People often say that that the past has passed, unable to be altered, but if one chooses to do better in the present, they can have a brighter future. The idea that people can rise above their past and prevail with the power of hope even in times of tragedy is often lost amongst people when they experience misfortune. Reservation Blues articulately highlights the contrast between the permanence of circumstance and the possibility of a fruitful future.
While Alexie provides somber backstories for several leading characters of the story, such as Thomas Buildsthe-Fire, Chess and Checkers, Junior, Victor, and Robert Johnson, he uses each individual character to juxtapose how reactions to the past can affect the future. Furthermore, Alexie explores the theme of reconstruction and how the idea of tragedy itself can be repurposed into a new possibility of prosperity.
In Reservation Blues Sherman Alexie utilizes elements of magical realism to highlight how Robert Johnson and Big Mom can create a better life for themselves by repurposing tragedy into a new source of hope and purpose, rather than a tool to expedite their the deterioration of their lives. Despite experiencing the catastrophic massacre of the Indian horses earlier in life, Big Mom redefines the tragedy by making a flute that helps bring together the reservation. Big Mom feels deeply devastated after the unjust killing of her horses.
After watching the white man slaughter her horses she “we[eps] as the soldiers r[ide] away… s[inging] a mourning song for forty days and nights (Alexie 10). The evident desolation of Big Mom indicates that in the world of magical realism that Alexie decides to explore, Native Americans, from the founding of America, have experienced anguish when white colonialists ripped their roots apart. The loss of the horses, the loss of her very heritage, is enough to overwhelm anyone beyond repair.
However, Big Mom overcomes this anguish by creating a flute from the bones of the most beautiful fallen horse. With this flute, she is able to “play a note … for each of the dead horses… and one note for each of the dead Indians” (Alexie 306). Big Mom serves as the quintessential model of a person who can rebound back from tragedy. This portrayal of repurpose of tragedy shows how while people cannot change their past, they can take control of their circumstances and create a better future from the shards of the past.
Her actions, which eventually unite all the Spokane Indians in a rare moment of celebration at the powwow, evidence the opportunity that exists embedded in tragedy. Big Mom, who channels the pain of the death of horses into music and a brighter future, takes charge of her future, despite the setbacks of the past. Furthermore, even setbacks from the past that can haunt the present still provide opportunity for a hopeful future. Robert Johnson recreates his life’s purpose by moving past his loss of freedom to the devil to finding purpose in the harmonica.
Robert Johnson, who gives his freedom up to the devil, is stifled by “a bad deal [he] made years ago… a sickness [he] can’t get rid of” (Alexie 6). For Robert, the tragedy of the past is not just an emotional loss but also the loss of his freedom that follows him in the present. His inability to play the guitar after his deal destroys the purpose that he once had. Once again, Alexie uses magical realism as a caricature of unfortunate events, using the irony of the deal with the devil to accentuate the difficulty Robert Johnson faces in his past and present.
However, even with such a daunting past that lurks behind him, Robert Johnson redefines his purpose by taking up the harmonica once more. Despite losing his central purpose of playing music, after taking up the harmonica he plays a duet with the man-who-wasprobably-Lakota “getting better every day… playing the harmonica” (Alexie 299). Robert Johnson who, like Big Mom, lost an integral part of his identity as a musician does not allow his pain to make him stop living. He finds purpose on the Spokane Reservation where he makes it his duty to bring music to the Spokane people.
Although he relies on the aid of Big Mom, Robert Johnson epitomizes how with hope and determination, people can reshape the past into a new purpose, no matter how challenging the circumstances. Losing his freedom and purpose to the devil is challenging for Robert to overcome as evidenced by his constant nomadic nature in escape of his cursed guitar, yet his ability to overcome this past and reshape his future illustrates Alexie’s representation of hope even when all seems hopeless.
Upon first glance, Reservation Blues seems to be one of the most depressing and disheartening books to read in the English 10 curriculum. However Alexie proves that that hope and purpose can prevail even in the darkest of times and places. Even The Great Gatsby, which deceives audiences with its glitzy dramatization of the American upper class, ends on the somber note that the American dream is dead for those who do not already possess it. Yet Alexie takes great care to provide audiences with hope without diminishing the severity of the hardships of reservation life.
Although not every character can repurpose their tragedy into hope as evidenced by Victor and Junior, individual characters overcome the atrocities they endured in the past to seize control of their future. Big mom, who loses her identity in the massacre of her horses, uses their death to create the flute, which she uses at the powwow to unite the Spokane Indians. Additionally, Robert Johnson, who seems to have no purpose after losing his freedom to play music to the devil eventually moves past his hardship and play the harmonica.
Both characters, lose large parts of their identity, yet instead of giving up, they push on to find new purpose and create new life out of the shards of their past. Alexie portrays both stories with his magical realism, which helps convey the scope of the tragedy that characters can overcome, ending with the resonating message that purpose can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.