Reservation Blues Summary

Victor, Junior Polatkin, and Thomas-Builds-the-Fire decide to form a band. One day, Robert Johnson, a guitarist from Mississippi, comes to the reservation and gives Victor his guitar. Johnson was said to have sold his sold to the Devil for his magic guitar. This is in some ways a retelling of the Faust myth.

  • Victor and the band name themselves the Coyote Springs. On the road, they pick up two vocalists, Chess and Checkers, and two groupies, Betty and Veronica, white women named after characters from the Archie comics.
  • Coyote Springs is invited to a kind of battle of the bands in Seattle. After they win, a local DJ interviews Thomas-Builds-the-Fire on the radio. This gets the attention of Big Mom, a godlike figure who pushes them to learn new chords and perfect their craft.
  • Coyote Springs goes to New York to meet with the executives at Calvary Records. At a critical moment, Victor chokes, and the band loses their shot at a record deal. They return to the reservation in shame, and Junior kills himself. The novel ends with Thomas, Chess, and Checkers singing a song Big Mom taught them.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 460 words.)

Reservation Blues Chapter Summaries

Reservation Blues Chapter 1 Summary

Reservation Blues (1995) is Sherman Alexie’s first novel, which was much anticipated after his immensely popular 1993 story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Alexie transported some of his characters from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven to flesh out their stories more fully in Reservation Blues as he continued to reflect on the lives of Native people on the Spokane reservation. According to Frederick Busch writing for The New York Times, Reservation Blues is a “stinging commentary” on the tragic conditions of reservation life that makes readers “uncertain” whether they should “laugh or cry.”

The setting for most of Reservation Blues is the Spokane Indian Reservation in the eastern part of the state of Washington. The only town on the reservation is Wellpinit, which is never reached accidentally. That is why many of the people on the reservation are talking about a stranger who has suddenly appeared. The stranger is a Black man, which makes him even more curious because few Black people live in eastern Washington. When first noticed, the man was standing at a crossroads and carrying a guitar.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire is the first person courageous enough to talk to the stranger. Thomas learns that the Black man’s name is Robert Johnson. (Robert Johnson—1911 to 1938—was a guitarist, considered one of the creators of blues. One of his major songs refers to a crossroads, and the lyrics have been interpreted to mean the singer sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his ability to play the guitar.) In this novel, Robert Johnson is a guitarist who tells Thomas that he needs spiritual help. Robert also tells Thomas that he is looking for a specific woman about whom he has dreamed. In his dream, she was an old woman who lived on a hill. Robert adds that he has been running away from The Gentleman, with whom he made a...

(The entire section is 559 words.)

Reservation Blues Chapter 2 Summary

Victor and Junior agree to join Thomas in a band. Victor will play Robert Johnson’s acoustic guitar. Junior will be on drums. Thomas will play the bass guitar and be the lead singer. The trio practices in an abandoned, boarded-up building on the reservation called Irene’s Grocery Store. The sound of music attracts locals, and soon the band is rehearsing in front of an audience. As word spreads, Native Americans from other reservations begin to show up. Even White people come to hear the new band.

Not everyone is impressed with the music, though. Local Catholics complain to the reservation priest, Father Arnold. They tell him rock and roll is the music of the devil. Father Arnold, who was once in a rock and roll band after graduating from college, calms his parishioners by telling them he thinks God does not really worry about music. God has more pressing issues to deal with, such as poverty and famine. Father Arnold is a White man who has learned to adjust to life on the reservation. When he first came to Washington, he knew next to nothing about Indian culture. At first he felt disappointed to not find buffalo roaming on the land. The local people informed him that buffalo were part of the culture of the Plains Indians, especially the Sioux. The Sioux were popular with movie directors, so that is how most White people think all Indians live. The Spokane Indians, Father Arnold was told, were the people of salmon, not buffalo.

David WalksAlong, like some of the Catholics, is also unimpressed with the new rock-and-roll band. He thinks they are far too loud, and he threatens to write an unfavorable report for the Tribal Council. WalksAlong is the council’s chairman. But then WalksAlong becomes distracted when his nephew White Hawk shows up at home. WalksAlong had raised his nephew but White Hawk had been in jail for two years, and WalksAlong had not seen him since. Although he had driven to the penitentiary, he could not make...

(The entire section is 606 words.)

Reservation Blues Chapter 3 Summary

While Coyote Springs is playing at the Flathead Reservation, two sisters, Chess and Checkers Warm Water, show up at the Tipi Pole Tavern. The sisters work their way up to the front of the crowd and stand next to the stage. Checkers, the younger and more beautiful of the two sisters, comments that the band does not sound very good. Although Chess agrees with her sister, she thinks the lead singer (Thomas) is cute.

The band is not playing well because Victor and Junior are drunk. Through the night, members of the audience have offered them free beers, and Thomas notes that neither Victor nor Junior turn the offers down. By the time the band takes a break, Victor and Junior can barely walk. While on their break, Thomas decides he wants to sing a special song and dedicate it to the pretty woman who has been standing at the edge of the stage all night. When the break is over and the musicians return to the stage, Thomas sings so many verses of the song that the crowd begins to sing along with him. When Thomas notices that the woman to whom he dedicated the song is also singing, he invites her up on the stage to sing with him. Their harmonies seem to come naturally.

After the show, Chess and Checkers help Thomas load the equipment into his van. Victor and Junior have passed out on the van’s back seats. Chess suggests that Thomas spend the night at her house because it is too late to drive all the way back to Washington. Thomas is reluctant but only because he is afraid that Victor and Junior will be angry if they wake up and are not yet home. But after drinking some coffee at Chess’s place and talking with her through much of what remains of the night, Thomas falls asleep on her couch.

The next morning, Thomas comes up with what he thinks is a brilliant idea. He asks Chess and Checkers to join the band. The women are cautious. What they heard the night before did not convince them that Coyote Springs could play music....

(The entire section is 536 words.)

Reservation Blues Chapter 4 Summary

When Coyote Springs arrives in Spokane, they go to Thomas’s house and find a body lying in the front yard. When they get out of the van, the boys recognize the man as Thomas’s father, Samuel. Once Victor and Junior have identified the man, they go inside Thomas’s house and fall asleep. So Thomas, Chess, and Checkers must carry Samuel into the house, where they lay him on the kitchen table.

The girls’ father used to drink a lot, so they empathize with what Thomas is going through. As he looks down at his father, Thomas tells the girls that his father was once a very good basketball player. When he was in high school, Samuel was awarded the Washington State High School Basketball Player of the Year. This put...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Reservation Blues Chapter 5 Summary

Coyote Springs makes its way to Seattle. The band members are exhausted by the time they arrive and stop at a motel. When the clerk inside asks Thomas how he is going to pay for the room, he calls the Backboard Club, where Coyote Springs is scheduled to play. He asks the manager if the club is paying for their rooms. Not only is the club not going to reimburse them for the motel, they are not even going to pay them the one thousand dollars unless Coyote Springs wins a contest. They are not hiring the band for a gig; they have only invited them to participate in a battle of the bands contest. The band members sleep in Thomas’s van, feeling disappointed.

The next day, they wander through Seattle, where they come across...

(The entire section is 571 words.)

Reservation Blues Chapter 6 Summary

The story takes a quick glance at what Robert Johnson has been doing. He found Big Mom and has been staying at her house. However, that he is not doing much better. His hands are healing and he is enjoying a break from his guitar, but he fears the guitar will eventually find him. He claims that it always has. He has thrown his guitar in rivers and dropped it several floors from tall buildings. Once he even buried it, but it has always returned.

At Thomas’s house, Coyote Springs is not faring much better. They have spent most of the money they won in Seattle and are very hungry. Many of the people on the reservation have turned against them. Some complain that the White women, Betty and Veronica, should not be in the...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Reservation Blues Chapter 7 Summary

The Coyote Springs band members bring their instruments up to Big Mom’s cabin on top of Wellpinit Mountain. The narrator states that although there have been many stories about Big Mom, many Indians still doubt her power. For example, Victor and Junior saw Big Mom walk on water, but they erased this event from their memory. They choose to not give her special attention for her magical gifts.

As they approach Big Mom’s house, Victor is very skeptical about their visiting her. Thomas tells Victor that Big Mom has “powerful medicine,” Victor expresses his disbelief not only in Big Mom but in the whole concept of any person claiming to be a medicine man or woman. Thomas also insists that Big Mom has taught many...

(The entire section is 570 words.)

Reservation Blues Chapter 8 Summary

In New York, the Coyote Springs band sets up in the studio of Cavalry Records, ready to impress the CEO, Mr. Armstrong. George Wright and Phil Sheridan, the two men who drove out to the Spokane Reservation to find the band, are sitting with the sound engineers, waiting for Mr. Armstrong to appear. Wright and Sheridan are as nervous as the band members are. They worry about Mr. Armstrong’s liking the music the Coyote Springs produces. They talk between themselves and discuss the music industry; they say it does not matter nowadays whether the musicians have talent. The only thing the executives of the recording industry want to know is if the band can make money. When Armstrong arrives, the band is given the signal to start. It is...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

Reservation Blues Chapter 9 Summary

After returning from New York, Junior climbs the tribal water tower with a loaded gun. While standing at the railing, he puts the butt of the rifle on the ground and leans his face into the barrel. A crowd has formed below him. Tribal cops have arrived.

The rest of the Coyote Springs band members are at Thomas’s house on lockdown, unaware of what Junior is doing. The tribal police have told them to stay inside because death threats have been circulating throughout the reservation. Everyone is angry at Coyote Springs for their failure in New York. Most of the death threats, however, have come from White Hawk.

After Victor, Thomas, and Chess fall asleep, Checkers sneaks out a back window and walks to the...

(The entire section is 470 words.)

Reservation Blues Chapter 10 Summary

Thomas and his friends hold a wake and funeral for Junior. His body has been laid into a homemade coffin, which is resting on Thomas’s kitchen table. Only a few people besides the members of the Coyote Springs attend. Some anonymous people have sent flowers.

Big Mom mourns Junior. She wishes she had seen Junior’s troubles and helped him. Although it might be too late for Junior, Big Mom is determined to walk all the way to Thomas’s house so she might help the members of the band that remain. Before she leaves, she gives Robert Johnson a harmonica she has carved out of a special piece of wood. Big Mom tells Johnson that he is no longer a guitar player. He should concentrate on playing the harmonica. She is pleased...

(The entire section is 672 words.)

Reservation Blues Bibliography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bellante, John, and Carl Bellante. “Sherman Alexie, Literary Rebel.” Bloomsbury Review 14 (May/June, 1994): 14-15, 26.

Busch, Frederick. “Longing for Magic.” The New York Times Book Review, July 16, 1995, 9-10.

Kincaid, James R. “Who Gets to Tell Their Stories?” The New York Times Book Review 97 (May 3, 1992): 1, 24-29.

Price, Reynolds. “One Indian Doesn’t Tell Another.” The New York Times Book Review 98 (October 17, 1993): 15-16.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Big Bingo.” Nation...

(The entire section is 70 words.)