The rise to fame of Coyote Springs, an all-Indian rock-and-roll band, tracing its journey from a Spokane reservation all the way to New York. A humorous exploration of serious subjects: the effect of Christianity on Native Americans, cultural assimilation and its impact on relations between Indian men and Indian women. By the author of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
The story is a little unfocused, and I don't think this is nearly as sharp and powerful as his The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. But I was deeply impressed by that book, so don't take that statement as any kind of insult. Alexie's just a damned good writer, and, fantasy elements or not, there's always a strong feeling of truth to his work.
It's impossible not to get drawn into a relationship with the main character, storyteller Thomas Builds-the-Fire. He is humble, aware of his own failings, yet shows unexpected leadership qualities which emerge when he starts to realize his rather modest vision -- to form an Indian rock band with two other misfits who have all too often tormented and bullied Thomas. Actually, most of the characters are misfits, yet together they form a community. Alexie writes very poignantly, but with gentle insider humour, about the realities destroying Native people. He really shows the strengths of these people, who despite the horrendous impacts of colonization have a spiritual core that calls them to heal, a communal strength, and who use humour to deal with adversity.
I loved the Indian version of "magical realism" in this book, which brought alive the spirituality of the Spokane people of the novel. Big Mom, the music, the stories -- these are some of the means by which Spokane spirituality are woven into the fabric of this story.
As a white social worker, I run the risk of seeing alcoholism and similar problems as something needing to be addressed in order for people to be able to live good lives. At one level, this is true. But Alexie shows an acceptance of these realities and a love that shines through in how he depicts the richness of his characters' experiences, despite the harmful forces that are part of their context.
This is a book that stayed with me and continues to enrich me. I want to read more by this author.
It also takes only a few pages that Alexie is interested in layering the fantastic and the magical into his sharply observed story of the real. The arrival of Robert Johnson, the legendary bluesman – still running, after all these years, from “The Gentleman” to whom he once bartered his soul at a southern crossroads – pretty much takes care of that. Big Mom, the Indian woman to whom Johnson turns for help, likewise has only one foot in our world. So, for that matter, does Alexie’s hero: Thomas Builds-the-Fire, whose music comes from a someplace magical, and whose dreams link him (if not always in ways he understands) to the dark and troubled history of Indians in America.
It takes more than a few pages (or a few chapters) to realize that the magical-mystical elements of Alexie’s story never quite gel with the here-and-now elements (gritty social realism, leavened with humor) into a satisfying whole. It takes the better part of the book, and when it ends you’re left with a slightly baggy-feeling plot full of unresolved threads. By then, though, it doesn’t matter. By then, Alexie has you so wrapped up in the characters and their story that you don’t mind in the slightest.
The characters created by Alexie are so real to me, I could hear them talking as I read the story. I was very surprised when I heard an NPR interview with the author and he sounded exactly as I had imagined the lead character of this narrative, Thomas Builds-the Fire, would sound.
"Reservation Blues" is a blend of history and fiction, though I would not classify this as Historical Fiction, and glimpses of modern reservation life, some of which I presume is semi-autobiographic. There are also elements of magic and time travel blended in, but this work should not be confused with Science Fiction. The is also a very large dose of social commentary that is integral to the story.
In short, there's a little something here for almost every reader's taste. Try it, you'll like it!
I think that this book would have caught me sooner if I hadn't been going through a bit of a reading slump when I started it. I did know pretty early on that I would finish it and half-way through I was definitely hooked. Alexie somehow manages his mix of comedy and tragedy very well and I particularly loved the way he referenced so much pop culture. In fact the story begins with the sudden appearance of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson at a crossroads on the Spokane Indian Reservation along with his guitar.
Is talent a gift, a labor, or a curse? Is music the stuff of dreams or of nightmares? Is the reservation a haven or a prison? And is family a treasure or a millstone? This story, told through the eyes of a native American, is stark in its portrayal of ill-treatment at the hands of conquerors, yet beautiful in its magical sense of hope in the face of despair. Even as everything turns to dust, the voice of Big Mom waits, offering wisdom to those who will listen, practical help to those who will pause long enough, and sorrowful regret for those she knows will do neither.
With magical realism used to perfect effect, this novel contrasts Native myth with Catholic practicality, drunken folly with the follies of power, and story with reality. It’s oddly beautiful, haunting and evocative… and musical.
Disclosure: I’ve wanted to read it for ages and I was delighted to finally get my own copy.
The story follows a series of reservation folks who want to start a band. There's a lot of Magical Realism stuff going on, and a whole bunch of dream sequences (many of which I skimmed or skipped because I have zero patience for ten-page long dream sequences). There were plenty of parables shoved in there too, with obvious morals like "be careful what you wish for," and "don't be a drunk."
I was fine with the story, though the pace was slow enough and the path was obvious enough that it didn't really get me excited. The writing was fine. Not particularly tight but not overly flowery either. I guess that's about how I'd sum up the book as a whole: Fine.
It's Indian culture that is the true protagonist of this book, the story and the characters existing mainly to draw its portrait, and not Indian culture as you've seen it in the movies and television. There are no medicine men here, no stern warriors, no elderly chiefs full of strength and wisdom. Instead we've got young people suffering the effects of abuse and neglect and older adults beaten by disappointment, alcoholism, and bad choices. It's grim, but it's never boring, and never quite too much to take. This is partly because of the bleak but restorative laughter that comes back again and again to lighten the mood, and partly because there's so much to learn here about the human spirit and how it survives no matter the circumstances. It leaves you strangely confident that someday, somehow, the Indians will have healed from what's been done to them.