single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie
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Discuss the settings of the story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona."

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In the humorous but poignant short story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Sherman Alexie , a Native American named Victor hears that his father has died in Phoenix, Arizona. Victor needs to go there to collect the ashes, a pickup truck, and a...

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In the humorous but poignant short story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Sherman Alexie, a Native American named Victor hears that his father has died in Phoenix, Arizona. Victor needs to go there to collect the ashes, a pickup truck, and a few other personal effects. A storyteller named Thomas Builds-the-Fire decides to accompany him and to help finance the journey. Each of the settings in the story progresses the plot and contributes to the underlying themes of friendship, respect for elders, and the preservation of values through storytelling.

The first setting is the reservation near Spokane in eastern Washington on which Victor and Thomas live. It is a poor place where nobody seems to have money except the people who sell cigarettes and fireworks. When Victor approaches the Tribal Council for financial help, the members can only afford to give $100, which is far less than Victor needs. Thomas and Victor used to be friends, but now Thomas is ostracized because of his habit of telling stories all the time. One of the realities of the reservation is that due to social constraints, Victor and Thomas can no longer appear to be friends. However, Thomas offers to come with Victor and help pay the way, and Victor accepts.

The next setting is aboard the airplane on the flight they take to Phoenix. They quickly get acquainted with a slender white woman who turns out to be a gymnast. This scene shows readers that now that they have left the reservation, the rules have changed. As Victor says, "Everybody talks to everybody on airplanes."

In Phoenix they take a taxi to the trailer where Victor's father was found dead. This setting reminds readers of the depressing reality of the father's death. Victor's father had been dead in the trailer for a week in the hot sun, and so the trailer stinks. Still, this is what they have come for, so they go in anyway and collect a few things. Once they are outside again, Thomas tells Victor the important story of how his father once helped him with a meal and a ride home. This causes the two to become more closely united.

The next setting is the pickup that they use for the journey home. The first thing they do is place the two boxes with the ashes of Victor's father carefully inside. Then they take the long drive home. In the plane, they were surrounded by other people, but on this trip, they are alone, crossing dead deserts.

The final setting of the story is the reservation on which the story began. The reservation is the same, but it is obvious that Victor and Thomas have changed. Although they confess that in public they will have to act towards each other as they did before, intimacy has built up between them, so much so that Victor gives Thomas a portion of his father's ashes. They both share similar plans to toss the ashes over Spokane Falls, although the reasons that they give are different.

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Sherman Alexie grew up on an Indian Reservation in Washington State. His story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” comes from his experiences on the reservations.  Unfortunately, many of the reservations are riddled with alcoholism, unemployment, truancy, and many other social problems. 

The story’s two characters have known each other all of their lives and were at one time good friends.  The protagonist Victor Joseph maintains all the foibles of someone who has not found himself nor his personal identity.  On the other hand, Thomas Builds-a-Fire has had to face many hardships and from it has grown to be a man worth knowing.  He is kind, friendly, considerate, and willing to forgive. 

The story centers on the death of Victor’s father.  Traveling to Phoenix from Washington to pick up his father’s things presents a problem for Victor.  He has no money and has just lost his job.  Thomas offers to go with him and pay the way.  Victor has no choice but to accept. 

The airplane ride initially is very uncomfortable for Victor.  He believes that Thomas is making a fool of himself talking to the gymnast.  The girl begins to talk to Thomas; and she honestly seems to enjoy talking to him. Thomas has matured and his social skills surpass those of Victor.  Rather than accept the fact that not everyone has ulterior motives, Victor tells Thomas that everyone talks to other people on planes.

When the pair arrive at the father’s trailer, it reeks since the father was not found for several days after his death.  After the search, Victor finds a photo album, stereo, and his father’s truck.  Initially, Victor is negative; however, Thomas points out the positive side to his legacy.  While they are at the trailer, Thomas relates his memory of Victor’s father.  The father had helped Thomas once when he was thirteen.  The father had picked Thomas up, bought him dinner, and drove him home to the reservation. 

Although Victor had never had good feelings about his dad, he looks back in his memories and finds more good ones than bad.  This made him smile.  Again, Thomas has helped Victor to see a more positive side to events.  Thomas serves as a vehicle, not only in his spoken stories, but through his presence, to bridge the gap of memory and help Victor’s attitude toward life.

The ride home held its own adventures.   The trip begins with the father’s death, and then the jack rabbit’s death occurs. Thomas begins to drive and almost immediately the rabbit runs under the truck.  The desert is empty, dead, and lifeless.  Thomas attributes the death to suicide because of the rabbit’s loneliness. The death of the father by himself in a trailer to be found by the smell is also an ugly lonely death.

One of the last events in the story is the father’s ashes taken to the place where Victor’s father had helped Thomas.  From this event, Victor and Thomas come full circle.  Their lives have been forever meshed because of their former friendship and this meaningful journey. 

"Just one time when I'm telling a story somewhere, why don't you stop and listen?" Thomas asked.

So Victor drove his father's pickup toward home while Thomas went into his house, closed the door behind him, and heard a new story come to him in the silence afterwards

This journey enables Victor to mature and grow as a man.  Hopefully, Victor’s attitude will change toward his circumstances and with renewed loyalty, he can be a better friend to Thomas

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