Reservation Blues

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Reservation Blues Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
This chapter begins with a love song, and the reason becomes clear when Chess and Checkers Warm Water, Flathead Indian sisters, push their way to the front of the crowd. Checkers is possibly the most beautiful woman in all of Indian country, and prefers older men. Chess wears glasses, and she agrees with her sister when she says the band “ain’t too good,” but she thinks the lead singer, Thomas, is kind of cute. Chess and Checkers dance, even as the music deteriorates since Victor and Junior get drunk on free booze. The band takes a break, and Thomas discusses the Warm Water sisters with his band mates—he has fallen for Chess, and wants to sing her a song.
Love finds its way into the novel through the Warm Water sisters. Victor and Junior fall back into their old pattern of alcoholism, sabotaging any chance the band had of performing well at their first show. This pattern—engaging with a warrior hopefulness in some kind of heroic task, and then self-sabotaging with alcohol in a way that makes failure inevitable (or after one’s inevitable failure)—is part of the cycle of despair that traps generations of Native Americans in the novel.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Victor confuses Thomas and Junior by talking about seeing white women, when there are none in the bar. He is very drunk. He has been an alcoholic since his father moved to Phoenix and gave Junior his first drink at his high school graduation. Junior had sworn never to drink because of his parents’ boozing, but he accepted the beer and drank it easily, crashing down loudly to earth. Thomas’s father, Samuel, is a quieter, more desperate drunk, who staggers around the reservation.
Victor’s hallucination underlines the fascination Indian men have with white women, and suggests that the guitar, in addition to the alcohol, might be influencing Victor’s mind. Alcohol is a force that pervades the reservation, entering Junior’s life all too easily through the bad influence of his friendship with Victor, and destroying the lives of each of their parents.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Victor’s guitar pulls him back on stage with Junior and Thomas, and Thomas announces that the next song is for Chess. He points at her in the crowd, and everyone chants her name. Thomas sings the love song over and over, and the crowd goes crazy, pushing Chess onstage, where she ends up singing a duet with Thomas, telling her sister that she is only falling for this maneuver “a little bit.”
This is the beginning of Chess and Thomas’ love story, and the first hint that Chess and Checkers might join the band. Their connection is forged through the music, which in this moment fulfills its potential as a force for hope and community building, since the Flathead tribe cheers their romance.
Themes
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
A local review later pans the band, saying that it “made up in pure volume what it lacked in talent,” and noting that Victor and Junior were “drunk as skunks.” The night of the show, Chess and Checkers helped Thomas pack the gear, since Victor and Junior were passed out in the van. Thomas is entranced by the idea of Montana, which has always been the mythical home of Indians in his mind, and also by the beautiful Chess Warm Water. Chess doesn’t feel beautiful, but is comfortable with her appearance. She has dark, “Indian grandmother eyes that stayed clear and focused for generations,” and seems to have a sort of inner wisdom. Checkers is surprised that a suitor chose her sister over her, but doesn’t miss the attention as she sees Thomas’s awkward first attempt at courtship.
The review underlines the role of alcohol in the band’s failure. The positive outcome of the show, though, is the connection to the Warm Water sisters, who are pragmatic and charming. Betty and Veronica act as stand-ins for all white women, but Chess and Checkers are more carefully drawn individuals. Chess’s “grandmother eyes” highlight the history of their race that has brought her here—a connection to the past reminiscent of the grandmother and granddaughter who gave directions earlier in the chapter.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
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Chess invites Thomas back to their house to spend the night, and although he feels a bit shy about the offer, he agrees to come and drink a coffee before the long drive ahead. The lights in the Warm Water House are blazing, and Thomas asks if they live with their parents, but Checkers tells him their parents are gone. They leave Victor and Junior to sleep in the car, and Checkers goes to bed, so Chess and Thomas are alone in the kitchen. Thomas is shy, so he asks Chess about herself.
The romance between Chess and Thomas continues to develop, slowly but surely. The lights in the Warm Water house suggest the sisters are haunted by something in their past, putting on a brave face—and the abrupt reference to their parents suggests they have a similar dark family background to Junior, Victor, and Thomas, aligning with the pattern of broken families.
Themes
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Chess tells Thomas that they grew up in a little shack in the hills with their parents, Luke and Linda Warm Water, and their baby brother Bobby. Bobby died one winter, sick and far from the reach of any doctor. Thomas reveals that his mother died when he was ten, and his father is a drunk. Chess tells him that her father used to play piano, when the trees were so cold they cracked like gunfire, and he taught her and Checkers how to sing. The night Bobby died, Luke went out into the snow to find help, knowing that none could be found, and Linda kissed his fingertips on the way outside.
Thomas and Chess bond over the patterns of suffering that both have seen and survived. The way that Chess tells stories, with careful reference to poetic details, is reminiscent of Thomas’s own storytelling. The love between Chess’s father and mother initially seemed to be a bond that held them together in the face of poverty and inadequate medical care, a thing that, like music, brings hope in the face of despair.
Themes
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Chess begins to cry, and takes a moment to herself in the bathroom. Thomas asks about Checkers, who is listening in the next room and crying a little herself. She remembers her father storming back in, cursing “like a defeated warrior,” and then screaming until colors flowed out of him. They buried Bobby in a grave Luke Warm Water dug over three days in the frozen ground. Then he began to drink, and the sisters spent most days outside in the woods, close enough to hear when their mother Linda played the mournful music on the piano, music that spread across the reservation like a rain of tears.
Chess’s father, Luke, was unable to face the tragedy of this particular defeat—the death of his son. He saw it as a personal failure (like so many of the “warriors” in the novel), and so collapses into despair, falling back on the alcoholism that features so prominently in reservation life. Linda’s music becomes a secret means of channeling the family’s sadness and pain. Chess and Checkers survived by clinging to their sisterly bond.
Themes
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Thomas smiles at Chess when her story is finished—she is the first Indian he has found who tells stories like his. He decides to sleep on the couch, and savors the feeling of Chess’s toothbrush—he’s already in love. Chess covers him with a quilt her mother made, and tells him, when he asks, that her mother Linda died of cancer—a lie. Thomas says that his mother died of cancer, too. Chess kisses him on the cheek, a magical kiss, and says goodnight, but she cannot sleep and is haunted by memories. She remembers the good sounds of her parents’ lovemaking before Bobby died, and how they changed after, when Linda no longer consented to Luke’s advances, and, when he was drunk, he forced himself on her, roughly. Their fighting became intense, until Chess used to wish her parents would die so that she could learn to love them again in death.
Thomas is entranced by Chess’s storytelling, and by how much they have in common—even if it is untrue that both of their mothers died of cancer. Their parents’ presence in their lives is palpable, even as they are absent, as represented by the quilt that Chess finds for Thomas, crafted by her mother Linda. As Chess finds herself falling in love. She is haunted by memories of her parents’ love, and the ways that it was ruined by the suffering imposed upon them by an unjust world. Alcohol and despair transformed Luke into an abusive husband, and both Chess and Checkers were deeply affected by listening to their parents’ fighting.
Themes
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
One day Linda walked into the woods “like an old dog and found a hiding place to die.” Luke quit drinking, determined to find her, not believing she was dead—he convinced himself she had run away with another man. He brought Chess and Checkers small gifts whenever he returned from searching. One time, he brought each sister a Pepsi from Missoula. They buried them in the snow so they would be cold, but the bottles exploded, and Luke yelled at the sisters, shaking Checkers for ruining the special treat. Chess noticed the brown snow was sweet, though, and the sisters ate it in handfuls, and then held each other by the fire until their father returned.
Linda’s suicide is part of a larger pattern that will later consume Junior as well; Linda is overwhelmed by the suffering in her past and the sense of despair that pervades her present. The macho response of Luke Warm Water, who assumes she has run off with another man, is a jealous reflex that avoids the harsh truth. His anger is passed down, as in moments he is abusive toward the sisters as well, but they cling to one another to survive his abuse.
Themes
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Asleep, Thomas dreams of television and hunger, scrolling through black and white channels to find only images of white people with plentiful food. Finally he finds evidence of Indians, in a film where three cowboys confront the Sioux nation. They tell three Indians who dismount from their horses that they “come in friendship,” and then electrocute all three on the telegraph wire they are stringing up, so that the Sioux ride off in a panic. This reminds Thomas of the summer that Junior and Victor killed snakes by draping them over an electric fence, forcing Thomas to watch. Once Victor tried to make Thomas grab a dead rattlesnake, and, when he threw it at Victor, held it in his face and then threw it against the fence, where it danced in the electricity and came back to life, sending the boys scrambling.
Thomas’s dream highlights the lack of representation of Native Americans in popular culture, and the domination of the white majority. The only example he finds is a caricatured one, where the savage Indians are electrocuted by cowboys who claim to come in friendship, showcasing the lies that have eroded trust between whites and Native Americans for generations. This tragedy is recreated in a flashback featuring Junior and Victor, whose cruelty to the snakes feels like a direct reaction to the cruelty in their past—the kind of cruelty that Thomas wishes to escape.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
The dream continues: now Thomas, Victor, and Junior are practicing, and Thomas says he hopes they don’t make it big, because it might ruin them. He holds Robert Johnson’s guitar in the dream, and plays it, feeling sweet pain, until Victor shouts at him. He then wakes up to find the real Victor above him, searching for the guitar—Thomas had brought it inside so that it didn’t get cold. Victor cooks an omelet, surprising everyone. Chess leaves the kitchen after Victor farts, and Thomas follows her. Victor and Junior are left alone with Checkers. They compliment her crudely, but she makes it clear that neither of them has a chance with her.
Thomas’s fear that fame will change them for the worse is born of a sense that poverty is all any of them has ever known. The guitar is emblematic of the temptations and dangers of fame and success. Victor’s brief moment of commendable behavior is immediately undercut by his childish reversion to farting and making crude comments toward Checkers—who shows her strong will in shutting down the pair of macho Indian men without hesitation.
Themes
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Thomas tells Chess that the band is better than they sounded last night, blaming Victor and Junior being drunk. He tells her he does not drink, and she smiles: this is a very important qualification in a potential mate. She has had many Indian boyfriends, each disappointing in his own way, and is prepared to be let down. Thomas, though, has no kids, does not drink, and has never been married. Pleased, Chess observes that Victor is a jerk with terrible clothes who bosses around the kindlier Junior. Thomas explains that Victor is broke—they all are, and that’s why the band exists. Chess and Checkers are poor too, fighting fires for the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) in the summer to make money.
That the mere fact that Thomas does not drink, has no kids, and has never been married is enough to render him an attractive suitor in Chess’s eyes is a comment on the sorry state of most men on the reservation, where alcoholism and other patterns of suffering are nearly impossible to avoid. Thomas’s apology for Victor suggests (again) that Victor’s rude behavior is partly a response to his desperate situation. Thomas still believes in the band, despite this first poor showing—he is a hopeful character.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Struck with an idea, Thomas invites Chess and Checkers to join the band as singers. Chess is skeptical, unwilling to leave home. Victor objects to the idea, but when Thomas suggests they vote, Junior unexpectedly votes with Thomas. The sisters are still unconvinced, so they begin to play music. Victor resists, but the guitar speaks to him in a strange voice and he joins in, shredding on a solo so intensely that his hands blister and sparks cause a fire that Chess and Checkers, veteran firefighters, have to douse. They are dumbstruck, and sign on immediately.
This is the first time that Junior has split from Victor in any decision-making, and it takes him by surprise, suggesting that he has more of an independent opinion than it might seem at first. At any rate, fate has decided the question for them, as the guitar’s demonic magic takes hold of Victor, setting a fire that the Warm Water sisters must douse in a moment of comedic understatement.
Themes
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
The band stays with the Warm Water sisters for a week, rehearsing until their discord and disorder begins to meld into something worth hearing, and then they reach out to the owner of the Tipi Pole Tavern once again. The band rocks their return show, playing classics with a fervor that turns the songs into “tribal music that scared and excited the white people in the audience.” The audience goes wild, begging for more “music, hope, and joy.” After the show, Chess, Checkers, and Thomas find Victor and Junior naked and drunk in the back of the van with an equally naked Betty and Veronica.
This is the next step in the classic underdog tale—after a first defeat, a period of training and transformation leads to a triumphant return. The music has begun to transform as well, becoming more distinctly Indian, and energizing the Indian crowd, filling them with hope and a renewed sense of community. After this triumph, however, Victor and Junior’s alcoholic ways return, and their obsession with white women goes a step further with Betty and Veronica.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Checkers goes to sleep on the pool table inside, while Chess and Thomas sit on a bench and talk. Chess tells Thomas that Victor and Junior hanging out with white women feels like a betrayal. The race needs to be preserved, but Indian men also need Indian women, she thinks. Thomas asks whether she likes him or just his DNA, and she tells him she likes both. Thomas agrees with what Chess is saying, but also feels that love should be celebrated wherever it’s found, and he feels bad for “half-breed” kids who are often mistreated even worse than he was. Chess admits that her grandmother was part German and hated being Indian, so much that she ran away from her family on the reservation.
Here, the issue of interracial relations is discussed explicitly. Victor and Junior’s actions with Betty and Veronica are, in some sense, a betrayal, since they threaten the survival of the already fragile culture of Native Americans. The second part of Chess’s argument is subtler though—she thinks that Indian women are the only ones capable of dealing with Indian men, since they alone can understand the particular patterns of suffering that have formed them. Interracial relationships also created mixed children, who often suffer their own set of hardships.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Thomas responds with the story of two boys, an Indian named Beaver and a white boy named Wally. They both competed in fancydance contests, but whenever Wally won the Indian boys beat him up—all except Beaver. And Wally never stopped dancing. Chess correctly guesses that the two were half brothers. When she asks what the story means, Thomas says he doesn’t know, but maybe it means that “drums make everyone feel like an Indian.”
This story captures one of the particular sufferings of being the child of an interracial relationship—while drawn to both parent cultures, the child may never feel at home with or be accepted by either. In fact, many of the mixed-race people on the reservation are looked down upon or abused by the full-blood Indians, who resent the opportunities they have.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
The Wellpinit paper reports that Coyote Springs has returned home with the addition of two Flathead sisters. The article quotes Michael White Hawk badmouthing the band. The band members are asleep throughout Thomas’s house. Chess dreams of a small unpainted Indian man on a pale horse, who rides alone and sad into a cavalry fort where many other Indians are waiting. He has come to negotiate, but pulls a knife when he sees bars on the windows of his room, and he is killed by an angry Indian and a white soldier’s bayonet. A tall Indian from the crowd carries the dying visitor to a lodge, where the Indians sing mourning songs. A doctor comes and goes. The man’s father arrives, and he and the tall Indian watch the unpainted man die.
The community continues to turn against Coyote Springs, resenting in some way the hope that they represent, since they assume it will be a failed one, and also united against the addition of the “foreign” Chess and Checkers. Chess’s dream is almost a tribal memory, a short but compelling illustration of the ways that Native Americans were betrayed by lying soldiers, or by one another. There is a deep dignity in the way that the dying man is mourned. All of this historical pain shapes the place where the band’s members find themselves now.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Chess wakes up in the dark, frightened, and calls for Thomas, finding him in the kitchen working on a song. He tells her everything is okay, and she kisses him full on the mouth, so that he nearly falls over in his chair. They make love tenderly and awkwardly. Afterwards, they lie together and listen to a faint sound haunting the reservation air.
In the face of this suffering and despair, Chess turns to her new loving bond with Thomas in search of hope. This act of love unites them, though they are already united in the past that they share. The sound that they hear is a mystical echo of this past, a hint of the horses from earlier.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
The band’s first non-reservation gig is at a cowboy bar in Ellensburg, Washington. To get there they drive the faded blue van, which is old enough that Victor says they should get a new rig. Thomas tells him they must respect their elders, but then the car breaks down. They push the van twenty miles, into Vantage, where a cop finds them. He asks them where they’re from, and goes to make a call. Victor and Junior discuss “taking him out,” but when he returns, the cop tells them his cousin is coming to tow them to the bar, Toadstools, where they will be playing. As he’s leaving, he asks who the lead singer is, and Thomas raises his hand. Junior says that if he finds any silver bullets lying around, he’s going to pass out.
The clash of the cowboy bar with the Indian blues band is a comic juxtaposition. The helpful policeman surprises everyone with his contribution—a fact that underlines the extent to which the police are generally a hostile force in the minority experience. The repetition of the “lead singer” joke underlines the absurdity of this moment. Junior’s quip is a reference to the Lone Ranger, an important figure in popular representations of the American West, and, therefore, of Native Americans.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
The Ellensburg paper publishes a review of the show, calling Coyote Springs “professional” and praising their passion. The bar’s owner, Ernie Lively, is quoted saying that he was nervous about hiring Indians, but that it went well. The highlight was when “those Indians sang ‘Mommas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,’” and everyone sang along.
Alexie mocks the casual racism of the cowboy bar’s owner, Ernie. “Those Indians” highlight the irony of their presence at the cowboy bar by singing the warning about growing up to be a cowboy, which has a very different historical resonance coming from them than in the song’s original version.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
The van has been repaired by a mechanic now, and a few stories have been whispered into its engine by Thomas. They band members are driving back to the reservation, everyone asleep but Chess and Thomas, who listen to Hank Williams on the radio. The music rises up into the night, banging into the Big Dipper and bouncing off the moon, and it keeps howling “until Coyote Springs became echoes.” Thomas and Chess listen, and drive all the way home through the night.
The magic of Thomas’s stories continues to play a key role in the novel, and is intertwined with the magic of music. Coyote Springs is only an echo of the universal blues, the music of suffering and loneliness that recurs throughout history. Thomas and Chess are both attuned to this music, and increasingly intertwined with one another as well.
Themes
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon