Study Guide

What You Pawn I Will Redeem

by Sherman Alexie

What You Pawn I Will Redeem Summary

Extended Summary

Sherman Alexie’s story titled “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” is narrated in the first person by its main character, a middle-aged American Indian named Jackson Jackson. Jackson, who was born in Spokane but now lives in Seattle, begins by reporting that he is homeless. He came to Seattle twenty-three years ago to attend college but quickly flunked out. He subsequently worked blue collar jobs, married a few times, fathered a few children, “and then went crazy.” He claims that he is non-violent but confesses that he has broken a few hearts over the years. He has a habit of leaving whatever relationships he forms.

Jackson claims that he has been homeless for six years but is “effective” as a homeless person.  He knows how to get along, make friends, and find store employees who will let him use the employee bathrooms. Jackson addresses his readers as if he assumes they are white and have little concern for homeless Indians. Yet Jackson is equally skeptical of the attitudes of various Indians, who, he says, know how to make up stories. Jackson’s current friends, with whom he wanders the streets, are Rose of Sharon and Junior. The former is a small woman with a large personality; the latter is a good-looking Indian who makes Jackson “jealous, jealous, and jealous.” Jackson may not be as handsome as Junior, but he prides himself on knowing how to deal with whites.

At noon one day, Jackson and his two friends happen to pass a pawn shop. They see, hanging in the front window, some “powwow-dance regalia” that Jackson recognizes as having once belonged to his grandmother. He has seen photos of the outfit and is sure that this is the same one; he claims that it had been stolen. The three friends enter the shop and Jackson is soon able to prove to the shop owner (because of a hidden yellow bead) that the regalia had in fact once belonged to his grandmother. The shop owner says that he believes Jackson but also says that he paid a thousand dollars for the outfit and cannot simply give it to Jackson. Instead, he offers to sell the regalia for $999. Unfortunately, Jackson and his friends have only five dollars.

The pawnshop owner, sympathetic to Jackson’s plight, tells Jackson that if the latter can return within twenty-four hours with $999, he will sell the regalia to Jackson for that price. He even contributes $20 to the cause. Jackson and his friends then leave the store in search of the rest of the money.

At 1 p.m., the trio use their $25 to buy three bottles of alcohol, which they quickly consume in an alley. At 2 p.m., Jackson wakes up to discover that Rose of Sharon is gone. He hears later that she hitchhiked back to her family’s reservation. Junior, meanwhile, has passed out and is covered with his own vomit. Momentarily leaving him, Jackson walks toward the ocean. When he arrives at the wharf, he encounters three Aleut Indians from Alaska; all are cousins, and all are crying from homesickness. All have been hoping for years to find some way to get back to Alaska. They plan to sit and wait for their boat to come back. When Jackson asks them how long their boat has been gone, they tell him “eleven years.”

At 3 p.m., Jackson returns to Junior, who is still unconscious but still breathing. Jackson sits and thinks about his grandmother, Agnes, who died of breast cancer when he was a young teen. His mother and father explained her cancer in different ways and Jackson wonders if the cancer might have begun after her regalia was stolen. He wonders if he might be able to "restore" her to life by recovering her regalia. Since he needs money, at 4 p.m. he walks to the offices of a non-profit agency designed to help the poor and homeless. He has memorized the agency’s bureaucratic mission statement and sometimes goes there to get newspapers to then sell on the streets.

The agency’s “Big Boss,” a kind man, cannot arrange for Jackson to acquire the hundreds of newspapers he would need to sell in order to make $999. Instead, the boss gives Jackson fifty papers to sell so that Jackson can fulfill his mission, which he now considers a kind of personal quest. Back at the wharf by 5 p.m., Jackson manages to sell only five papers, using the profit of $5 to order four cheeseburgers for a dollar each. He soon vomits up the food, partly because alcoholism has damaged his stomach. At 6 p.m., Jackson returns to Junior, who is still unconscious but alive. Jackson finds $1.50 concealed in Junior’s socks and shoes and takes the money. He now has $2.50.

Sitting next to Junior, Jackson reminisces about his grandmother, recalling a story she once told him about serving as a nurse during World War II....

(The entire section is 1915 words.)