Reservation Blues

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Reservation Blues Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Sherman Alexie
Like the characters in Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie grew up in the town of Wellpinit on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington. He was born hydrocephalic and suffered from seizures as a child, leading him to spend most of his time reading. When he was in eighth grade, he decided to attend high school in the nearby town of Reardan and played on the basketball team there—his book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian fictionalizes some of his experiences during this time. After trying out pre-med and pre-law studies at Gonzaga University, Alexie transferred in 1987 to Washington State University, where he began to write and study literature. His first collection of short stories and poetry was published in 1992, and since then, he has published more than fifteen books and received numerous awards. He lives in Seattle, Washington, with his wife and two sons.
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Historical Context of Reservation Blues
Reservation Blues examines the way that the past sufferings of Native Americans contribute to the hard conditions of life on the reservation today, so the historical context of the novel really begins with the arrival of Christopher Columbus to America in 1492—the beginning of a slow but systematic genocide perpetuated by white Europeans against Native Americans. More specifically, though, the novel makes many references to the period of the Indian Wars, particularly those that took place west of the Mississippi River in the nineteenth century. The novel references battles involving General Philip Sheridan, who is rumored to have proclaimed that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” General George Wright, who fought against the Spokane tribe in the Pacific Northwest, and George Armstrong Custer, who is most famous for his participation in the Battle of Little Big Horn—these three figures appear in the book in the thinly-veiled guise of Cavalry Records executives, but experience flashbacks from their time in the wars. On a broader level, the book also underlines the sustained mistreatment of native peoples by the United States government, making reference to broken treaties and manipulative, insufficient welfare systems that have encouraged dependence, poverty, and alcoholism while quelling any resistance. Similarly, the tradition of the Blues (another important part of the book) also comes from a history of oppression and slavery—that of black Americans. Blues musician Robert Johnson (1911-1938), who is a character in the novel, was a real historical figure and one of the most important musicians in American history, influencing other blues and rock & roll artists for generations.
Other Books Related to Reservation Blues
On one level, Sherman Alexie’s work could be placed in a tradition of other writers who deal with the experience of minority ethnic groups in America. Toni Morrison, the author of Beloved and Song of Solomon, is one example of a writer who explores similar generational patterns of suffering and ingrained racism (and often uses fantastical elements in her work). Junot Diaz is another such writer, and his work also often uses magical realism and makes use of popular culture in a way that mirrors Reservation Blues. One central plotline, the myth surrounding the blues guitarist Robert Johnson, is drawn from the Faustian tradition (someone selling their soul to the devil in exchange for fame, skill, or knowledge)—incarnated most famously by Goethe in Faust and in Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus. Many of the themes in Reservation Blues are also drawn from the music of the Blues itself, including the figures that play some part within its cast of characters, like Son House and Robert Johnson.
Key Facts about Reservation Blues
  • Full Title: Reservation Blues
  • When Written: 1995
  • Where Written: Washington, U.S.A.
  • When Published: 1995
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Fiction, Native American Fiction
  • Genre: Magical Realism, Native American Literature
  • Setting: Wellpinit, Spokane Indian Reservation, WA
  • Climax: The climax of Coyote Springs’ underdog tale comes when the band is called upon to play at Cavalry Records, hoping to make it big—but it becomes more of an anticlimax as Victor’s guitar rebels and the band falls apart.
  • Antagonist: Unsupportive Tribe Members (like David WalksAlong), Racism, Alcoholism, and Poverty
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient
Extra Credit for Reservation Blues

ABA Honors. Reservation Blues won an American Book Award in 1996.

The Globe. Alexie was born with hydrocephalus, a condition that occurs when an excess of fluid builds up in the cranial cavity. Because his head was larger than other children his age, he was nicknamed “The Globe” in elementary school.