Song lyrics precede each chapter, and this first one is a song about poverty and lack of choice. The action begins when a black stranger arrives in Wellpinit, Washington on the Spokane Indian Reservation, waiting with his guitar at the town’s crossroads. Word of his arrival spreads rapidly, but no one has the courage to speak to him until Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a lonely, dark-skinned Indian man with the physique of an old-time salmon fisherman, introduces himself. The stranger refuses to shakes Thomas’s hand, saying that he’s afraid that “the Gentleman” might hear. Thomas is curious, but according to unwritten Spokane tradition, he doesn’t ask questions.
The use of the blues as a framing device is most evident in the songs lyrics preceding each chapter, which often condense the main themes of a chapter. The first thing we learn about the reservation, through this song, is that it is a place where painful history and mistreatment have locked the community into a pattern of suffering that is difficult to break. The black stranger is a mystery, as is “the Gentleman.” The tone already foreshadows the magical realism of the novel, which at times weaves a fantastical story to make its point.
The man introduces himself as Robert Johnson, and reveals that he has come in search of an old woman from his dreams who might be able to help him escape the Gentleman. Thomas sees the sickness and fatigue in Johnson, and recognizes the weight that he himself feels as a storyteller, enslaved in some ways by his art. He invites Johnson home to play some songs. Johnson, who has been on the run since he first faked his death to escape his deal with the Gentleman in 1938, shows him his scarred hands, and tells Thomas that he can never play again.
This fantastical tone continues, as the novel begins with a definite awareness of the odd ways that Thomas, as a storyteller, sees the world differently. Johnson’s scarred hands are signs of a painful past, creating a sense of menace for what is to come as he enters the reservation. Robert Johnson was a real historical figure, a Blues musician who became hugely influential after his death. He was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for skill at the guitar. This suggests that Johnson’s “Gentleman” in the novel is actually a figure of the devil, pursuing Johnson who (as Alexie imagines) has not died, but is on the run from the devil.
Thomas tells Johnson that Big Mom, who lives on top of the beautiful and mystical Wellpinit Mountain, may be the healing woman he is looking for. Johnson admires the reservation’s beauty, but Thomas thinks of all the painful history buried just under the surface. He drives Johnson to the base of the mountain, but his van won’t make the whole journey to Big Mom, so Johnson sets out alone, leaving his guitar behind.
Big Mom is the ultimate spiritual entity on the reservation, rivaling the power of the Catholic Church. Thomas can see the patterns of suffering and painful history that haunt this place, while Johnson is distracted by its beauty. The guitar, a significant object in the novel, is now passed on from Johnson to Thomas and his peers.
In the memory of Big Mom, 134 years earlier, the Indian horses scream. She thinks at first that they are singing, but knows this is unlike any song she has taught them. She memorizes the song, and then walks to the clearing, where she sees the horses shot and killed by soldiers in blue uniforms. An officer whispers in the last colt’s ear, then shoots it between the eyes, and it falls to the grass, “to the sidewalk outside a reservation tavern…” Big Mom weeps, and makes a flute from the bones of the most beautiful horse. Now she waits on the mountain, and greets different “horses” who come to her in need: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, and many others. Now she watches as Robert Johnson makes his way to her.
Jumping in time unexpectedly, Alexie establishes that time is a fantastical, fluid thing for certain characters in the novel, including Big Mom, who is a supernatural part of history. The horses establish a symbol for the historical pattern of abuse and suffering that Native Americans endure at the hands of white governments past and present. Big Mom’s instinct to use music as a way of memorializing their pain and combating despair is one that becomes a theme of the novel. The fantasy deepens, as Alexie incorporates these famous musicians into the universe of his novel.
Thomas talks to the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota, a man who spends all day outside the reservation’s Trading Post. The man tells Thomas that the end of the world is near, and to be careful with music, which is dangerous. Thomas smiles. He steps past the new tribal slot machines and buys a microwave burrito at the Trading Post. Then Victor Joseph, who is tattered and angry, and Junior Polatkin, a “tall, good-looking buck with hair like Indians in the movies,” interrupts his curbside meal to ask about the guitar. They are bullies—Victor is an “asshole,” and Junior can be too, because “Victor [is] extremely contagious.” Thomas tells them he is going to change the world with this guitar.
Everyone on the reservation knows one another; it is a tight-knit community, and the quirks of each member are known to all. The man’s warning that music is dangerous falls on deaf ears, but the reader notes this warning of what is to come. The tribal slot machines are a small sign of suffering and despair in the face of wild, illegitimate hope. Victor and Junior’s codependent friendship is introduced for the first time, and the macho character of the pair is highlighted.
Thomas tells them the guitar has a secret name, and Victor pulls him into a sudden headlock to make him reveal it. These tussles are common on the reservation, full of frustrated, macho warriors who are treated like animals by the rest of world. Thomas does not struggle, but he will not speak. He and Victor make a deal: if Thomas can play a Patsy Cline song, he can go free—if not, Victor will beat him up and take the guitar. Junior remarks that the song can’t be worse than Thomas’s stories, which creep about and get into everything on the reservation, even dreams. Victor and Junior often try to shut Thomas up, but he never stops telling his stories.
The struggle of these macho “warriors” is another reference to the idea that the past is difficult to shake, and that its persistence leads to frustrated, wild hopes, disappointment, and corresponding patterns of suffering. Thomas’ stubborn patience with the bullies is a sign of his careful character, as he responds to their violence with music, or with the stories that consume him and have a magic of their own. We see the dynamic of Junior and Victor’s destructive friendship.
Suddenly, Victor smashes the guitar against the sidewalk, and then gives it to Thomas to play. Thomas, knowing that Junior and Victor are “fragile as eggs, despite their warrior disguises,” carefully plays the song about falling to pieces. It is good, silencing the two bullies, and the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota interrupts to tell them that the end of the world is near. By now, Junior has to go to work delivering water, and the unemployed Victor tags along—so Thomas escapes the beating. He starts to cry, and the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota tells him that things will be better in the morning. Thomas notices his hands have small razor cuts on them, where he played guitar, and he drives home with the broken guitar.
Victor’s sudden violence is an outgrowth of his painful past, as Thomas wisely recognizes, seeing past their “disguises” as confident warriors to the insecurity and sadness that haunt both Junior and Victor. The comedy of the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota’s periodic announcements undercuts the emotional thrust of the moment, giving Thomas a moment to escape. Thomas cries, a distinctly un-macho reaction, distinguishing himself from Victor and Junior. The scars are another sign that there is some dark magic at work in this guitar.
Junior is driving the water truck to the West End, avoiding potholes, with Victor asleep beside him, twisting and turning from a nightmare. Junior remembers the Psych 101 course he took at college, and how Freud and Jung said dreams decide everything. Junior knew that this was true for Indians, especially, since all the Indians on television had visions that told them exactly what to do. Junior knows this fact (and how to drive) and little else, except for the “wanting”—the need for something more. Victor only seems to want money. Junior reaches out to calm Victor in his sleep.
The closeness of Junior and Victor, and Victor’s dependence on Junior, becomes more apparent. Junior’s reflection on the importance of dreams for Native Americans underlines the surreal, magical-realist tone of the story, while also making fun of racist white visions of Native Americans that assume they all have a deep, inherent spiritualism. There is something missing in Junior’s life, and this already foreshadows his tragic end.
The two arrive at Simon’s house and pump some water into the well, looking at the dusty lawn. Simon, whom Victor calls the “crazy backwards driving old man,” offers them a drink, but all he has is Pepsi and coffee, and Victor wants a beer. Junior says he has to finish his work first, and shrugs his shoulders in response to Simon’s question about the black stranger. Simon shrugs back in agreement. The two leave, and Junior insists that they finish the five houses remaining. He promises to buy Victor’s drinks at the tavern.
Simon is an oddity on the reservation—not only because he drives backwards everywhere, but also because he does not drink. Junior’s respectful manner contrasts sharply with Victor’s rudeness. It is Junior who insists that they finish work before collapsing into their normal nighttime routine of drinking. He wants to be a good man in spite of Victor’s negative influence.
Thomas plans to burn the broken guitar to smoke some salmon, but the instrument repairs itself overnight, and speaks to him in the morning, laughing at his plan to burn it. He tells Thomas that “the blues always make us remember,” and Thomas thinks of his mother’s singing when he was a child. The guitar plays him a sad song, the same song for hours, and Victor and Junior hear it too, passed out drunk in the water truck. The guitar tells Thomas the other two will be coming soon, and that the three of them are meant to play songs for their people, who “need the music.” The reservation “drank deep” from the music of the guitar because it “tasted so familiar.”
The magic of the instrument manifests itself in this act of self-repair, and it takes on a personality of its own. The fact that the blues are about memory—and painful memory in particular—makes them a natural fit for the reservation: something “so familiar.” This begins the idea of “cultural exchange” via music. The Blues, a genre born of Black American suffering, also speaks to another oppressed group with a long history of persecution: Native Americans. The guitar’s prophesy and the reservation’s reaction to it continues the sense of a fantastical story mixed with gritty realism.
Junior and Victor are passed out in the water truck. Junior dreams of his two brothers, his two sisters, and his parents waiting at a bus stop in Spokane, during one of the short vacations his father was able to pay for every harvest season, when they would sit in the hotel and watch bad karate movies. Then he dreams of his parents’ death. None of his siblings, by now scattered and poor, could afford to return for their funeral. Victor dreams of his white stepfather, a short man in a cowboy hat, and his real father, who died during a heat wave in Phoenix and rotted on the couch for a week before anyone discovered him.
Dreams are one tool that Alexie often uses to give the reader a glimpse into the painful pasts of his characters. The relative “luxury” of this tiny family vacation to a hotel in nearby Spokane underlines the poverty of the reservation. Victor’s uneasy relationship to his stepfather gives the reader a first glimpse of the potential problems in some interracial relationships between whites and Native Americans, which will become a major point of concern later in the novel.
The sound of the guitar’s song washes over the reservation like rain, waking Victor and Junior, who, angry and hung over, drive toward Thomas to stop the music. The guitar tells Thomas they are coming, so he prepares peanut butter and saltine crackers to welcome them. While he waits, Thomas tells the guitar a story about Benjamin Pond and Turtle Lake—Jesus sipped from one lake, and Genghis Khan was attacked by turtles from the other. Legend has it that a tunnel connects the lakes, and that a woman can be heard crying there. Victor, Junior, and Thomas once saw Big Mom walk across the water, singing all the way, but Victor and Junior pretend they didn’t see it. Thomas watched Victor learn to swim in Turtle Lake, when his stepfather threw him in as a child and listened to him scream. Junior’s older brother fractured his skull on the dock at Benjamin Pond.
The storybook fantasy elements continue to multiply, as the guitar unleashes its magic upon the reservation. The reservation itself has magic, too, which is tied up in its history and made manifest in Thomas’s stories. Big Mom is associated with this mythic quality, and again a distinction is drawn between Thomas, who is open to these mystical elements, and Victor and Junior, the non-believers. The quick glimpse of Victor’s past reveals more about his uncomfortable relationship to his stepfather, which helps to explain his current character. Every place on the reservation has a history of pain or suffering.
Victor and Junior arrive, and Thomas invites them to join a band, offering Victor the guitar, which burns him slightly. Victor protests, but the guitar has him seduced already—Thomas sees it snuggle close to his body. Victor, who has never played guitar before, strums a chord, and smiles. Thomas claims the bass, and says that he will be the lead singer.
This is the origin of the blues band that will become Coyote Springs, as the mysterious and dangerous guitar finds its true partner: Victor. It is an unlikely trio, to say the least, since earlier in this chapter Victor and Junior were threatening to beat Thomas senseless—but they are united by a common heritage, a common history of suffering, and a common desire.