Reservation Blues

by Sherman Alexie

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Reservation Blues Summary

Reservation Blues is a novel by Sherman Alexie in which Victor, Junior, and Thomas-Builds-the-Fire form a band.

  • Victor and his friends Junior and Thomas-Builds-the-Fire form a band called Coyote Springs. On the road, they pick up two vocalists, Chess and Checkers.
  • Coyote Springs is invited to a music competition. After they win, a local radio DJ interviews them. The band perfects their craft under the tutelage of Big Mom.
  • Coyote Springs goes to New York to meet with record executives. Victor chokes up, and the band loses their shot at a record deal. They return to the reservation, and Junior kills himself.


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Sherman Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues, was published before his thirtieth birthday and after the striking success of The Business of Fancydancing (1992), a collection of poems and stories published by a small press when he was twenty-six. By the time his novel was being reviewed, nearly eight thousand copies of The Business of Fancydancing were in print, along with two additional collections of poetry, Old Shirts and New Skins and First Indian on the Moon, and a heralded book of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, all published in 1993.

In his novel Alexie reasserts an equation that he formed in “Imagining the Reservation,” from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven: “Survival = Anger ’ Imagination. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation.” Reservation Blues is arguably the most imaginative of his works to date, blending, among other things, the Faust myth with life on the “rez” and the dream of making it big in the music world. Alexie has performed in his own blues band.

The novel is haunted by the bad memories (the essence of the blues) and by several characters’ nightmares, including Junior Polatkin, Victor, and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, all of whom are familiar from other stories and poems by Alexie. The role of the deity in the novel is played by Big Mom, who lives atop a mountain on the reservation and has powerful magic. The story gets underway when a black blues guitarist from Mississippi, Robert Johnson (a historical personage) who has sold his soul to the devil (a white man known as “The Gentleman”) for a magic guitar wanders onto the reservation and passes his literally hot guitar to Victor.

On their way to success and fame the group acquires a pair of vocalists in Chess and Checkers, two Flathead women, and two groupies, Indian “wanna-be’s,” Betty and Veronica, named after characters in the Archie comic series. When Betty observes that white people want to be like Indians so they can live at peace with the earth and be wise, Chess says, “You’ve never spent a few hours in the Powwow Tavern. I’ll show you wise and peaceful.”

The destruction of the dream comes when the group goes to New York, where they find that their exploitative agents are none other than Phil Sheridan (source of the words “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”) and George Wright (who commanded the soldiers that slaughtered the Spokane ponies in 1858, a recurring motif in Alexie’s work). They work for Calvary Records. This novel encompasses broad humor, but the laughter is almost always painful. The satiric thrust, the travel, and the ironies attendant on innocents abroad suggests that Reservation Blues belongs to the tradition of Voltaire’s Candide (1759).

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