Gloria Bird, in a frequently cited review of Reservation Blues, faults Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene) for his intrusive, authorial ‘self-referencing’ that ‘continually reminds us of the singularity of his presence’. Bird disapproves of the narcissistic self-production in Alexie's work that foregrounds his own uniqueness as it reinforces, rather than resists, stereotypes of Native peoples. His writing is ‘not invested with any seriousness’, she declares, but instead, ‘postmodern irony rules. [ … ] Reservation Blues is [ … ] a product, and reflection, of the techno-generation, clever at times, but not the serious literature it's cracked up to be’ (see ‘The Exaggeration of Despair in Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues’, Wicazo Sa Review, 11.2 (Fall 1995), pp. 37, 38, 41).
Alexie himself admits to being a...
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The action begins in a reservation in Washington where a mystery man arrives with a guitar on his back. For a while, no one has the courage to talk to him until an Indian named Thomas builds-the-fire goes to him. Thomas invites the stranger in his house to play for him but the man who introduces himself as being Robert claims that he can't play and shows his hands. Robert also tells Thomas that he is searching from an old woman who appeared to him in a dream and who is said to be able to get rid of the ‘’Gentleman’’.
Thomas tells Robert that the woman he searches for may be Big Mom, a woman who lives on the top of the mountain. Thomas drives Robert to the base of the mountain and then he tells him that the rest of the journey he must take on his own. At the base of the mountain, the two men meet two troublemakers named Victor and Junior who threaten Robert to beat him unless he plays a song for them. Before letting him play, Victor takes the guitar and smashes it on the sidewalk before giving it to Robert who then plays a song for them. Junior and Victor then go and Thomas decides to rest until the next morning.
Junior and Victor then go with the water truck to various houses to do their job and Junior insists that they finish their job before going drinking. The next morning, Thomas wakes up to see the guitar that was broken the night before in perfect shape and the guitar even starts talking to Thomas, telling him that his destiny is to sing for the black people with Junior and Victor.
Meanwhile, Victor and Junior are passed out drunk in the back of their truck and Victor dreams about his family and about his biological father’s death. The two men are awoken by the sound made by the guitar and they decide to go and investigate the origin of the sound. The guitar tells Thomas that the two men will come to him so he prepares for their visit. When the two arrive, Thomas gives his guitar to Victor and they agree to form a band.
In the second chapter the band begins rehearsing in an abandoned shop and they quickly draw the attention of various crowds who come to watch them play. Some people protested against them claiming that they were worshiping the devil through their music but others were accepting and open minded.
A person who is surprisingly acceptant is Father Arnold who used to be in a rock band himself. The Chairman Council from Spoken warns the band that they are disrupting the peace in the town but he is ignored by them. The Chairman, WalksAlong, returns then home where he meets his nephew who was just released from prison, a man named White Hawk.
The band becomes more popular with each passing day and they soon have followers and devoted fans. Two such fans are Veronica and Betty, two girls from Seattle that are not liked by the other women on the reservation. The band decides that they must chose a name and after some debate they agree to be called Coyote Springs. The band covers various songs by other artists but then Thomas decides that he will write original songs for the band. Writing however is harder than Thomas thought it will be but he finds inspiration through his hunger.
The band is invited to play in another reservation and the band agrees to do it. When the band arrives at the reservation, they find that they arrived too early. The band begins playing after the sun set and even though they had a rocky start, they got better in a short period of time.
In the next chapter, the author presents two Indian women, Chess and Checkers who also became obsessed with the band. Thomas falls in love with one of the girls and decide to sing a song for her during a concert. The band members became consuming large amounts of alcohol during concerts and this also affected the quality of their performance on stage. Thomas and Chess fall in love and Chess invites Thomas to her house one night. There, they talk about their parents and about what happened to them and Chess mentions her baby brother who died during a harsh winter. After that, the relationship between her parents grew cold and Chess’s father became aggressive towards his wife.
Thomas falls asleep on the couch and when he wakes up Victor is looking for the guitar. Thomas promises the two girls to go with them and join the band and after some persuasion they agree. Chess and Thomas become involved romantically because Chess considers Thomas as being a good man because he refuses to drink.
The band is invited to play in a town outside the reservation and the band was praised for its talent. When the band returns home, they find Thomas’s father passed out on the front lawn. They take him inside and put him on a table in the kitchen and then they think about the ways the Indians have been mistreated and brutalized by others.
The members of the band fight and Chess suggests that they leave Victor and Junior behind but they decide against it when they are contacted to play in another town. The band is on the road again, driving to their next concert but there they find that they were invited to participate in a contest and that the only way to gain some money is to win.
Checkers decided to remain home and she went to Church while the band was on the road. There, she talked with Father Arnold about her contempt for white people and how the whites will always be better than them.
The band returns to the reservation and on the road the men have various nightmares that wake them from their sleep. The band stops in a town and there they play on the streets and are given money by the passer byes. The band ends up winning the competition and they are interviewed by a radio station.
Back home, Checkers falls in love with Father Arnold and she becomes convinced that he loves her as well. She starts singing in the Church choir and even flirts with the priest from time to time. Father Arnold is however frustrated because he feels that he is not respected by those on the reservation and he fantasizes about ways he could make the Indians listen to him.
The band is criticized by the town and when Thomas goes to Church on Sunday an old woman comes to him thinking that he quit the band and decided to join the Church. Victor and Junior decided to spend their days spending the money they earned at the contest and being drunk most of the time. They even get into a fight and have to be transported to a hospital to receive medical attention.
Things are hard for the band after that as no one wants to hire them anymore. One day however, a car comes on the reservation and the man inside the car asks to be taken to the place where the band lives. The man’s name is Phil Sheridan and he claims that a record company is interested in working with them. The band agrees and Phil gives Thomas some money to last them a few weeks. Before leaving for New York, Big Mom sends a letter to Thomas telling him that they need to talk.
The band then goes up the mountain to meet with Big Mom who it is rumored to have thought other influential musicians. Big Mom gives Junior a pair of drumsticks and assures Victor that should he want to get rid of his guitar, she can do it for him. Then she took the girls and together they sang near a stream until their voices became clear and more beautiful than ever. The band practices until they have a new set of original music and Big Mom assures them that they are now prepared to go into the world. The band leaves Big Mom and she watches until they disappear into the distance. Then, the band boards a plane and they leave for New York.
In New York, they fail to impress the producers and are asked to leave. Victor becomes violent, destroying everything in the studio and then going to get drunk with Junior. Thomas and Chess go looking for them from one bar to another but they are unsuccessful. When they returned to the hotel, Junior and Victor were already there, Junior sober and with a passed out Victor near him. When they return to their rooms, they meet with George Wright who tells them that he wants to make things right for them.
In the ninth chapter, the author presents what happed with the characters after they returned home. Junior killed himself and Checkers was plagued by horrible nightmares. Checkers expresses her love for the priest but he rejects her and also tells her that he will be leaving the reservation and going to another Church. Chess and Thomas plan to leave as well and go to another reservation to live in peace.
Up the mountain, Big Mom is with Robert Johnson who gave up his dreams of becoming an accomplished musician. Despite claiming that he no longer wants and instrument, Big Mom gives Johnson a harmonica craved out of cedar. Then, she goes to Father Arnold and urges him to not leave town and instead go with her to Thomas’s house and mourn Junior.
The small group buries Junior and then Victor leaves with his truck. Junior appears before him and offers him a drink but Victor refuses, claiming that he is thinking about quitting drinking. A few days later, Thomas, Chess and Checkers leave the reservation, feeling free from burden of their past.
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