Reservation Blues

By Sherman Alexie


Dive into the heart and soul of the Spokane Indian Reservation with Sherman Alexie’s captivating novel, Reservation Blues 🎸📚. First published in 1995, this groundbreaking work blends magical realism, humor, and poignant commentary, creating a rich tapestry of life on the reservation.

Sherman Alexie, a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene novelist, poet, and filmmaker, brings his own experiences and insights into the narrative, offering a window into the struggles and dreams of Native American communities. Known for his wit and deep emotional impact, Alexie’s works often explore themes of despair, resilience, and the quest for identity among Native Americans, with Reservation Blues standing as a testament to his storytelling prowess.

Set against the backdrop of the fictional Wellpinit, Washington, the novel weaves the tale of Thomas Builds-the-Fire and his bandmates as they navigate the complexities of life, ambition, and heritage, underscored by the mystical appearance of a legendary guitar. The genre of the novel, seamlessly blending magical realism with the stark realities of reservation life, invites readers into a world where myth and modernity collide.

As we explore the highs and lows of the characters’ journey, Alexie challenges us to reflect on the power of music, the bonds of community, and the enduring impact of history on the present. Reservation Blues is not just a story about a band; it’s a narrative that captures the spirit of survival and the echoes of tradition that shape the lives of its characters. Join us on this lyrical journey through the eyes of one of the most influential Native American voices of our time 🌟.

Plot Summary

Reservation Blues unfolds the story of Thomas Builds-the-Fire and his transformation from a quiet, introspective Spokane Indian Reservation storyteller into the leader of an all-Indian rock band. The novel is imbued with themes of hope, despair, and the relentless pursuit of dreams amidst the backdrop of life on the reservation.

Exposition — The novel begins with the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson arriving at the Spokane Indian Reservation, seeking relief from the torment of a deal he made with the devil. He leaves his enchanted guitar with Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a decision that sets the entire narrative in motion.

Rising Action — Thomas, inspired by the mystical guitar, decides to form a rock band. He recruits Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin, two friends with their own deep-seated issues and dreams. Together, along with Chess and Checkers Warm Water, sisters from another reservation, they form Coyote Springs. The band faces a myriad of challenges, including racial prejudices, personal demons, and the harsh realities of life on the reservation. Their journey is a testament to their resilience and the power of music to provide hope and escape.

Climax — The band’s big break seems to come when they’re invited to play in New York City. This moment represents the pinnacle of their dreams but also the peak of their struggles. The tensions within the band, coupled with the external pressures of the music industry and their personal lives, come to a head.

Falling Action — Coyote Springs’ performance in New York ends disastrously, and the group is forced to confront the reality that their dreams of success may not come to fruition as they had hoped. The aftermath of their failed trip deepens the rifts between the band members and leads to introspection about their futures, both individually and collectively.

Resolution — The band eventually disbands, and the members go their separate ways, each carrying the lessons and experiences from their time together. Thomas returns to the reservation with the guitar, contemplating the cyclical nature of hope and despair. The novel closes on a reflective note, with Thomas pondering the enduring power of stories and music to heal, connect, and inspire, even in the face of broken dreams.

Through Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie crafts a narrative that is both specific in its exploration of the Spokane Indian Reservation’s life and universal in its themes of ambition, identity, and the quest for meaning.

Character Analysis

In Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie introduces us to a cast of complex characters, each with their own dreams, struggles, and growth. Here’s a deeper look into the main characters:

  • Thomas Builds-the-Fire — A thoughtful, introspective storyteller who becomes the unlikely leader of Coyote Springs. Known for his storytelling and quiet demeanor, Thomas is driven by a desire to connect with others and share the stories of his people. His character undergoes significant growth as he navigates the challenges of leadership, ambition, and the weight of cultural legacy.
  • Victor Joseph — A guitar player with a troubled past, including issues with alcohol and a volatile relationship with his father. Victor’s journey is one of self-discovery and confrontation with personal demons. Despite his tough exterior, he is deeply affected by the band’s struggles and his own search for identity.
  • Junior Polatkin — The drummer of Coyote Springs, Junior is marked by his sense of humor and underlying sadness. His character explores themes of loneliness, despair, and the desire for a sense of belonging. Junior’s tragic end is a poignant commentary on the impact of historical trauma and personal anguish.
  • Chess Warm Water — A strong, intelligent woman who joins Coyote Springs along with her sister, Checkers. Chess’s relationship with Thomas adds depth to both characters, highlighting themes of love, trust, and mutual support. She is a stabilizing force for the band, offering wisdom and insight drawn from her experiences.
  • Checkers Warm Water — Chess’s sister, who battles with her own issues of abuse and self-worth. Checkers’ character arc is one of empowerment and healing, as she learns to navigate her past and envision a future beyond the reservation’s confines.

Character Analysis Summary

Thomas Builds-the-FireThoughtful, introspectiveTo connect and share his people’s storiesGrows into a leader, facing the realities of ambition and cultural legacy
Victor JosephTroubled, volatileTo confront personal demons and find identityEmbarks on a journey of self-discovery, grappling with his past
Junior PolatkinHumorous, sadTo belong and escape despairHis tragic end underscores themes of loneliness and historical trauma
Chess Warm WaterStrong, wiseTo find love and supportBecomes a source of stability and insight, highlighting the power of mutual support
Checkers Warm WaterStruggling, hopefulTo overcome past abuse and find self-worthLearns to navigate her past and look toward a future of empowerment

Through these characters, Sherman Alexie paints a vivid picture of life on the Spokane Indian Reservation, weaving together themes of hope, despair, and the relentless pursuit of dreams against the backdrop of cultural legacy and personal trauma.

Themes and Symbols

Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie explores a multitude of themes and employs various symbols to deepen the narrative’s meaning and connect with the reader on multiple levels. Let’s delve into these themes and symbols.


  • The Impact of History on the Present — The novel deeply explores how historical injustices and traumas experienced by Native American communities continue to affect individuals’ lives on the reservation. This theme is reflected in the characters’ struggles with identity, poverty, and substance abuse, showcasing the enduring legacy of colonization and cultural loss.
  • The Power and Limitations of Dreams — Through the journey of Coyote Springs, Alexie examines the transformative power of dreams and music to offer hope and escape from the harsh realities of life. However, he also presents the limitations and challenges that come with pursuing dreams, especially for marginalized individuals facing systemic barriers.
  • The Search for Identity and Belonging — Characters in the novel grapple with questions of identity, seeking to understand their place within their community, their culture, and the broader world. This search is complicated by the pressures to assimilate, the loss of cultural practices, and the desire to honor one’s heritage.
  • Love and Relationships — The relationships between characters, including romantic relationships and friendships, are central to the novel. These relationships provide comfort and support but also bring challenges and pain, reflecting the complexities of human connections.


  • Robert Johnson’s Guitar — The enchanted guitar, left with Thomas by the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson, symbolizes the power of music to transcend time and place, acting as a bridge between the past and present. It also represents the burdens and consequences of talent and fame.
  • The Reservation — The Spokane Indian Reservation serves as a symbol of both confinement and home. It represents the physical and metaphorical boundaries that limit the characters’ lives but also stands as a place of community, history, and belonging.
  • Fire and Ash — Fire, and its resultant ash, recur as symbols throughout the novel, reflecting themes of destruction and renewal. Fire represents the potential for change and the purging of past hurts, while ash signifies the remnants of what once was, hinting at memory, loss, and the possibility of new growth.
  • The Crossroads — A place where choices are made and destinies change, the crossroads symbolize the pivotal moments in life and the duality of salvation and damnation. It reflects the characters’ decisions to pursue their dreams, confront their demons, or accept their circumstances.

Through these themes and symbols, Sherman Alexie weaves a rich tapestry that explores the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity, the quest for identity, and the power of music and dreams as sources of redemption and hope.

Style and Tone

Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues is notable for its distinctive style and tone, which play a significant role in delivering the novel’s themes and messages. Let’s explore how Alexie’s writing contributes to the mood and atmosphere of the book:

  • Blending of Realism and Magical Realism — Alexie masterfully combines realistic depictions of life on the Spokane Indian Reservation with elements of magical realism. The appearance of the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson and the enchanted guitar introduces a magical element that contrasts with the stark realities of reservation life. This blend creates a unique narrative space where the spiritual and the mundane coexist, enriching the storytelling.
  • Humor and Satire — Despite the often serious and poignant subject matter, Alexie infuses his narrative with humor and satire. This approach not only provides relief but also sharpens his critique of societal issues, such as racial stereotypes, poverty, and the challenges faced by Native American communities. The humor is layered, sometimes dark, reflecting the complexities of the characters’ lives.
  • Poetic and Lyrical Language — Alexie’s prose often takes on a poetic quality, especially in descriptions of the landscape and in conveying the emotional states of his characters. The lyrical language enhances the novel’s mood, capturing the beauty and pain of the characters’ experiences. Music, a central theme of the book, is also reflected in the rhythm and flow of Alexie’s writing, creating a sense of melody within the narrative itself.
  • Intimate and Reflective Tone — The tone of the novel is both intimate and reflective, inviting readers into the inner worlds of the characters. Alexie achieves this through first-person narratives and close third-person perspectives, allowing for deep emotional engagement with the characters’ struggles, hopes, and dreams. The reflective tone encourages readers to contemplate the broader themes of history, identity, and resilience.
  • Direct Address and Engagement with the Reader — At times, Alexie employs a direct address or a conversational style that engages the reader directly, breaking the fourth wall. This technique draws the reader closer, making the narrative more accessible and emphasizing the storytelling aspect of the novel.

Through his distinctive style and tone, Sherman Alexie crafts a narrative that is both engaging and thought-provoking. The use of humor, lyrical language, and magical realism, combined with a reflective and intimate tone, creates a rich, multidimensional reading experience that captures the complexities of life on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Literary Devices used in Reservation Blues

Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues is rich in literary devices, enhancing its narrative depth and emotional resonance. Let’s explore the top 10 literary devices Alexie employs in the book:

  1. Magical Realism — The blending of the mundane with magical elements, such as the appearance of Robert Johnson and the enchanted guitar, creates a narrative where the extraordinary becomes part of everyday life, reflecting the complexity of Native American spiritual beliefs.
  2. Symbolism — Various symbols, like Robert Johnson’s guitar, fire and ash, and the Spokane Indian Reservation itself, convey deeper meanings related to heritage, loss, hope, and the struggle for identity.
  3. Irony — Alexie frequently uses irony to highlight the contradictions within the characters’ lives and the broader social and cultural contexts they navigate, underscoring the complexities of assimilation, cultural preservation, and personal ambition.
  4. Metaphor — The journey of Coyote Springs serves as an extended metaphor for the search for identity, redemption, and purpose, encapsulating the broader experiences of Native American communities.
  5. Foreshadowing — The narrative contains subtle hints of future events, particularly in the dreams and stories of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, which foreshadow the band’s challenges and the individual fates of its members.
  6. Allusion — References to real-life figures, events, and myths, particularly from Native American history and blues music, create layers of meaning, connecting the characters’ experiences to wider historical and cultural narratives.
  7. Personification — Alexie personifies elements of the natural world and spiritual entities, imbuing them with human qualities and emotions, which reflects the interconnectedness of people, nature, and the spiritual realm in Native American belief systems.
  8. Flashback — Through flashbacks, the novel explores the backstories of key characters, providing insight into their motivations and the historical traumas that shape their lives, enriching the narrative with context and depth.
  9. Dialogue — The use of distinctive, realistic dialogue captures the voices of the characters authentically, reflecting their personalities, backgrounds, and the dynamics of their relationships.
  10. Repetition — Certain motifs, phrases, and themes are repeated throughout the novel, reinforcing its central themes and symbols, such as the enduring power of music and the cyclical nature of history and personal destiny.

These literary devices are integral to the fabric of Reservation Blues, allowing Sherman Alexie to weave a complex, compelling narrative that engages deeply with themes of identity, tradition, and the transformative power of art.

Literary Device Examples

Let’s delve into examples and explanations for each of the top 10 literary devices used in Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie, showcasing how these enhance the narrative and deepen the thematic resonance of the novel.

Magical Realism

Robert Johnson’s arrival and the enchanted guitarIntegrates magical elements seamlessly into the realistic setting, blurring the line between the real and the supernatural, reflecting the integration of spirituality and reality in Native American culture.


Robert Johnson’s guitarSymbolizes the burdens and legacies of talent and history, carrying both the promise of fame and the weight of past traumas and deals made at crossroads.


The band’s aspiration to escape the reservation through musicHighlights the irony of seeking freedom through means that ultimately lead back to the starting point, underscoring the cyclical nature of dreams and realities.


The journey of Coyote SpringsActs as a metaphor for the broader journey of life, especially within marginalized communities, where dreams, successes, and failures are deeply intertwined with cultural and personal identities.


Thomas’s visionsSuggest future events and outcomes, creating an anticipatory tension and linking the characters’ fates to larger, mystical forces.


References to historical events and figures in Native American historyConnects the characters’ experiences to broader cultural and historical narratives, enriching the story with layers of significance.


The guitar “weeping”Embodies the guitar with human emotions, suggesting it carries the sorrow and stories of those who have played it, blending the spiritual with the material.


The backstory of Victor and JuniorProvides depth to their characters, revealing the roots of their struggles and dreams, and highlighting the impact of history on individual lives.


Conversations among band membersCaptures the unique voices and dynamics of the characters, offering insight into their relationships, hopes, and fears in a manner that feels authentic and immediate.


The recurring theme of dreams vs. realityReinforces the novel’s exploration of the tension between aspirations and the harshness of reality, emphasizing the persistence of hope amidst adversity.

These examples highlight Sherman Alexie’s adept use of literary devices to layer meaning, deepen character development, and enhance thematic exploration in Reservation Blues.

Reservation Blues – FAQs

Q: What is the primary theme of Reservation Blues?
A: The primary theme of Reservation Blues is the struggle for identity and the impact of historical trauma on the Spokane Indian community, explored through the lens of music and the personal journeys of the characters.

Q: Who are the main characters in Reservation Blues?
A: The main characters include Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph, Junior Polatkin, Chess Warm Water, and Checkers Warm Water, each bringing their unique perspectives and experiences to the narrative.

Q: How does Sherman Alexie incorporate magical realism into the novel?
A: Alexie incorporates magical realism through elements like the enchanted guitar left by Robert Johnson, visions, and supernatural occurrences that blend seamlessly with the realistic narrative, enriching the story’s depth and thematic complexity.

Q: What role does music play in Reservation Blues?
A: Music serves as a central motif in Reservation Blues, symbolizing hope, escape, and expression. It is through music that the characters seek to transcend their circumstances, express their identities, and connect with their cultural heritage.

Q: Can Reservation Blues be considered a critique of contemporary Native American life?
A: Yes, through its depiction of life on the Spokane Indian Reservation, the novel critiques the socio-economic challenges, cultural erosion, and the enduring effects of colonialism faced by Native American communities, while also highlighting resilience and the quest for self-determination.

Q: How does Sherman Alexie address the theme of historical trauma in the novel?
A: Alexie addresses historical trauma through the characters’ personal struggles, intergenerational narratives, and the community’s collective memory, illustrating how past injustices continue to shape the present and individuals’ identities.

Q: What significance does the setting hold in Reservation Blues?
A: The setting, the Spokane Indian Reservation, is pivotal to the novel, symbolizing both physical and psychological landscapes. It reflects the characters’ confinement and struggles but also their sense of belonging and cultural identity.

Q: How does Reservation Blues end?
A: Reservation Blues ends on a reflective note, with the disbanding of Coyote Springs and characters moving forward in their individual paths. Thomas Builds-the-Fire contemplates the enduring power of stories and music, emphasizing resilience and the cyclical nature of life.

These FAQs provide insights into the complex layers of Reservation Blues, highlighting its themes, characters, and Sherman Alexie’s narrative craft.


What magical element initiates the story of Reservation Blues?The appearance of a coyoteA talking crowRobert Johnson’s guitarA vision quest
Which character is known for storytelling?Thomas Builds-the-FireVictor JosephJunior PolatkinChess Warm Water
What major theme does Reservation Blues explore?The importance of educationThe impact of historical traumaThe rise of technologyThe benefits of urbanization
Where is the novel primarily set?New York CitySpokane Indian ReservationWellpinit, WashingtonChicago
What is the primary goal of the band Coyote Springs?To win a battle of the bandsTo achieve fame and escape the reservationTo record a hit singleTo tour Europe
Who are the sisters that join Coyote Springs?Sarah and EmilyChess and Checkers Warm WaterMaria and LuciaAnna and Elsa
How does Sherman Alexie incorporate magical realism?Through time travelThrough shape-shifting charactersEnchanted musical instrumentsInvisible cities
What ultimately happens to Coyote Springs?They become famous worldwideThey open a music schoolThe band disbandsThey move to a different reservation

This quiz is designed to test comprehension and deeper understanding of the themes, characters, and narrative techniques in Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie.


Identify the literary devices used in the following excerpt from Reservation Blues:

“In the heart of the reservation, where the Spokane River bends and flows backward for just a moment, Thomas Builds-the-Fire stood and watched the water move. He often thought about the river’s flow, how it mirrored the way stories circulate, winding through the landscape of memory, sometimes disappearing only to emerge somewhere unexpected, enriched by the journey.”


  1. Personification – The river is given human qualities, reflecting on how it “bends and flows backward for just a moment,” and how it “mirrored the way stories circulate,” suggesting a life-like presence and purpose.
  2. Metaphor – The river’s flow is used as a metaphor for the circulation of stories within a community. Just as the river winds through the landscape, stories weave through the collective memory, shaping and being shaped by the people who tell them.
  3. Simile – Implicit in comparing the river’s journey to the circulation of stories, suggesting similarities in their nature and impact on the landscape and the community.
  4. Imagery – Vivid imagery is used to describe the Spokane River’s physical and symbolic presence in the heart of the reservation, evoking a sense of place and the interconnectedness of nature and culture.

This exercise highlights the depth and richness of Sherman Alexie’s writing in Reservation Blues, demonstrating his skillful use of literary devices to convey complex themes and emotions.