This song, “Small World,” is about the tragedies that build up on the reservation. It is followed by the news that one week after Coyote Springs’ return from Manhattan, Junior stole a rifle from Simon’s pickup truck, climbed up on the empty water tower, looked out over the reservation and the gathering crowd, and then shot himself. The night before, Checkers had climbed out a window of Thomas’s house, hiding to avoid death threats and the danger from the now even more mentally disturbed White Hawk. Sheridan has continued to haunt Checkers’ dreams, and she creeps fearfully through the night toward the Catholic church.
The tragedy of Junior’s suicide is reported abruptly and definitively, emphasizing the despair that Junior felt and the extent to which suicide is just one more pattern of suffering on the reservation, whose community gathers to watch the death. Junior was haunted by his past, and Checkers now feels haunted by the collective pain of her people’s history, as embodied by Sheridan. She creeps toward the church, toward religion but also toward romantic love, as a means of escaping this pattern.
Checkers finds Father Arnold kneeling in the front of the church, crying. She approaches him, leaving muddy footprints on the floor. He tells her that he cannot be with her, and that he is leaving the reservation after five years of careful ministry. He remembers the dream catcher that Bessie, the reservation’s oldest Catholic, had given him at his first service, decorated with rosary beads, and how he had treasured it. Now he is leaving the Church. Checkers tells him that she loves him, and he says he loves her too, but not like that.
Checkers’ muddy footprints are a reminder of the story from her childhood, when the mud was a sign of her poverty and outsider status relative to the white girls in town. Father Arnold, who has an instinct for blending native tradition and Catholic doctrine that Big Mom and even Thomas might approve of, is too shaken by his feelings for Checkers to continue his work. He has the privilege and ability—unlike Checkers—to just run away.
Checkers is devastated: everything is failing. The band hadn’t even bothered to take their instruments home from New York. On the plane, Thomas and Chess had revealed their plans to leave the reservation. Junior had sat and thought of Lynn, of the plane crashing, and of the thin flute music he would follow into the next life. Victor had cried, silently, mourning the loss of his guitar. In the church, Checkers tells Father Arnold he can’t leave her alone. He admits that he dreams about her, but he wishes the dream catcher would catch his dreams. He wishes he could resist her, because he belongs to God. He leaves her alone in the church, rocking back and forth.
Failure has surrounded Checkers her whole life, but the band and Father Arnold seemed to provide some hope of escape—but neither has worked out. Telescoping back through time from Junior’s suicide, we see him in despair on the plane, anticipating death. Victor’s tears, the first sign of :weakness” he has allowed himself to show in the novel, are for the guitar, which made him exceptional and heroic in a way he had never been before and might never be again. Arnold chooses religion over love, and though he is well-intentioned, he ends up being another white man leaving a broken Native woman behind him—just like Sheridan.
The night before the episode in the church, Victor dreams of music that will not stop playing, while the band talks to the Tribal Cops outside. Victor follows the music to the basement and finds the guitar waiting. Before the guitar lets itself be taken, though, it tells Victor that he can be anything he wants to be, if he trades what he loves the most—or who he loves the most. Outside, Junior turns, hearing his name spoken in Victor’s voice.
Victor is haunted by the sound of the mystical, demonic guitar, and here its dangerous potential takes its fullest form. He is asked to sacrifice what he loves most in return for the guitar’s obedience, and he speaks Junior’s name. The implication is that Junior’s suicide was perhaps influenced by the dark powers of the guitar, making this also a deep betrayal on Victor’s part.
On the night before that, Thomas and Chess discuss their future while Checkers sleeps on the floor beside their bed, escaping from her nightmares of Sheridan. Chess wants to return to Arlee, the Flathead reservation, but Thomas cannot imagine leaving his home, even though the community has turned against them—he makes excuses for their anger. Chess suggests a compromise: that they go west, to Spokane.
Home, and in particular the tribal home of this community of Spokane Indians, is a huge part of Thomas’s identity and the way that he connects to his past. The decision to leave thus implies a final rejection of the patterns of suffering in this community, and a belief in love as an alternative.
Earlier again, as the band arrives at the Spokane airport, they wait for Victor’s luggage. Just before they decide to abandon it, a guitar case slides down the carousel. Victor grabs it, but a young white man runs back in and claims that the guitar is his, that his name is on the side. They look, and see that his name is Dakota—he explains that his dad is “way into the Indian thing,” since he has some portion of Cherokee blood. Chess tries to explain that Cherokee and Dakota are different tribes, but he doesn’t understand. Dakota takes the guitar and, walking away, tells them that he isn’t stealing anything—it’s his guitar, and his name.
This fake-out with the guitar, which gives Victor a glimmer of hope that collapses quickly back into despair, is another casually racist encounter with the white majority. Dakota is another example of how white America thinks of Native American culture as exotic and desirable—even while considering Native Americans themselves to be worthless. Dakota is right—this is not his fault, per se, but rather the “fault” of wider structures of racism and misrepresentation that he is an unwitting part of.
Chess and Thomas finally decide they will go to Spokane. The two of them and Checkers share cups of powdered milk for breakfast, hating it. The day before this decision, Robert Johnson sits on Big Mom’s porch and watches the reservation. The two discuss the tragedy of White Hawk, who now marches around the baseball diamond without cease. Johnson remembers his own beginnings, when the bluesman Son House let him play harmonica with him from time to time. Johnson wanted to play guitar, but couldn’t. He then left town and disappeared at a crossroads. Now, Johnson has given up on the idea of building a new guitar. He watches Big Mom as she carves a piece of wood.
Powdered milk, another incarnation of the terrible government-provided food, is a sign of the cycle of poverty that Chess and Thomas aim to escape by leaving the reservation. Johnson’s origin story here is a reminder that the character is a retelling of real-life blues guitarist Robert Johnson, who died mysteriously. He was just a naïve and ambitious young musician once, and has since been changed by the demonic guitar’s influence.
Robert Johnson watches as members of the reservation protest Coyote Springs, carrying large signs. He remembers meeting the Gentleman at the crossroads, and how the Gentleman wore a pressed black wool suit in the Mississippi heat. In his memory, Johnson tells the Gentleman he wants to play the guitar better than anybody ever. When the Gentleman asks him what he loves the most—what he will trade in exchange for this wish—Johnson remembers his slave ancestors, and responds “Freedom.” The horses scream. Thinking that this was just a mirage, Johnson returns to Robinsville and Son House, but he is told that he has been gone for a whole year. Johnson absorbs this news, sits onstage, and starts to play the guitar, better than anybody ever. Now, watching Victor’s dreams, Johnson feels guilty about passing on the guitar. Big Mom keeps carving the wood, which turns into a harmonica.
This is the first physical appearance of the mysterious “Gentleman,” and his wool suit in the hot weather immediately sets him apart as magical in some way. He is meant to be a figure of the devil, striking a Faustian bargain with Johnson in exchange for freedom and talent. The mystical circumstances of his disappearance and return are part of the magical realist style that Alexie employs throughout the novel. The fame that Johnson found only caused him pain and made him lose his freedom, however, but now Big Mom is trying to heal him.
On the reservation, the day before, Father Arnold calls the Bishop and tells him that he doubts that he is being effective, and suggests the people of the reservation need a new perspective. The Bishop says he knows that the Indians are difficult, a lost people, but that they need Arnold. There are not enough priests, he says, to replace him on the reservation. Already, another priest serves three reservations at once. The Bishop tells him to focus more on study, and less on basketball. Arnold cannot bring himself to talk about Checkers, so he ends the call.
The Bishop’s response, which is barely attentive to Arnold’s plea and generalizes about the tribe’s religious life, shows Alexie’s qualms about the Catholic Church as an entity, even if he makes Father Arnold a sympathetic, kind character. In the face of the Bishop’s general apathy and disconnection from the facts on the ground, Arnold cannot tell the truth about his illicit love for Checkers.
The day after Coyote Springs returns to the reservation, and a day before Father Arnold’s decision, Betty and Veronica sit in Cavalry Records’ recording studio in Manhattan. Armstrong arrives to listen to them play, as Sheridan explains his plan. Because Betty and Veronica are a tiny bit Indian, the label can use them to replace Coyote Springs—if they tan them, dye their hair, and maybe perform plastic surgery to raise their cheekbones. Disgusted by his partner, Wright leaves, catching a cab driven by an old white woman with bright blue eyes. He asks her to take him home, and she takes him to a cemetery in California. He stands before a monument to General George Wright, and there speaks to his wife, who rises and comforts him as he weeps, remembering the horses screaming in the field while Big Mom watched.
Here the violence being perpetrated is cultural, as Betty and Veronica, with the encouragement of Armstrong and Sheridan, become a means for Cavalry Records to appropriate the sound and spirit of Coyote Springs and Native music more generally. Sheridan’s plan to transform them into a “Native” band is disgustingly racist, and finally drives Wright away from the company. The Native American characters playing black blues music was cultural exchange, as both groups share a history of oppression, but this robbery of Native American music by white authorities is cultural appropriation. The mystical cab driver is another seemingly mystical figure, and this pilgrimage to Wright’s burial monument is an ending of at least part of the hatred that arose from the Indian Wars. Violence haunts both sides of the battle.
Armstrong and Sheridan call Betty and Veronica into the control booth and explain their plan to sell them as Indians. Betty and Veronica protest at first, but Sheridan tells them that in this business, the “dream business,” a little sacrifice is needed to make the dream come true. Betty and Veronica look at one another, hearing the sound of drums. A couple of hours after landing, Coyote Springs return to the reservation hidden under a tarp in Simon’s pickup. Simon drives them home in reverse after warning them that the reservation doesn’t want them.
The “dream business,” which requires a sacrifice—of moral integrity, it seems—in order to generate fame and fortune, is a direct reflection of the kind of deal with the devil that Robert Johnson made, and that Victor makes before Junior’s suicide. That the band must sneak back into the reservation—their childhood and historical home—shows the extent to which community can be treacherous at times.