34 pages 1 hour read

Sherman Alexie

Reservation Blues

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide


Reservation Blues tells the story of Coyote Springs, a Spokane Indian rock band. The band is founded on a reservation, slowly gathers fans, and begins to play shows. Coyote Springs is given the chance to audition for a major record company in New York City, but, ultimately, the band does not succeed. The book combines traditional narrative with a mixture of other narrative techniques, including newspaper articles, song lyrics, interviews, and excerpts from journals. Together, these forms of media combine to form a presentation of reservation life that is sometimes humorous and sometimes devastatingly sad. The book also relies heavily on fantastic elements and the use of magical realism.

The novel begins with the arrival of Robert Johnson to the reservation. Robert is a fabled guitar player who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talents. Years later, Johnson regrets the deal and travels to the Spokane Indian Reservation to meet with Big Mom, a mythical figure who he believes can help him. There, he meets Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who takes Johnson to Big Mom and ends up in possession of Johnson’s guitar. The magical, talking guitar instructs Thomas to start a band, and he recruits his friends Victor and Junior as guitarist and drummer, respectively. 

The band gains popularity and begins to play shows. At a concert on a nearby reservation, they meet Flathead Indian sisters named Chess and Checkers. The sisters join the band as singers, and Thomas and Chess start a relationship. The band’s success continues to grow, and they win a battle of the bands competition in Seattle. For a while, two white women, named Betty and Veronica, also sing in the band.

One day, two record executives arrive on the reservation and express interest in signing Coyote Springs to their label. The executives are named Sheridan and Wright, and they appear to be the same Sheridan and Wright who, as the US generals, were responsible for the murder of many Indians a hundred years ago. Sheridan and Wright bring the band to New York but decide not to give them a record deal. Instead, they sign Betty and Veronica, whom they plan to dress in traditional Indian clothing and who will play Indian-influenced music. They want to take advantage of Indian culture without giving the Indians anything in return. 

Defeated, Coyote Springs returns to the reservation where Junior commits suicide. Thomas, Chess, and Checkers leave their homes to start a new life off the reservation. Victor stays behind and becomes the town drunk. 

The novel’s relatively simple plot serves a backdrop against which multiple characters are introduced. One is Father Arnold, the reservation’s white Catholic priest who struggles with his faith after Checkers falls in love with him. David WalksAlong, the tribal council leader, dislikes the band and is generally angry as he worries about his nephew Michael White Hawk, who has just been released from prison. Other characters include Lester FallsApart, the town drunk; Simon, who drives his car backwards, and a man known as the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota, who stands on the corner prophesying the end of the world. Together, these minor characters come together to create a depiction of day-to-day life on the reservation.