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 through the character of Big Mom, a goddess-like matriarch of the tribe with remarkable powers. Though her powers are not typically miraculous, she is especially gifted at reading people’s thoughts and at hearing, playing, and teaching music. When she plays ‘‘the loneliest chord that the band had ever heard,’’ it crawls up their clothes and makes Junior faint; she later declares that it is ‘‘the chord created especially for us,’’ for American Indians. The fantastic notion that a single chord could carry such extraordinary emotional weight is indicative of the degree to which the novel presents how music can and should touch people’s souls.
While the band is largely rejected by the other Spokanes, a woman in church informs Thomas that not the quality but the genre of the sound is the issue: ‘‘The Christians don’t like your devil’s music. The traditionals don’t like your white man’s music.’’ In turn, the band ultimately fails, but this is portrayed as a fate determined by the white hierarchy overseeing the recording industry, which overlooks the band’s artistry as well as its local success. Despite the demise of Coyote Springs, the novel’s conclusion leaves no doubt as to the power inherent in music. After Big Mom sings a powerful ‘‘protection song’’ for all Indians, in a collective dream she teaches a new ‘‘shadow horses’ song,’’ ‘‘a song of mourning that would become a song of celebration.’’ And as they drive to Spokane and the future, Thomas, Chess, and Checkers sing together, and it means nothing less than that ‘‘they were alive; they’d keep living.’’
Dreams, Visions, and Television
Dreams of the major characters, including the five members of Coyote Springs as well as Father Arnold, are integral to the text of Reservation Blues. Early on, Alexie signals the relevance dreams should be assigned through the character of Junior, who learned in college psychology classes that, according to Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, ‘‘dreams decided everything,’’ a perspective that aligns with traditional Indian views of dreams. While the characters’ dreams generally do not determine their fates—excluding the dream in which Victor sacrifices Junior to the will of the guitar, prefiguring Junior’s suicide—the dreams reveal much about their inner lives, particularly their fears and the memories that haunt them. In Victor’s dream of his deceased parents, the boldface names stress the impact their repeated imagining would have on a man who has determined never again to utter the names while awake. Checkers’s nightmare about Sheridan, while very personal, could also be any Indian’s nightmare, with a reincarnated murderous white military officer insisting that he will keep waging war on native peoples no matter how defeated they already are.
Beyond dreams, television gives Junior the impression that Indians should even have visions. Yet Junior’s dreams tell him little more than to eat peanut butter and onion sandwiches, and his lack of visions is what leaves him feeling spiritually bereft enough to commit suicide (as his ghost tells Victor). Alexie hints that television may in fact deserve some blame for supplanting not only Junior’s visions but also Thomas’s. In the first discussion of Junior’s dreams, his watching television and his wanting more material comforts are closely linked. Later, one of Junior’s nightmares features narration in the style of a television sportscaster. Thomas, in turn, has a dream marked precisely by television and wanting; he is hungry and is reminded by television of all he does not own. What both Junior and Thomas end up seeing in their mind’s eye, then, are the images of the material riches of the lives of white people as seen on television. Whether Junior might have been blessed with life-affirming visions had he ceased watching television is a question the text does not address.
Alexie portrays the modern Indian male as facing a particularly poignant version of the broader American dilemma of masculinity. If an Indian man tries to fulfill his masculine instinct—or televised ideals—and become a warrior, he risks a fate like that of Michael White Hawk, who through impulsive violence gains first a trip to prison and then a destabilizing concussion. Yet being a warrior also has the connotations of resistance. Checkers recognizes in both Samuel and Thomas ‘‘that warrior desperation and the need to be superhuman in the poverty of a reservation.’’ Samuel is presented in his youth as a proud modern Indian warrior, channeling aggression as well as finding physical fulfillment through the sport of basketball. Yet his success in high school only sets him up for the inevitable defeat that will come at the hands of white society—as represented by the authority-wielding tribal cops—and his ultimate fate is despairing alcoholism. Victor aspires to warrior status, wishfully calling Coyote Springs ‘‘a warrior band,’’ but when he fails to play under pressure at the Cavalry studio, his unchanneled aggression leaves him wanting ‘‘to steal a New York cop’s horse and go on the warpath,’’ ‘‘to scalp stockbrokers,’’ and ‘‘shoot flaming arrows into the Museum of Modern Art.’’ Instead, he gets drunk.
Regardless of Victor’s self-destruction, Alexie suggests that resolution for the Indian’s dilemma of masculinity may be best found through music. In many ways, Thomas is presented as the antithesis of the warrior, being physically weak and virtually never rising to anger or aggression. His preferred occupation is that of the storyteller, an artist, as he wishes to create, not destroy. And while other characters are resigned primarily to the fates of death and drink, Thomas will not only survive but will also raise a family with Chess, gaining the fulfillment of fatherhood. Big Mom, speaking to White Hawk, affirms that the musician provides what the warrior cannot: ‘‘Don’t you understand that the musical instrument is not to be used in the same way that a bow and arrow is? Music is supposed to heal.’’
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.