19 pages 38 minutes read

Sherman Alexie

On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1993

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Summary and Study Guide


“On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City” was written by Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene poet, author, and filmmaker. The poem was published in First Indian on the Moon (1993)—a collection of poems, essays, and prose fragments—by the Brooklyn, New York-based Hanging Loose Press. Alexie’s first published poem, “Distances,” appeared in 1990.

Alexie was a prolific writer in his early career. In 1993, a second book of poetry, Old Shirts & New Skins, and his PEN/Hemingway Award-winning short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven were also published.

“On the Amtrak” is a lyrical free verse poem that explores the oppressive erasures of Indigenous culture and histories by the dominant narratives of white America through the speaker’s experience on a train trip from Boston to New York City. It features the mixture of cultural references, dark humor, and anger for which Alexie’s work is known.

Poet Biography

Sherman Alexie has said a creative writing course he took at Washington State University helped him find his writer’s voice. His life experiences have fueled his work.

He was born October 7, 1966, and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. His father was Coeur d’Alene and his mother, Spokane. His maternal grandmother was a spiritual leader of the Spokane and a major influence on Alexie until her death when he was eight.

Seizures and other side-effects resulting from the surgery he underwent at six months old for congenital hydrocephalus made physical activity challenging. However, he became an avid reader and excelled at his studies, attending an all-white high school off the reservation as an honor student. Alexie studied at Gonzaga University for two years from 1985-1987. He graduated from Washington State University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1991.

His first published book, I Would Steal Horses (1992) is a volume of poetry. The Business of Fancydancing (1992), a book combining poetry and prose, came out the same year. Alexie has since published at least twenty-four books: ten more volumes of poetry, multiple novels, and a memoir. Smoke Signals (1998), a film based on a short story from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), garnered critical acclaim.

Alexie has won numerous awards, including the American Book Award in 1996 for his novel Reservation Blues, the 2007 National Book Award for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, The PEN/Malamud in 2001, the PEN/Faulkner in 2010, and the John Dos Passos Prize in 2013. His book, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir, won the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, but Alexie declined the award in the wake of scandal and public backlash.

In 2018, accusations of misconduct—including allegations of sexual harassment, and threats to the careers of multiple Native American women writers—came to light during the #MeToo movement.

Alexie has not published any larger works since then. He has maintained an active subscription-based newsletter and podcast since 2021.

Poem Text

Alexie, Sherman. “On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City.” 1993. Best Poems Encyclopedia.


The poem’s title, “On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City,” establishes the setting of the poem. The text of the poem drops the reader directly into the scene unfolding on that train.

In the first stanza, the Native American male speaker is sitting across the aisle from a white woman. She looks out the window and points out a two-hundred-year-old house, saying “look at all the history” (Line 2).

In the second and third stanzas, the speaker reflects on the limited American history they have been taught. The speaker contrasts it to the stories of indigenous people “whose architecture is 15,000 years older” (Line 9) than the house the woman noticed. The speaker notes that while the tribal stories are older, they are far less known than they should be. The third stanza ends with the woman asking if he has seen Walden Pond (Line 12).

Stanzas four through seven focus on the speaker’s reaction to the question. He says, “I don’t have a cruel enough heart to break / her own” (Lines 13-14) by telling her the reservations out West around Spokane all have more than one place like Walden Pond (Lines 14-16).

He doesn’t care at all about Walden Pond because he knows “the Indians were living stories / around that pond before Walden’s grandparents were born” (Lines 19-20). He resents hearing about Don Henley’s attempts to save the pond because “nothing would need to be saved” (Line 25) if Henley’s people had not come in the first place.

The speaker thinks all this but says nothing because the woman “smiled so much and seemed delighted” (Line 27). The seventh stanza concludes with the speaker briefly considering bringing the happy woman a juice since, as the opening of the eighth stanza asserts, “I respect elders / of every color” (Lines 29-30). Instead, the speaker eats his “tasteless” (Line 31) food car lunch and nods along as she talks.

The last full stanza and the concluding line close the scene. The woman continues to point to more bits of “her country’s history” (Line 33) while he, “as all Indians have done / since this war began” (Lines 34-35) silently contemplates what he will “do and say the next time / somebody from the enemy thought I was one of their own” (Lines 36-37).