Explain Thomas Builds-the Fire's gift in "That Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Sherman Alexie.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Sherman Alexie introduces the reader to an unusual character in his story “This Is What It Means to say Phoenix, Arizona." Thomas Builds-the –Fire makes it possible for his once best friend Victor to be able to go to Phoenix and find the things that his father has left to him. 

Thomas is really a tragic figure. His parents died when he was young.  No one talks to Thomas because he tells the same stories over and over. He seems to be introverted.

Victor ends their friendship when they are fifteen.  Victor is drunk, and he beats up Thomas for no reason.  

Victor’s description of Thomas is surprisingly harsh: he notes his ratty old braids; broken teeth, and calls him a crazy storyteller. Appearing to be impassive, Thomas comes out of his shell and avidly engages in a conversation with an Olympic gymnast.  Cathy, the beautiful gymnast, seems to enjoy Thomas’s attention.

What is Thomas’s gift?  He might be called a psychic. He hears and sees things in his mind.  This what he calls his stories. Thomas can see the future and foretell the outcome of situations.  According to the Native American beliefs, nature is a spirit, and the wind talks for it.  Thomas hears his stories in the wind.  He also has visions.

Sometimes, Thomas acts irrationally.  He jumps off the school building and seems to fly for a few seconds.  Then, he crashed to the ground breaking his arm in two places.

Thomas tells this story:

We are all given one thing by which our lives are measured, one determination.  Mine are the stories that can change or not change the world.  I continues to tell the stories.  My father, he died in Okinawa… my mother died giving birth to me, died while I was still inside her. I have not brothers or sisters.  I have only my stories, which came to me before I even had the words to speak…

He is a story teller and the wind and his visions come from somewhere deep inside Thomas.  In fact, he does not want the money back from the trip to Arizona.  All he wants is for Victor to stop and listen to his stories just one time.

teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In material terms, Thomas Builds-the-Fire's gift of money is indispensable. Although Thomas doesn't have enough cash on hand to finance the journey back from Phoenix, his generous offer allows Victor to make journey to the city. 

On a metaphysical level, however, Thomas Builds-the-Fire's presence provides Victor with the emotional and spiritual support he needs. When the two first enter the trailer that once belonged to Victor's father, the smell is unbearable. Victor's father had lain in hundred-degree temperatures for a week before anyone had found his body. Despite Victor's protestations, Thomas follows him into the trailer. A flashback we are given explains Thomas's actions.

When Victor was twelve, he unwittingly stepped on an underground wasps' nest and caught his foot in it. If Thomas had not chanced upon him and freed him, Victor might have died from wasp stings. This flashback story provides us evidence that Thomas has always looked out for Victor. However, another flashback gives us the background for Thomas's solicitude: years ago, Victor's father had saved him from making a mistake. 

In this second flashback, Thomas relates that he was looking for a vision but was initially mistaken about its source. It was only after Victor's father allegedly saved him from possible harm that Thomas realized the truth: Victor's father was the vision he was waiting for. The older man saved him and taught him a lesson: members of the same tribe had to learn to "take care of each other" and to sympathize with each other in the trials of life. Victor's father stressed the utmost importance of "tribal ties" and "the sense of community," something that Victor (to his shame) knew that he had lost over time.

So, Thomas Builds-the-Fire's gift was not only material, it was also spiritual in nature.


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