Why do you think Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven has become a significant book? Are these stories important as an evocation not only of Indian life, but of American...

Why do you think Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven has become a significant book? Are these stories important as an evocation not only of Indian life, but of American life as well?

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shake99 | Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Sherman Alexie is a contemporary Native American writer from the state of Washington. In 1993 in published his first book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award as the best first book of fiction. The book is a collection of short stories that features a recurring character named Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who also appears in his first novel, Reservation Blues. Reservation Blues was also an award winner, with the National Book Award in 1995.

To understand why this book has become an important literary influence in American life, we need to look at how others are reacting to it. In 2013 The New Yorker published an interview with Alexie, written by Jess Walter, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the book. At one point in the interview, Walter says of the book:

But place and class are only part of the story. Many people tell me that they had no picture of contemporary reservation life, or even urban Indian life, before reading “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” To break Indians out of museums and movies and Chief Wahoo—that’s a legacy for any book. “The Lone Ranger” and “Smoke Signals” gave many people their first picture of contemporary Native American life.

The interviewer is saying that this book has raised Americans’ awareness of what Indian life is really like, rather than just what they see in the movies. Defeating prejudices and stereotypes is no small feat and can only help people understand and relate to each other in a more meaningful way.

When the book first came out, the following statement appeared in a Chicago Tribune review:

Sherman Alexie's book of interlocking short stories about the people of the Spokane Indian Reservation, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," is a shout of anger, pain, bitterness, loss, self-hate and despair. It is for the American Indian what Richard Wright's "Native Son" was for the black American in 1940.

To compare the book to Wright’s Native Son is to compare it to American literary immortality. Native Son was a shocker to white America when it appeared in 1940. Although attitudes toward minorities have improved since then, Alexie’s portrayals of Native American life still have something valuable to teach Americans about their country and themselves.

Have we really given this land’s original inhabitants a fair shake? Of course not. How are they affected by that and how do they feel about it? That’s what we can learn from writers like Alexie.

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