In Reservation Blues, Alexie has scattered magical occurrences throughout his otherwise perfectly realistic fictional world, an approach critics refer to as magic realism. In her essay ‘‘Conjuring the Colonizer: Alternative Readings of Magic Realism in Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues,’’ Wendy Belcher discusses how the association of magic with the guitar, a secular Western object, inverts the critically recognized paradigm whereby indigenous or mythical objects are usually sources of magic. While she astutely concludes that in this novel, ‘‘Indian culture and people frequently embody rationality while the West spews easy, dangerous magic,’’ she concedes that Alexie may not have intended to address this critical paradigm at all. As Belcher notes, ‘‘In interviews, Alexie rarely talks about magic realism but emphasizes his own interest in the real, the everyday, and the human.’’ This almost seems contradictory, as the author’s inclusion of magical . . . Read More
Robert Johnson and the Blues
Although during his short lifetime his reputation reached not far beyond the bars and roadhouses of the Deep South where his music evolved, Robert Johnson, after his death, as noted by Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch in their biography, ‘‘rose from obscurity to become an all-American musical icon, the best-known although least understood exemplar of the Mississippi Delta blues tradition.’’ The blues developed early in the twentieth century from African American musical traditions such as spirituals and work songs, incorporating particular guitar chord progressions, call-and-response patterns, and lyrical lamentations, with the resulting music serving to both express and purge worldly sorrows. Born in 1911, Johnson flourished in the 1930s, when he traveled and played constantly and recorded a couple of records that sold modestly. He died a mysterious death, presumably poisoned, in 1938. As noted by . . . Read More
American Indian Literature
Works that would be classified as Native American fiction, as put forth by Daniel Grassian in Understanding Sherman Alexie, are often marked by a return journey of sorts, where an Indian protagonist ventures out into the world fashioned by whites and, eventually disillusioned or disheartened, returns to reconnect with his tribe. Such a work cannot be properly examined through the lens of white individualism—a motivating factor in many Western works—as the concept of belonging to a tribe cannot apply to members of modern white society in the same way. Necessarily, then, American Indian writers must be conscious of two or even three audiences who will perceive their work differently: their own tribe, other tribes, and the remainder of contemporary society, which happens to be the portion whose appreciation for a novel will largely determine its degree of success. Yet if an Indian writer believes in and is motivated . . . Read More
The Power of Music
Alexie has much to say in Reservation Blues about the power of music to inspire, heal, and unite listeners. Thomas professes to have been inspired by music from an early age, as his mother sang not only traditional Spokane songs but also Broadway numbers and Catholic hymns.When the enchanted guitar suggests, ‘‘Y’all need to play songs for your people,’’ Thomas, a storyteller, is immediately open to the idea. The music that the guitar plays of its own accord, as heard by Victor and Junior, is said to have ‘‘worked its way into their skins,’’ and when it rises to the clouds and rains down, the reservation ‘‘arched its back, opened its mouth, and drank deeply.’’ In a magic realist style, the music is made palpable, given a physical presence that affects people and even the land in an insistent way, whether they wish it to or not.
The spiritual nature of music is emphasized particularly . . . Read More
The head of Cavalry Records, Armstrong quickly concludes that Coyote Springs does not have what it takes, and he agrees to promote two white women, Betty and Veronica, dressed up like Indians instead.
A onetime rock singer who heard his calling to the Catholic priesthood in a McDonald’s, Father Arnold is devoted to his Indian congregation and admiring of both their defiantly cheery nature and their physical beauty. When Checkers develops a crush on him, he has a crisis of faith and nearly leaves the reservation, but Big Mom brings him to his Christian senses.
Along with Veronica, Betty becomes a Coyote Springs groupie who later joins the band, but quits after the scuffle outside the Trading Post. The two white women later sign up with Cavalry Records as pseudo-Indians.
A sort of . . . Read More
Chapter 1: Reservation Blues
As Reservation Blues begins, jazz musician Robert Johnson shows up at the reservation crossroads in Wellpinit, Washington, looking for a woman on a hill. Thomas Builds-the-Fire kindly drives Johnson toward the mountain home of Big Mom—who generations ago witnessed a tragic slaughter of horses by U.S. troops—but the van dies en route. Johnson must walk up, and he leaves behind his guitar, which Thomas adopts. In front of the Trading Post, Victor Joseph finds Thomas and smashes the guitar before leaving with Junior Polatkin to deliver water and then go drinking. Meaning to burn the guitar, Thomas wakes up to find it healed; he converses with it while it intermittently plays itself. Summoned by the music, Victor and Junior arrive and agree to join Thomas’s band.
Chapter 2: Treaties
Rehearsing at an abandoned grocery store, Thomas, Victor, and Junior’s band starts . . . Read More
Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper contains several instances of mistaken identity, the most obvious cases being those of Prince Edward and Tom Canty. Through the experience of mistaken or lost identity, Twain depicts one’s personal identity as something with a dualistic nature. For Twain, as these characters’ experiences demonstrate, identity exists as a composite of how we view ourselves and how we are viewed by others. Additionally, the author’s creation of his own overtly dual identity—that of Samuel Langhorne Clemens and that of Mark Twain— underscores the significance to Twain of this conception of identity and selfhood.
From the moment Edward realizes that, after he has changed clothes with Tom Canty, no one recognizes him as his true self, he continues to insist on who he truly is. His personal sense of self is strong, as he has been nurtured from the time he was an infant to believe his physical person is sacred. He has been told from the time he was . . . Read More
The Monarchy of Henry VIII
As a historical novel, The Prince and the Pauper is inspired by the general history of the time period in which the novel is set. (Like any historical novel, it does not claim to be wholly accurate factually. For example, historically Prince Edward was only nine when he became King of England, but in the novel he and Tom Canty are fifteen.) During this period in English history, Henry VIII ruled as king from 1509 until 1547. Over the course of his controversial reign, he had six wives. The children (Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward) of these wives are mentioned in or appear in Twain’s novel. The first wife was Catherine of Aragon, whom Henry married in 1509. The couple had one daughter, Mary, who would later become Queen Mary I and reign from 1553 to 1558. Henry wanted a male heir and when Catherine did not produce one, Henry decided to divorce her. The Pope refused to allow the divorce, but Henry proceeded with it anyway . . . Read More
Nineteenth-Century Historical Romance
The Prince and the Pauper was labeled upon publication a ‘‘historical romance.’’ As a genre, nineteenth-century historical romances did not necessarily feature a romantic relationship between two individuals. Rather, the term historical romance was used to characterize books that looked back to an earlier time in European history and focused on the adventurous aspects of that earlier time period. These books featured knights and kings, princes and peasants. The genre was popularized in England before crossing the Atlantic to become a significant literary genre in America as well. Twain’s foray into this genre— The Prince and the Pauper—was seen by many critics as serious and well mannered, as opposed to Twain’s more overtly humorous and boisterous tales, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (which is a combination of several genres, featuring aspects of the coming-of-age novel, the American . . . Read More
Social and Economic Inequality
Twain’s novel demonstrates the stark contrast between two social classes in sixteenth-century England. The society of the day is organized around the idea of a class system. The noble class is a group of people who inherit titles and the corresponding wealth, and usually lands, as well. One is born into this class of status and privilege; such a designation cannot be earned through the accumulation of wealth. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the lowest class of society, that of paupers and peasants. These are individuals who usually have no education or even access to it. They typically manage to acquire a few coins by begging but often have no regular income. The prince’s world, that of the noble class, is associated with luxury, ease, and comfort, while Tom’s world is filled with drunkenness, violence, and ignorance. However, the noble class has its cruelties as well. The torturous punishments . . . Read More