Questions for Reservation Blues

These questions were developed by the Spring 2013 Reading Workshop class. Because they cover the entire novel, there are spoilers.

  • The writing style – it’s unusual. How would you describe it? A lot of impossible, mythic things are mixed in with ordinary, everyday events, along with ironic commentary on reservation life. How did it work for you? What does this approach add to the story? What would be lost if it were told in a more straightforward, plain style?
  • What is Robert Johnson doing in this story? What connection does Alexie draw between a blues artist from Mississippi and Indians on a reservation in Washington state? Thomas sends him up the mountain to Big Mom. What’s the deal with the slaughtered horses and their song?
  • The main characters – Thomas Builds the Fire, Vincent, and Junior. What do we know about these characters so far? Why does Thomas put up with the bullying? Why is Vincent such a bully? How does Junior fit into the trio? What do we learn from these characters about masculinity in a situation where it’s hard to be a successful man?
  • The two girls from Montana, Chess and Checkers – what did you think about them? What do these characters add to the story? Does the fact that they are women and sisters mean they can have a different kind of relationship than Victor, Junior, and Thomas?
  • The scene in which Thomas dreams about “television and hunger” (p. 70) – The white people say “we come in peace” – and electrocute Indians with their electric fence. Thomas then dreams about Victor and Junior electrocuting snakes on an electric fence. Toward the end of the dream, Thomas says he’s afraid of being famous. He has Robert Johnson’s guitar, the one that Robert Johnson is trying to escape (because he got it from the devil). On page 78 a voice tells Victor, “don’t play for them; play for me.” What do you think is going on with that legend in this setting?
  • What do you think about Father Arnold’s relationship with Checkers? Is it inappropriate, or is Checkers simply imagining things because she gets crushes on older men?
  • How does Checker’s relationship with Father Arnold reflect the relationships Chess and Checkers had with the two White daughters of a preacher in their childhood?
  • A common motif is war: dreams of war, references to past wars, etc. How is war represented in the book?
  • What do you think of the chapter titles and the song lyrics introducing each chapter? What do they add to the story?
  • Alcoholism plays a big role in this book. Why does the author devote so much attention to alcoholism? What did you think of the way the characters talk about their interactions with alcoholic Indians they have encountered in Spokane?
  • Most of the parents in the novel are gone, either dead or absent. What affect does that have on the main characters? Thomas’s father is still alive. Do you think he’s more fortunate than his friends to still have a father?
  • On page 175, the paper publishes a letter from Tribal Chairman David WalksAlong criticizing the band because they don’t project a good image of the tribe. What image do they project? Is it fair to expect them to be representatives?
  • In the beginning of chapter six, Robert Johnson talks about how the hold the guitar has over him is painful. Does the guitar have the same powerful hold over Victor? If so, why?
  • When Coyote Springs arrives at their hotel and they find out the costs won’t be covered, they almost give up on their dreams of performing. In this situation, what decision would you make?
  • On page 189, Phil Sheridan and George Wright from Cavalry Records arrive at Thomas’s front door. What effect do you think these men and this company will have on the future of Coyote Springs? Why do you think Alexie gave these names to these characters? What’s the significance?
  • On the way to Big Mom’s, the band hears the word “faith” echo in the trees. What role does faith play in the novel?
  • Is Big Mom a redeemer or savior? What is her role as a spiritual leader? How is she like (or unlike) other religious figures?
  • Why does Victor take the attitude he does to Big Mom? When she tells him he has choices to make, what does she mean?
  • On page 204, when Checkers goes to the sweatlodge with Chess and Big Mom, she writes in her journal “there were always people, especially women, who had more magic.” What do you think that means? How are the men and women in this novel different?
  • On page 212, Chess thinks about being measured by men. Do you think Chess’s confused feelings about being an Indian woman are peculiar to Indian culture, or other cultures as well?
  • The influence of the media and pop culture on the lives of Indians is a theme in the book. On page 203, Victor demonstrates how he is more familiar with the mythology of Star Wars than with his own culture’s traditions and beliefs. How do the references to Indian culture and White culture interact in this story?
  • “Indian men have started to believe their own publicity and run around acting like the Indians in movies?” How do you feel about this statement? Do you think it’s applicable to the characters of this story?
  • Why do you think the Spokane Reservation community resents Coyote Springs? Why aren’t they proud of them?
  • Often a point is made that Thomas is the lead singer. (Even at the end of a missing persons report, a New York cop identifies Thomas as the lead singer.) Why is being lead singer so important, especially when Victor is the one most invested in the band’s success?
  • What is the meaning of the horses screaming? Why do they scream when they do?
  • Why does Robert Johnson seek out Big Mom? He’s trying to escape the guitar and its hold over him, but Big Mom describes herself as a music teacher? What kind of music does she teach?
  • The guitar betrays Victor in New York. Were you surprised by what happened at the recording studio and how the characters responded?
  • Why is Chess the one who takes charge after Victor and Junior disappear into the city?
  • Checkers is attacked by Sheridan (who says “I’ve known you for centuries”) and Wright intervenes. Was it really a dream? Why is Wright more morally conflicted than Sheridan?
  • Junior, it turns out, dropped out of college after a relationship with a white girl that led to a pregnancy and her decision to have an abortion. The issue of White-Indian relationships keeps surfacing throughout the novel. How has this failed relationship affected Junior?
  • Were you shocked by Junior’s suicide? It’s described in two short paragraphs. How did that event in the book make you feel?
  • Later, we learn that the guitar found Victor and promised him he could be whatever he wanted to be if he gave up what he loves most. In the next scene, Junior hears Victor whisper his name. What has Victor traded his best friend for?
  • At the same time, Chess talks to Thomas (and, without knowing it, to Checkers) about leaving. Why does she want to leave? What does she hope to find?
  • Toward the end of the novel, we learn how Robert Johnson got his guitar – that he traded it for all the freedom he had (and the horses screamed). What is the difference between Thomas’s love of stories and songs and the desire that both Robert Johnson and Victor have to play the guitar better than anyone else?
  • Why does Thomas respond the way he does to the song that Betty and Veronica send him?
  • Why is it so important for Chess, Thomas, and Checkers to leave the reservation? Are they turning their back on their own people?
  • What did you think of the final paragraphs, as the horses run alongside the van?
  • What, in the end, is the significance of the title? What connection does the blues have to reservation life?
  • Overall, what did think of this novel? What parts did you like best? Are there aspects of the novel that didn’t work for you? What parts of it do you think you’ll remember?
  • Would you recommend this book to others? Why or why not? How would you describe it to those who haven’t read it?

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