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 drawing crowds. Father Arnold—who had arrived years back naively expecting buffalo in the Pacific Northwest—quells the fears of the local Catholic community. David WalksAlong, the tribal council head whose nephew is just returning from two years in prison, tells the band they’re too loud. The white New Age bookstore owners Betty and Veronica become devoted fans. Naming themselves Coyote Springs, the band travels to a gig in Arlee, Montana, that starts promisingly.
Chapter 3: Indian Boy Love Song
At the show at the Tipi Pole Tavern, Chess and Checkers Warm Water make their way to the front of the crowd. Victor and Junior are playing drunkenly, but Chess and Thomas share looks, and he dedicates a song to her, performing several versions. She then joins him onstage to sing along. Afterward, Chess invites him back to their house, and the two chat over coffee about her family’s tragic stories while the others sleep. In the morning, Victor impresses them with his sober guitar playing, and the women join the band. The Arlee tavern again hosts Coyote Springs, and they earn much admiration. They all then go to Spokane, where Thomas and Chess become more intimate. Later they drive to a non-reservation show at a cowboy bar, getting towed there after their van breaks down, and earn a warm newspaper review.
Chapter 4: Father and Further
Back at the Spokane reservation, Thomas’s father is asleep on the lawn. Chess and Checkers help Thomas carry Samuel inside and lay him on the kitchen table. Thomas tells of how his father excelled at basketball; one time, having committed an infraction, he challenged the tribal cops to a six-on-two game, with Lester FallsApart as his only teammate. The two women brush Samuel’s hair and sing old choir songs as he sleeps, while Thomas stands outside. Victor and Junior dream of their deceased parents; Junior’s parents died in a car accident after a party at Samuel’s house. In that basketball game, though Officer Wilson broke Lester’s nose, Samuel kept the score close with dazzling play—but the cops prevailed. Victor speaks ill of the dozing Samuel, and Checkers rages at him. Coyote Springs is invited to Seattle to play for a thousand dollars, but Checkers will not go anywhere with Victor and stays behind.
Chapter 5: My God Has Dark Skin
In Seattle, the band stops at a motel hoping the Backboard club will pay for rooms, but Thomas calls to find out the event is actually a contest; they get cheap food and sleep in the van instead. In Wellpinit, Checkers goes to the Catholic Church and takes a liking to the sympathetic Father Arnold. The band members go to Pike Place Market and lose themselves in the scene; Victor chats with drunks and then plays guitar while an old Indian man sings beautifully—and listeners drop much money in his hat—and though they may be late for the contest, Thomas cannot interrupt. Finally, they rush off; after they win, Thomas gives a radio interview. At church, Checkers sings in the choir. With Betty and Veronica, now backup singers, riding in the back, Thomas and Chess drive the van home and discuss faith, God, and the fates of America’s Indians.
Chapter 6: Falling Down and Falling Apart
David WalksAlong writes an open letter to the Spokanes denouncing Coyote Springs as unworthy of the tribe. Nervously accompanying Chess and Checkers to church, Thomas feels faint and dreams of a sweat lodge. An old woman then relates the people’s hostility toward the band for leaving the reservation and for adopting white women. Outside the Trading Post, Michael White Hawk clobbers the drunken Victor and Junior until the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota knocks White Hawk out with a two-by-four. Caught in the scuffle, Betty and Veronica, bruised and disillusioned, head back to Seattle. Sheridan and Wright, two white men, arrive in a Cadillac to check out the band; they offer to fly Coyote Springs to New York City to try rehearsing in a studio. Checkers rejoins the group; she kisses Father Arnold.
Chapter 7: Big Mom
Honored to be invited, Thomas leads the band members up to see Big Mom, who is said to have schooled many a renowned musician. She counsels forgiveness to Victor, gives Junior heavy drumsticks, and takes the Warm Water sisters to her sweat lodge. Victor, disbelieving any Indian magic, resists Big Mom’s education. Fearing his old guitar, Robert Johnson hides in the woods. Thomas shares his fears and ambitions with Chess. After a week they leave for the airport, where Victor is almost too afraid to board. Thomas gives everyone eagle feathers.
Chapter 8: Urban Indian Blues
In the Cavalry Records studio, Victor fumbles with the guitar while Checkers forgets her chords; Mr. lArmstrong, the CEO, declares Coyote Springs unfit and promptly dismisses them. Victor rages, and Sheridan and Wright have them ejected by security. Junior and Victor then disappear into the masses of people to go drink. Checkers stays at the hotel while Chess and Thomas, fearful for the others, set off to search for them at bars. With Victor toppling over drunk, Junior reminisces about his college romance with Lynn, a white woman. Checkers has a nightmare in which Sheridan chastens her—and her whole race—and then assaults her; Wright, concerned for the band, happens to wake her up by knocking. Close to dawn, Thomas and Chess return to find Junior and Victor in the lobby and Checkers asleep upstairs, watched over by Wright.
Chapter 9: Small World
Coyote Springs returns to Wellpinit, and a week later Junior commits suicide atop the water tower. The night before, Checkers sneaks out of Thomas’s house to visit Father Arnold, who says he must leave the reservation. The day before that, in a dream, Victor tells his guitar he would give up Junior, whom he loves most, to get it back. Thomas and Chess talk about leaving for Arlee or elsewhere. The day before that, Robert Johnson watches as White Hawk walks and mumbles around the softball diamond. Back in 1930, Johnson surrendered his freedom to the Gentleman to play the best guitar ever. At Cavalry, Sheridan tells Betty and Veronica they can play for the company as Indians or not at all. Wright objects and goes back home—to his grave in Sacramento; he was the one who ordered the slaughter of the horses.
Chapter 10: Wake
Coyote Springs holds a wake for Junior in Thomas’s house; Lester FallsApart gives them three dogs. Giving Robert Johnson the cedar harmonica she made, Big Mom descends and gets Father Arnold to help at the burial. Victor tells everyone Junior had a kid, and Chess imagines the difficult lives of half-blood Indians; she tells Thomas she wants to have full-blood children with him. Checkers, who is leaving for Spokane with Thomas and Chess, reconciles with Father Arnold, who will stay. Victor talks to Junior’s ghost, swearing off alcohol and tossing silver flasks into Turtle Lake. He seeks a job but is denied by David WalksAlong and starts drinking again. Receiving a demo cassette of Betty and Veronica’s quasi-Indian music, Thomas smashes it. Before they leave, Thomas and the sisters go along with Big Mom to a feast, where she breaks all the fry bread in halves to feed everyone, and a collection hat yields a couple hundred dollars for the three departing. When they drive off, shadow horses race alongside the van.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Sherman Alexie, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.