Arnold Spirit, Junior
Arnold Spirit (a.k.a. Junior) is our witty and whipsmart narrator who takes us along on his journey as he transfers from his reservation high school in Wellpinit, WA to the affluent white high school twenty-two miles away in Reardan.
But who is Arnold Spirit? And who is Junior? Let's have a look:
Arnold Is A Hydrocephalic.
Your grandma was right: first impressions are super-important. And nowhere is the truism "When people show you who they are, believe them," more accurate than in the first few pages of a first-person POV novel. For example, when Ishmael says "Call me Ishmael," we know right away that we can't really trust him (notice he doesn't say, "Hey, my name's Ishmael").
And when the very first thing that Arnold tells the reader is that he is a hydrocephalic (which means that he is at risk of brain damage and is susceptible to seizures), you know you better listen up:
I was actually born with too much cerebral spinal fluid inside my skull. But cerebral spinal fluid is just the doctors' fancy way of saying brain grease. And brain grease works inside the lobes like car grease works inside an engine. It keeps things running smooth and fast. But weird me, I was born with too much grease inside my skull, and it got all thick and muddy and disgusting, and it only mucked up the works. My thinking and breathing and living engine slowed down and flooded.
My brain was drowning in grease.
But that makes the whole thing sound weirdo and funny, like my brain was a giant French fry, so it seems more serious and poetic and accurate to say, "I was born with water on the brain." (1.1-1.3)
We know that quote is kind of hefty, but take another look through it. It contains a lot of character-identifying gems.
First of all, we know that this kid is born with a condition that makes him different. Secondly, we know that he describes himself multiple times as "weird." Thirdly, we get a immediate sense that this kid has a very special relationship with language—he compares his brain to a French fry, he compares his brain to an engine, and he rejects these similies for the more poetic-sounding "I was born with water on the brain."
Right off the bat, we know we're dealing with a hyper-eloquent, self-conscious outsider... who has a physical impairment.
Arnold's physical impairment becomes the source of struggle in his life on the reservation, since he gets picked on and bullied for being somewhat different than the others. And we're not just talking about swirlies here. We're talking about beat downs.
But we begin to see though that Arnold is perceived much differently in Reardan. How do the students and students at the white school view Arnold's impairment? Does it change the way they see him?
Arnold Is An Artist.
And like a lot of aspiring artists, he's totally self-deprecating about it:
Okay, so now you know that I'm a cartoonist. And I think I'm pretty good at it, too. But no matter how good I am, my cartoons will never take the place of food or money. I wish I could draw a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a fist full of twenty dollar bills, and perform some magic trick and make it real. But I can't do that. Nobody can do that, not even the hungriest magician in the world.
I wish I were magical, but I am really just a poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spokane Indian Reservation. (2.1-2.2)
Check out that segue from "I'm pretty good at it" to "I am really just a poor-ass reservation kid." It's times like this that we want to reach into the pages of our novel, shake Arnold, and give him a biography of Renoir or Jay-Z or any other of so many awesome artists who came from impoverished backgrounds.
He's super-talented, but, more than that, he's unstoppable. Arnold's enthusiasm and lust for knowledge comes through in every page, as he reaches out to readers and to those around him. This is one element of his personality that bridges the very wide gap between his life in Wellpinit and his life in Reardan:
I draw all the time.
I draw cartoons of my mother and father; my sister and grandmother; my best friend, Rowdy; and everybody else on the rez.
I draw because words are two unpredictable.
I draw because words are too limited.
If you speak and write in English, or Spanish, or Chinese, or any other language, then only a certain percentage of human beings will get your meaning.
But when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it.
If I draw a cartoon of a flower, then every man, woman, and child in the world can look at it and say, "That's a flower." (1.44-1.50)
Notice how Arnold's relationship to reading and drawing is different from his sister or Rowdy, both of whom at times use reading and writing as an escape from their reality, instead of sharing their realities with the wide world.
Arnold Is A Fighter.
Arnold has hope, and he hasn't given up... even though there are some pretty major forces conspiring against him. In fact, he's so much of a fighter that he throws his textbook in his geometry teacher's face. (Don't try this at home, kids.) This fighting spirit makes Mr. P notice him. In fact, Mr. P delivers one of the most stirring speeches in the novel—after, we assume, he iced his textbook-bruised nose:
"You've been fighting since you were born," he said. "You fought off that brain surgery. You fought off those seizures. You fought off all the drunks and drug addicts. You kept your hope. And now, you have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope."
I was starting to understand. He was a math teacher. I had to add my hope to somebody else's hope. I had to multiply my hope.
"Where is hope?" I asked. "Who has hope?"
"Son," Mr. P said. "You're going to find more and more hope the farther and farther you walk away from this sad, sad, sad reservation." (5.163-5.168)
Arnold just won't quit, and it's one of the major keys to his survival: he's in it to—if not win it—at least to show people what he's got.
Arnold Is A "Part-Time" Indian.
One of the major conflicts that Arnold faces in this book is between his part-time Indian Wellpinit self (Junior) and his Reardan self (Arnold):
Traveling between Reardan and Wellpinit, between the little white town and the reservation, I always felt like a stranger.
I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other.
It was like being Indian was my job, but it was only a part-time job. And it didn't pay well. (17.1-17.3)
On the reservation he is bullied and picked on, while at Reardan he earns respect and decides to break free of his old life. But he's still filled with guilt about leaving his hometown behind—at least until he realizes that he still has his buddy Rowdy's respect.
Arnold Is A Scapegoat.
Ah, the scapegoat. Or, as the Greeks would have it: the pharmakos. Every society has someone they pick on or blame things on. We see Arnold playing that role on the reservation quite a bit—like when the two basketball teams face off against each other in Chapters 20 and 25. We also see some scapegoating going on when Rowdy blames Arnold for Mary's death (27.193).
Why do you think that is? Think about Gordy and Arnold's conversation about weird people getting banished in Chapter 18.
Arnold Is A Boy From Many Tribes. He Is A Nomad.
Arnold decides that he's not simply "Indian" or "white," but a person who belongs to many different tribes (29.31-34). The book also ends with a conversation with Rowdy in which they talk about being a nomad—Rowdy forgives his friend for leaving town and assures him that he'll support Arnold's nomadic ways.
This leads to a breakthrough for our hero—the mark of many an awesome bildungsroman—where he finally understands that he can contain multitudes and still be a-okay. In fact, being a member of many tribes becomes a cornerstone of Arnold's identity:
I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms.
And to the tribe of cartoonists.
And to the tribe of chronic masturbators.
And the tribe of teenage boys.
And the tribe of small-town kids.
And the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners.
And the tribe of tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers.
And the tribe of poverty.
And the tribe of funeral goers.
And the tribe of beloved sons.
And the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends.
It was a huge realization.
And that's when I knew that I was going to be okay. (29.31-29.43)
Seriously: have more relatable words ever been written? (Although we can't imagine anyone not being in the tribe of "chip-and-salsa lovers.") Arnold goes from identifying himself as primarily a "weirdo" kid with "water on the brain" to writing a long, almost inexhaustible list of all the things that make him Arnold. In other words, he goes from identifying himself as an outsider to identifying himself as an insider—he's included in a dizzyingly eclectic list of communities.Arnold Spirit, Junior Timeline