Sunday, 6 March 2016

Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie

Coyote Springs is the only all-Indian rock band in Washington State—and the entire rest of the world. Thomas Builds-the-Fire takes vocals and bass guitar, Victor Joseph hits lead guitar, and Junior Polatkin rounds off the sound on drums. Backup vocals come from sisters Chess and Checkers Warm Water. The band sings its own brand of the blues, full of poverty, pain, and loss—but also joy and laughter.

It all started one day when legendary bluesman Robert Johnson showed up on the Spokane Indian Reservation with a magical guitar, leaving it on the floor of Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s van after setting off to climb Wellpinit Mountain in search of Big Mom.

In Reservation Blues, National Book Award winner Alexie vaults with ease from comedy to tragedy and back in a tour-de-force outing powered by a collision of cultures: Delta blues and Indian rock.

From the Amazon description 

Having read a lot of new magic realism books lately I decided that this week I would read and review a magic-realist classic. I hadn't read this novel before this week and boy was it a joy. Sherman Alexie's work is an example of what is great about magic realism. 

It shows without sentimentality the harsh reality of life on the reservation - the alcoholism, the poverty, the violence and, something I have seen myself in working with disadvantaged people, the dislike of those of their own who might be about to do something with their lives. There are good reasons why Coyote Springs sing the blues, apart from Robert Johnson's devilish guitar. But Alexie manages to portray all this in a novel which is at times funny, surreal, beautiful and, yes, magical. 

On the face of it a straightforward story well told, there are layers of meaning and imagery in Reservation Blues that give it depth and width. An example of this is the band's treatment at the hands of the Cavalry Records. Not only does this show the cynical exploitation of the Indian image and culture (the company prefers to dress up two white women as Indians than deal with the real thing), but also the record executives are called Armstrong, Wright and Sheridan. All three are the names of US cavalry commanders who led the genocide of the Indian Wars.

Dreams feature prominently in the book, adding both historical perspectives and insights into the past lives of the members of the band.The use of dreams is sometimes derided by critics as a cop-out, a shorthand, but Alexie sets up his use of dreams by explaining their role in native American culture and in the lives of the individual members of the band: Junior based all of his decisions on his dreams and visions, which created a lot of problems.

Over the course of the novel the characters and the backstories of the band members are revealed and the reader comes to understand and even like them - even Victor and Junior who start the book as bullies and drunks. Indeed the conclusion of Junior's story is haunting.

Magic pervades the book - the traditional magic of Big Mom, the burning strings of Robert Johnson's guitar and Thomas' storytelling magic, which climbed into your clothes like sand, gave you itches that could not be scratched.  Victor fights against the magic and old beliefs, refusing to believe, but nevertheless the magic is there, like the ghostly horses screaming in the night. This book is the same, a magical book that stays with you.

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