Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Sherman Alexie’s initial foray into fiction (except for a few stories sprinkled among his poems), The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven appeared before his twenty-seventh birthday and was awarded a citation from the PEN/Hemingway Award committee for best first book of fiction in 1993. Praising his “live and unremitting lyric energy,” one reviewer suggested that three of the twenty-two stories in the book “could stand in any collection of excellence.”
Alexie grew up in Wellpinit, Washington, on the Spokane Indian Reservation; he is Spokane-Coeur d’Alene. Critics have noted that the pain and anger of the stories is balanced by his keen sense of humor and satiric wit. Alexie’s readers will notice certain recurring characters, including Victor Joseph, who often appears as the narrator, Lester FallsApart, the pompous tribal police chief, David WalsAlong, Junior Polatkin, and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the storyteller to whom no one listens. These characters also appear in Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues (1995), so the effect is of a community; in this respect, Alexie’s writings are similar to the fiction of William Faulkner. One reviewer has suggested that The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is almost a novel, despite the fact that Alexie rarely relies on plot development in the stories and does not flesh out his characters. It might more aptly be said that the stories come close to poetry,...
(The entire section is 449 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
A loosely connected collection of twenty-two short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven describes incidents from the lives of various contemporary reservation Native Americans. At times comical, at times disturbing, these stories capture the daily struggles and the occasional victories of the kinds of people Sherman Alexie knows. Harshly realistic and yet deeply poetic, these stories offer insight into Native American life in America and into the perplexities of the human condition. The title came to Alexie in a dream. In an interview with Tomson Highway of Aboriginal Voices (January-March, 1997), Alexie stated that the fistfight between the Lone Ranger and Tonto reveals the theme of Native American-White relationships, the "antagonistic relationship between indigenous people and the colonial people." Although clearly critical of the whites, these stories use both humor and deeply felt sorrow and love to avoid self-pity. With vivid characters, challenging themes, and brilliant writing, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven offers young readers new American literature well worth reading.
(The entire section is 166 words.)
Every Little Hurricane
This first story of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven introduces Victor, his parents, and his uncles, Arnold and Adolph, who are quarreling during a New Year's Eve party when Victor is nine-years-old, in 1976. The weather forecast is for a hurricane, and the narrator surveys the bizarre behavior of many of the Indians on the reservation, many of them drunk and angry, recalling some wrong that had been done to them. The story also contains a flashback to when Victor was five years old and his parents could not afford to buy him anything for Christmas. Alexie introduces the themes he will develop throughout the book such as the relationship between the real and the imaginary, reservation poverty, and the idea of memory as an index of social and individual identity. Victor is a fictionalized version of Alexie, as the author has admitted.
A Drug Called Tradition
In this story, Thomas Builds-the-Fire is hosting the "second-largest party in reservation history." The first was the New Year's Eve party in the first story. Thomas, Junior, and Victor take a ride to Benjamin Lake, where they ingest an unspecified drug and proceed to have visions during which they earn their adult Indian names by stealing horses. Events from the past frequently bleed into the present during this story, illustrating Victor's claim that "Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and...
(The entire section is 1931 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Summary and Analysis: Every Little Hurricane
Victor: the main character of several stories; he is nine years old in this opening tale.
Adolph and Arnold: Victor’s uncles, whose drunken fight during a New Year’s Eve party provides a focal point for the story.
Victor’s father and mother: the protagonist’s parents, who remain unnamed in this story.
The book opens with a story about the metaphorical arrival of a hurricane on the Spokane Indian Reservation on New Year’s Eve of 1976. The story is told in a third-person narrative voice from the perspective of Victor, who is nine years old at the time.
It soon becomes clear that the storm is more symbolic than real; it symbolizes Victor’s emotional confusion during a raucous party at his parents’ house and foreshadows danger not only to his home, his family and the Reservation, but also to his tribe, the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indians. As he watches a fight between his uncles, Adolph and Arnold, Victor imagines that they are like storm fronts, waging a brutal yet affectionate battle against one another. He goes on to liken the act of watching the fight to that of witnessing violence “of an epic scale” against and amongst Indians for “hundreds of years.”
The action shifts as Victor struggles to distinguish physical injury from psychological pain. He compares his feelings during the party to injuries sustained while sledding in the snow. The question is not resolved, but merely reconsidered in different terms as Victor wonders which would be easier: to try to change bad memories or to forget them. The choice is like that between the complete destruction of or serious damage to one’s house by a hurricane. Victor wonders which is worse.
A memory from Christmas Eve four years ago demonstrates the difficulty of Victor’s choice. He remembers his father’s tears when he couldn’t afford gifts for the family; this sorrow over their poverty is a familiar experience in the family. It is lessened, but not mended, by Victor’s mother’s efforts to make the family comfortable, which include both real and imagined feats, from making fry bread despite a lack of ingredients to “comb[ing] Victor’s braids into dreams.” These dreams of a full stomach and contentment, however, continue to alternate with nightmares of hunger and conflict. The irony [why irony?] is that the nightmares more closely resemble reality...
(The entire section is 2110 words.)
Summary and Analysis: A Drug Called Tradition
Thomas Builds-the-Fire: a key character in the collection who stands apart from his peers for his wisdom and his talent as a storyteller.
Junior: a wild teenager who plays the role of Victor’s sidekick in this story.
“A Drug Called Tradition” follows an older, presumably adolescent, Victor as he parties with Thomas and Junior one night on the Reservation. The story is told in the first-person from his point of view.
The night begins with a beer party at Thomas’s house and quickly moves to a wild ride in Junior’s car. The change in plans is instigated by Victor, who wants to take drugs and cruise for girls. He convinces Thomas to join in the fun by claiming that the experience will provide a chance to explore their spirituality, and thus, be quintessentially “Indian.” The destination is a lake on the Reservation, where the three experience drug-induced hallucinations, including visions of Victor stealing a horse, Thomas dancing naked by firelight, and Junior singing country-and-western songs.
As the three drive through the night, the action begins to shift between the imagined visions of the boys and the actual joyride through the Reservation. In the first imagined scene, Victor steals a horse under cover of darkness and learns that its name is “Flight.” In the meantime, the three boys continue to take drugs, tease each other, and laugh into the night as they near Benjamin Lake. The action then cuts to the second scene, a vision of Thomas completing a Ghost Dance in order to resurrect his tribe, which has been lost to smallpox. It seems that the dance is successful, for it ends with the return of the white explorers, along with the disease they brought to indigenous peoples, to Europe. The tribe dances “until the ships fall off the horizon.” At this moment, the visionary sequence is interrupted momentarily as the boys stop the car, only to resume again with a performance from Junior. He sings an anthem about Crazy Horse, the warrior “who helped . . . [them] win the war against the whites,” and dedicates it to the President of the United States. He imagines that songs such as these are so powerful that they can make “a thousand promises come true.”
The action winds down as the visions end. In the final scenes, the boys sit by the edge of the lake, and Thomas tells his friends a story. The story places the three...
(The entire section is 1328 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Crazy Horse Dreams and The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore
An unnamed girl at a powwow who seduces Victor.
Adrian: Victor’s new sidekick in this story, who is about his age and lives on the Reservation.
Julius Windmaker: the new basketball star on the Reservation, who is fifteen years old.
Lucy: the new prospect for basketball stardom; a mere third-grader.
“Crazy Horse Dreams,” and “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore” are the fourth and fifth tales in the collection, respectively. Each story relates an adolescent escapade undertaken by Victor and his friends; together, they provide a broader picture of the lives of young men on the Reservation than was available in prior stories.
“Crazy Horse Dreams” focuses on a tryst between a still-adolescent Victor and an unnamed girl at a powwow. The brief romance begins when the two notice and tease each other at the vendors’ stalls. However, Victor departs because he imagines that they are mismatched. She is short with long braids. He is tall, on other hand, with short hair. Her expensive ribbon shirt only seems to underscore the differences between them.
Yet the two teenagers seem drawn to one another; they meet again while Victor watches a stickgame competition in the pavilion. The flirtation continues. She compares Victor’s readiness to place a bet with his inability to observe her approach; the conclusion is that he must not be “much of a warrior.” He counters with a reference to the riding and shooting skills of women from the Plains tribes, whom she doesn’t resemble. They share a laugh over his knowledge of tribal differences, which Victor attributes to his experience in the “Reservation University.” He reveals a few details, mostly in the form of jokes, about his own life on the Spokane Reservation.
Humor seems to finally form a bond between the two, and they depart for her Winnebago. They share stories in the dark, his of being stuck in an elevator and hers of losing at Bingo. The conversation distracts Victor and he realizes that a wide distance divides them; he sees into a future where this “child of freeway exits and cable television” rides a bus into the city and becomes the mother of children who beg for beer on the streets. This future is the only one he can offer her.
The spell is finally broken when Victor asks to see her scars; he has...
(The entire section is 1673 words.)
Summary and Analysis: 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
Norma Many Horses: a neighbor who breaks up a childhood fight between Victor and Thomas in these stories and appears in later tales opposite Jimmy and Junior.
Alexie adapted these stories into the main plotline for his film Smoke Signals. They focus on the relationships between Victor, his father, and Thomas. Victor narrates the action from a first-person point of view in “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock,” the events related in the story all center on the relationship between Victor and his father.
Victor’s father was a hippie who attended demonstrations in the Vietnam era; his participation in the antiwar movement was even documented with a photograph printed on the cover of Time magazine. His father’s identity caused both excitement and confusion among protesters and the media. He was indistinguishable among the hippies, who were enamored with Native American culture, and an anomaly for the reporters, who emphasized his role as a “warrior” in the fight against the war. His political sympathies also resulted in a brief prison stint and a trip to Woodstock.
Evidence of these times lives on for the family in the sound of Jimi Hendrix’s music. In fact, the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” is the common element in many of Victor’s childhood memories. It becomes a ceremony that the son performs to soothe his father after a night out drinking, and a conversation piece that prompts a discussion about the participation of Indians in past and present wars.
These experiences convince Victor that music is “powerful medicine” that can form bonds between people. He recalls conversations with his father, about the first dance with his mother, and his mother, about the times that his father played his drums, that support this claim. Victor associates the memory of his parents’ lovemaking, audible throughout the house at night, with the role that music played in their lives together.
Yet the story suggests that bonding over music does not create perfect relationships. Victor remembers arguments and conflicts, especially one that broke out between his father and mother over the death of Jimi Hendrix during a pilgrimage to his grave. This argument is associated with a growing rift between the couple that finally breaks the...
(The entire section is 1396 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Amusements and A Train Is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result
Sadie: Victor’s sidekick in this story.
Dirty Joe: the drunken man that Victor and Sadie humiliate on the carnival ride.
Samuel Builds-the-Fire: Thomas’s grandfather, who suffers an emotional decline culminating in death in this story.
“Amusements” and “A Train Is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result” both relate the experiences of minor characters who suffer humiliation.
“Amusements” is an exceptionally short story, just over four pages long, about a cruel joke played on Dirty Joe one night at a carnival in Spokane. Dirty Joe, a drinker infamous for sneaking into bars and finishing the leftover drinks at the end of the day, becomes the victim of Victor and Sadie. The friends find him unconscious along the midway, become distressed at the attention he draws from white tourists, and decide to resolve the situation by giving him a ride on the roller coaster.
This solution causes great mirth at Joe’s expense; a crowd gathers to watch him ride the roller coaster. Victor and Sadie become aware of the possible consequences of their actions only after Joe awakens, vomits on the platform of the ride, and receives a kick from the carnival operator. The fun ends with the arrival of a few security guards and the flight of the perpetrators.
Victor finds himself in a fun house in the final scene, where he contemplates the crazy mirrors that distort his reflection. These distortions become metaphors for his betrayal of “another Indian,” whom he “offered up . . . like some treaty.”
Samuel Builds-the-Fire is the victim of humiliation in “A Train Is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result.” He is fired from his job as a maid at a motel in Spokane on his birthday. Although the news shocks Samuel, he seems to take it in stride, picking up his check and departing without complaint.
The injustice of this treatment is revealed as Samuel walks home. Samuel is the grandfather of Thomas Builds-the-Fire and a respected storyteller in his tribe; he is surely the source of his grandson’s talent. His skills are evident in his renowned ability to compose stories on request, from his observations of the immediate environment.
Yet these skills seem out of place in a white culture that grants neither money nor recognition for them. Samuel accordingly gives up on...
(The entire section is 1170 words.)
Summary and Analysis: The Fun House, A Good Story and First Annual All-Indian Horseshoe Pitch and Barbecue
Uncle Moses: a tribal elder and storyteller commemorated in the second story.
Arnold: a boy who requests a story from Moses.
Narrator's Aunt: the protagonist of the first story who symbolizes strength and survival.
“The Fun House,” “A Good Story,” and “The First Annual All-Indian Horseshoe Pitch and Barbecue” focus on everyday life on the Reservation; they offer positive images of family relationships and neighborly friendships.
In “The Fun House,” the narrator’s aunt makes a bead dress too heavy to wear. It offers a test of strength for the women of the tribe, for she claims: “When a woman comes along who can carry the weight of this dress . . . we’ll have found the one who will save us all.”
It is clear, however, that her own strength will be tested in the story. She endures teasing from her husband and son and expresses disgust with them; they fail to recognize the ways in which she cares for them each day. The action moves suddenly to the past, to the memory of a night that included dancing, a serious car accident, and a hospital stay. This memory is followed by a determination to go swimming. She walks to the creek, dives in, and refuses to come out again. The plot shifts again to the memory of her son’s birth; it was a painful delivery followed by a sterilization that she had agreed to under false assumptions, that she had been tricked into. This time, the memory is succeeded by a desire to put on the dress. She walks home, puts it on, and takes a few steps. The short tale closes as she realizes that “things were beginning to change.”
In “A Good Story,” the narrator meets a challenge from his mother to tell a “good story,” one that proves “that good things always happen to Indians too” along with the bad. The story focuses on Uncle Moses, a tribal elder and storyteller, who awaits the arrival of local children at his home each day. He gives them sandwiches and tells them stories. Arnold, a boy disliked by his peers for his pale skin, is particularly fond of the stories that Moses tells. One day, he skips a field trip with his classmates just to request a story from Moses, a gesture that pleases the old man.
The tale ends with a peaceful scene from the narrator’s life. His mother sews a quilt in the house while he drinks Diet Pepsi outside and thinks: “there is just...
(The entire section is 929 words.)
Summary and Analysis: All I Wanted to Do Was Dance and The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire
Victor’s former white girlfriend, who is unnamed in this story.
David and Esther WalksAlong: the tribal chief, who “walks along” with BIA policy, and his wife.
In “All I Wanted to Do Was Dance” and “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire”, Victor and Thomas each play the role of protagonist for the last time in the book.
In “All I Wanted to Do Was Dance,” Victor is in Montana after a break-up with his white girlfriend. He begins one night of drinking on the dance floor of a bar and ends it in a car on the roads of an unnamed reservation.
Once in bed, he doesn’t sleep; instead, Victor entertains himself by remembering his girlfriend. He imagines that they stand by a river. He asks her if she knows about Custer. She asks him if he knows about Crazy Horse. The vision only exacerbates his insomnia, and the night stretches into morning. Victor ends the night by rising and remembering another scene from their time together. The memories are his only companion now.
He goes running in the morning and returns to watch television. He wishes that the color images could be transmuted into black-and-white scenes; the absence of color would make life “clearer,” less “complicated” for him. He sips a cup of coffee and regrets his sobriety that morning.
The action shifts to two scenes of dancing, in childhood and then adulthood. As a child, Victor fancydances at a performance, watched by his drunk parents. As an adult, a drunk Victor sways across the dance floor of another bar. He takes a woman home and tries to pass out, but sleep still eludes him.
The new relationship doesn’t last either. A lone Victor returns home to work odd jobs on the Reservation and buy beer at the Trading Post. One morning he gives a bottle of wine to a stranger in the parking lot, instead of drinking it himself, and walks home with visions of dancing into the future.
In "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire," Thomas is on trial for “a storytelling fetish accompanied by an extreme need to tell the truth.” He begins to speak just before the trial after taking an oath of silence for more than twenty years; the reemergence of his voice is celebrated by Esther WalksAlong, who leaves her husband David, the tribal chief infamous for “walking along” with BIA policy. This rebellious act foreshadows the turmoil of the...
(The entire section is 1367 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Distances and Imagining the Reservation
Tremble Dancer: an Urban Indian who is the love interest of the narrator in the first story.
“Distances” is the story that Thomas tells during the bus ride to the state penitentiary after his trial. It is a visionary tale of an apocalypse that kills the majority of the white population and spares much of the Native American community. The narrator imagines that this event is the result of a Ghost Dance—an attempt to bring back the ancestors and old times—that finally worked.
The action begins with the survivors’ destruction of anything, from houses to appliances, that reminds them of white culture. The narrator is a \"Skin,\" or a resident of the Reservation, in love with an \"Urban\" woman, a former city-dweller now afflicted by disease. Tribal life is divided amongst these new groups; although all Indians live together on reservations now, marriage and breeding between the two tribes is prohibited to prevent the spread of the mysterious Urban illness.
The struggle for survival is complicated not only by the loss of technology but also by the severity of the weather; the climate has changed so that days are hotter, and nights, colder. The narrator tells of daily activities in this environment. The bodies of the dead are burned on old football fields; he holds his sick lover within the privacy that a surviving tree affords them. A house is burned where the narrator spies a picture of Jesus Christ; he cries when he remembers the experience of watching television in dreams.
The tale closes with the return of the \"Others,\" the ancient Native American ancestors. These people defeat the survivors. Tremble Dancer is impregnated by them. She dies soon thereafter while bearing a child in the form of a salmon. The narrator holds a transistor radio, a forbidden object, in his hands in the final scene. He waits for it to work and listens to the sound of his breath.
“Imagining the Reservation” takes the thought experiment begun in “Distances” one step further. It is a philosophical story that demonstrates the power that imagination might have to alter the lives of Native Americans.
The unnamed narrator of this story poses a series of questions. Each question places cultural power now possessed by whites in the hands of Native Americans. He wonders how life would be different if his people, instead of whites, had invented...
(The entire section is 797 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation, The Approximate Size of my Favorite Tumor and Somebody Kept Saying Powwow
James: the baby adopted by the narrator in the “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation.”
Jimmy Many Horses: a Reservation man who is married to Norma Many Horses and dying of cancer.
Junior Polatkin: the narrator of “Somebody Kept Saying Powwow” and an admirer of Norma.
“Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation,” is an account of unexpected fatherhood; the tale is broken into sections by year, beginning in 1966 and ending in 1974.
The narrator is the father of an orphan named James who was born and adopted under seemingly miraculous circumstances? His mother, Rosemary Morning Dove, claimed to be a virgin. (The title of the story accordingly compares the conception and birth of the boy to that of Jesus.) Moreover, he was saved from certain death as an infant in a house fire that killed his mother and presumed father, Frank Many Horses.
Although the narrator is reluctant to become a father, he soon becomes accustomed to—even passionate about—his new role. He eagerly awaits each new step in the child’s development, particularly the ability to talk. Yet James is unusual; he neither talks nor cries. In the meantime, the narrator continues with the everyday business of his life. In most respects, his life is uneventful, an “ordinary” existence that feels like “medicine” to him.
An interruption to this routine occurs as the narrator begins to drink heavily, spends a short time in jail, and decides to give up drinking in order to keep James. His efforts bring results; he stays sober and James finally talks. The story ends with a trip to Spokane for the 1974 World’s Fair. James displays his wit with a quick retort to a white woman who comments that he is “so smart for an Indian boy.” Father and son leave; the narrator is comforted by the thought that James will continue to “teach him something new” for the rest of his life and even finally take care of him in old age. The miracle of the story, finally, is that James has changed the narrator’s life forever.
“The Approximate Size of my Favorite Tumor,” focuses on a married couple, Jimmy and Norma Many Horses. The plot begins with a fight. Norma leaves, in anger, to go dancing. Jimmy, who narrates this tale, eats dinner and then looks for her. The cause...
(The entire section is 1182 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Indian Education, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Family Portrait and Witnesses, Secret and Not
Unnamed clerk at a 7-11; he sells the narrator of “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” a Popsicle.
Jerry Vincent: a former friend of the narrator’s father and murder victim whose case remains open in “Witnesses, Secret and Not"
An unnamed character again narrates the action, which begins in adulthood and ends in childhood, in “Indian Education,” “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” “Family Portrait,” and “Witnesses, Secret and Not.”
The collection's title story follows the narrator’s return from a sojourn in the city back to Spokane; the action alternates between events in the present and memories of the past, now a recurrent technique in the book. The narrator walks through the streets of Spokane in search of a Popsicle on a hot summer night. He enters a 7-11 store, where a suspicious clerk watches him carefully.
The feeling of being watched reminds the narrator of his past experiences with racial profiling in Seattle, both inflicted by him while he was working in a convenience store, and on him while driving through white neighborhoods at night. The action resumes at the cash register, where the narrator manipulates the nervous employee; he changes his requests several times to see how the clerk will react. The interlude ends with laughter as the clerk catches onto the game and offers the Popsicle as a token of peace.
A scene from the narrator’s life in Seattle again interrupts the action. He remembers a fight with his white girlfriend. She accused him of stupidity and drunkenness, and he threw lamps at her in response, both common elements of their frequent fights. The moment that he decided to leave her stands out in his mind. He awoke from a nightmare. In the dream, they were lovers over a century ago. She was the adulterous wife of a white missionary; he was a treacherous Indian warrior. The punishment for the relationship, once discovered, was a massacre of the indigenous tribe that began with his death. The terror of the dream finally convinced him to leave.
As the narrator finishes eating the Popsicle, he remembers the events that immediately followed his departure from the city. His parents expected his return and welcomed him back into their home. After a short time just watching television and playing basketball with the Reservation kids, he finally found a job in Spokane,...
(The entire section is 1858 words.)