In the winter of 1966, Rosemary MorningDove gives birth to a baby boy, despite insisting that she is still a virgin. A man named Frank Many Horses claims that the child is his. The baby comes out blue, and has trouble breathing, but soon stabilizes. Rosemary gives him a name “which is unpronounceable in Indian and English but means He Who Crawls Silently Through the Grass with a Small Bow and One Bad Arrow Hunting for Enough Deer to Feed the Whole Tribe.” Everyone calls the baby James.
James’s given name, though deployed with a humorous effect by Alexie, actually foretells James’s path in life. This story, which is rife with symbolism and gaps between the real and unreal, the imagined and the factual, will see James through his childhood, as he matures into a young boy who may or may not possess deep spiritual and practical knowledge of the world around him.
In 1967, the (unnamed) narrator is in a bar drinking with Frank Many Horses and another friend, Lester FallsApart. The three of them hear sirens approaching, and go to the fire station in hope of getting paid to put the fire out. They see smoke coming from Commodity Village, “where all the really poor Indians live.” They run over and find that Rosemary MorningDove’s house is on fire. Frank rushes into the house, and, minutes later, throws James, who is “a little on fire,” out the window. The narrator runs to catch James, who slips through his fingers and hits the ground. The narrator puts the flames out, relieved to find that James is alive, though “the top of his head looks all dented in like a beer can.” The narrator notes that the baby James is not crying at all.
Though we don’t know what started the fire that takes Rosemary’s house—and, eventually, her life—it’s clear that James, tossed out a window into the unknown, has faced some degree of neglect. The miracle of James’s surviving the enormous fall, which the narrator does not entirely break, sets in motion the events, happenings, blessings, and losses of James’s childhood.
After getting drunk, the narrator goes to the reservation hospital to visit James, Frank, and Rosemary. When he arrives, Moses MorningDove, Rosemary’s father, tells him that Frank and Rosemary have died. Moses insists that since the narrator saved James, he should be the one to raise him. Moses tells the narrator that it’s an Indian tradition, but the narrator believes that Moses is “trying to get out of his grandfatherly duties [since he is] going on about two hundred years old and still drinking and screwing like he[‘s] twenty.” Though the narrator is only twenty himself, he agrees, and he takes James home with him.
Because of the sudden and violent way in which he was orphaned, the way James is foisted upon the shocked narrator can’t really be contested. Tradition and community will have a part in the way James is raised, though he and the narrator are both, at the moment, isolated figures. This development—the narrator’s unexpected and quickly-assumed custody of James—falls in line with the symbolic, surreal atmosphere of this story.
One night some time later, James can’t sleep, and stares at the ceiling without crying. The narrator takes James to the football field and sets him down on the fifty yard line, wanting to “walk circles around James in a new dance and a better kind of healing which could make James talk and walk.”
The narrator wants a companion in James, and worries almost incessantly about his safety, security, and about how he will develop in the wake of his fall.
A year later, in 1968, the narrator’s television has exploded and left a hole in the wall, and he hasn’t replaced it. The narrator shoots hoops in the cold while James waits silently by the porch. The narrator believes that James is getting closer and closer to speaking, and is amazed by the care he requires. The narrator describes the ritualistic nature of childcare as his “religion.”
The “exploded” television represents a lack of escape or diversion from the narrator’s present circumstances. He tries to find time for himself through playing basketball, but the “religious” care with which he must attend to James is the focus of his life now.
Later that same year, James is already sitting up in his chair, but still does not talk. The narrator, though, says he sees “in his eyes a whole new set of words [that] ain’t Indian or English.”
Just as James’s given name is unpronounceable in “Indian” and English, the narrator believes that he might begin to communicate in a way that will transcend language.
The narrator believes that James, who hasn’t cried once yet, is “waiting for that one moment to cry like it was five hundred years of tears.” The season has changed, and the narrator plays basketball in the heat while James watches from the shade on the side of the basketball court. At home, the narrator “hold[s] James with one arm and [his] basketball with the other and [holds] everything else inside [his] body.”
The narrator clings to basketball as a way to imagine another life for himself (as was the case with Julius in the earlier story). James has been foisted upon him, and the narrator is finding it increasingly difficult to “hold everything.”
In 1969, the narrator takes James to the clinic because he still hasn’t cried though he’s “a few years old.” Afterward, the narrator goes out drinking “all night long,” while James is passed around from one of the narrator’s friends to another. The narrator loses track of the baby, and, the next morning, stumbles home to find one of his friends caring for James.
The narrator begins to lose his grip on things. His guardianship of James comes second to escaping, not through television or basketball, but through alcohol abuse, and James’s well-being—sacred though the narrator has claimed it to be—is put at risk.
Some months later, James still doesn’t speak, but kicks violently while dreaming. The narrator breaks his leg playing basketball, but is unable to afford an operation. At the hospital, doctors inquire about James; they say that he is “slow”, but that that is “normal for an Indian child.”
The narrator and James experience pain and isolation together. We also see another glimpse of the casual, nearly-constant racism of the world outside the reservation.
In 1970, the narrator and James sit home by the stove, since the narrator “can’t walk anywhere.” James is almost five years old and “still [hasn’t] bothered to talk or crawl or cry.” The narrator takes James to the hospital, but the doctors say he’s “just a little slow.” The narrator wants for James to “change the world; to dynamite Mount Rushmore or hijack a plane [or] make gold out of commodity cheese.”
James’s isolation within himself mirrors the narrator’s sense of isolation at being sidelined by a physical injury. The narrator still believes that James possesses some kind of miracle within him, ignoring the doctors who examine and dismiss him.
On James’s birthday, the narrator watches the Vietnam War on television in a local bar. He goes to a Christmas party and leaves James with a relative “so [he] can get really drunk.” The narrator plays basketball despite his bad knee, and worries that James will stay “like a baby because he doesn’t want to grow up and see and do everything [adults] do.”
The narrator continues to try to escape his life through television, alcohol, and basketball, though he knows he should avoid the latter two, and hopes all the while that James will not have to deal with the circumstances the narrator himself is currently facing.
Months later, the narrator leaves James at “somebody’s” house while he gets drunk, and the police arrest him for abandonment. The narrator lies in jail, drunk and experiencing visions of snakes, Nazis, the KKK, and TV dinners.
The narrator’s arrival at rock bottom is accompanied by visions of frightful things, signaling his deep pain, isolation, and feelings of guilt and loss.
A month later, the narrator attends AA meetings and now lives with his aunt and his friend Suzy, “to make sure [he] doesn’t drink and to help take care of James.”
The narrator, after enduring horrible isolation, seeks out a sense of community and a way to repair the losses he’s suffered.
In 1972, the narrator has “been sober so long it’s like a dream.” He and his aunt take James into the city for a checkup, since he still isn’t talking.
James’s ongoing silence mirrors the narrator’s struggle to reach his own potential.
The narrator prays each day not to drink but doesn’t know “who [he’s] praying to, and if it’s the basketball gathering ash on the shelf or the television.” Sometimes the narrator wants to drink “so bad that it aches and [he] cries,” though James, for his part, still refuses to cry.
The narrator here admits his worship of basketball and television. James’s refusal or inability to cry stands in stark contrast to the narrator’s uncontainable pain.
In 1973, James finally talks, but the narrator isn’t entirely sure that it was “real.” He believes James said “potato,” but thinks that “maybe he said I love you or college basketball.” He takes James to the doctor, and the doctor tells the narrator that he has “a very good imagination.”
As the narrator heals, James begins to speak, though it’s not entirely clear whether this is part of the narrator’s imagination.
The narrator shoots hoops with some younger Indian boys and girls. When he plays, he says, he doesn’t feel like drinking. James watches him play. The narrator says that James “always talks whenever [he’s] not in the room or never when anybody else might hear.” James, the narrator says, “says things [he] can’t believe”; things about the universe, humanity, and how “everything is a matter of perception.”
The narrator still clings to methods of escape and diversion from his everyday life, and now seems to have yet another escape: his “conversations” with James, which reveal the child’s incredible (and even supernatural, or else hallucinatory) maturity, as well as a sense of grandeur, wonder, and wisdom.
On Christmas Day, James speaks clearly directly to the narrator, seemingly revealing a series of visions. “He says the world hurts. He says the first thing he wanted after he was born was a shot of whiskey. He says that we should be living for each other.”
James is a vessel, it seems, for the narrator’s sense of understanding about himself. James is attuned to the pain, both personal and cultural, that the narrator has shouldered all his life.
In 1974, the narrator takes James to the World’s Fair in Spokane. James speaks to the crowds at the fair; he tells them “the earth is our grandmother and that technology has become our mother and that they both hate each other.” The narrator experiences a vision of the future, in which James washes his old, sick body, and cares for him by “teach[ing] him something new everyday.” The narrator remarks, though, that “all that is so far ahead.”
The narrator’s reconciliation of his uncertain future with the enormity of his present comes through James. James’s wisdom and ability to “teach” the narrator about himself, his pain, and the pain of the world around them allow the narrator, finally, to have a respite from his isolation and to begin to pick up the pieces of his life. The fact that James is speaking to other people now suggests that the narrator wasn’t hallucinating or imagining his earlier speech, but the story still ends on a surreal note.