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 goddess-like matriarch of the Spokane tribe, Big Mom has lived atop her mountain for many generations; the horse slaughter she witnessed happened in 1858. According to legend, she schooled many famous—and ill-fated— musicians, such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. She invites Coyote Springs up for a week of intensive training and, like an oracle, seems to already know what is inside and what is needed by each of their hearts. At the feast, in a practical miracle reminiscent of one of Jesus’, she doubles the quantity of fry bread by splitting it in halves. She then reconciles the tribe with the departing Thomas and Warm Water sisters.
Thomas’s father, Samuel, has earned himself the Indian name of Drunk and Disorderly. He was state basketball player of the year in high school—and a proficient trash-talker—but afterward declined into alcoholism. He is found passed out on Thomas’s lawn and is laid on the kitchen table inside. When they leave the reservation, Thomas says Samuel has ‘‘Indian father radar’’ and will find them wherever they go.
Thomas is the central protagonist and hero of the novel. A lonesome, awkward man, he has a heartfelt belief in the power of stories and tells them compulsively to anyone who will listen, and even to those who do not. His mother died of cancer when he was ten, and he fondly remembers her ‘‘rocking him into sleep with stories and songs.’’ Where Junior and Victor are driven more by fame, Thomas wants to help his people rise up out of the emotional desolation so many are stricken with. On the other hand, he also confesses more selfish motivations to Chess, saying, ‘‘I want all kinds of strangers to love me.’’ In general, he acts virtuously, not drinking and rarely speaking ill of others—except his father and the Christian Americans who have wrought havoc on his people—leading Coyote Springs through thick and thin. He is unfailingly forthright; even when Victor ridicules him or asks mocking questions, he does not trade insults but speaks openly and sincerely. When he trades looks with Chess at the Tipi Pole Tavern, far from playing it cool, he devotes a song to her and repeats it so many times, in various versions, that Chess is able to come on stage and sing along. While Thomas’s singing is said to be good but not remarkably so, his lyrics, which open each chapter, resound with the spirit of the blues, evoking the sorrows of generations of Indians. Powerful in his heart and in his mind but practically powerless in the context of the American world created by white people, Thomas stoically but faithfully clings to traditional Indian ways, and he ultimately finds peace and solace in the love he shares with Chess and the promise of a stable, happy, full-blood Indian family.
Lester Falls Apart
A beloved local drunk, Lester materializes throughout the book ‘‘like a reservation magician’’ at pivotal moments, such as showing up to cast the deciding vote not to kick Chess and Checkers off the reservation. Picked up by Samuel as a hitchhiker long ago, he joined his friend in the game against the tribal cops and had his nose broken.
The Gentleman, who as ‘‘a handsome white man’’ can be understood to represent the devil, met the young Robert Johnson at a crossroads and offered him the ability to play guitar better than anyone in exchange for what he loves most—his freedom. Thenceforth, the guitar becomes like Johnson’s cruel master.
A character in its own right, Robert Johnson’s old guitar heals itself, has conversations, and seems to get around independently. Johnson could never lose it, Victor’s smashing of it proves only temporary, and the guitar ultimately possesses Victor. The guitar may represent the notions of fame and ego, having been effectively cursed by the Gentleman when Johnson wanted to be the best player ever. It may also be understood to have become Johnson’s, and later Victor’s, cruel master. Thomas is infatuated with the instrument for a time but, unlike the others—perhaps reflecting his more virtuous storytelling aims—relinquishes it without serious torment.
Actually a jazz musician who died in 1938, Robert Johnson is imagined by Alexie to have faked his death and wandered onto the Spokane Indian Reservation in 1992, ‘‘old and tired.’’ His role is reminiscent of a Greek mythic hero: an agent of supernatural phenomena who fulfills a fantastic destiny. Having surrendered his freedom to the Gentleman in order to play guitar better than anyone ever, he could never manage to escape his now mystical instrument—until, desperately following a dream, he finds his way to Big Mom’s mountain and leaves the guitar with Thomas. He hides out there, fearful the guitar or the Gentleman will find him, until Big Mom gives him a cedar harmonica, and he comes down to live with the tribe.
Victor seems to be the most psychologically troubled of all the members of Coyote Springs, drinking too much and angering easily. At first little more than a bully, upon gaining Robert Johnson’s guitar, he becomes the creative musical force that drives the band’s success; his playing sends off sparks and is portrayed as transcendent. Feeling allied with the drunks in Seattle, he selflessly joins an old man for a magical duet that rakes in money. Imagining himself as a rock star, he favors white women, to the disgust of his fellow Indians. Big Mom recognizes that he is captive to his anger toward the priest who abused him as a boy. Victor seizes up when auditioning for Cavalry Records and so smashes the guitar, only to mourn it afterward. He then betrays the person he loves most to the guitar in his dream, and he feels responsible for Junior’s death.
Always hanging around outside the Trading Post and shouting that the end is near, the tall old Indian, suspected to be Lakota, develops a sort of outcast partnership with Thomas, extending sympathy and some assistance. He seems to join forces with Robert Johnson in the end.
Junior is presented as an intelligent yet simple man; he made it to college but now seems content to drive a water truck and see his earnings drunk through by his questionable friend Victor. Junior’s parents’ death by car accident and Victor’s consequent befriending of the boy explain their lasting affection for each other. Junior had a college romance with a white woman, Lynn, that ended with her abortion of their child, and he saved her parting note in his wallet ever since; the absence of that child in Junior’s life seems to correspond to the absence of his creative spirit. He believes in the power of dreams and music, but after Coyote Springs fails—as he tells Victor as a sort of ghost— he chose to kill himself because when he closed his eyes, he envisioned nothing at all.
After bringing Coyote Springs to New York, Sheridan tries to show them sympathy when they fail to impress, but driven by the bottom line, he ultimately dismisses them; he later orchestrates the farcical signing of Betty and Veronica. He haunts Checkers in her dreams.
Simon drives his truck backwards only, for reasons unclear. After he picks up the hitchhiking Coyote Springs from near the airport, Junior uses one of his rifles to commit suicide. Simon then leaves the reservation forever.
Along with Betty, Veronica becomes a Coyote Springs groupie who later joins the band but quits after the Trading Post scuffle. The two white women leave behind their New Age bookstore to sign up with Cavalry Records as pseudoIndians.
The chairman of the Spokane Tribal Council, WalksAlong stokes animosity toward the dangerously unwholesome Coyote Springs. He does not wield his authority as chief objectively. When he was police chief, WalksAlong joined five fellow cops to play a dirty game against Samuel and Lester.
Checkers Warm Water
Chess’s younger sister, Checkers (actually named Gladys) joins the band to sing but quits to sing in the choir at the Catholic Church. Perhaps owing to her fraught relationship with her own father, Luke, Checkers has long demonstrated interest in older men; she quickly grows infatuated with the sympathetic Father Arnold and feels compelled to stay in Wellpinit. Nonetheless, her bond with her sister, forged through the family’s several tragedies (including their baby brother’s death and mother Linda’s disappearance), proves primary, and she leaves for Spokane with Chess and Thomas.
Chess Warm Water
The older sister of Checkers, Chess (actually named Eunice) takes a liking to Thomas at their first show and eventually falls in love with him. Chess is perhaps the most powerful voice of reason in the novel, often giving advice to the visionary but hesitant Thomas. She and her sister have been working as firefighters on their Flathead Reservation, and Chess in particular sustains this role of being a cooling or pacifying influence. She tries to counsel Thomas toward Catholicism, but he is too disillusioned by past injustices. In the end, Chess tries to lead Thomas and her sister to a better life by accepting a telephone operator job in Spokane.
Michael White Hawk
WalksAlong’s nephew, White Hawk is a wouldbe warrior who has trouble negotiating the rules of society, going to jail for clouting someone with a saxophone. He pounds Victor and Junior, incidentally injuring Betty and Veronica, until the man-who-was-probably-Lakota knocks him out. He then takes to erratic circling behavior on the softball diamond.
Wilson, mostly white, pulls Samuel over and then plays in the basketball game against him.
Unlike his partner, Sheridan, Wright feels guilty for the failure and self-destruction of Coyote Springs, and in seeking the band out he wakes Checkers from her nightmare. Though a modern music producer, Wright is also the general who ordered the horse massacre in 1858.
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.