Before launching into this analysis and plot summary of “Reservation Blues” by Sherman Alexie, it might be a great idea to look into the tale of the legendary blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads to win his great guitar talent. Not only is it just a great story, but it will allow you to appreciate the beginning of the book even more. Reservation Blues by Native American author Sherman Alexie opens with Robert Johnson’s arrival at a Spokane Indian reservation where he meets Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who leads him to a woman who lives in the clouds that the blues singer has been dreaming about, Big Mom. This is no ordinary woman—she is reported to be hundreds of years old and incredibly wise. It is rumored that she even taught Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Johnson faked his death in 1938 and is under the impression that only Big Mom can undo the deal he made with the devil so many years ago. Thomas Builds-the-Fire takes Johnson to see Big Mom at Wellpoint Mountain and Johnson leaves him his guitar (which we will soon learn is no ordinary guitar) and Thomas sees his chance to form a blues band.
The band is comprised of misfits (including two native women named Checkers and Chess) from the reservation and they call themselves “Coyote Springs." Mostly as a result of the charmed (or cursed) guitar, Coyote Springs begins to become popular with white people and they even gain two white groupies named Betty and Veronica who later become their own group who are constructed to look and seem Indian. Furthermore, they attract the attention of two men at Cavalry Records named Sheridan and Wright (who have names that parallel those of cavalrymen that slaughtered his people in the past). While the plot of “Reservation Blues” by Sherman Alexie does not necessarily offer a traditional “happy ending" tracing the rise and fall of the band provides Alexie the framework necessary for him to discuss many issues relevant to Native Americans—both past and present. Details about living on the reservation and the problems associated with it are paramount in the text and although the author certainly wants us to walk away with a good story, he also wants us to think critically about the themes and issues related to Native Americans and reservation life.There are a number of themes worth exploring in this text and if you’re thinking about an essay topic, you shouldn’t have much trouble. Think about differing views of cultural assimilation, of the way gender roles are represented in the novel by Native American author Sherman Alexie or of the role of religion or music, for example. For a more literary analysis, you could write about the nature of magical realism as it is expressed in this text. What purpose do you think it serves? How is humor used in the text and why is used when discussing some of the most depressing aspects of reservation life? The possible topics are endless.
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In his poetry volume Old Shirts and New Skins (1993) Sherman Alexie offers a formula that he attributes to one of his recurring characters, Lester FallsApart: “Poetry = Anger Imagination.” The formula appears slightly altered in a story in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, where “Poetry” is replaced with “Survival.” A more accurate formula might require that Anger and its multiple, Imagination, be divided by Humor or Wit, for what makes Alexie’s anger tolerable for many readers is not so much his imagination, which is sometimes visionary and suggests certain features of Magical Realism, but his comic, generally satiric sensibility. Alexie’s comedy is often dark, and he frequently employs insult humor, as in Reservation Blues, when Chess, a Flathead Indian woman, tells Veronica, an Indian wannabe, that “a concussion is just as traditional as a sweatlodge.” This passage exemplifies another facet of Alexie’s perspective on Indianness. He has described himself as having been influenced as much by 1970’s family television program The Brady Bunch as by tribal traditions.
Part of what makes Alexie so popular with academic audiences is his blending of pop-culture elements with historical and literary allusion. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, for instance, young Arnold Spirit, Jr., reflects on the opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877). Reservation Blues is constructed on the Faust legend as embodied in the historical blues guitarist Robert Johnson, but the novel is also haunted by such historical figures as Colonel George Wright, who had nine hundred Spokane horses shot in 1858. Two New Age white groupies who hang out with the reservation blues band are named Betty and Veronica, straight out of the Archie comic books. Female characters figure prominently and powerfully in Alexie’s fiction. He consistently assails racist and sexist attitudes, and he has taken a strong stand against homophobia and gay bashing.
Dreams and memories, sometimes historically based like the murder of Crazy Horse, tend to haunt Alexie’s fiction. These combine with characters such as Big Mom, who appears to have mystical powers, to lend otherworldly or surreal overtones. A basketball game might dissolve into fantasy. A magical guitar might burst into flame. In Flight, the teenage protagonist experiences a series of metamorphoses, inhabiting multiple bodies, both white and Indian, before he returns to himself in the body of his runaway father, which prompts him to reflect on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601).
With certain exceptions, as in Indian Killer and some of the later stories, Alexie prefers uncomplicated syntax and colloquial dialogue; short paragraphs predominate. These stylistic features combine with others, including Alexie’s disinclination toward complex imagery and metaphor, to make his fiction readily accessible.
The three predominant characters in his first novel, Reservation Blues, Alexie has described as “the holy trinity of me”: Victor Joseph (angry, physical, inclined to drink), Junior Polatkin (the “intellectual” because he went to college for a couple of years), and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (the storyteller, spiritual, given to memories and dreams). When they acquire legendary blues singer Robert Johnson’s magic guitar, this trio forms the nucleus of the reservation blues band, Coyote Springs, which is joined by two Flathead Indian sisters, Chess and Checkers Warm Water. Their success arouses the enmity of their fellow Spokanes, notably in the person of the tribal chair, David WalksAlong.
Thomas and Chess (predictably, the more intellectual of the sisters) form a couple, and record producers from the East, Phil Sheridan and George Wright (both named after historically renowned Indian fighters), offer them an audition with Cavalry Records. Despite Big Mom’s assistance, however, the recording session ends disastrously, and when the band members return to the reservation, Junior commits suicide. Ironically, the record company finds Betty and Veronica to be “Indian enough” and signs them to a contract, the refrain to one song being “Indian in my bones.” Thomas stomps on the tape.
When Thomas, Chess, and Checkers leave the reservation to move to the city of Spokane, Big Mom...
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