From the collection’s first story, “Every Little Hurricane,” readers are thrust into a world defined by extreme poverty, casual and tragic violence, and a haunting, pervasive sense of both cultural and personal loss. As Victor watches his uncles Arnold and Adolph fistfight in the middle of an approaching hurricane, he notes how the rise and fall of their violence against one another mirrors the trajectory of the storm—it is unthinking, destructive, and undoubtedly a force of nature.
Violence is a constant throughout Alexie’s stories—sometimes the violence is tied to motivations such as love and hatred, as is the case with Victor’s uncles’ fistfight, but often the violence is random, or senseless, or due to an ineffable sense of loss and frustration. Alexie uses violence this way to mirror the rippling effects of the pervasive historical violence against Native Americans. The confusion, anguish, and profound sadness of that violence creates a sense of hopelessness and of futility in the face of it. As a teenager, Victor mercilessly beats Thomas Builds-the-Fire, one of his childhood friends and a young man blessed with intricate storytelling abilities. An Indian woman is sterilized by her doctor after giving birth to a son. Bloody and even fatal car crashes abound throughout the narrative, and more often than not, they’re due to a driver’s intoxication. A man’s body is ravaged by cancer—his “favorite” tumor is the size of a baseball. When Victor moves off of the reservation and into a Seattle apartment with his white girlfriend, their relationship is plagued by intense verbal conflict and, occasionally, physical violence. A police officer robs Victor and his wife during a sham of a traffic stop. All of these violent acts and more are just a sampling of the intensity of a life calibrated by generational trauma and an intimate understanding of what it feels like to always expect the next blow, the next slight, the next random act of personal or institutional violence.
Reservation life is rendered carefully but never romantically in this collection, and the devastating effects of inescapable poverty permeate every page. The reservation is alternately a haven and a prison for Alexie’s characters—the lack of opportunities and cyclical nature of reservation life creates a veritable whirlpool of destitution, danger, and rampant substance abuse. The ubiquitous and pervasive subjugation of Native peoples provides the majority of Alexie’s characters with little outside of the reservation to hope for—off the reservation, Alexie notes,“ among white people, every Indian gets exaggerated.” Some characters work hard at minimum-wage jobs or are let go from their jobs without warning; some characters are robbed by authority figures; one character saves dollar bills in a shoebox; one character seeks a loan from the tribal council in order to travel across the country to collect his father’s body. There is rarely enough money for good food, and what little money there is is often spent on alcohol. Alexie engages common stereotypes about reservation life in order to express to readers the maddening cycle of poverty, neglect, desperation, and abuse that plagues many Native Americans. He depicts money as a resource that is simply unavailable to many Native people, and the fruitless pursuit of it is a frustrating disappointment that is, unfortunately, both commonplace and expected to the majority of his many characters.
In one story, a group of Indians at a party “remember their own pain. The pain grew, expanded… The ceiling lowered with the weight of each Indian’s pain until it was inches from Victor’s nose.” The influence of individual pain on the collective community’s experience of pain—and vice versa—is revealed deeply in these sentences. After Victor’s father dies in “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” Victor notes that though he had “only talked to [his father] on the telephone once or twice, there was still a genetic pain, which was soon to be pain as real and immediate as a broken bone.” The Native American experience as rendered within these stories is one of profound and seemingly unending loss on both a personal and cultural level. The decimation of Native American peoples, traditions, and agency over the course of the last 500 years has left a mark, so to speak, in the hearts of each of Alexie’s characters. Some bear the loss with grace, and others bear it with anger and resentment, but Alexie never casts judgment or proclaims any one way of dealing with such staggering cultural loss as the “right” way. Though the stories jump around from character to character, perspective to perspective, one thing the book’s arc never loses sight of or interest in is the way Native Americans confront—or don’t confront—a generational pain and loss that is difficult to comprehend and impossible to forget.
Violence, Poverty, and Loss ThemeTracker
Violence, Poverty, and Loss Quotes in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Victor could see his uncles slugging each other with such force that they had to be in love. Strangers would never want to hurt each other that badly.
This quote, and the moment it describes—a drunken, messy fight between two of Victor’s uncles, Arnold and Adolph, which takes place in the middle of Victor’s parent’s New Years Eve Party, which itself takes place in the middle of a storm—introduces several of the major themes operating throughout the text. Love and hatred, bearing witness, and cultural versus personal pain are all thematic engagements here. Victor bears witness to his uncles’ fight—he knows that they love one another, and that their desire to hurt one another is folded into that love. The personal pain between them that leads them to such a climactic, destructive fight is also borne of a cultural, familial, or genetic pain, and that pain leads to feelings of isolation and antagonism despite the familial ties these two men share. This moment sets readers up for a journey throughout the course of these stories, one that spans years in the lives of Victor and his family and friends as well as a host of small and large-scale tragedies. Death, violence, loss, love, pain, discrimination, and the building and destruction of communities will all come into play throughout the collection, and Alexie pins the weight of all that is to come on this high-pressure moment.
Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you... Indians never need to wear a watch because your skeletons will always remind you about the time. See, it is always now. That’s what Indian time is. The past, the future, all of it is wrapped up in the now. That’s how it is. We are trapped in the now.”
Thomas Builds-the-Fire, after having gone on a modern-day “vision quest” to the nearby Benjamin Lake with Victor and Junior—despite not having been initially invited due to his burgeoning status as an eccentric and an outcast—shouts out to his two peers to warn them “not to slow dance with [their] skeletons.” The boys are unable to discern his meaning, but Thomas’s narrative voice then immediately takes over the story. Thomas explains, in his meandering but meaningful storyteller’s voice, that the past and the future are “skeletons.” The personification of the past and the future as bony, stripped-down, uncanny, and frightening figures gives them a leering, looming quality. Thomas explains how to handle the skeletons: “Keep moving, keep walking, in step with your skeletons,” he says. He then delves into an explanation of “Indian time,” and of the idea that Indians are “trapped in the now,” caught between their two skeleton companions. Native people, the victims of unfathomable violence on an unfathomable scale, bear the wounds of that violence in every aspect of their lives. Thomas acknowledges this, and argues that the tension between a battered past and a bleak future forces Indians to remain caught in a present that can never escape the dual pull of both what is behind and what lies ahead.
It’s almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass murder, loss of language and land and rights. It’s the small things that hurt the most. The white waitress who wouldn’t take an order, Tonto, the Washington Redskins. And, just like everybody else, Indians need heroes to help them learn how to survive. But what happens when our heroes don’t even know how to pay their bills?
Ain’t no children on a reservation.
Adrian’s assertion that there “ain’t no children on a reservation” speaks to the sealed-off, insular culture of reservation life, and the losses and advantages that comprise most of existence in the world of the reservation. Victor and Adrian are talking back and forth about Julius Windmaker, a bright and talented young basketball star on whom both Victor and Adrian—and their friends and families—have pinned hopes of not just success but glory. Julius’s ability to make it off the reservation, to make it through college, to make it as a basketball star—these are all things that Victor and Adrian envision with joy and hope. They strip Julius of his childhood by elevating him to a status that can never be reached; he becomes their idol, in a way, despite his youth. Adrian’s message, though, is that he feels Julius is “going to go bad.” When Victor tells Adrian that Julius is “just horsing around,” just being a kid, Adrian retorts with the above quotation. His awareness that childhood is a luxury and a comfort that most reservation children don’t get to experience opens up themes of loss, pain, and isolation that will be developed further throughout the larger text in various characters’ encounters with their memories of their own childhoods. We have a very strong thesis statement at this point about the nature of childhood on the reservation, and the fact that it may not, for all intents and purposes, even exist at all.
“Wait,” Thomas yelled from his porch. “I just got to ask one favor.”
Victor stopped the pickup, leaned out the window, and shouted back. “What do you want?”
“Just one time when I’m telling a story somewhere, why don’t you stop and listen?” Thomas asked.
Victor waved his arms to let Thomas know that the deal was good. It was a fair trade, and that was all Victor had ever wanted from his whole life.
He counted his coins. Enough for a bottle of wine in the Trading Post. He walked down the hill and into the store, grabbed the bottle, paid for it with nickels and pennies, and walked into the parking lot. Victor pulled the wine from its paper bag, cracked the seal, and twisted the cap off. Jesus, he wanted to drink so much his blood could make the entire tribe numb.
It is warm, soon to be cold, but that’s in the future, maybe tomorrow, probably the next day and all the days after that. Today, now, I drink what I have, will eat what is left in the cupboard, while my mother finishes her quilt, piece by piece. Believe me, there is just barely enough goodness in all of this.
Survival = Anger x Imagination. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation.
Imagine Crazy Horse invented the atom bomb in 1876 and detonated it over Washington, D.C.; imagine Columbus landed in 1492 and some tribe or another drowned him in the ocean… Imagine every day is Independence Day. Imagine that your own shadow on the wall is a perfect door. Imagine a song stronger than penicillin. Imagine a spring with water that mends broken bones. Imagine a drum which wraps itself around your heart. Imagine a story that puts wood in the fireplace.
I picked up a basketball for the first time and made my first shot. No. I missed my first shot, missed the basket completely, and the ball landed in the dirt and sawdust, sat there just like I had sat there only minutes before. But it felt good, that ball in my hands, all those possibilities and angles. It was mathematics, geometry. It was beautiful.
These days, living alone in Spokane, I wish I lived closer to the river, to the falls where ghosts of salmon jump. I wish I could sleep. I put down my paper or book and turn off the lights, lie quietly in the dark. It may take hours, even years, for me to sleep again. There’s nothing surprising or disappointing in that. I know how all my dreams end anyway.
The television was always loud, too loud, until every emotion was measured by the half hour. We hid our faces behind masks that suggested other histories; we touched hands accidentally and our skin sparked like a personal revolution. We stared across the room at each other. We were children; we were open mouths. Open in hunger, in anger, in laughter, in prayer. Jesus, we all want to survive.
Sometimes it feels like our tribe is dying a piece of fry bread at a time.
Fry bread occupies a peculiar symbolic place in the text. It represents home, domesticity, tradition, and comfort, but the food itself was created during a painful time in Native American history. When Native people were moved off of their land by the United States, they used the ingredients given to them by the government to make fry bread. It has since become a staple of Native American culture, but its high-fat content has led to health problems, obesity, and diabetes for many Native Americans. Nonetheless, within the context of this collection, its appearance signals comfort, connection to heritage, and echoing of tradition through the years; when Junior says that the tribe is “dying one piece of fry bread at a time,” the quote is a double-edged sword. Fry bread is linked to health concerns but, moreover, the loss of the old recipes and ways of preparation, and the growing difficulty of finding “good” fry bread represents a loss of connection to a tradition, and to the tribal elders.
I’m always asking myself if a near-accident is an accident, if standing right next to a disaster makes you part of the disaster or just a neighbor.
The unnamed narrator of this story recalls a time when he was thirteen and he and his father were on their way into town, so that the narrator’s father could be questioned at the police station regarding the long-ago disappearance of an Indian man named Jerry Vincent. On their way into town, their car hit a patch of ice and spun out of control. The car eventually straightened out without incident, and the narrator and his father “don’t talk about” the near-accident at the time of its occurrence or at any point in the future. The near-accident, though, haunts the narrator into his present; he is “always,” he says, wondering about the nature of being adjacent to an accident, or being its “neighbor.” The narrator’s question mirrors his father’s reluctance to discuss the specifics of what he knows—or does not know—about Jerry Vincent’s death. His father may or may not have information that the authorities have been hunting down for years, and the narrator wonders to this day if his father’s proximity to Jerry Vincent’s murder implicates him in it. Questions of bearing witness and the responsibility of an individual who finds him or herself in the role of a witness are asked again and again throughout the collection, but never are they in such sharp relief as in this story.
Junior hung up the phone and walked down the highway toward the reservation. He wanted to imagine that he was walking off into the sunset, into a happy ending. But he knew that all along the road he traveled, there were reservation drive-ins, each showing a new and painful sequel to the first act of his life.
Junior Polatkin reappears as the subject of the book’s final story, in which Junior is in college at a small Jesuit school in Spokane, where he is the only Indian student. Obsessed with movies and frequently visited by dreams of Wild-West-style shootouts, Junior has a brief affair with a woman named Lynn. The affair results in a pregnancy and Lynn, who is Irish Catholic, elects to keep the baby. Junior is not permitted to be involved in the child’s life except through intermittent phone calls, and Lynn’s parents deny the child—who is given the name Sean Casey—any recognition of his Indian heritage. Junior drops out of school, though Lynn implores him not to, and plans to return to the reservation. In the last lines of the story—and the entire book—we watch as Junior travels a long and lonely road back to the reservation, where he knows deep down that each “reservation drive-in” he encounters will only feature a “new and painful” vision of his present and future.
The filmic motif that recurs throughout this story mirrors the symbolic importance of television, but also incorporates a dreamlike, visionary weight. Junior’s decision to abandon his studies and return home to the reservation is isolating, difficult, and painful, and despite knowing all these things, he marches on into a future that really represents a cyclical, ritualistic return to the past. This moment recalls Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s speech about the “skeletons” of the past and the future that follow every Indian throughout his or her life: the tension between the awareness of a cyclical, inescapable past rife with repetition, violence, and loss, and an unsteady, idealized, often unattainable ideal of the future.