Reservation Blues

Thomas Builds-the-Fire Character Analysis

Thomas is a Spokane Indian, and the reservation’s unofficial storyteller. Much of the story’s narration follows his perspective to some degree, which is attentive to small details and the spiritual resonances of the reservation. Thomas is somewhat of an outcast on the reservation, and considered strange by many. He becomes the lead singer and songwriter of Coyote Springs, as well as their bassist. Most of their meager funding and motivation also come from him. Junior and Victor have regularly bullied him since they were young, with Victor leading the charge, but Thomas is patient with their abuse. He falls in love with Chess Warm Water, singing her a love song at a concert on the Flathead reservation in Montana. Neither one of them drinks, and both are naturally quiet, but full of stories. At the end of the novel, the pair decides to get married and leave the reservation for Spokane. What hope remains in the novel goes with them, as they remain determined to give their children a better life with two Native American parents.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire Quotes in Reservation Blues

The Reservation Blues quotes below are all either spoken by Thomas Builds-the-Fire or refer to Thomas Builds-the-Fire. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Grove Press edition of Reservation Blues published in 1995.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“This is a beautiful place,” Johnson said.
“But you haven’t seen everything,” Thomas said.
“What else is there?”
Thomas thought about all the dreams that were murdered here, and the bones buried quickly just inches below the surface, all waiting to break through the foundations of those government houses built by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire (speaker), Robert Johnson (speaker)
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

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Thomas repeated stories constantly. All the other Indians on the reservation heard those stories so often that the words crept into dreams. An Indian telling his friends about a dream he had was halfway through the telling before everyone realized it was actually one of Thomas’s stealth stories.

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 3 Quotes

As he slept in the Warm Waters’ house, Thomas dreamed about television and hunger. In his dream, he sat, all hungry and lonely, in his house and wanted more. He turned on his little black-and-white television to watch white people live. White people owned everything: food, houses, clothes, children. Television constantly reminded Thomas of all he never owned.

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 4 Quotes

Junior and Victor shrugged their shoulders, walked into Thomas’s house, and looked for somewhere to sleep. Decorated veterans of that war between fathers and sons, Junior and Victor knew the best defense was sleep. They saw too many drunks littering the grass of the reservation; they rolled the drunks over and stole their money.

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Junior Polatkin, Victor Joseph, Samuel Builds-the-Fire
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

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Once outside, Thomas cried. Not because he needed to be alone; not because he was afraid to cry in front of women. He just wanted his tears to be individual, not tribal. Those tribal tears collected and fermented in huge BIA barrels. Then the BIA poured those tears into beer and Pepsi cans and distributed them back onto the reservation. Thomas wanted his tears to be selfish and fresh.

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

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“You never told us who won that game between your father and the Tribal Cops.”
“Who do you think?” Thomas asked. “Who do you think won that game?”

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire (speaker), Chess (Eunice) Warm Water (speaker), Samuel Builds-the-Fire
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 5 Quotes

“I mean, I think they’re all using each other as trophies. Junior and Victor get to have beautiful white women on their arms, and Betty and Veronica get to have Indian men… Look at them. They got more Indian jewelry and junk on them than any dozen Indians. The spotlights hit the crystals on their necks and nearly blinded me once. All they talk about is Coyote this and Coyote that, sweatlodge this and sweatlodge that. They think Indians got all the answers.”

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire (speaker), Junior Polatkin, Victor Joseph, Betty, Veronica
Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:

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“There was a part of every Indian bleeding in the snow. All those soldiers killed us in the name of God, enit? They shouted ‘Jesus Christ’ as they ran swords through our bellies. Can you feel the pain still, late at night, when you’re trying to sleep, when you’re praying to a God whose name was used to justify the slaughter?”

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire (speaker), Chess (Eunice) Warm Water
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

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Thomas smiled.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve always had a theory that you ain’t really Indian unless, at some point in your life, you didn’t want to be Indian.”
“Good theory,” Chess said. “I’m the one who told you that.”

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire (speaker), Chess (Eunice) Warm Water (speaker)
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 10 Quotes

In the blue van, Thomas, Chess, and Checkers sang together. They were alive; they’d keep living. They sang together with the shadow horses: we are alive, we’ll keep living. Songs were waiting for them up there in the dark. Songs were waiting for them in the city.

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Chess (Eunice) Warm Water, Checkers (Gladys) Warm Water
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 306
Explanation and Analysis:

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Thomas Builds-the-Fire Character Timeline in Reservation Blues

The timeline below shows where the character Thomas Builds-the-Fire appears in Reservation Blues. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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
...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... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
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
Thomas tells Johnson that Big Mom, who lives on top of the beautiful and mystical Wellpinit... (full context)
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
Thomas talks to the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota, a man who spends all day outside the reservation’s Trading Post. The... (full context)
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
Thomas tells them the guitar has a secret name, and Victor pulls him into a sudden... (full context)
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
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... (full context)
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
Thomas plans to burn the broken guitar to smoke some salmon, but the instrument repairs itself... (full context)
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
...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... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Victor and Junior arrive, and Thomas invites them to join a band, offering Victor the guitar, which burns him slightly. Victor... (full context)
Chapter 2
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 trust that is broken in romantic heartbreak, and the heartbreak of a broken treaty. Thomas, Junior, and Victor are rehearsing in an abandoned grocery store called Irene’s. The electric bass... (full context)
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
...Chairman and once a great basketball player, shows up to a band rehearsal and warns Thomas they are disturbing the peace. WalksAlong has hated the Builds-the-Fire family for a long time,... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
The band’s fame grows, and Indians from all over show up to watch rehearsals. Thomas decides they need a name. Victor suggests Bloodthirsty Savages, and Thomas counters with Coyote Springs.... (full context)
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
Coyote Springs still just plays covers of famous musicians, but Thomas decides he will write new songs for them—he has power in the band, because he... (full context)
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
Thomas thinks of fry bread, a traditional Spokane food. Big Mom has won the fry bread-cooking... (full context)
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
The band takes Thomas’s worn blue van to the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, and gets lost, stopping at... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
...owner of the bar—whose engraved belt buckle says JIMMY, although that is not his name—leads Thomas and the band into the bar. The bar fills up with Flathead Indians come to... (full context)
Chapter 3
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
...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... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity 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.... (full context)
Hope, Despair, and the Blues 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... (full context)
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
...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... (full context)
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Chess invites Thomas back to their house to spend the night, and although he feels a bit shy... (full context)
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 tells Thomas that they grew up in a little shack in the hills with their parents, Luke... (full context)
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
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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.... (full context)
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... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
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Asleep, Thomas dreams of television and hunger, scrolling through black and white channels to find only images... (full context)
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
The dream continues: now Thomas, Victor, and Junior are practicing, and Thomas says he hopes they don’t make it big,... (full context)
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Thomas tells Chess that the band is better than they sounded last night, blaming Victor and... (full context)
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
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Struck with an idea, Thomas invites Chess and Checkers to join the band as singers. Chess is skeptical, unwilling to... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Thomas responds with the story of two boys, an Indian named Beaver and a white boy... (full context)
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
...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... (full context)
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
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,... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
...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,... (full context)
Chapter 4
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering Theme Icon
...with the headlights of the blue van illuminating an old Indian man passed out on Thomas’s lawn. Victor asks Junior which of their dads it is, and Junior replies that it... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering Theme Icon
Thomas tells the story of his father, Samuel. He used to be a binge drinker only,... (full context)
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Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
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Thomas pours them all a glass of commodity grape juice, and Chess remarks that their cousins... (full context)
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
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Chess and Checkers wait for Thomas in the kitchen, jealously watching Samuel sleep. Checkers tells Chess she knows Chess is falling... (full context)
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering Theme Icon
...“I Shot the Sherriff.” The cops score again. Back in the present, in the kitchen, Thomas asks Chess if she ever drank, and she and Checkers reply that they never did—they... (full context)
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering Theme Icon
Chess and Thomas remember an argument they witnessed a few days earlier in Spokane—a drunk white couple whose... (full context)
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Thomas, Chess, and Checkers talk about Thomas’s mother, who died of cancer. Thomas tells them that... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
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...World War II, one of the Navajo code talkers. He said that he killed Hitler. Thomas laughs, remembering that Samuel always said he was the one who killed Hitler, imagining that... (full context)
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering Theme Icon
...She begins to struggle against him, until Victor throws her down. Then Chess intervenes, and Thomas tackles Victor. The two wrestle, until Junior finally interrupts them. Thomas leaves the house with... (full context)
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Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering Theme Icon
Thomas and Chess return to the house to announce their decision. Junior is under the table... (full context)
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Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
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Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Victor and Junior drink coffee while Thomas and Chess discuss Seattle—how it’s named after an Indian Chief, but that they got the... (full context)
Chapter 5
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
...the club that invited them, Backboard, should pay for it. Victor heckles the clerk, while Thomas, as the lead singer, calls Backboard. He returns with bad news: what they have been... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering Theme Icon
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...he can finish the gallows platform drops. Junior wakes up with a shout that rouses Thomas as well. (full context)
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Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Junior falls back asleep, but Thomas stays up with Chess. They discuss religion. Thomas tells her he was baptized Catholic, but... (full context)
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...Spokane Reservation,” is a hero, and there is one such gentle drunk on every reservation. Thomas realizes they’ve let too much time pass, and they have to leave for the band’s... (full context)
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In his journal, Thomas outlines the ten commandments of the reservation as given by the United States government to... (full context)
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A radio interview with Thomas after the “battle of the bands” reveals that Coyote Springs won the competition. Thomas discusses... (full context)
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
The interviewer asks about Checkers, and Thomas tells him she stayed behind to sing in the Church choir. He says that Chess... (full context)
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
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Thomas and Chess take turns driving the victorious band home, with Junior, Victor, Betty, and Veronica... (full context)
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Thomas admits that he doesn’t believe the world is all an accident, and he thinks of... (full context)
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Thomas smiles, and tells Chess his theory that you aren’t really Indian unless at some point... (full context)
Chapter 6
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...reservation holds its breath against the music that is “ancient, aboriginal, indigenous.” In his bed, Thomas hears Johnson’s voice, and hears the generations of pain attached to it—he sees a hut... (full context)
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...as drunks, calls out Chess and Checkers for being Flathead (not Spokane) Indians, and calls Thomas a “crazy storyteller.” It would be better for everyone, WalksAlong writes, if the rest of... (full context)
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On Sunday morning, Thomas accompanies Chess and Checkers to the Catholic church, fighting the urge to run away. Chess... (full context)
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...an Indian, telling them they don’t understand about magic, and that every place is sacred. Thomas intervenes and gives them a ride to town. In the car, Betty and Veronica ask... (full context)
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The members of Coyote Springs are truly outcasts now, holed up in Thomas’s house and greeted by silence when they venture out. Led by WalksAlong, the tribe nearly... (full context)
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...moustaches, get out of the car and knock on the door. They introduce themselves to Thomas as Phil Sheridan and George Wright, executives from Cavalry Records in New York City. A... (full context)
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...Doritos and Hershey’s, and a stock of beer for Junior and Victor. The next day, Thomas receives a letter from Big Mom, telling him that without her help, they will have... (full context)
Chapter 7
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...at denial,” once saw her walk across Benjamin Pond, but erased it from their memory. Thomas says that she is “the most powerful medicine.” (full context)
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...says the towering figure of Big Mom when they reach her blue house. She tells Thomas that Robert Johnson is gone looking for wood to build a new guitar. She tells... (full context)
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...comes from “a whole different part of God.” Later, trying to figure it all out, Thomas says that Big Mom is not God, but just a part of God—like all of... (full context)
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...of rehearsal, Victor resists playing the chord again. Robert Johnson listens, wincing, from the bushes. Thomas tells Victor to keep going, and they play once more through the song. That night,... (full context)
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...whole set is original now, and she pronounces them as ready as they’ll ever be. Thomas wants to keep practicing, and he says that the community won’t let them back on... (full context)
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...flown before. Finally he relents, deciding to get drunk, but still refusing the eagle feather Thomas has offered him. Victor is fine during take-off, but when the plane hits turbulence, he... (full context)
Chapter 8
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Chess, Checkers, and Thomas wait in their hotel lobby worrying about Victor and Junior—they want to find them, but... (full context)
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...kissed him. Back in the bar, Victor interrupts Junior’s reverie. A police report records that Thomas and Chess have reported the pair as missing now. Checkers falls asleep in the hotel... (full context)
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Chess and Thomas enter yet another bar, asking the pretty waitress about Victor and Junior. She says she’s... (full context)
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...him, but that it is all over now. In the present, as the sun rises, Thomas and Chess return to the lobby and “discover America,” finding Victor asleep on a couch... (full context)
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...to wait up with her until they returned. Chess goes to check on her, while Thomas and Junior try to look threatening. Wright tells them he came to apologize, and that... (full context)
Chapter 9
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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On the night before that, Thomas and Chess discuss their future while Checkers sleeps on the floor beside their bed, escaping... (full context)
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Chess and Thomas finally decide they will go to Spokane. The two of them and Checkers share cups... (full context)
Chapter 10
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...through the generations. Few people cared enough to attend Junior’s wake, which took place in Thomas’s house on the kitchen table. A few sent flowers, and Simon drove backwards off the... (full context)
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...Big Mom and Father Arnold take turns leading the service, while Checkers, Chess, Victor, and Thomas watch. Lester and the three dogs are also present. The dogs howl, only falling silent... (full context)
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...her eyes, and when she opens them, the mother and son have disappeared. Turning to Thomas, who is waiting for her, she tells him that they should get married, and that... (full context)
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...then responds, “because life is hard.” He explains that when he closed his eyes like Thomas, he saw nothing—“no stories, no songs.” Victor throws the flask out the window and into... (full context)
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Big Mom lights sage, and Chess, Checkers, and Thomas get ready to pray, for everybody, as Big Mom puts on a record. Victor goes... (full context)
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...basketball tournament. A few days later, the crazy FedEx guy arrives with a package for Thomas addressed from Cavalry records. It contains a letter from Betty and Veronica, thanking Coyote Springs... (full context)
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...misspellings. Coyote Springs is gone. Victor wanders around the reservation with the three dogs, while Thomas, Chess, and Checkers prepare to leave for Spokane. Thomas tells Chess he isn’t worried about... (full context)
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...Johnson is walking through town when he sees the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota. They walk together toward the Longhouse. Thomas is amazed when Johnson arrives—he looks like a different person. Johnson tells them that he... (full context)
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As they drive away in silence, Chess, Checkers, and Thomas think about the future. They finally admit that they are scared, and they hold their... (full context)