The Stories (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Set on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington State, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of loosely related stories featuring a recurring cast of characters. In these twenty-two stories, the young male protagonists, usually in their late teens or their twenties, struggle with poverty, alcoholism, and the despair of everyday life on and off the reservation. They also try to come to grips with what it means to be Indian (as the characters exclusively refer to themselves) in the late twentieth century.
Though these stories have no chronological order, vary wildly in style, and use different narrators, the author manages, with thin plots, sketchy characterization, and “artless” language, to build stories of great cumulative power and understanding. The reader is well advised to read the book through to experience the full effect.
The first story in the collection, “Every Little Hurricane,” describes a New Year’s Eve party as seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Victor. Images of bad weather metaphorically represent the emotional storms of the party, where Victor’s drunken uncles, Adolph and Arnold, fight viciously for no apparent reason. “He could see his uncles slugging each other with such force that they had to be in love. Strangers would never want to hurt each other that badly.” A flashback then recounts a Christmas of four years before, when there was no money for gifts and Victor had seen his father cry in despair. The narration then moves back to the party, with the emotional storm prompting other memories of pain, poverty, and humiliation among the partygoers. In the final scene, Victor crawls between the unconscious forms of his parents, passed out in their bed. He feels the power of love and the family there, and the power of survival.
Another story that explores...
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The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is Sherman Alexie’s first full-length work of fiction. In 1992, Hanging Loose Press published his The Business of Fancydancing (see Magill’s Literary Annual 1993) praised for its mythmaking power to portray the inner lives and unspoken conflicts of Native Americans caught with “one foot in the reservation and the other in the outside world.” In The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Alexie continues to write about a native culture whose traditions, such as powwows and oral storytelling, have been replaced by strip joints and cable television. His characters, many of whom first appeared in The Business of Fancydancing, are most often seen sitting on the porch steps of Housing and Urban Development houses, as if trapped by genetic and genocidal footfalls-such as alcoholism, diabetes, self-loathing, all of which have contributed to the dissipation of Native Americans (a population that only in the late twentieth century topped the one-million mark, an estimated 75-90 percent less than when whites first arrived in North America). Not much else happens in this collection. A paralytic sense of stasis strips these stories of dramatic action or conventional, conflict-centered plot. Unlike other writers’ work that is devoid of narrative movement—ennui-driven stories that oftentimes exist entirely within the four blank walls of a room-Alexie’s stories are haunted by what has already happened: not yesterday, or the day before yesterday, but as long ago as one hundred years. Time is stretched elastic in Alexie’s trickster hands. He dramatizes the post-trickle-down plight of the Native American in the framework of a historical past that is still very much alive, though not at all well.
Victor, the protagonist in nearly half of these stories, explains this concept of a living past in “A Drug Called Tradition”:
Indians never need to wear a watch because your skeletons will always remind you about the time. See, it is always now. That’s what Indian time is. The past, the future, all of it wrapped up in the now. That’s how it is. We are trapped in the now.
Alexie’s characters are trapped by a tradition whose “whole lives have to do with survival.” As Alexie once wrote in a “Contributors’ Advice” section of Caliban, “it is our strongest tradition, our longest dance, to remain alive, to survive.” Yet for many of Alexie’s characters, a central question still exists: How do we live? Oras the narrator of “Witnesses, Secret and Not”-the strongest piece in the collection-puts it: “I had to find out what it meant to be Indian, and there ain’t no self-help manuals for that.”
The best stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven shed light on not only what it means to survive but, more important, what it means to live. As W. S. Merwin wrote in his poem “The River of Bees,” “On the door it says what to do to survive/ But we were not born to survive/ Only to live.”
The first nine stories in this book focus on and are told from the perspective of Victor. In the opening story, “Every Little Hurricane,” the reader witnesses through the eyes of Victor the magical, metaphorical hurricane that “dropped from the sky in 1976 and fell so hard on the Spokane Indian Reservation that it knocked Victor from bed and his latest nightmare.” It is New Year’s Eve. Upstairs, Victor’s parents are hosting the largest New Year’s Eve party in tribal history, a drunken celebration that comes to a head suddenly when an argument between Victor’s uncles, Adolph and Arnold, turns into a fistfight fueled by all the bad blood that has ever existed between the two. The story-the storm itself—does not end here. Instead, the winds “moved from Indian to Indian…giving each a specific painful memory.
Victor’s father remembered the time his own father was spit on as they waited for a bus in Spokane.
Victor’s mother remembered how the Indian Health Service doctor sterilized her moments after Victor was born.…
Other Indians at the party remembered their own pain. This pain grew, expanded. …Indians continued to drink, harder and harder.
At this point in the story, the focus shifts back to Victor, a nine-year-old boy who is in bed “watching…[as] the ceiling lowered with the weight of each Indian’s pain,” a legacy of hurt that Victor stands first in line to inherit. Victor manages to squirm out from underneath this claustrophobic coffin and goes off in search of his parents, who are both passed out drunk in bed. Victor climbs in with them, between them. When he kisses them good night he tastes the mixture of whiskey. smoke, and cheap beer sweating out front their bodies. On this note, the story winds down to its lyrical end:
“The hurricane that fell out of the sky in 1976 left before sunrise, and all the Indians, the eternal survivors, gathered to count their losses.”
In the twenty-one stories that follow, Alexie counts down the losses that have shaped an entire tradition of Native Americans. If there is one lesson that Alexie wants his readers to learn, it is this: “Indians have a way of surviving.” Although Alexie is adept at portraying the lives of characters who have for a hundred years been beaten down by the short end of the stick, his greatest gift as a storyteller is his ability to intermix a brand of pathos...
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The Stories (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
“Every Little Hurricane”: Young Victor Polatkin recalls reservation hurricanes, watching fights and seeing an old American Indian man drown in a mud puddle. He also remembers the alcoholism enveloping his people. Victor also realizes that his drunken father and mother embody an unnamed hurricane deep enough to destroy everything.
“A Drug Called Tradition”: A grown-up Victor, along with his brother Junior and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a storyteller, experience a different Indian vision under the influence of a new drug. When Victor disavows the visions, Thomas walks away, both emotionally and physically. Later, spiritual guide Big Mom gives Victor a tiny drum as a “pager.” Though he never uses it, the drum...
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Questions and Answers: Every Little Hurricane
1. What does the hurricane symbolize in this story?
2. What is the role of the storytelling as seen here, and what makes this role so difficult?
3. How do sensory images from Victor’s childhood contribute to themes of this story?
4. Which experiences finally bring the community together, and how is this communal bond ironic?
5. What does the end of the story portend for Victor’s future, and thus, for the themes of other stories in the book?
1. The hurricane refers to the emotional turmoil experienced by Victor as well as the social chaos experienced by his community; it is symbol of the threats faced by the Native American...
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Questions and Answers: A Drug Called Tradition
1. How does the style of the story, especially the repeated shifts in time and place, impact its themes?
2. Which attitudes toward the ritual of earning one’s adult name are apparent in the story?
3. How do the three visions address the past and present situation of the American Indian tribes?
4. What does the plotline foretell for the futures of the three main characters?
5. What does the “tiny drum” symbolize at the end of the story?
1. The shifts between past and present highlight generational differences in the coming-of-age rituals of young American Indian men. This disparity between the experiences of the young and...
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Questions and Answers: Crazy Horse Dreams and The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore
1. What is the significance of the comparison between Crazy Horse and Victor?
2. What fears finally separate Victor from the girl at the powwow, and what do they suggest about his development as a character?
3. How does Alexie reclaim basketball for Native Americans in “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore,” and what is the impact of this claim on the storyline?
4. Why is it so difficult to believe in heroes on the Reservation?
5. What is the mood of the final scene, and what does it suggest about “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore”?
1. Victor wants to...
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Questions and Answers: Because My Father Always Said He was the only Indian who saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock and This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona
1. Which role does music play in Victor’s childhood?
2. Why does Victor agree to accept help from Thomas, and how is his decision significant to “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”?
3. How are Victor’s and Thomas’s attitudes toward their Native American identity different?
4. To what extent are these attitudes changed or resolved by the end of these stories?
5. How do childhood memories affect the meaning of both stories?
1. Experience of music brings the family together despite the conflicts that often divide them. Victor associates Jimi Hendrix’s music in particular with moments of connection or...
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Questions and Answers: Amusements and A Train is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result
1. What are the apparent motivations for the humiliation of Dirty Joe?
2. What does the imagery during the roller coaster ride suggest about the moral judgment of Victor and Sadie?
3. What are the implications of the final scene of Victor in the fun house for the themes of “Amusements”?
4. Why is Samuel’s isolation particularly tragic?
5. How is the “craziness” of both white and Native American cultures compared in “A Train is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result”
1. Victor and Sadie are afraid of sharing Dirty Joe’s shame; they decide to betray Joe and join in the disapproval of the white crowd....
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Questions and Answers: The Fun House, A Good Story and The First Annual All-Indian Horseshoe Pitch and Barbecue
1. What does the beaded dress symbolize in "The Fun House"?
2. What do the struggles and triumphs of the Aunt demonstrate about women’s roles?
3. Why does the mother in "A Good Story" ask her son to tell “a good story"?
4. What kid of mood is created by the images that close "A Good Story," and how does this atmosphere contribute to the overall meaning?
5. What does the baby symbolize at the end of "The First Annual All-Indian Horseshoe Pitch and Barbecue," and how is that meaning significant?
1. The dress symbolizes strength. It is too heavy for anyone to wear, that is, except the strongest of women.
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Questions and Answers: All I Wanted to Do Was Dance and The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire
1. Why does the relationship between Victor and his white girlfriend fail?
2. Which role does the contrast between past and present play in "All I Wanted to Do Was Dance"?
3. How is the trial foreshadowed in "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire," and what is the significance of that sign?
4. What is the irony associated with the naming of the golf course after the warrior Qualchan?
5. How does Thomas’s sentence contribute to the satirical tone of “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire”?
1. Victor and his girlfriend cannot forget the long history of conflict between whites and Native Americans. They are like Custer and Crazy...
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Questions and Answers: Distances and Imagining the Reservation
1. How does the story “Distances” seek to overturn white domination?
2. What is the structure of the post-apocalyptic society, and how is that structure problematic?
3. How does “Imagining the Reservation” offer a different answer to the same problem?
4. Why is the equation, “survival = anger x imagination” important, and which challenges does it address?
5. What is the significance of the images that conclude "Imagining the Reservation"?
1. This story seeks change by destroying white society; its action begins after an apocalypse that has resulted in the deaths of almost all whites and the destruction of much of...
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Questions and Answers: Jesus Christ’s Half Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation, Approximate Size of my Favorite Tumor and Somebody Kept Saying Powwow
1. What is the meaning of the title “Jesus Christ’s Half Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation,” and what does it suggest about James?
2. What does fatherhood teach the narrator in “Jesus Christ’s Half Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation"?
3. What does Jimmy help Norma to understand in “The Approximate Size of my Favorite Tumor,” and how is her realization significant?
4. How are Norma’s special talents important to the final story?
5. Why does Norma call Junior “Pete Rose,” and how does the nickname impact the end of “Somebody Kept Saying Powwow”?
1. The title...
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Questions and Answers: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Indian Education, Family Portrait and Witnesses, Secret and Not
1. Why does the narrator of the title story decide to leave his girlfriend, and what is the significance of this decision?
2. What is the primary result of Junior’s education “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”?
3. What is problematic about memories in “Family Portrait”?
4. Who is Jerry Vincent and what is learned from his story in “Witnesses, Secret and Not”?
5. What does “Witnesses, Secret and Not” suggest about the experience of being a “witness,” both in the narrator’s family and culture?
1. A nightmare of punishment for their interracial romance prompts his departure. His decision stems...
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Topics for Discussion
Ideas for Reports and Papers
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
For Further Reference
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Alexie, Sherman. Interview by Dennis West and Joan M. West. Cineaste 23 (1998): 28-32. Alexie responds to questions about the similarities and differences between his novel The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and his movie Smoke Signals. His comments on the autobiographical elements of both are particularly interesting.
Egan, Timothy. “An Indian Without Reservations.” New York Times Magazine, January 18, 1998, 16-19. Profiles Sherman Alexie and his Indian background. Covers Alexie’s comedic look into the hardships of being a Native American; his vocal attacks on author Barbara Kingsolver; the...
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