As an adult, Thomas Builds-the-Fire was arrested for holding Eve Ford, the reservation postmaster, hostage. He was imprisoned and has been silent ever since. Years later, Thomas’s case goes to trial and he chooses to represent himself. When he is given the chance to give his testimony, Thomas tells stories from several different perspectives. At first, he claims to be a pony stolen by a white general in 1858. Because he was stolen with 799 other horses, the general could not keep them all and killed most of them. Thomas explains that he bucked every white soldier who tried to ride him, and eventually escaped. The Indians in the courtroom are deeply moved by this story.
Next Thomas claims to be Qualchan, an Indian who was executed for fighting for his land. Spokane is now building a golf course named after him. Eve calls out to Thomas that everyone is listening to him, and she has to be restrained. The judge ends Thomas’s testimony, and the prosecutor interrogates him about murdering two white soldiers as part of a battle that took place in 1858. Thomas answers the questions, channeling a 16-year-old Indian soldier named Wild Coyote. Thomas is convicted of two counts of murder and sent to jail. On the way there, he tells stories to the other prisoners on the bus.
Although Alexie uses surreal imagery and situations in other stories, “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” is the first story in the collection to take place entirely in an alternate, fantastical timeline. It uses the same characters and settings as the collection’s more realistic stories, but it features surreal events that are not referenced in any other story. Examples of these include the judge keeping a replacement gavel with him at all times, and the frequent swearing that happens in court.
“The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” includes many implicit and explicit cultural references. The most important of these is the quotation from Franz Kafka’s The Trial that appears at the beginning of the story. Kafka's novel also features an unjust and needlessly complex trial. Kafka’s work also influences the ending of the story, where Thomas is convicted of a crime committed by Wild Coyote more than a century before. This ending, which defies logic but is consistent with the themes of the story, is an example of the absurdism for which Kafka was famous.
The stories that Thomas tells during his trial are retellings of true and imagined incidents in Native American history, similar to the hallucinations in “A Drug Called Tradition” and Victor’s dreams in “Crazy Horse Dreams”. Qualchan was a real Yakima chief and Thomas’s version of his story is accurate (“Spokane History Timeline”).
In this story (as well as most others in the collection), Alexie focuses on the insular community of the reservation. However, at the end of the story he acknowledges that other minority groups in the United States have also faced oppression. As Thomas boards the bus, he is able to draw on this history of oppression and achieves solidarity with the other prisoners despite their different backgrounds.