Before launching into this analysis and plot summary of “Reservation Blues” by Sherman Alexie, it might be a great idea to look into the tale of the legendary blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads to win his great guitar talent. Not only is it just a great story, but it will allow you to appreciate the beginning of the book even more. Reservation Blues by Native American author Sherman Alexie opens with Robert Johnson’s arrival at a Spokane Indian reservation where he meets Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who leads him to a woman who lives in the clouds that the blues singer has been dreaming about, Big Mom. This is no ordinary woman—she is reported to be hundreds of years old and incredibly wise. It is rumored that she even taught Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Johnson faked his death in 1938 and is under the impression that only Big Mom can undo the deal he made with the devil so many years ago. Thomas Builds-the-Fire takes Johnson to see Big Mom at Wellpoint Mountain and Johnson leaves him his guitar (which we will soon learn is no ordinary guitar) and Thomas sees his chance to form a blues band.
The band is comprised of misfits (including two native women named Checkers and Chess) from the reservation and they call themselves “Coyote Springs.” Mostly as a result of the charmed (or cursed) guitar, Coyote Springs begins to become popular with white people and they even gain two white groupies named Betty and Veronica who later become their own group who are constructed to look and seem Indian. Furthermore, they attract the attention of two men at Cavalry Records named Sheridan and Wright (who have names that parallel those of cavalrymen that slaughtered his people in the past). While the plot of “Reservation Blues” by Sherman Alexie does not necessarily offer a traditional “happy ending” tracing the rise and fall of the band provides Alexie the framework necessary for him to discuss many issues relevant to Native Americans—both past and present. Details about living on the reservation and the problems associated with it are paramount in the text and although the author certainly wants us to walk away with a good story, he also wants us to think critically about the themes and issues related to Native Americans and reservation life.
There are a number of themes worth exploring in this text and if you’re thinking about an essay topic, you shouldn’t have much trouble. Think about differing views of cultural assimilation, of the way gender roles are represented in the novel by Native American author Sherman Alexie or of the role of religion or music, for example. For a more literary analysis, you could write about the nature of magical realism as it is expressed in this text. What purpose do you think it serves? How is humor used in the text and why is used when discussing some of the most depressing aspects of reservation life? The possible topics are endless.
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