I read Sherman Alexie’s YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian several years ago, and I really enjoyed it. I’ve been meaning to read more of his work, but going to an English teacher’s conference and seeing The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven used in a session presented by one of my friends reminded me I needed to read this book. I finished it this afternoon, so it will be my final book of 2016.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of connected short stories set on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. Alexie admits the collection is semi-autobiographical. Several characters make appearances in multiple stories. The main protagonist, Victor Joseph, appears in several of the stories I enjoyed the most, including “What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” in which Victor travels with Thomas Builds-the-Fire to Phoenix to retrieve his father’s ashes and reconnects with Thomas, who had formerly been Victor’s friend. My favorite story in the collection, in fact, centered around Thomas Builds-the-Fire: “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” is a magical realist take on the absurd trial in which Thomas is convicted for a 200-year-old “crime.” One exchange in the trial caught my breath, and I had to read it out loud to Steve:
“My name was Qualchan and I had been fighting for our people, for our land. It was horrendous, hiding in the dirt at the very mouth of the Spokane River where my fellow warrior, Moses, found me after he escaped from Colonel’s Wright’s camp. Qualchan, he said to me. You must stay away from Wright’s camp. He means to hang you. But Wright had taken my father hostage and threatened to hang him if I did not come in. Wright promised he would treat me fairly. I believed him and went to the colonel’s camp and was immediately placed in chains. It was then I saw the hangman’s noose and made the fight to escape. My wife also fought beside me with a knife and wounded many soldiers before she was subdued. After I was beaten down, they dragged me to the noose and I was hanged with six other Indians, including Epseal, who had never raised a hand in anger to any white or Indian.”
“Mr. Builds-the Fire,” the judge asked and brought Thomas back to attention. “What point are you trying to make with this story?”
“Well,” Thomas said, “The City of Spokane is now building a golf course named after me, Qualchan, located in the valley where I was hanged.” (98-99)
Norma Many Horses also appears in several stories as a wise-beyond-her-years woman who is a skilled dancer, fry bread-maker, and compassionate friend. Junior Polatkin, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Arnold “Junior” Spirit of Absolutely True Diary is also the protagonist of several stories and a minor character in others. In fact, Junior’s story “Indian Education” includes many elements that Alexie also incorporated in to Absolutely True Diary.
My favorite stories in the collection, in addition to “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire,” were “Indian Education,” “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock,” and “What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” but there wasn’t a story in the collection I didn’t like. I am a little confused about the names and in some cases, I can’t tell if characters are recurring or not. For instance, it’s not clear to me if James is the same person as Jimmy Many Horses (Frank Many Horses claimed to be James’s father). The stories are woven together and move back and forth in time and even between reality an alternate reality. They are well-written and work on their own, but in this case, the collection taken as a whole is more than the sum of its individual parts, almost like a series of vignettes, similar to The House on Mango Street. Alexie has been criticized for the motif of alcohol and alcohol abuse that threads through the stories, but he say in his introduction that he was not stereotyping so much as writing what he saw growing up on the reservation. It’s a very sad picture, and it makes me angry all over again at how America has treated (and continues to treat) Native Americans. It’s shameful. Alexie’s voice is so important, and I’m glad he has shared his stories. This is an excellent collection—one of the best short story collections I have read.Rating: