Sherman Alexie Analysis

Discussion Topics

In what sense is the title, Reservation Blues, an apt title for the events of that novel?

What is the significance of the band that forms within the novel, Coyote Springs?

Given the fact that Sherman Alexie is an Indian with two tribal traditions from the Pacific Northwest (Spokane, Coeur d’Alene), why does he repeatedly invoke Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota (northern Plains) Indian? Does it have anything to do with the refrain from the poem “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel”: “the hero must be . . . from a horse culture”?

Determine the effectiveness of the gallows humor that Alexie uses in his poetry and short fiction.

Alexie frequently describes young Indian men as warriors without a war to fight. What sorts of modern-day replacements do Alexie’s young men use instead of horses and weapons? What sorts of rites of passage and experiences do they need to undergo in order to forge coherent adult identities?

What sorts of racial prejudice do Alexie’s fictional characters suffer, and how do they mediate such prejudice?

Other Literary Forms

A prolific writer, Sherman Alexie has published well over three hundred stories and poems. His poetry and poetry/short fiction works include The Business of Fancydancing (1992), I Would Steal Horses (1992), First Indian on the Moon (1993), Old Shirts and New Skins (1993), Seven Mourning Songs for the Cedar Flute I Have Yet to Learn to Play (1994), Water Flowing Home (1994), and The Summer of Black Widows (1996). He has also written the novels Reservation Blues (1995) and Indian Killer (1996).


Sherman Alexie began accruing his numerous accolades and awards while in college, including a Washington State Arts Commission poetry fellowship (1991) and a National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship (1992). He also won Slipstream’s fifth annual Chapbook Contest (1992), an Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award Citation, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award (1994), an American Book Award (1996), and The Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction. His first novel, Reservation Blues (1995) won the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award, the Murray Morgan Prize, and prompted Alexie to be named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. Indian Killer (1996), his second novel, was listed as a New York Times notable book.

Other literary forms

In addition to being a significant contemporary poet, Sherman Alexie has developed an equally prominent status as a writer of fiction through the publication of short-story collections and novels. His first short-story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), has become one of the most-taught Indian literature texts at the college level, and the short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” was made into the screenplay and film Smoke Signals (1998). Alexie’s novels alone would establish a worthy reputation for any author. In Reservation Blues (1995), Alexie fictionally posits that legendary bluesman Robert Johnson did not die in 1938 but instead hitchhiked his way onto the Spokane Indian Reservation in 1991, triggering the formation of an all-Indian blues band, Coyote Springs, in the context of a compelling narrative. Indian Killer (1996), a mystery story set in Seattle, revolves around the ironically named John Smith, an Indian adopted as an infant by a white family. In Flight (2007), an orphaned Indian boy travels back and forth through time, learning and growing through what he experiences. In his acclaimed young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), Alexie liberally uses elements of his own childhood—his encephalitic condition, his Spokane Indian Reservation upbringing, Reardan High School, and his success in academics and in basketball—to create a heartfelt and memorable work that employs graphic novel techniques to appeal visually to a younger reading audience.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Soon after his graduation from Washington State University, Sherman Alexie won poetry fellowships from the Washington State Arts Commission (1991) and from the National Endowment for the Arts (1992). On the strength of his early poetry and short-story collections, he won the Washington State University Distinguished Alumni Award (1994) and later received the Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award from Washington State University (2003). In 1994, he received the Washington State Book Award. Alexie’s stature can be determined in part by his regional acclaim (Tacoma Public Library Annual Literary Award, 1998; Western Literature Association Distinguished Achievement Award, 2007) and by the national and international notice he has received: Granta magazine named him one of the Twenty Best American Novelists Under the Age of Forty in 1996, and The New Yorker named him one of the Twenty Writers for the Twenty-first Century in 1999. Among other accolades, Alexie has received the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award (1994), the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation (1996), the PEN/Malamud Award (2001), a Pushcart Prize for the poem “Avian Nights” (2005), and the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature (2007) and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature (2008) for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. He was named Most Engaging Author by the Indies Choice Book Awards in 2009 and received the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction for his short-story collection War Dances. He has been granted honorary degrees from Columbia College, Chicago (1999), and from Seattle University (2000).

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Sherman Alexie initiated his literary career with an unusual collection of poems and very short stories titled The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems, published in 1992 by a small press, Hanging Loose, in Brooklyn, New York. Of the forty-two titles in that small book, only six could be confidently described as “short stories,” and the longest of these runs only nine pages. Before his thirtieth birthday, Alexie had published six more full-length books, three of which were collections of poetry, and two chapbooks of poetry. His first book of short fiction, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was published in 1993 to considerable acclaim, and he has followed that with two other books of short fiction. Alexie’s short fiction has evolved in various ways. While the average length of the twenty-four stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is just nine pages, the nine stories that make up The Toughest Indian in the World (2000) average twenty-five pages in length, and one story, the ominously allegorical “The Sin Eaters,” runs almost to novella length at forty-four pages. Similarly, the first of the nine stories in his third collection, Ten Little Indians (2003), runs fifty-two pages and the last runs forty-eight.

Some readers admire Alexie’s poetry over his prose. He has had several books of poetry published, including the limited edition chapbook Dangerous Astronomy (2005). Alexie has also written screenplays for two films drawn from his literary work, Smoke Signals (1998) and The Business of Fancydancing (2002).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Among other recognitions that Sherman Alexie has received for his writing, his novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian received the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. In the fall of 2007, Alexie was honored by the Western Literature Association with its Distinguished Achievement Award. Two of his stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories anthologies (1994, 2004), and one of his poems was selected for the Best American Poetry anthology in 1996. His first novel, Reservation Blues, won the American Book Award for 1996, and his second novel, Indian Killer, was listed as a New York Times Notable Book the same year. His...

(The entire section is 129 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Alexie, Sherman. “Sherman Alexie, Literary Rebel: An Interview.” Interview by John Bellante and Carl Bellante. Bloomsbury Review 14 (May/June, 1994): 14. Published before any of his long fiction appeared, this interview touches on important aspects of Alexie’s “minimalism” (a term he does not care for), the “holy trinity of me,” and various thematic issues.

Alexie, Sherman. “Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” Interview by Dennis West. CINEASTE 23, no. 4 (1998): 28-32. Discusses both the film Smoke Signals and short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in...

(The entire section is 945 words.)