The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie
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In the short stories “A Drug Called Tradition,” “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” and “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore” collected in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, author Sherman Alexie uses humor to reflect the life on the Spokane Reservation. In “A Drug Called Tradition,” the story starts with a joke by having Thomas sit down inside a refrigerator in response to Junior’s comment as to why the refrigerator is empty. The Indians are having a party hosted by Thomas, who gets a lot of money from a corporation for leasing some of his land. Alexie’s three second selves, Victor, Junior, and Thomas, later go to the Benjamin Lake and use the drug that Victor brings with him. In “The…show more content…
In “A Drug Called Tradition,” Alexie’s humor efficaciously shows the bitter reality on the reservation. For example, at the beginning of the story, Alexie uses humor to reflect poverty on the reservation. After Junior shouts at Thomas, questioning “[h]ow come your fridge is always fucking empty,” Thomas goes inside the refrigerator and sits down, replying Junior “[t]here…It ain’t empty no more” (Alexie 12). As seen in this example, having Thomas sit inside the refrigerator and reply in a humorous tone, Alexie is successful in mirroring the issue of poverty, or the bitter reality, on the reservation. This point can also be supported by Stephen F. Evans’s essay, "'Open containers': Sherman Alexie's Drunken Indians,” in which Evans discusses Alexie’s use of satire and irony in his stories and poems. As Evans claims that “[c]onsidered as a whole, the best artistic moments in Alexie's poems, stories, and novels lie in his construction of a satiric mirror that reflects the painful reality of lives,” this further verifies the argument that humor in Alexie’s stories helps reflect the bitter actuality on the reservation (49).
Similarly, in “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” Alexie’s humor effectively shows the bitter reality on the reservation. For instance, once, Jimmy and Norma are stopped by a Washington State patrolman simply because they are Indians: “Washington State has a new law against riding as a passenger in an Indian car” (Alexie 165).
Analyze the character of Norma Many Horses.
Alexie first introduces Norma Many Horses in the story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona". She plays a very minor role in that story, only appearing briefly to break up a fight between Victor and Thomas Builds-the-Fire when they are teenagers. However, she becomes a more central character in "Somebody Kept Saying Powwow" and "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor". Alexie showcases two sides to Norma's personality. On one hand, she is a maternal figure who commands great respect among the tribe, and is a major force in preserving Spokane culture. However, the stories also acknowledge her impetuous side – in "Tumor", she impulsively abandons her husband Jimmy and has an affair; in "Powwow," Junior Polatkin describes her long history of promiscuity before she got married. In both of these stories, the plots are driven by Norma's impulsive behavior (she rejects both Junior and Jimmy based on spur-of-the-moment decisions) and her eventual return to her senses. Over the course of the collection, she demonstrates that even people of strong character can make mistakes, and the true test of their character is whether they are able to make amends.
How does Victor grow and change over the course of the collection?
Victor is portrayed as an innocent child in "Indian Education" and "Every Little Hurricane", but already he is a witness to the social problems that plague the reservation. As he grows older, he experiences many of these problems firsthand before eventually sobering up and moving toward an uncertain future. He is an ideal vehicle for Alexie to explore life on the reservation because he experiences many of its darkest features, including alcoholism and problematic relationships with white people. However, he gradually becomes more mature over the course of the collection and realizes that he must find solace in creativity and imagination rather than drinking and unhealthy relationships. His relationship with Thomas Builds-the-Fire is a testament to this change. Even though they do not become close after their trip to Phoenix in "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona", the young men are able to put their differences aside for a higher purpose - honoring their people.
How are Indians who live on the reservation different from those who have left it, according to Alexie? How does this difference tie into the collection’s themes?
Alexie suggests that while many Indians aspire to move off the reservation, life in the outside world can be even harsher. Most of the urban Indians he portrays are worn down by a life of loneliness and marginalization. Examples of these characters include Jimmy Shit Pants, Samuel Builds-the-Fire, and the narrator of "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven". Alexie explores this difference most explicitly in "Distances", in which the Urbans are weakened by the apocalypse that kills all white people. The implication here is that urban Indians have somehow compromised their identity by moving off the reservation. However, Alexie generally does not depict this choice as a betrayal, but rather a gesture of hope. Characters like John-John and Junior Polatkin leave the reservation (or aspire to) because they believe it will help them achieve greater success in life than is possible at home. Leaving or staying on the reservation are both complicated choices.
Alexie refers to Crazy Horse and the battle of Wounded Knee several times in this collection. Why are these references significant?
Alexie depicts Crazy Horse as the epitome of the traditional Native American hero. Crazy Horse's heroic fighting in the Battle of Little Bighorn is a well-known part of American history, and he is a symbol of not just heroism and conventional masculinity, but also of rebellion against white hegemony. Throughout the collection, Alexie's characters struggle to live up to Crazy Horse's legacy. In "Crazy Horse Dreams", Victor becomes frustrated when he feels that One-Braid is disappointed because he is not like Crazy Horse. Junior Polatkin has a similar moment when, after being featured in the reservation newspaper for his basketball triumphs, an anonymous source describes him as "Crazy Horse for just a second" (206). By depicting male characters that feel they cannot compare to Crazy Horse, Alexie suggests that perhaps the values Crazy Horse represent are no longer relevant and modern Native American men need new heroes.
How do you interpret Thomas Builds-the-Fire's stories?
Thomas is a vehicle for Alexie to explore unconventional styles of storytelling. He also injects Spokane history and culture into stories that are, for the most part, very focused on modern life. Although the dominant mode of writing in this collection is clear, concise realism, many of Thomas's stories use more lyrical language. They feature experimentation with chronology and syntax that draws on Alexie's background as a poet. Thomas's stories often take place in a historical setting, be it vague (like the pony-stealing vision in "A Drug Called Tradition") or specific (like the story of Qualchan, a real historical figure). This allows Alexie to explore how the historical treatment of Native Americans influences the lives of his characters living in the present.
In “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore”, Victor and Adrian watch Julius Windmaker’s basketball skills deteriorate. What does Alexie achieve by telling the story from Victor’s perspective rather than Julius’s?
By narrating "The Only Traffic Signal..." from Victor's perspective, Alexie allows us to understand Julius's choices in the context of reservation culture. Victor himself was once a talented basketball player who lost his abilities. Victor and Adrian's commentary reveals that Julius is the latest in a long line of failed athletes, an observation that makes Julius's failures all the more poignant. Narrating from Victor's perspective also allows Alexie to end the story hopefully - it is unlikely that Julius would be able to adopt the same hopeful attitude toward Lucy so soon after his own failure.
Explain the ending of “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”. What is the significance of the section in which Victor and Thomas Builds-the-Fire drive through Nevada?
The end of "This Is What It Means..." features a reconciliation between Victor and Thomas, who realize that they have more in common than they previously realized. Throughout the story, Victor's flashbacks have emphasized his shared history with Thomas, and he comes to appreciate Thomas's open-minded personality when they spend time together on the trip. The jackrabbit incident in Nevada helps to explain why Thomas also feels closer to Victor. Alexie portrays Victor as a flawed person who sometimes does more harm than he intends. Consider, for example, his beating of Thomas when they were teens and his treatment of Jimmy Shit Pants in "Amusements". Thomas, on the other hand, is relatively peaceful. His accidental killing of a jackrabbit in Nevada demonstrates that even gentle people can unintentionally hurt others, and that everyone makes mistakes. This helps explain why Thomas is willing to forgive Victor for his poor treatment of him in youth.
“Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation” takes place between 1966 and 1974. Why do you think that Alexie set it in this time period?
The Vietnam War offers "Jesus Christ's Half-Brother..." a potent political backdrop. The war was a particularly fraught time for many Native Americans. The 1960s were a hotbed of Native American nationalism and activism, and like many young people in general, some Native Americans resented being forced to fight in a war they did not believe in. Seymour even feels that he has more in common with the Vietnamese than he does with white Americans, as they are both victims of the United States' imperialistic policies. By setting the story during a historical turning point, Alexie suggests that James may offer a way for the Spokane to transcend the difficult time period. The story's historical setting may also be determined by the fact that James is born in the same year as Alexie himself, 1966. This setting lends both a political and personal context to the story.
What is the role of humor in “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor”?
In "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor", Jimmy Many Horses describes how humor has helped him cope with many difficult feelings and situations. Jimmy and his wife, Norma use jokes to defuse a tense moment when a racist police officer tries to extort them, and young Jimmy brings a moment of levity to his grandmother's funeral with a well-timed joke. However, Alexie also shows that there are situations in which humor only makes things worse. Although Jimmy confronts his fear of death using humor, this technique unsettles those around him, and many perceive him as insensitive because of it. He alienates people when he makes fun of a recent car crash in which ten Indians were killed, and Norma leaves him when he refuses to stop joking about his terminal cancer. Through Jimmy's experiences, Alexie demonstrates that humor and sensitivity together can help people overcome many obstacles, but it can also be a defense mechanism that communicates a sense of powerlessness.
Analyze Alexie’s depiction of race relations in “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.”
The title's use of classic American pop culture characters implicates white mainstream media. Tonto is a racist caricature that Alexie suggests is injurious to Native Americans on a psychological level, as stereotypes can be destructive to one's consciousness. No longer a helpful sidekick, Tonto fights with the Lone Ranger after death - so too must Native Americans battle against preconceived notions. The collection's title story addresses race relations more explicitly than much of Alexie's other fiction. In this story, the narrator attempts to make a life for himself off the reservation. He encounters many problems, including being racially profiled at a 7-11 and an inability to get along with his white girlfriend. When he returns to the reservation, he continues to have tense encounters with white people; the humiliation of losing a game of basketball to the white BIA chief's son drives forces him to realize that he must get a job. These interactions are each unique, but together they establish a shadow of fear and distrust that, according to Alexie, Native Americans must overcome if they are to forge meaningful relationships with white people.