“Witnesses. They were all witnesses and nothing more. For hundreds of years, Indians were witnesses to crimes of an epic scale. Victor’s uncles were in the midst of a misdemeanor that would remain one even if somebody was to die. One Indian killing another did not create a special kind of storm. This little kind of hurricane was generic. It didn’t even deserve a name.”
Alexie establishes the complex relationship between the individual Native American experience and the American Indians' tragic history, which spans centuries. The story – which depicts a nightmarish New Year's Eve party hosted by Victor's family – suggests that the modern hardships that Native Americans experience are minor compared to that of their people; most of their population has been wiped out over the past 500 years. However, the relationship between personal and historical experience is complicated by the fact that the characters' personal hardships are, in many cases, directly caused by the marginal place that American Indians have in modern society. Alexie establishes these two kinds of oppression - the personal and the political - in the collection's opening pages, and it will be a crucial backdrop for every story in the book.
“Still, Indians have a way of surviving. But it’s almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass murder, loss of language and land rights. It’s the small things that hurt the most. The white waitress who wouldn’t take an order, Tonto, the Washington Redskins.”
This passage helps explain the collection's title. Tonto was a character on the radio and television series The Lone Ranger, which was popular in the United States in the 1950s. Tonto was a very stereotypical, racist depiction of a Native American - an insult that was all the more powerful because for decades, he was the only Native American figure to really catch on in popular culture. Alexie suggests that stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans - whether as a sports mascot or a character like Tonto - are all the more hurtful because they affect individual American Indians who are just trying to live their daily lives. Even portrayals that are not overtly insulting can be hurtful, Alexie implies, because they dehumanize Native Americans and encourage people to see them as stereotypes rather than individuals.
“Twenty or thirty white faces, open mouths grown large and deafening, white eyes turned toward Sadie and me. They were jury and judge for the twentieth-century fancydance of these court jesters who would pour Thunderbird wine into the Holy Grail.”
This moment occurs when Victor and Sadie realize that their prank on Dirty Joe has put them at risk of being judged and mocked by the white carnival-goers. Victor realizes that they have inadvertently turned themselves and Dirty Joe into entertainers of a hostile audience. Rather than stating this explicitly, Alexie conveys it by comparing Victor and Sadie to fancydancers and court jesters. The comparison allows Alexie to juxtapose Native and white cultures; fancydancing and Thunderbird wine (a cheap wine with high alcohol content) are common features of life on the reservation, whereas court jesters and the legend of the Holy Grail were prominent in medieval European culture. This juxtaposition highlights the clash between Native and white worldviews at events like the carnival.
“A storytelling fetish accompanied by an extreme need to tell the truth. Dangerous.”
The collection's more surreal stories give Alexie an opportunity to explore his themes more explicitly than in his realistic stories, which focus on plot rather than direct discussion of big ideas. Here, he addresses storytelling, a motif that appears throughout the collection. The BIA officer insists that storytelling and the truth are especially dangerous when combined. Stories, Alexie suggests, are a more potent way to tell provocative truths than simply explaining them. This is in keeping with the collection itself, which fictionalizes and abstracts the hardships of life on the reservation. As illustrated in Thomas Builds-the-Fire's conviction, the truth is something not easily articulated, and someone who has a penchant for expressing the horrors of daily life will face the consequences.
“All I know about this war is what Seymour told me when he came back from his tour of duty over there and he said all the gooks he killed looked like us and Seymour said every single gook he killed looked exactly like someone he knew on the reservation.”
Although "Jesus Christ's Half Brother..." focuses primarily on the story of James's upbringing, Alexie devotes substantial attention to its historical backdrop. The story covers the seven-year span from 1966 to 1974, which almost directly coincides with America's military involvement in Vietnam. That war, which became immensely unpopular by its end, has special significance for Seymour, who identifies more with the Vietnamese than he does with the Americans he fights with. This observation has multiple layers of significance. Although Seymour emphasizes the physical resemblance between himself and the Vietnamese, he also implies that the Native Americans and the Vietnamese are similar because they have both suffered under white imperialists. Alexie's repetition of the racial slur 'gook' draws attention to it as an example of racism - something that the characters on the reservation have also experienced firsthand.
“With each glass of beer, Samuel gained a few ounces of wisdom, courage. But after a while, he began to understand too much about fear and failure, too. At the halfway point of any drunken night, there is a moment when an Indian realizes he cannot turn back toward tradition and that he has no map to guide him toward the future.”
Samuel Builds-the-Fire only appears in one story. He is unique in that he is one of the only characters in the collection to avoid drinking for his entire life. The first time he drinks, he quickly passes the point of pleasurable, mild inebriation, and becomes emotional and reflective. This moment comes after losing his job, the latest in a long string of minor and major indignities and losses. Samuel's observation that "he has no map to guide him toward the future", then, applies not only to Native Americans as a group but also to his own life, which has become increasingly desperate and directionless.
"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."
True to its title, "A Good Story" is one of the more positive stories in a collection where bleakness is the norm. "A Good Story" not only acknowledges this, but reveals the secret that Victor and the other characters use to survive their difficult lives: they look for small moments of goodness around them. As Alexie acknowledges, being able to scrape out a living and spend time with their families is often just enough to motivate his characters to keep going.
“How can we imagine a new language when the language of the enemy keeps our dismembered tongues tied to his belt? How can we imagine a new alphabet when the old jumps off billboards down into our stomachs?...How do we imagine a new life when a pocketful of quarters weighs our possibilities down?”
This story's disgruntled narrator decides that imagination and creativity are the only things that will allow Native Americans to transcend their unfortunate past and bleak current situation. In this passage, he qualifies that assertion. He acknowledges that creativity only goes so far for people who suffer from material hardships like poor health or extreme poverty. Alexie also seems to be subtly recognizing the irony of the story itself - he advocates for Native Americans to express themselves creatively, using fiction written in the language of the oppressor.
"Making fry bread and helping people die are the last two things Indians are good at."
Norma's cynical observation about Native Americans comes at the end of "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor". Earlier in that story, Jimmy recalls how Norma held a white man as he died after being in a car accident. Her comment here is a reference to her personal history as well as Native American history more broadly, which has been characterized by immense bloodshed over the past five centuries. Norma's ideas about "helping people die" also draw on the motif of witnessing, which appears throughout the collection (most notably in "Every Little Hurricane" and "Witnesses, Secret and Not"). The true victims of history, Alexie suggests, are not those who died but those who survived and had to rebuild their lives afterward.
"On Christmas, Junior read two books, switched back and forth by chapters. One book was a cheap western and the other was a children's book. He pretended it was one big book, a strange book, a multiple-personality book."
This passage is another sly moment of self-reference. In fact, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven can be very aptly described as a "multiple-personality book". It features multiple protagonists, and the stories themselves are very different in tone and style; within the book, we see a wide variety of literary modes, from surreal science-fiction in "Distances", to black comedy in "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor", to the gritty realism of "A Train Is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result". It is also significant that Alexie chose the genres of children's and western literature for this (potential) reference to his own work. This collection features numerous stories that feature children and teenagers (and Alexie himself would go on to write two young-adult novels, albeit much later in his career). In addition, much of Alexie's fiction subverts the romanticized mythology of the American West.
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