Thursday, March 21, 2013

International Fiction Book Club Meeting (March 20, 2013) - "Reservation Blues" by Sherman Alexie




         The International Fiction Book Club met the evening of March 20th to discuss the novel, Reservation Blues by the Native American author, Sherman Alexie.  We skipped around a lot on this one as the seemingly self-deprecating and cutting humor laced throughout the book spurred numerous positive reactions from members.  We agreed that the use of humor along with the dialogue oriented narrative stimulated the reader and allowed for the general acceptance of the use of a sort of Indian “Magical Realism”.  I should make mention that Alexie’s common use of the term “Indian” instead of “Native American” is evidence of the author’s own assimilation into pop-culture from an early age.

         Alexie grew up on the Spokane Reservation, located in Western Idaho, sixty miles from Spokane, Washington.  This is the home base for the three main characters in the novel, Thomas Builds the Fire, Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin.  Myth blends with reality early on as the Mississippi Delta bluesman from the 1930s , Robert Johnson, is met at the crossroads of the only town on the Reservation in 1992 by Thomas Builds the Fire.  Thomas was the only Indian brave enough to offer a ride to the black man stranger who is on a quest to regain his soul.  Legend has it that Robert Johnson became an accomplished guitar player when agreeing to sell his soul at the infamous crossroads made famous by Johnson’s song “Crossroad Blues”.  As Johnson re-discovers his lost soul with the help of Big Mom (who is herself a timeless bearer of Indian tradition) the trio of Thomas, Victor and Junior are mysteriously taken over by Johnson’s guitar and coerced into forming  the band, Coyote Springs. 

         Coyote Springs plays their first job at a tavern on the Flathead Reservation, located in Western Montana as depicted on a map brought in by a member of the group.  The Flathead sisters, Chess and Checkers Warm Water, become backup singers and keyboard players as the group enjoys limited success.  Coyote Springs are considered representatives of the Spokane Reservation by the Tribal Council but each member of the group has private demons that Alexie depicts gradually through character interaction and dreams that make it obvious that they only represent themselves in all their naivete and pratfalls.

         An example of one of Alexie’s themes plays out when Thomas’ Dad is passed out drunk on the kitchen table and Thomas leaves Chess and Checkers to go outside and cry.  He was not afraid to cry  in front of women but “he wanted his tears to be individual, not tribal”.  Spontaneous interaction in the Pike Place Market in Seattle where the group travels to contend in a “battle of the bands” leads Victor to accompany an old Indian singer whose hands are too worn out to play guitar.  Playing the old man’s cardboard guitar, Victor helps him amass several hundred dollars.  Success for Victor breeds excess as his alcoholism plays an integral part throughout the book.  Coyote Springs wins the thousand dollar prize but Victor drinks up his share of the winnings.  Coyote Springs appears to be gaining a bit of fame, however,  it is short lived as they are rejected by the Tribal Council for having white women singing backup and for beings drunks.  These “New Age” women attached themselves to Victor and Junior and seem to reveal the out of tune side to rock n roll.

        Coyote Springs are flown to New York by music producers George Wright and Phil Sheridan.  Their boss is a Mr. Armstrong.  Earlier, we have a flashback in the memory of Big Mom and with a little research the connection is made.  Generals Wright and Sheridan were instrumental in 1858 in defeating the Indians in what was to become Washington state and later the confinement of Indians to reservations.  Armstrong refers to General Armstrong Custer.

         Needless to sat, Coyote Springs falls apart in the big apple but not before revealing much about the difficulty of leaving the Reservation and existing in the white man’s world.   won’t give away the ending but suffice it to say that the final scene is as breathtaking and ties together the wretched history of a colonized people.

         We next discuss, Mister Pip, by the New Zealand author Lloyd Jones.  We meet at the Blum House on Wednesday evening at 6:30 on April 17th.  You are welcome to join us.

Posted by Jim Krapf, Library Clerk