John-John has saved $600 for his future, although he does not know what he wants to do with it yet. His brother, Joseph, is a military pilot who was captured in action and has not been heard from since. John-John remembers Joseph’s positive attitude and beautiful singing and dancing. He daydreams about all the ways Joseph might come home. The most disturbing of these daydreams is the one in which John-John is running down the highway when Joseph lands his plane on it. Joseph has lost a finger and is covered in scars from being tortured and he does not remember John-John.
John-John remembers when Joseph would lightheartedly tease him about his double name. One day, their mother tries to clean and fumigate the house but John-John doesn’t want to go outside, even for a few hours. He continues to stare out the window all the time and dream of escaping the reservation.
The title of “Flight” has a double meaning. It refers to Joseph’s job as a pilot, but also to John-John’s desire to flee the reservation. Alexie makes this explicit at the end of the story when he writes that above all, John-John “wants to escape” (231). For Joseph, of course, the two kinds of flight were interchangeable - his piloting skills allowed him to leave the reservation. But while Alexie generally portrays John-John’s ambition as a positive trait, he also emphasizes that successful escapes don’t always end well. Joseph is missing in action, and John-John himself has numerous dreams about escapes gone wrong. This is consistent with Alexie’s other stories (including “Somebody Kept Saying Powwow”, “A Train Is an Order of Occurrence...” and “Witnesses, Secret and Not”) that portray characters leaving the reservation, only to find that life outside is even harsher and more marginalizing.
“Flight” was added to The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven in the collection’s 2003 reissue. Alexie wrote a full-length young adult novel with the same title in 2007. Although the novel Flight has a different plot, it retains many of the short stories themes and motifs, including aviation and mentor relationships. Comparing the short story to the novel is helpful because the novel helps explain the story’s surreal dream sequences. In the novel, the main character has the ability to change into other people at different times. These transformations teach him important lessons about empathy and his own family history. John-John’s dreams in “Flight” serve a similar function - they allow him to speculate more freely about what might have happened to Joseph than he can while awake.
Alexie’s portrayal of the military in “Flight” is deeply ambivalent and warrants critical attention. Enlisting in the military is one of only a few options for young people who wish to leave the reservation as John-John does. However, John-John’s nightmarish visions of what might have happened to Joseph - death, torture, post-traumatic stress – suggest that the military may not be a worthwhile escape route, especially considering the fraught relationship between Native and white Americans. Alexie also addresses this issue in “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother...”, which is set during the Vietnam War.