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 by the healing power of his stories, as with Alexie’s character Thomas, then his own tribe may very well be his most important audience. Among the most highly esteemed Native American authors are N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and James Welch.
The place of Reservation Blues within the expanding canon of American Indian literature has been a source of some critical debate. Perhaps most notably, Gloria Bird, Spokane herself, in ‘‘The Exaggeration of Despair in Reservation Blues,’’ suggests that Alexie’s novel does a disservice to American Indians in that it ultimately supports stereotypical representations of Indians from popular culture. She does make clear, however, that she is examining the novel specifically for its implications for the Indian reader, and from a traditionalist perspective. It has been soundly argued, by Stephen Evans among others, that for his adroit use of ironic and satiric techniques in examining modern Indian culture, Alexie should be seen as a ‘‘consciously moral satirist rather than as a ‘cultural traitor.’’’ Regardless of critical perspectives, Alexie himself has asserted (as quoted in Grassian) that his novels could not be considered anything but American Indian literature: ‘‘If I write it, it’s an Indian novel. . . . That’s who I am.’’
The modern literary strategy of ‘‘magic realism’’ has fascinated critics into the twenty-first century. While certain western European and American texts may demonstrate magic-realist elements, the style is recognized as having blossomed particularly among Latin American authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. In her essay on magic realism in Reservation Blues, Wendy Belcher concisely posits, ‘‘Critics identify a text as magic realist if it treats the extraordinary as real.’’ In Alexie’s novel, much of the extraordinary revolves around the guitar, which fixes itself, talks, plays itself, and even moves around; when it sets off sparks that start a small fire, Chess and Checkers put it out without much ado, and when a chord Victor plays knocks out people’s fillings, the dentist simply puts them back in. Another fantastic occurrence comes when Coyote punishes Junior by stealing his truck and putting it in the dance hall, where it couldn’t have fit through the doors; Junior has to disassemble the truck and loses his job. The narrator relates all of these episodes as if they are legitimate happenings.
Belcher notes that magic realism is often discussed in political terms as ‘‘a literary form of the colonized,’’ and that often the magical occurrences are linked to the indigenous, traditional culture in opposition to the modern, rational colonizer. Thus, a wizened elder would be expected to be an agent of magic, while a white businessman would not. Belcher observes that the opposite is the case in Reservation Blues. Modern American objects, like the enchanted guitar, and people, like the Cavalry Records executives who were also nineteenth-century military officers, are agents of the magical. Meanwhile, Big Mom, the long-lived Spokane matriarch who carves a humble harmonica and praises mathematics, largely does not accomplish the magical, although she does boast a mythical past and exhibits extraordinary empathy and musical ability. Belcher concludes that Alexie’s use of magic realist elements reflects the notion that for American Indians, products and people of modern American culture are what function in such fantastic ways as to be represented in fiction as magical.
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.