In 1966, Rosemary MorningDove gives birth to a baby despite claiming to be a virgin. Frank Many Horses tells everyone the baby is his. Although Rosemary gives her son a long Spokane name, everyone just calls the baby James. A year later, Rosemary’s house catches on fire. It seems that James will be badly burned, but the narrator rescues him. James survives with no visible injuries except for a dent in his head. Rosemary and Frank die of their injuries in the fire, and as per Indian tradition, the narrator adopts James because he saved his life. Despite his emotional issues, the narrator does his best to take care of James and plays basketball when he feels overwhelmed. James rarely cries and seems oddly intelligent for an infant.
By the time James turns four, he has yet to cry or speak, and his muteness begins to concern the narrator. The narrator continues to seek solace in alcohol and basketball. The narrator’s girlfriend Suzy Song watches young James while his adoptive father drinks. One day, the narrator twists his knee playing basketball. He cannot afford to get it treated and is maimed for the foreseeable future. Not long after this, he gets drunk and plays basketball with his friend Ray despite his injury. The Vietnam War rages outside the reservation, and the narrator’s friend Seymour is scarred by his time there.
The narrator gets so drunk one night that he accidentally leaves James at someone’s house and forgets about him. He is arrested for abandonment and starts attending Alcoholics Anonymous. Although sobriety is extremely difficult, the narrator is eventually successful with the help of his aunt and Suzy, who move in to support him and help take care of James. In 1973, James finally talks. The narrator brings him to the doctor, who believes the narrator imagined it. James continues to talk, usually when the narrator cannot see him. He speaks about philosophical truths and gives James advice about life. One day, James and the narrator go to the World’s Fair in Spokane, where they see an automated Indian statue that plays a recording about taking care of the earth. James responds that the earth and technology are at odds. A white woman comments on how smart James is, and the narrator knows that James will take care of him when he is old.
“Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother...” spans the seven-year period from 1966 to 1973. Although its historical scope includes most of the Vietnam War, Alexie focuses instead on the narrator’s relationship with his odd adopted son, James. The narrative is a dual coming-of-age story; it follows the growth of both James and the narrator. Indeed, the narrator seems to grow more over the course of the story than James does; he overcomes alcoholism and the stress of unexpected parenthood in order to provide a loving environment for James. James, on the other hand, seems withdrawn from the world until he suddenly begins to speak profound truths.
Like “Amusements”, “Crazy Horse Dreams”, and “The First Annual All-Indian Horseshoe Pitch and Barbecue”, this story features a significant scene that takes place at a carnival. Given that the Spokane reservation is located outside the city proper and has its own schools, it makes sense that many of the residents’ encounters with non-Native people would take place at special events like carnivals. Although the plot of “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother...” is very different than that of “Amusements”, they share a device - an encounter with an insensitive white person gives the characters an insight into their relationships with one another. In “Amusements” that moment occurs when Victor and Sadie see the white carnival-goers laughing at Dirty Joe and realize the cruelty of their prank. Here, the narrator realizes that despite the strange circumstances that brought them together, he and James must help each other overcome the obstacles of racism and poverty.
By setting up parallels between James and Jesus Christ, Alexie gives the young child a mythic quality. Like Thomas Builds-the-Fire, James thinks critically about his surroundings and about Native American identity. Thomas and James often express their thoughts using allegory and metaphor, rather than directly stating their opinions. Although this can be frustrating to those around them, it allows them to express themselves more richly.