In “Every Little Hurricane,” Alexie introduces the volatile world of Victor’s childhood—the Spokane Indian Reservation, 1976—when a hurricane “drops from the sky” during a raucous, drunken, violent party at Victor’s family’s HUD house.
In “A Drug Called Tradition,” Victor and his friends Junior Polatkin and Thomas Builds-the-Fire take drugs in hopes of each experiencing their own visions.
“Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock” is an ode to Victor’s father, who was, according to Victor, “the perfect hippie during the sixties, since all the hippies were trying to be Indians.” Victor recollects nights when his father would come home drunk, and could only be comforted and lulled by Jimi Hendrix tapes. This story outlines the dissolution of Victor’s father’s marriage to Victor’s mother; “when an Indian marriage starts to fall apart, it’s destructive; Indians fight their way to the end, holding onto the last good thing, because our whole lives have to do with survival.”
In “Crazy Horse Dreams,” Victor meets an attractive and engaging Indian woman at a powwow. They go home together, but each find that they are disappointed by the other.
In “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore,” Victor and his friend Adrian are drinking Pepsis on Victor’s porch when they see a group of Indian boys walking by. They recognize one of them as Julius Windmaker, “the best basketball player on the reservation.” They muse about his potential and whether or not he’ll make it off the reservation and find basketball stardom. The story flashes forward to a year later, where they are once again drinking Pepsis on the porch. Julius Windmaker “stagger[s] down the road, drunk as a skunk.” Victor and Adrian lament his lost potential, and head inside. In the morning, they find Julius “passed out on the living room floor.” They head out to the porch with their coffees, and another group of Indian kids walks by; they recognize one of them as a third-grade girl named Lucy, who is “so good [at basketball] that she plays for the sixth grade boys’ team.” Victor and Adrian sip their coffees, hoping that Lucy “makes it all the way.”
In “Amusements,” Victor and his friend Sadie, while attending a carnival, see an Indian known as Dirty Joe passed out in a drunken stupor in the grass. Rather than help him to safety, they put him on board the roller coaster and watch as he rides it again and again, eventually staggering off, sick and disoriented. Victor catches sight of himself in a funhouse mirror and experiences a vision of himself as an “Indian who offered up another Indian like some treaty.”
In “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” Victor learns that his father has died of a heart attack in Phoenix. He has no money, and needs a way to get to Phoenix, so Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor’s childhood friend—who’d had a vision as a boy of Victor’s father’s weak heart—offers to lend Victor money if Victor takes Thomas with him to Phoenix. Victor agrees. During their trip to Phoenix, and while cleaning out his father’s depressing trailer, Victor experiences remembrances of his and Thomas’s childhood, both good and bad; stories Thomas used to tell, and the fights they got into with each other as teens. Thomas reveals that he’d had another vision, years ago, of Victor’s father finding him on a vision quest, and bringing him back to the reservation. Thomas believes that Victor’s father had been his vision all along, and that his “dreams were saying Take care of each other.” Victor and Thomas drive back to Spokane, and divide up Victor’s father’s ashes between them. Thomas asks Victor to “stop and listen, just one time” the next time he hears him telling a story.
In “The Fun House,” an unnamed narrator tells a series of stories about his aunt. In one, a mouse crawls up her pant leg while she quilts; in another, she and her husband crash their car after a night out drinking; in another, she jumps, in frustration with her son and his father, into a river, though she does not know how to swim; in another, we witness her child’s birth, and see that she is sterilized immediately after delivering him.
In “All I Wanted To Do Was Dance,” we see a series of vignettes of Victor drinking, dancing, falling in love with several different women, struggling with sobriety, and juggling odd jobs.
In “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire,” Thomas stands trial after offending a member of the Tribal Council. In a Kafkaesque (dark, dystopian, and disorienting) proceeding, Thomas recounts several of his stories (the majority of which seem to be dreams or visions rather than fact) and ultimately indicts himself on several trumped-up charges. He is sent to prison on a bus, and his fellow inmates ask him to share a story.
“Distances,” one of Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s stories or visions, depicts an alternate reality in which the white man was decimated, and only Indians remain in America. The Tribal Council rules that anything having to do with whites must be destroyed. The Others, long-dead Indians, return from “a thousand years ago,” and Thomas repeatedly “dream[s] about television” and “[wakes] up crying.”
“Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation” chronicles the infancy and childhood of James Many Horses during the late 1960s and early 1970s. After his parents die tragically in a house fire, the story’s unnamed narrator—who saved him from the fire—is charged, as per Indian tradition (supposedly), with raising him. James is silent and immobile for the first several years of his life, but when he does begin speaking, he displays a deep sensitivity and exceptional intelligence.
In “A Train is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result,” we meet Samuel Builds-the-Fire, grandfather to Thomas. Also a prolific, gifted storyteller, he works as a maid at a motel in Spokane, and on his birthday he is fired. He proceeds to a bar, where he takes his first drink of alcohol; he becomes inebriated and, at the end of the night, stumbles and falls when crossing a set of train tracks. He hears the train’s whistle approaching, but chooses not to move out of its way.
In “A Good Story,” Alexie creates a meta-narrative in which the narrator, Junior, tells his mother, who is busy quilting, a story about a man named Uncle Moses—presumably Moses MorningDove—telling a story to a local boy named Arnold.
“The First Annual All-Indian Horseshoe Pitch and Barbecue” recounts several vignettes from the titular event. Victor plays a piano that he brought back to the reservation from a flea market; some people eat and drink and dance; some play horseshoes, and one Indian notes that “basketball was invented just a year after the Ghost Dancers fell at Wounded Knee.”
“Imagining the Reservation” is an ode to imagination, and the role it plays in Native American life. Imagination is, the narrator notes, “the only weapon on the reservation.” The story speculates on what life might be like for Indians if “Crazy Horse invented the atom bomb in 1876 and detonated it over Washington, D.C.”; if “Columbus landed in 1492 and some tribe or another drowned him in the ocean”’ if “a story [could] put wood in the fireplace.”
“The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor” is narrated by James Many Horses, now an adult known on the reservation for his incessant joking. He angers his wife Norma by joking about dying while confessing to her that he has received a terminal cancer diagnosis. His wife leaves him, and, during his ongoing cancer treatments, he reflects fondly on their relationship. Norma returns, eventually, to help James “die the right way.”
“Indian Education,” narrated by Junior Polatkin, tells the story of his time in school on and off the reservation. He is subjected to cruel treatment by his classmates and by his second-grade teacher, Betty Towle. He finds success as a basketball player, though he endures racism and suspicion from coaches of opposing local teams. He graduates valedictorian of his “farm town” high school, “try[ing] to remain stoic as [he] look[s] toward the future” while knowing that back on the reservation, his former classmates “look back toward tradition.”
“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” follows Victor, now living in Spokane, as he takes a middle-of-the-night walk to a 7-11 to buy a creamsicle, reflecting all the while on a long-since-ended relationship with a white woman in Seattle. The relationship was volatile and marked by intense arguments, during or after which Victor, frequently drunk, got in his car and drove through the night or otherwise broke lamps in their shared apartment. Victor remarks that “these days” he doesn’t sleep; “he know[s] how all [his] dreams end anyway.”
In “Family Portrait,” an unnamed narrator reflects on his childhood. He notes that “the television was always too loud,” and that “‘Dinner sounded like ‘Leave me alone;’ ‘I love you’ sounded like ‘Inertia.’” He reflects on stories that may or may not have actually happened but that were “created [in the] collective imaginations” of his parents and his siblings. He sums up his coming-of-age and that of his siblings by remarking: “Jesus, we all want[ed] to survive.”
“Somebody Kept Saying Powwow,” also narrated by Junior, tells the story of his long friendship with Norma, James Many Horses’s wife.
“Witnesses, Secret and Not” is set in 1979; a thirteen-year-old unnamed narrator’s father has been summoned to the police station in Spokane to answer questions about the disappearance of Jerry Vincent, a man who went missing ten years earlier. His father reminds the questioning officer that he’s been brought in nearly every year to answer the same question over and over, and the officer sends the narrator and his father away. When the narrator and his father return home that night, his father “[sits] at the table and [cries] into his fry bread” while his family watches.
In “Flight,” a young Indian man named John-John has repeated visions of his brother Joseph’s return from the armed forces. Joseph was taken prisoner “during a routine military operation” while serving as a jet pilot. John-John saves money to “escape” the reservation and “dreams of flight.”
“Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show” follows Junior to college in Spokane, where he attends Gonzaga University. He is the only Indian there. While staying in the dorms over Christmas break in order to avoid going home to the reservation, Junior has a one-night stand with a white woman named Lynn. She becomes pregnant and has a baby, which she names Sean Casey. Lynn’s parents refuse to acknowledge the child’s Native heritage, but Lynn reads the child books about Indians and allows him to speak to Junior over the phone. Junior eventually drops out of school and returns to the reservation, anticipating “a new and painful sequel to the first act of his life.”