49 pages 1 hour read

Sherman Alexie

What You Pawn I Will Redeem

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 2003

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”

“What You Pawn I Will Redeem” is a short story by Sherman Alexie, an American writer and member of both the Spokane and Coeur-d’Alene nations. First published in The New Yorker in 2003, the story also featured in Alexie’s 2004 collection Ten Little Indians. Although largely realistic in its depiction of issues like homelessness and the legacy of Native American genocide, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” contains references to and elements of fairy tale, myth, and legend.

The story is narrated by a Spokane man named Jackson Jackson. Following a string of jobs and relationships, Jackson “went crazy” and has since been living on the streets of Seattle. While walking with two friends (Rose of Sharon and Junior) one day, Jackson spots a powwow-dance regalia in the window of a pawnshop. The regalia strongly resembles one that was stolen from his grandmother, so Jackson goes inside and speaks to the pawnbroker, corroborating his claim by finding a single yellow bead sewn into the garment—the trademark flaw Jackson’s family always stitched into their regalia. The pawnbroker, however, says he can’t afford to give away an item he bought for $1,000; instead he offers Jackson 24 hours to come up with $999, giving him $20 to get him started.

Jackson and his friends spend the pawnbroker’s money on alcohol while brainstorming ways to raise more cash. After passing out, Jackson wakes up to find Rose gone and wanders down to the wharf. There he encounters and mourns with three Aleut men who have been waiting 11 years for a boat to take them back to their native islands.

After returning to check on Junior, who is still passed out, Jackson visits the headquarters of Real Change—a non-profit that provides him with occasional work. Sympathetic to Jackson’s plight, the Big Boss gives him a free stack of newspapers to sell. Jackson only manages to sell five before giving up and buying dinner, which he immediately throws up.

Jackson checks in on Junior once more and then visits a Korean grocery store, where he buys two lottery tickets from a cashier named Mary. The second entitles him to a free lottery ticket, and when he returns to claim it, he learns he’s won $100. Jackson gives $20 to Mary and—after trying and failing to find Junior—heads to the “all-Indian bar” Big Heart’s. He spends his remaining $80 on shots for everyone at the bar while striking up a conversation with a woman named Irene Muse and a man named Honey Boy. Jackson hooks up with Irene in the bar’s restroom, but both she and Honey Boy have disappeared by the time the bar closes. Refusing to leave, Jackson gets into a fight with the bartender and then blacks out; he comes to his senses two hours later with a broken nose and settles down to sleep on a railroad track.

Early the next morning, Jackson is woken by Officer Williams—a policeman Jackson is friendly with. Williams tries to drop off Jackson at a detox center, but Jackson protests, explaining that he only has a few hours left to recover the regalia. In response, Williams gives him $30 and wishes him well.

Jackson returns to the wharf and asks the Aleut men to sing some traditional songs for him, explaining that he misses his grandmother. Afterwards, Jackson takes the men to a diner called the Big Kitchen, where he asks the waitress to bring them as much breakfast as she can for $25. He parts ways with the Aleut shortly before noon and heads back to the pawnbroker.

After struggling to find the shop, Jackson enters and admits that he hasn’t succeeded in raising the money. However, when he presents his $5 bill, the pawnbroker asks if he “work[ed] hard” for it, and when Jackson says that he did, the pawnbroker decides to give Jackson the regalia anyway. Jackson wraps the clothing around him as he leaves, feeling at one with his grandmother.