Friday, July 24, 2015

Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie

I discovered Sherman Alexie this year while my juniors were reading Native American literature in their English class. The kids enjoyed his memoir called Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian and a few of them read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven for their final projects. Reservation Blues was another one of the books that was up for grabs at the end of the year when a social studies teacher was retiring. I'll admit, the title didn't look appealing, but I took it anyway. I'm not normally a plain fiction reader, but I knew the author and figure I would give it a shot.

Sherman Alexie... this book, the history of Native Americans, for a lack of a better word, is just sad. Heartbreaking. But the kind of sadness that doesn't make a person cry, but seeps into the bones and lingers. The kind of sadness that couples with hopelessness and stays with you forever. From the atrocities that occurred with the Native Americans, no one should ever forget what happened, and Reservation Blues makes damn sure of that.

The story opens with a folk legend that is taken for truth. Robert Johnson is standing at the crossroads in the Spokane Indian Reservation with a guitar and deep cuts on his hands. He doesn't want to play the guitar, he tells Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a member of the tribe who is the only one brave enough to speak to him, that he can never play again because The Gentleman will find him. Thomas offers to give him a lift but leaves him at the foot of the mountain when Robert Johnson requests to see Big Mom. The guitar is left in Thomas' car, and the guitar persuades Thomas to start a band with his three former/current bullies, Victor and Junior.

They soon become popular on the reservation and they play their first gig at a nearby reservation, the Flathead reservation. They meet Chess and Checkers Warm Waters, who eventually join the band. The guitar's magic helps them become semi-famous, playing off the reservation, and getting a call from a recording studio in NYC. However, like all Native American history, even though it starts to turn up, it eventually falls apart.

The story itself, a band trying to make it big, isn't unique. The characters, their personalities and their struggles are the embodiment of the same sort of stories found on reservations. Victor is a deadbeat, who mooches off his friend for most of the book, a drunk, and has deep seated anger and rage that has been boiling up in past lifetimes. He's mistrustful and mean, and uses sleeping with women as trophies. After the guitar talks Thomas into starting a band, the guitar finds itself to Victor, who becomes a powerful guitar player because of it.

Junior and Victor are best friends, though the reasons why are not clear until towards the end of the book. Junior drives a water truck and puts up with Victor's drinking (and partakes too) and crap. Junior embodies the Indian man that couldn't quite make it off the reservation but is almost functional on the reservation with his job and his friend. He flunks out of college, with reasons that are not revealed until 3/4 through the book.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire is the main character of the book, and the lead singer. He loves to tell stories. All the members of the reservation knows his stories and they are sick of them. He falls in love with Chess Warm Waters, who is a flathead Indian from the nearby reservation. He is not an alcoholic and is dependable, which are all traits that Chess desires in a boyfriend. Thomas dreams of making something for himself and since there are no opportunities on the reservation, they go off the reservation to see if their band could make it.

Chess and Checkers Warm Waters are sisters, who are plagued, like the other members of the band, by alcoholism and poverty. They fight fires in the summer, and hope that their money last them through the winter. Checkers Warm Waters falls in love with older men and later on, falls in love with Father Arnold, for better or for worse. Chess resents the white women who come onto the reservation, Veronica and Betty and whereas Victor uses them as trophies, Chess views them as women who take Indian men away from them.

Alexie uses prose wonderfully in this book, and the metaphor of Indian horses (and their mass murdering) is constantly referred back too throughout the novel. If I have to go back in the book to remind myself what "something" is (a person, an event, etc.), then the author didn't do their job of effectively making sure that I, the reader, didn't forget about it. The metaphor of the horses and Big Mom stuck with me and when Alexis throws a reminder of the screaming horses, I didn't forget. I knew exactly what he was talking about. The destruction of beautiful horses parallel the destruction of a people.

The sadness of the story is multifaceted but it's not overdone. He presents the reality of Native Americans through dreams, songs and stories, which seems to be the core of their cultures. It demonstrates the conflicts between characters and within themselves but the transition between all three within the larger context of the novel is seamless and it flows. What also flows within the novel is the reference of historical atrocities of Wounded Knee and other Indian wars. Alexie doesn't go into how these events drastically and systematically desimates Native American tribes, but the casual reference of them shows that they will always be apart of Native American history, but more importantly, Native American reality.

BAE has The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and after I work through some of my book stack, I will revisit Sherman Alexie. He is a very talented writer with a viewpoint that should be shared with the world.

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