Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Sherman Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues, was published before his thirtieth birthday and after the striking success of The Business of Fancydancing (1992), a collection of poems and stories published by a small press when he was twenty-six. By the time his novel was being reviewed, nearly eight thousand copies of The Business of Fancydancing were in print, along with two additional collections of poetry, Old Shirts and New Skins and First Indian on the Moon, and a heralded book of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, all published in 1993.
In his novel Alexie reasserts an equation that he formed in “Imagining the Reservation,” from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven: “Survival = Anger ’ Imagination. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation.” Reservation Blues is arguably the most imaginative of his works to date, blending, among other things, the Faust myth with life on the “rez” and the dream of making it big in the music world. Alexie has performed in his own blues band.
The novel is haunted by the bad memories (the essence of the blues) and by several characters’ nightmares, including Junior Polatkin, Victor, and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, all of whom are familiar from other stories and poems by Alexie. The role of the deity in the novel is played by Big Mom, who lives atop a mountain on the reservation...
(The entire section is 460 words.)
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Chapter 1 Summary
Reservation Blues (1995) is Sherman Alexie’s first novel, which was much anticipated after his immensely popular 1993 story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Alexie transported some of his characters from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven to flesh out their stories more fully in Reservation Blues as he continued to reflect on the lives of Native people on the Spokane reservation. According to Frederick Busch writing for The New York Times, Reservation Blues is a “stinging commentary” on the tragic conditions of reservation life that makes readers “uncertain” whether they should “laugh or cry.”
The setting for most of Reservation Blues is the Spokane Indian Reservation in the eastern part of the state of Washington. The only town on the reservation is Wellpinit, which is never reached accidentally. That is why many of the people on the reservation are talking about a stranger who has suddenly appeared. The stranger is a Black man, which makes him even more curious because few Black people live in eastern Washington. When first noticed, the man was standing at a crossroads and carrying a guitar.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire is the first person courageous enough to talk to the stranger. Thomas learns that the Black man’s name is Robert Johnson. (Robert Johnson—1911 to 1938—was a guitarist, considered one of the creators of blues. One of his major songs refers to a crossroads, and the lyrics have been interpreted to mean the singer sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his ability to play the guitar.) In this novel, Robert Johnson is a guitarist who tells Thomas that he needs spiritual help. Robert also tells Thomas that he is looking for a specific woman about whom he has dreamed. In his dream, she was an old woman who lived on a hill. Robert adds that he has been running away from The Gentleman, with whom he made a poor deal. He is afraid to play his guitar now—if he does, The Gentleman will hear him and know where he is.
Thomas takes Robert to the base of Wellpinit Mountain. This is where Big Mom lives, Thomas says. Thomas attempts to drive closer to Big Mom’s house, but his van refuses to climb any higher, so Robert gets out and finishes the walk on foot.
The story switches to Big Mom’s point of view. The narrator tells a portion of her story. More than one hundred years...
(The entire section is 559 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
Victor and Junior agree to join Thomas in a band. Victor will play Robert Johnson’s acoustic guitar. Junior will be on drums. Thomas will play the bass guitar and be the lead singer. The trio practices in an abandoned, boarded-up building on the reservation called Irene’s Grocery Store. The sound of music attracts locals, and soon the band is rehearsing in front of an audience. As word spreads, Native Americans from other reservations begin to show up. Even White people come to hear the new band.
Not everyone is impressed with the music, though. Local Catholics complain to the reservation priest, Father Arnold. They tell him rock and roll is the music of the devil. Father Arnold, who was once in a rock and roll band after graduating from college, calms his parishioners by telling them he thinks God does not really worry about music. God has more pressing issues to deal with, such as poverty and famine. Father Arnold is a White man who has learned to adjust to life on the reservation. When he first came to Washington, he knew next to nothing about Indian culture. At first he felt disappointed to not find buffalo roaming on the land. The local people informed him that buffalo were part of the culture of the Plains Indians, especially the Sioux. The Sioux were popular with movie directors, so that is how most White people think all Indians live. The Spokane Indians, Father Arnold was told, were the people of salmon, not buffalo.
David WalksAlong, like some of the Catholics, is also unimpressed with the new rock-and-roll band. He thinks they are far too loud, and he threatens to write an unfavorable report for the Tribal Council. WalksAlong is the council’s chairman. But then WalksAlong becomes distracted when his nephew White Hawk shows up at home. WalksAlong had raised his nephew but White Hawk had been in jail for two years, and WalksAlong had not seen him since. Although he had driven to the penitentiary, he could not make himself go inside. He told White Hawk that he did not want to see him in prison.
People on the reservation are scared of White Hawk, who was big even as a boy. Then White Hawk lifted weights while in the penitentiary. Now he is both big and strong. Word of White Hawk’s return quickly spreads through the reservation, and when the news reaches the band, Thomas, Victor, and Junior call off rehearsals. They go home early with heavy feelings in their heads and stomachs.
(The entire section is 606 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
While Coyote Springs is playing at the Flathead Reservation, two sisters, Chess and Checkers Warm Water, show up at the Tipi Pole Tavern. The sisters work their way up to the front of the crowd and stand next to the stage. Checkers, the younger and more beautiful of the two sisters, comments that the band does not sound very good. Although Chess agrees with her sister, she thinks the lead singer (Thomas) is cute.
The band is not playing well because Victor and Junior are drunk. Through the night, members of the audience have offered them free beers, and Thomas notes that neither Victor nor Junior turn the offers down. By the time the band takes a break, Victor and Junior can barely walk. While on their break, Thomas decides he wants to sing a special song and dedicate it to the pretty woman who has been standing at the edge of the stage all night. When the break is over and the musicians return to the stage, Thomas sings so many verses of the song that the crowd begins to sing along with him. When Thomas notices that the woman to whom he dedicated the song is also singing, he invites her up on the stage to sing with him. Their harmonies seem to come naturally.
After the show, Chess and Checkers help Thomas load the equipment into his van. Victor and Junior have passed out on the van’s back seats. Chess suggests that Thomas spend the night at her house because it is too late to drive all the way back to Washington. Thomas is reluctant but only because he is afraid that Victor and Junior will be angry if they wake up and are not yet home. But after drinking some coffee at Chess’s place and talking with her through much of what remains of the night, Thomas falls asleep on her couch.
The next morning, Thomas comes up with what he thinks is a brilliant idea. He asks Chess and Checkers to join the band. The women are cautious. What they heard the night before did not convince them that Coyote Springs could play music. Thomas begs the women to give them a chance to prove they really are good. When the women give in, Victor, Junior, and Thomas set up their instruments. The women are silent as they listen, hardly believing what they hear. As soon as the musicians are finished with their piece, both Chess and Checkers say they are ready to sign up. The women have discovered that Coyote Springs has very accomplished musicians.
Thomas, Junior, and Victor camp out on the girls’ property for the next week....
(The entire section is 536 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
When Coyote Springs arrives in Spokane, they go to Thomas’s house and find a body lying in the front yard. When they get out of the van, the boys recognize the man as Thomas’s father, Samuel. Once Victor and Junior have identified the man, they go inside Thomas’s house and fall asleep. So Thomas, Chess, and Checkers must carry Samuel into the house, where they lay him on the kitchen table.
The girls’ father used to drink a lot, so they empathize with what Thomas is going through. As he looks down at his father, Thomas tells the girls that his father was once a very good basketball player. When he was in high school, Samuel was awarded the Washington State High School Basketball Player of the Year. This put pressure on his father, Thomas tells Chess and Checkers. Whenever someone did well on the reservation, all the other people thought he should be able to help them—even to the point of making miracles happen. But after high school, Samuel discovered there was not anything really special about him except for basketball.
After Thomas finishes telling this story, Chess and Checkers say they hate being Indian. So many Indian families are ruined by alcohol. Almost every family has a parent who is a drunk. Then Chess and Checkers begin singing an Indian mourning song. Thomas joins in. Afterward, Thomas walks out the back door. He wants to be alone. Out in the dark of the night, Thomas cries.
The narrator relates a flashback to an earlier time in Samuel’s life. Samuel and his friend Lester FallsApart are driving down one of the reservation roads when Lester slaps Samuel on the back, congratulating him for having gotten his girlfriend pregnant. The slap surprises Samuel, and he momentarily loses control of the steering wheel. Unfortunately, a Spokane Tribal Police Officer sees Samuel’s car swerve, and he stops him. Officer Wilson is a White man who does not like his job on the reservation. Samuel does not like Officer Wilson. Instead of giving Samuel a ticket for his erratic driving, Officer Wilson agrees to a quick basketball game. Samuel brags about his skills; instead of playing Wilson one-on-one, he ends up telling Wilson to call as many officers as he wants, and Samuel says he will still beat him. So Samuel and Lester play against six officers. Samuel and Lester take the lead and keep it until Wilson slams Samuel and breaks his nose. Samuel calls a foul but Wilson denies it. The game goes on. Wilson...
(The entire section is 578 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Coyote Springs makes its way to Seattle. The band members are exhausted by the time they arrive and stop at a motel. When the clerk inside asks Thomas how he is going to pay for the room, he calls the Backboard Club, where Coyote Springs is scheduled to play. He asks the manager if the club is paying for their rooms. Not only is the club not going to reimburse them for the motel, they are not even going to pay them the one thousand dollars unless Coyote Springs wins a contest. They are not hiring the band for a gig; they have only invited them to participate in a battle of the bands contest. The band members sleep in Thomas’s van, feeling disappointed.
The next day, they wander through Seattle, where they come across several old, drunken Indian men. Victor ends up playing guitar for one of the men, who earns money singing on the sidewalk. The old man has a beautiful voice. Victor and Junior reflect on their own lives. They wonder if they, too, will one day end up living on the streets.
Later, when the band shows up at the Backboard Club, they discover that more than twenty bands are competing against them. Betty and Veronica, the two White women who had traveled out to the reservation to hear Coyote Springs perform, appear at the club. They not only cheer for the band but end up singing with the band as backup vocalists. After Coyote Springs wins the competition, a local DJ interviews Thomas and asks if he thinks it is strange that an Indian band has two White women as members, and he wonders how Indians in the audience will feel about this. Thomas does not know how to answer these questions. He confesses that he and Chess were against including the women, but it does not matter now that they won.
Back on the reservation, Checkers goes to the Catholic Church to meet Father Arnold. She tells the priest how she has always envied White girls. They always looked so pretty and clean. In contrast, as she was growing up, Checkers always felt dirty. She recounts stories of two particular White girls visiting her Flathead reservation. The girls were nieces of Father James, the priest in Montana. They were sometimes nice to Checkers, but they also could be mean. Checkers then tells Father Arnold that she feels disgusted with Junior and Victor, especially because they had sex with the two White girls, Betty and Veronica. She hates how so many Indian men seem to prefer White girls. When Checkers begins to cry as she is...
(The entire section is 571 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
The story takes a quick glance at what Robert Johnson has been doing. He found Big Mom and has been staying at her house. However, that he is not doing much better. His hands are healing and he is enjoying a break from his guitar, but he fears the guitar will eventually find him. He claims that it always has. He has thrown his guitar in rivers and dropped it several floors from tall buildings. Once he even buried it, but it has always returned.
At Thomas’s house, Coyote Springs is not faring much better. They have spent most of the money they won in Seattle and are very hungry. Many of the people on the reservation have turned against them. Some complain that the White women, Betty and Veronica, should not be in the band. Others do not like the band because they are playing music of the devil. A few do not like the idea of Flathead Reservation girls singing in the band and living on the Spokane reservation. David WalksAlong has written a letter that was published in the Wellpinit Rawhide Press. The letter expresses concern about how Coyote Springs is representing the Spokane tribe. David hopes the members will all quit, as Checkers has done, and join the church.
Thomas agrees to go to church with Chess on Sunday. During the service, Thomas falls asleep. When he awakens, an old woman tells Thomas how much the people on the reservation are turning against him and his band. The woman claims that because the band has performed off the reservation, Thomas no longer belongs there. Some people have even suggested that the members of the band be banned from the reservation.
Victor and Junior not doing much better. At the Trading Post, they run into White Hawk, the young man who has recently been released from jail. White Hawk physically charges into Victor and Junior and beats them pretty badly in a fight. In retaliation, the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota bashes in White Hawk’s head. All three young men are taken to the hospital.
Betty and Veronica, having been given a more realistic impression of what Indian life is like on the reservation, decide it is time to go back to Seattle. Their dreams of the purity of what it means to be Indian have been destroyed. They want nothing more to do with the Coyote Springs band.
During the next few weeks, Thomas attempts to line up a record deal with several companies, but none of them think an Indian band will bring in any money. Just when the...
(The entire section is 525 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
The Coyote Springs band members bring their instruments up to Big Mom’s cabin on top of Wellpinit Mountain. The narrator states that although there have been many stories about Big Mom, many Indians still doubt her power. For example, Victor and Junior saw Big Mom walk on water, but they erased this event from their memory. They choose to not give her special attention for her magical gifts.
As they approach Big Mom’s house, Victor is very skeptical about their visiting her. Thomas tells Victor that Big Mom has “powerful medicine,” Victor expresses his disbelief not only in Big Mom but in the whole concept of any person claiming to be a medicine man or woman. Thomas also insists that Big Mom has taught many musicians, including Elvis and Paul McCartney. So if Big Mom wants Coyote Springs to visit her, Thomas tells the other members of the band, they should not question her intentions.
Once the band arrives at Big Mom’s doorstep, they are surprised by her size. Big Mom is over six feet tall and is dressed in traditional costume. Big Mom lets the members know she is aware that an important record company in New York has made them an offer. When Victor says that Big Mom’s knowing this does not confirm that she has any magical powers, because everyone on the reservation knows it by now, Big Mom reveals secrets about Victor’s life that only Victor knows. For example, Big Mom tells Victor that he should forgive the priest who abused him when he was a boy. Big Mom says that the priest is now in an old-age home and he cries every night because of what he has done. This revelation quiets Victor, but it does not convince him that Big Mom has psychic gifts.
Later, after the members of the band have settled in Big Mom’s living room, they hear a special guitar chord that shakes them to their core. It scares Junior so much that he faints. Then they see Big Mom come out of her bedroom with a huge guitar in her hands. Big Mom repeats the same chord, telling them that she wants them to learn it. It is a chord that speaks to all Indians, she says.
Over the course of the next seven days, the band practices under Big Mom’s leadership. They have been playing at least twelve hours each day and are exhausted, but Big Mom continues to push them. When their practice session are done, Thomas admits to Chess that he is scared, both of playing well and becoming famous as well as playing poorly and having to...
(The entire section is 570 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
In New York, the Coyote Springs band sets up in the studio of Cavalry Records, ready to impress the CEO, Mr. Armstrong. George Wright and Phil Sheridan, the two men who drove out to the Spokane Reservation to find the band, are sitting with the sound engineers, waiting for Mr. Armstrong to appear. Wright and Sheridan are as nervous as the band members are. They worry about Mr. Armstrong’s liking the music the Coyote Springs produces. They talk between themselves and discuss the music industry; they say it does not matter nowadays whether the musicians have talent. The only thing the executives of the recording industry want to know is if the band can make money. When Armstrong arrives, the band is given the signal to start. It is not until then that Thomas asks the other members what they think they should play.
At first, the band sounds as good as they normally do, but then Victor runs into trouble. His fingers cannot make contact with the strings and his hands slip off the frets. Victor stops and asks the engineer if they can start again. They count down the beat and start the song again. This time Checkers cannot remember what she was supposed to do. She looks to her sister for help, but Chess’s hands are motionless above her keyboard.
Sheridan yells at them. He wants to know what the problem is. The engineer guesses they are just nervous. But Armstrong has no patience for them. He gets out of his chair and proclaims that Coyote Springs does not have what it takes to be professionals. After Armstrong leaves, Sheridan and Wright walk into the studio and tell Coyote Springs that the band needs to go back to Washington. Maybe in a month or so, Armstrong might want to take another look at them. But nothing more can be done right now. When Sheridan sees how angry Victor is, he pulls out bills from his wallet and tells them to enjoy a fun night in New York.
After they leave the music studio, Victor and Junior leave the others behind and visit several bars in the city. They are both amazed at how many beautiful women live in New York. They are eventually kicked out of most of the bars they stop at either because they are not dressed properly or because Victor is too boisterous or too drunk. After several hours spent making their way in and out of bars, Junior has to all but carry Victor back to the hotel, where he deposits his friend on a couch in the lobby.
Chess and Thomas are searching every bar...
(The entire section is 593 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
After returning from New York, Junior climbs the tribal water tower with a loaded gun. While standing at the railing, he puts the butt of the rifle on the ground and leans his face into the barrel. A crowd has formed below him. Tribal cops have arrived.
The rest of the Coyote Springs band members are at Thomas’s house on lockdown, unaware of what Junior is doing. The tribal police have told them to stay inside because death threats have been circulating throughout the reservation. Everyone is angry at Coyote Springs for their failure in New York. Most of the death threats, however, have come from White Hawk.
After Victor, Thomas, and Chess fall asleep, Checkers sneaks out a back window and walks to the Catholic Church, where she finds Father Arnold. He is crying. Checkers goes to him and asks him what the problem is. Father Arnold tells Checkers that he is leaving the reservation. He cannot stay there any more. He does not know if he can even remain a priest. Checkers tells Father Arnold he cannot abandon her because she loves him. Father Arnold tells Checkers that this is the problem. He has been dreaming about her, but he should not be doing so. He has dedicated his life to God. Later, when Father Arnold calls his bishop to resign, the bishop refuses to accept Father Arnold’s resignation.
In New York, Sheridan is making a proposition to Mr. Armstrong, the head of the record company. Betty and Veronica are in the studio waiting to audition. Armstrong is not impressed with the women or their music. Sheridan tells Armstrong that the women are part Indian. They could change the way they dress. They could dye their hair black and wear braids and have plastic surgery on their faces to give them higher cheekbones. Then they would pass for being Indians. They could sing Indian songs. Armstrong goes along with the idea. Sheridan presents the plan to Betty and Veronica, and they agree to it.
Mr. Wright, the other part of the business duo who brought Coyote Springs to New York, will have nothing to do with managing Betty and Veronica. He walks out of the studio and hails a taxi; he asks the driver to take him to California. Once he arrives on the West Coast, Wright goes to his wife’s gravesite and tells her he has come home. Then Wright breaks down sobbing. He tells his wife his is guilty of killing all the Indian horses, the ones Big Mom has been mourning.
Back on the Spokane Reservation,...
(The entire section is 470 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
Thomas and his friends hold a wake and funeral for Junior. His body has been laid into a homemade coffin, which is resting on Thomas’s kitchen table. Only a few people besides the members of the Coyote Springs attend. Some anonymous people have sent flowers.
Big Mom mourns Junior. She wishes she had seen Junior’s troubles and helped him. Although it might be too late for Junior, Big Mom is determined to walk all the way to Thomas’s house so she might help the members of the band that remain. Before she leaves, she gives Robert Johnson a harmonica she has carved out of a special piece of wood. Big Mom tells Johnson that he is no longer a guitar player. He should concentrate on playing the harmonica. She is pleased that Johnson has regained his health while staying with her.
As Big Mom walks past the Catholic Church, she finds Father Arnold packing his things into his car. The bishop has found a replacement for him, and Arnold is leaving the reservation. Big Mom talks him into escorting her to Thomas’s place. Along the way, Father Arnold tells Big Mom about his attraction to Checkers. He asks her what he should do, but Big Mom tells him she has no opinion. He must make his own decision.
Later, as the small group of people stand around Junior’s grave, Big Mom asks if anyone has last words they want to say. Victor is the first one to speak. He says that Junior never hurt anyone. Big Mom adds that Junior only hurt himself. Thomas remembers Junior as someone who really tried hard to be good.
Victor makes up a story about Junior. He tells everyone that Junior has a child. The truth is that Victor got a white woman pregnant when he was in college but the woman had an abortion. But Victor wants people to have a nice impression of Junior, something to remember him by, so he continues his story about the son. Chess looks down the road and tries to imagine what that child might look like. Then she has a pretend conversation with Junior and the white mother, telling them what a difficult life the child will have being half-Indian and half-white. Neither group will fully accept the child, she warns.
Chess, Checkers, and Thomas decide they want to leave reservation life and move to Spokane, a city about an hour away. Chess has found a job there. Before they leave, Big Mom convinces them to attend a big dinner that is being held in the Long House. The young people are not sure they should go....
(The entire section is 672 words.)