I know a woman, Indian in her bones
Who spends the powwow dancing all alone
She can be lonely, sometimes she can cry
And drop her sadness into the bread she fries
I know a woman, Indian in her eyes
Full-blood in her heart, full-blood when she cries
She can be afraid, sometimes she can shake
But her medicine will never let her break
-- Reservation Blues p. 171
I didn't choose to read Reservation Blues
. It chose me by appearing in my neighbor's Little Free Library -- a 1995 edition with a sticker showing it had been originally sold by Borders(!), and another sticker from a used book charity sale.
I was aware that the author, Sherman Alexie, had been accused of various improper behavior last spring. He was said to have exploited women who wanted his help with hoped-for careers in literature. Also, he was abusive in other ways, such as verbally attacking mixed-race Indians, putting down young Native people's career aspirations, and making fun of some native Americans such as native Hawaiians. So sad.
I picked the free book up any way. I had enjoyed other Alexie books without knowing anything about him. Having recently spent time in the Pacific Northwest, I was curious about this book which takes place in Eastern Washington: not the exact area where I visited.
Somehow, as I read the 306 pages, I kept thinking about abuse and its presence in the novel. The three main characters -- Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph, and Junior Polatkin -- were men in their early 30s, members of the Spokane Indian tribe who lived on the reservation. All three had suffered from abuses inherent in their background. Their parents drank and then mostly died young. They lacked adequate housing, and couldn't afford good clothing. They were always hungry or badly fed with little food on hand at home. They got into fights, got hurt, got drunk, and were generally miserable. They couldn't afford a decent vehicle. The story is about their unsuccessful effort to form a rock band.
These male characters were much more fully developed than the women characters in the book, especially two beautiful Indian sisters Chess and Checkers Warm Water and two white women named Betty and Veronica (who were just as cartoony as their namesakes in the funny paper). The Warm Water sisters, talented singers, weren't treated very well by these men, by others, or by life in general.
has an element of magical realism: the pre-war bluesman Robert Johnson, who had sold his soul to a "Gentleman" in exchange for something to do with his magic guitar has a role in the plot. (Side note: this book was published before the release of "Oh Brother Where Art Thou," which also uses the Robert Johnson story.)
There's also a kind of mysterious mother figure called Big Mom, who lives on a mountain top in the reservation. Oddly, the magic doesn't seem to alleviate the hopelessness and impoverished lives of the characters. The novel has a pretty good picaresque plot, involving the three men, and also includes a poem (like the one I quoted above) at the head of each chapter that one of them writes as a blues song.
Food preoccupies the characters quite a bit, as they never have enough of it, and especially never enough of their favorite food, which is salmon. Salmon is especially iconic because it's a traditional tribal activity to fish for it; Thomas "with his long, black hair pulled into braids" even "looked like an old-time salmon fisherman." (p. 4)
The Indian men "dreamed in childhood of fishing for salmon but woke up as adults to shop at the Trading Post and stand in line for U.S.D.A. commodity food instead. They savagely, repeatedly, opened up cans of commodities and wept over the rancid meat, forced to eat what stray dogs ignored." (p. 14) Peanut butter and crackers were often the last things in their pantry. Once there's some applesauce in the fridge, and they ask "Commodity applesauce or real applesauce?" It's commodity, but they eat it anyway. (p. 122) Or they eat "wish sandwiches. Two slices of bread with only wishes in between." (p. 187) At the Trading post when they have money, they buy "a week's worth of Pepsi, Doritos, and Hershey's chocolate." And beer. (p. 194)
Another favorite food was fry bread:
"For hours, Thomas waited for the song. Then, hungry and tired, he opened his refrigerator for something to eat and discovered that he didn't have any food. So he closed the fridge and opened it again, but it was still empty. In a ceremony that he had practiced since his youth, he opened, closed, and opened the fridge again, expecting an immaculate conception of a jar of pickles. Thomas was hungry on a reservation where there are ninety-seven different ways to say fry bread.
"Fry bread. Water, flour, salt, rolled and moulded into shaped, dropped into hot oil. A traditional food. A simple recipe. But Indians could spend their whole lives looking for the perfect piece of fry bread. The tribe held a fry bread cooking contest every year, and most Spokanes had their own recipe." (p. 47)
is full of dreams that reveal all kinds of things about the characters' lives, hopes, and disappointments -- how life abuses them, their relatives abuse them, the authorities abuse them, and they abuse others. For example:
"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." (p. 70)
Cooking can measure the passing of time:
"The old Indian women dipped wooden spoons into stews and stirred and stirred. The stews made of random vegetables and commodity food, of failed dreams and predictable tears. That was the only way to measure time, to wait. Those spoons moved in slow circles. Stir, stir." (p. 220)
Commodity powdered milk must also be stirred, and represents yet another indignity:
"No matter how long an Indian stirred her commodity milk, it always came out with those lumps of coagulated powder. There was nothing worse. Those lumps were like bombs, moist on the outside with an inner core of dry powdered milk. An Indian would take a big swig of milk, and one of those coagulated powder bombs would drop into her mouth and explode when she bit it. She'd be coughing little puffs of powdered milk for an hour." (p. 261)
At the end of the book, there's a feast, which summarizes what's been going on with food throughout the book:
"They all waited for the feast to officially begin. But the term feast was a holdover from a more prosperous and traditional time, a term used before the Indians were forced onto the reservations. There was never a whole lot of food, just a few stringy pieces of deer meat, a huge vat of mashed potatoes, Pepsi, and fry bread. But the fry bread made all the difference. A good piece of fry bread turned any meal into a feast." (p. 300)
Unfortunately, at this final feast of the book there's only 100 pieces of fry bread for 200 people. Big Mom prays to "her creator," and says that by ancient Indian secrets she will feed them all. Then she tears each piece in half, but somehow they had a complete feast after all.