanwhile, most of the students at Reardan treat Junior as an outcast as well.
Although he is stimulated by the intellectual challenges of Reardan’s advanced curriculum, Junior must fight to improve his social standing both on and off the reservation. He accomplishes this accidentally when he goes out for Reardan’s basketball team. He surprises himself when, as a freshman, he makes the varsity team and eventually even becomes a starting player. Junior’s biggest challenge comes when he must play against his former basketball team from the reservation, whose star player is none other than Junior’s ex–best friend, Rowdy.
In the course of this young adult, coming-of-age story, Alexie highlights both the spiritual and psychological highs and lows of living on a reservation—a place of stagnation as well as a place of strong family roots and long-lasting love.
Junior knows that his cartoons "will never take the place of food or money". He wishes he were magical and could make the things he draws - like "a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a fist full of twenty dollar bills" - real, but he knows he cannot. Junior dislikes being poor, because oftentimes he and his family must go hungry, but lack of food is not the worst thing about poverty.
The worst thing about poverty is not being able to help those you love. Last week, Junior's "best friend" Oscar got really sick....