Reservation Blues

by Sherman Alexie

Hardcover, 1995

Call number




Atlantic Monthly Press (1995), Edition: 1st, 306 pages


Fiction. Literature. HTML: Winner of the American Book Award and the Murray Morgan Prize, Sherman Alexie's brilliant first novel tells a powerful tale of Indians, rock 'n' roll, and redemption Coyote Springs is the only all-Indian rock band in Washington State�??and the entire rest of the world. Thomas Builds-the-Fire takes vocals and bass guitar, Victor Joseph hits lead guitar, and Junior Polatkin rounds off the sound on drums. Backup vocals come from sisters Chess and Checkers Warm Water. The band sings its own brand of the blues, full of poverty, pain, and loss�??but also joy and laughter. It all started one day when legendary bluesman Robert Johnson showed up on the Spokane Indian Reservation with a magical guitar, leaving it on the floor of Thomas Builds-the-Fire's van after setting off to climb Wellpinit Mountain in search of Big Mom. In Reservation Blues, National Book Award winner Alexie vaults with ease from comedy to tragedy and back in a tour-de-force outing powered by a collision of cultures: Delta blues and Indian rock. This ebook features an illustrated biography including rare photos from the author's personal collection… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member bragan
A group of Spokane Indians form a rock and blues band with the help -- if "help" is quite the right word -- of Robert Johnson's supernaturally gifted guitar. Although that description doesn't give any true sense of what this novel is about. What it's really about is the blues, both the musical and
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the existential kinds, about what it means be an American Indian in the modern world, and what life on a reservation can do to people. I suppose you'd call it magic realism, although what it emphatically isn't is the kind of romanticized New Age-y mysticism that white people like to associate with Native Americans. (Alexie has some rather uncomplimentary things to say about that stuff.)

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.
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LibraryThing member ABVR
It takes only a page or two of Reservation Blues to realize that Sherman Alexie is a gifted writer. His characters live and breathe, move in unexpected ways through the story, and continually fascinate. The Spokane Indian Reservation feels, too, like a real place: He captures the desolation, the
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grinding poverty, the hopelessness, and the bonds that tie the residents to the place and to each other. Alexie spins the plot out of small things, but conveys (without ever coming out and saying so) that, for the characters, these things are immense, and the stakes enormous.

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.
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LibraryThing member silviastraka
I'm a white woman in social work, new to Manitoba, learning to be an Indigenous ally. I'm interested in books like Reservation Blues that are written from an insider perspective. Too often, Indian experience, culture and spirituality have been appropriated by white people and filtered through white
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perspectives (e.g., Avatar). So that was the first reason I chose to read this book.

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.
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LibraryThing member MusicalGlass
The bluesman Robert Johnson arrives at a crossroads on the Spokane Indian reservation, out of space and time, and taps into the local magic, inspiring the formation of an all-Indian rock ‘n roll band. Such is the premise for a story that probes the longings and the laments, the gladnesses and the
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grave indignities of Native American life at the end of the 20th c.

Long Trail IPA
Dogfish Head Raison D’Être
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LibraryThing member busterrll
Was told what a great writer he is. I finished it, but apparently do not appreciate his style. Came away with the many negative emotions, but not the gist.
LibraryThing member KIEC
Reservation Blues is the story of three Spokane Indians and two Flathead Indians who start a band together (Coyote Springs). The book focuses on what reservation life is truly like. Sherman Alexie illustrates the hardships, triumphs, and down falls that many Native Americans face while growing up
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on the rez. Alexie’s writing keeps readers enthralled and urging for more. I couldn’t put the book down for one second while I was reading. I had to keep reading to find out how Coyote Springs journey would end.
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LibraryThing member hampusforev
My expectations were way too high from reading some reviews here. I was led to believe it was some kind of masterpiece. Alexis is playing with big stakes here, and one can always respect that, but it's clear that they're too big for his actual literary capability. He does have an unique voice and
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as a native American he clearly knows his territory, but what makes the book forgettable for me is the bland characters. The characters are clearly symbolic, rather than cut from realist cloth, which is my favorite. You have the poetic storyteller and the violent abusive drunk etc. The characters barely brakes away from their cardboard cutout quality, and only chess and checkers seem very tangible to me, perhaps they should've been the main focus. Thomas, Victor and Junior are not very interesting main characters, at least not as far as I'm concerned; I barely cared at their destiny, which is not a good sign. There's nothing I dislike more than being confronted with tragedy and not feeling anything, which is what this book did to me. Faulkner's "Light in August" is a much more interesting novel on racial identity, and Neil Young has more moving songs about the tragic fate of the Indians, so there was really nothing for me to gain here.
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LibraryThing member allison.sivak
Fun, sweet, and moving. I liked the use of song lyrics - this was surprising to me because I often skip over those in prose books.
LibraryThing member hailelib
According to Wikipedia, this was Sherman Alexie's first novel although he had published both poetry and short stories prior to Reservation Blues. After reading a little about the author it is apparent that he used some of his own experiences to create this picture of reservation life in the 90's.
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One of the questions explored here is "What does it mean to be Indian today, especially reservation Indian?".

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.

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LibraryThing member juniperSun
My book club really had a good discussion on this book. I had a hard time reading it--I've had too much of authors who make bad jokes. I get it, that making a joke of your pain is often the only way you can deal with it, but it just didn't make for a great book. Big Mom was initially presented as a
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wise woman, but her role got watered down to just focusing on music instruction. OK, there wasn't room in the story for her to really help people deal with their larger problems.
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LibraryThing member ama_bee
my favorite author. my favorite novel by sherman alexie. also has a (mostly) fabulous cd companion. the songs in the book performed by jim boyd. dang.
LibraryThing member agnesmack
Reservation Blues was the first novel I've read by Sherman Alexie. I'd heard so many good things about him - and I don't think a single negative word - that I went into this book assuming I'd love it. I didn't.

The story follows a series of reservation folks who want to start a band. There's a lot
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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.
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LibraryThing member BradKautz
Reservation Blues is a wonderfully intriguing novel by Sherman Alexie. It is set on the reservation of the Spokane Indian tribe and essentially tells the story of a Native American band, Coyote Springs. The band forms accidentally, has an impromptu rise and a spectacular fall. But it really isn’t
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that simple. Alexie has woven a wonderful tale of characters and story elements that are both predictable and completely unexpected. I enjoyed this book from start to finish.
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LibraryThing member john.cooper
Witty, serious, humane, raging, life-affirming, and tragic: life among today's Spokane Indians, with their ramshackle HUD housing, their commodity applesauce, their cheap beer, and their mixed religions. No punches are pulled, and many are thrown as Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph, and Junior
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Polatkin get a hold of Robert Johnson's guitar and ride it where it takes them.

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.
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LibraryThing member SheilaDeeth
Musical lyrics lead into each chapter of Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues, their voice growing convincingly stronger as the novel progresses, providing a powerful song above the tale. Magical realism threads chapters together like guitar strings playing the tune. And heavy shadows of alcoholism
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and abuse form a drum-beat underneath. Reservation Blues is probably the most musical novel I’ve read recently, appropriately as it’s a haunting tale of musicians, talent and betrayal.

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.
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LibraryThing member nancyjean19
Folksy and musical, I enjoyed the way this book wove together classic rock, modern Native American life, and darkly funny references to what we see as traditional Native American culture.
LibraryThing member streamsong
Legendary (isn’t he dead?) blues player Robert Johnson brings his accursed guitar to the Spokane Indian reservation. Although he has tried to abandon it several times before, it has always returned to him. This time however, it latches onto young Thomas Builds-the-Fire who finds himself the lead
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guitar player of a native band called Coyote Springs, under the tutelage of a mysterious woman called Big Mama. Big Mama says she taught Elvis how to sing and also watched the massacre of her people at Wounded Knee.

The band skyrockets from local to regional success and eventually has the opportunity of a record contract in New York City.

But all is not well on the reservation. People there resent Coyote Springs’ triumphs and failures alike. They are not fond of the band’s two white women groupies or that two of the band members are Salish.

This is an original, searing and sarcastic look at Reservation life, including the white people on the reservation (especially the Catholic church). It’s brutal, honest and original.

It’s also funny as all get out. Because, as the author postulates, if you can’t make fun of your problems, you are not Indian.
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LibraryThing member KimKimpton
I feel that this book had more to offer than what I could get out of it. There were things I definitely did not grasp fully. A definite reread.
LibraryThing member PghDragonMan
This was my first exposure to Sherman Alexie and I was just blown away by his style. I first picked this up at a local bookstore and decided tio read a few pages, just to see if I liked the flavor. The opening scene, the legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson making an appearance on a modern
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reservation in Spokane, Washington, got my attention right away. Twenty pages later, and still standing in the aisle of the bookstore, I realized I did not want to put it down.

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!
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LibraryThing member lschiff
An engaging book with interesting, fully characters. Alexie explores lots of important questions, one of which is the various ways white people appropriate Native American culture, a problem I've been thinking about recently, so his perspective was timely and instructive.




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