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Reservation Blues

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Sherman Alexie

When Robert Johnson passes his enchanted guitar to Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, an epic journey of redemption begins that will take the storyteller and musician from the reservation, to Seattle, to Manhattan, and all points in between. Reader's Guide included. … see full wiki

Author: Sherman Alexie
Genre: Juvenile Fiction
Publisher: Grove Pr
Date Published: February 01, 2005
1 review about Reservation Blues

Those Old Indian Blues

  • Feb 20, 2009
Pros: Can make you empathetic toward Indians again

Cons: Bleaker than any blues song you've ever heard

The Bottom Line: I got the blues.

Author Sherman Alexie is a full-blooded Indian from Washington's Spokane tribe. Alexie was raised on a reservation and so it's very likely that his experiences living on the Spokane reservation influenced his stories. His first novel, Reservation Blues, was able to do something which I was beginning to think was impossible: It was able to get me to care about what the Indians (Alexie apparently hates the term "Native Americans," am who am I to argue?) had suffered at the hands of the government again. What the Indians have gone through, of course, is an issue right-wingers want killed, boxed, and buried, while lefties continue to think browbeating it will make people more empathetic. Between the two extremes, I had lost my empathy. Sherman Alexie helped me find it again.

Alexie paints his old reservation in Reservation Blues. But instead of the old image of the colorful mystics and peace pipe-smoking, feather-wearing tipi-dwellers children are raised believing in, the Indians in Reservation Blues are normal people who are a lot worse off. Many characters have Indian names: The main character is named Thomas Builds-the-Fire, and there are also sisters whose names are Warm Water, and another character is named David WalksAlong. But there are also Indian characters named Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin. Every Indian character in Reservation Blues carries two tons of heavy baggage and resentment. 

The reservation Alexie writes about in Reservation Blues is colorful, but not in the way people think when they think of Indians. There is a crazy man who keeps shouting about the end being near. One of the most prominent places there is a trading post. Many of the people seem to be living in government housing, eating commodity food, unemployed and just drifting through the days just to tell off the government which abused them and then forgot them. There is a certain air of depression hanging over Reservation Blues, and part of this is from the constant descriptions of the reservation, which make it a character in itself. Two white girls named Betty and Veronica visit the reservation and are freaked out by the fact that it isn't the mysterious, mystical place they had imagined.

The story of Reservation Blues revolves around Thomas. He receives a visit from the ghost of blues legend Robert Johnson. Johnson gives Thomas his guitar, and Thomas goes on to form a band with Victor and Junior called Coyote Springs. Later, on a Flathead Indian reservation in Montana, a couple of sisters, Checkers and Chess Warm Water, join the band. The group goes on to some critical acclaim, but they also earn the scorn of the reservation. Reservation Blues explores the meaning of what it is to be a true Indian and loyal to your tribe. When two white girls sing backup for Coyote Springs, they are roundly hated, and even the Warm Water sisters are at best only tolerated because they are from a different tribe.

The relationships between the characters is very odd. Thomas isn't well-liked because he tells a lot of stories. Victor and Junior begin as his primary antagonists, but when Thomas decides to form Coyote Springs, they are the first two people he asks. Victor and Junior both jump at the chance. In fact it's Victor - not Thomas as the back of the paperback book would have you believe - who becomes the great guitarist for the band. Victor seems contemptuous of everyone but grudgingly accepts the decisions he doesn't agree with. His best friend is Junior, but he can be abusive at times too. Many of the main characters and the side characters fall somewhere between liking each other and merely tolerating each other. The lone exception seems to be Big Mama, who is seen as some kind of all-powerful mystic.

There is a very mystical and supernatural side to Reservation Blues, and this is what makes the book worth reading. When Victor first sees Johnson's guitar, he smashes it but it repairs itself overnight and talks to both Thomas and Victor. Johnson himself is not an important character but he stays with Big Mama, who is said to have taught a number of musical legends how to perform. Alexie blurs the line between mysticism and reality by not bothering to differentiate between real happenings, dream sequences, and supernaturalism. It's possible many of the more surreal parts of Reservation Blues are meant to be taken in a certain context. But after awhile I decided to quit worrying about the context and just take every word as it is.

Alexie makes his style more relatable by giving us the occasional newspaper snippet or journal entry. These help give us direction and an idea of where the story will go when it begins to get confusing in its surreal imagery (which happens a lot). But there are a few points in which Reservation Blues begins to feel fattened. The worst is when we are introduced to Thomas' father, Samuel Builds-the-Fire. His basketball game with the Tribal Police doesn't do anything for the story. And the brief parts where Checkers Warm Water tries to find her way back to Catholicism doesn't do anything either, especially when she ends up rejoining Coyote Springs. There is in fact a whole religious undertone in Reservation Blues. I usually like religious discussion, but Alexie's shots at the Catholic church didn't contain a whole lot of intelligent thought. They merely serve to show the author's disdain. There's no real point to it.

Reservation Blues is not a celebration of Indian culture. It is not a story of triumph, though it comes close to being that many times. It is more of a mourning - mourning the loss of a culture and a people who have no idea what they are or where they fit in anymore. It's inspiring at points but contains an even larger share of bleakness. Normally I totally pan literature like this, but the supernatural streak and apparent mysticism was enough to keep it interesting. And the character of the reservation made me feel pangs of pain. The portrait of Indian reservation life is very well-drawn and made me a bit more respectful toward what Indians have been through. (For the record, I'm part Iroquois Seneca. My Indian blood is prevalent enough for my mother to theorize it being the reason I can't grow a full beard. But my heritage is dominantly Irish and I was raised in the large South Buffalo Irish District in Buffalo, New York, so that's how I identify my heritage when I'm asked.) I didn't love it, but it's interesting enough to be worth a read.


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