single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie

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What is the theme of the story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Sherman Alexie?

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Victor Joseph is the main character in "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Native American author Sherman Alexie. The story revolves around a pivotal rite of passage, the death of a parent. By illustrating the theme of coming of age,  Alexie explores life within the Indian reservation.

Indian reservations are territories within the United reserved specifically for American Indians. Indian reservations are societies within the large mainstream America, without much socialization from the white culture. Unfortunately, according to Alexie, the reservation life breeds poverty, poor education, drug abuse and alcoholism. This is the setting for the beginning of the story. 

The story centers on Victor, whose father has just died and who has just lost his job and has no money. Victor needs to go to Phoenix to collect his father’s remains and his legacy. A childhood playmate named Thomas offers to help Victor get there, but only if he can go with him. 

The two men have been estranged since they were teenagers because of Thomas’s weird behavior.  Thomas considers himself the tribe’s storyteller.  He hears stories and constantly tells them to whomever will listen or even if they will not.

Victor had beaten Thomas up when they were fifteen.  Thomas has forgiven him. Victor has been among those who have treated Thomas badly. Everyone avoids Thomas and his stories.  

Victor has not had a close relationship with his father either, indeed he has seen little of him in the past years. Thomas serves to bridge the gap in Victor’s memory of his father and his childhood by recalling an occurrence which Victor did not know happened.

Then your dad came walking up. What the hell are you doing here? he asked me. I said, Waiting for a vision.Then your father said, All you're going to get here is mugged. So he drove me over to Denny's, bought me dinner, and then drove me home to the reservation. Your dad was my vision. Take care of each other is what my dreams were saying.

Thematically, Thomas helps Victor to find his own identity not just as an Indian but as a man who needs to find his own way without using self-pity. Victor must accept responsibility as a member of the community and his family. In his self-evaluation, Victor understands that it is only through communication with others and the building of relationships that life will becomes valuable.

The relationship between the two men is key to the story’s theme. Both men come from the same place, but both men have evolved differently. Thomas shares his life and his difficult childhood with Victor. His parents died when he was a child. He began than to talk and tell stories to make up for his loneliness.

The title of the story is relevant to the main character and Thomas whose last name is Builds-a-Fire. Thomas becomes the inspiration for Victor. The title contains the reference to the Phoenix, which is a mythological bird that after being destroyed rises up out of its own ashes.  Victor will rejuvenate his life and become the man that he was intended to be.

After their trip to Phoenix, Victor and Thomas know that they still will not be friends in public. They are too different. Thomas asks him to promise that he will come to visit him at his house and let him tell Victor a story. This is will repay the money that he gave to Victor for the airplane tickets to Phoenix. Victor agrees.

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