single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie
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Why did Thomas have to tell stories and have people listen in This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona?

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Thomas Builds-the-Fire is Victor's guide and catalyst in this story. Victor has lost touch with his father and his Native American roots and heritage. Thomas is the one who helps him reconnect and, in a sense, be reborn. Thomas repeats these stories because he is deeply connected with that heritage, with memories, and with finding signs and symbols in things. Victor is struggling to be more modern, so he has no time for such things.

During the course of their journey, Thomas tells Victor a story about a dream he had. The dream told Thomas to go to Spokane and wait for a sign. Victor's dad showed up, took Thomas out to eat, and drove him home. Thomas interpreted this as the sign and told Victor, "Your dad was my vision. Take care of each other is what my dreams were saying. Take care of each other." Victor's father took care of Thomas that day, and Thomas takes care of Victor on this journey. Victor seems to accept this connection: here, we have one of Thomas's stories putting things together.

The title is "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona." In Greek mythology, the phoenix is associated with the sun. It could burn and be reborn of its own ashes. This myth parallels the overall story of Victor's rebirth, or reconnecting with his father and Thomas. Remember that Thomas is the guide for Victor. They are traveling to Phoenix: a city with the same name of the mythological bird. They retrieve Victor's father's ashes. And Thomas Builds-the-Fire helps Victor start this whole process for Victor: fire, ashes, and rebirth (just like the phoenix). It is Thomas's story about Spokane that really gets through to Victor. His stories and friendship make this process possible.

Why did Thomas have to tell stories? From the context of this story, we can tell that it is because he wanted people to take care of each other—and to do that, they must listen to each other.

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To answer simply: Thomas Builds-the-Fire tells stories because he is a storyteller. He says that the stories come to him in dreams, which often lead him to a vision (he clearly distinguishes the two), which is where he gets the story. In this short story, Thomas relates that he had a dream telling him to go to the middle of Spokane and wait for a vision. In his version, Victor's father happens along and picks him up. Did any of it ever happen? That is precisely the question Alexie wants his readers to ask. Thomas Builds-the-Fire provides the majority of magic realism in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a collection in which this story appears. Additionally, the idea of storytelling is clearly an ancient tribal tradition. The images of the characters shrugging off Thomas (when they are able to get free of him) and his stories, works well in exhibiting the struggle the tribes face to adapt to a modern world, while attempting to maintain their cultural traditions.

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