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Reservation Blues

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  12,987 ratings  ·  927 reviews
The life of Spokane Indian Thomas Builds-the-Fire irrevocably changes when blues legend Robert Johnson miraculously appears on his reservation and passes the misfit storyteller his enchanted guitar. Inspired by this gift, Thomas forms Coyote Springs, an all-Indian Catholic band who find themselves on a magical tour that leads from reservation bars to Seattle and New York-- ...more
Paperback, 306 pages
Published February 7th 2005 by Grove Press (first published May 1st 1995)
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Average rating 3.98  · 
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 ·  12,987 ratings  ·  927 reviews

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Ahmad Sharabiani
Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie

Reservation Blues is a 1995 novel by American writer Sherman Alexie (Spokane-Coeur d'Alene).

The novel follows the story of the rise and fall of a rock and blues band of Spokane Indians from the Spokane Reservation. In 1995, Thomas Builds-The-Fire, Junior Polatkin, and Victor Joseph, who also appear in Sherman Alexie's short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, meet American blues musician Robert Johnson. He sold his soul to the devil
Theresa Alan
Jan 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
“They dreamed of fishing salmon but woke up as adults to shop at the Trading Post and stand in line for U.S.D.A. commodity food instead. They savagely opened cans of commodities and wept over the rancid meat.”

I was first introduced to these characters when I saw the movie Smoke Signals, which was originally a book (that I didn’t read). I liked the movie, in part because I think the actor Adam Beach is yummy. In this book, Thomas is given an enchanted guitar and forms a band with Victor and Junio
Jul 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I don't know what I was expecting when I picked this up. I had read some of Alexie's short fiction anthologies and enjoyed them. Upon moving to Seattle and finding out that he was a local, I picked this up at a used book store, figuring I'd give it a read. I did not expect Thomas-builds-the-fire to get under my skin and change my life. Yet somehow he did.

I grew up a stone's throw from the Southern Ute and Navajo reservations. I had friends from both tribes through most of my public school years.
This is some very American magical realism, what with its mash-up of the Robert Johnson crossroads legend with life on a Spokane Indian reservation and rock star ambitions. Perhaps even more American than apple pie?!??

As a concept, I love American magical realism (see also: Swamplandia!, which coincidentally is about people who like to pretend they're Indian). The execution of the book I really, really liked too. Reservation Blues is full of nightmares and alcoholism, but also, funny digs at whi
Robert Mitchell
Aug 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
If reading Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is like running alongside a longhouse with 24 windows, getting 24 glimpses or mental snapshots of life inside, Reservation Blues is like being invited in and offered a can of Pepsi, a hot piece of fry bread and a place to crash. You are there for the awkward silences and shy smiles, the pettiness and jealousy of a small community, the loyalty and tradition, the despair and depression. In Fistfight, you’re buoyed by the nar ...more
Theophilus (Theo)
Dec 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic. Another homerun for Sherman Alexie. The author lifts W.E.B. Dubois' color veil briefly for us to see into the complexities of life on an Indian reservation. The effects of placing the people native to the land that is now The United States of America in what were in effect concentration camps with invisible physical fences, but psychological barriers to keep them out of the way of "civilization" are still taking a toll on them today. Having Robert Johnson suddenly appear on a reservat ...more
Jul 02, 2010 rated it it was amazing
As my friend Karen said yesterday, Sherman Alexie has the ability to make you laugh and cry in the same sentence. I love how he touches on the irony of a situation that drives it deep into the loneliest part of your being instead of just staying cliched and clever on the surface.
I love how Alexie weaves between various stories seamlessly and how the mythology and the reality of Native Americans blurs hazily together. Somehow this makes the reality starker and the mythology even more wistful. I a
Sherman Alexie is one of the few writers who has managed to survive the late '80s/early '90s vogue for all things Native American, a cultural wave that incorporated any number of now mostly forgotten Indian writers, and the Oscar given to that melodramatic piece of shit Dances With Wolves. And there's a reason he's survived-- he writes with a sort of Murakami sense of archetypes freely floating around, traditional stories colliding with rock musicians and corporate brands, and it's all tempered ...more
Apr 04, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
I am very disappointed as I write this review.

At first, I was disappointed in myself because I could not, did not, will not finish this book. I wanted to, believe me. Oh, there was internal struggle. I mean, I need to read this; it's this month's pick for the book club I'm in. I need to be able to discuss this. Plus, I loved--loved--Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. It's on my "guaranteed you'll love it too" list, for crying out loud. Speaking of which, Alexie's other YA nov
May 25, 2007 rated it liked it
I actually found this book along with many others in a trash pile on my way to work. I remember hearing a story of his once on NPR called, "What You Pawn I Redeem," which nearly brought me to tears by the end. Seriously, I actually sat in my car waiting for the story to finish. Pathetic? Yes. But it was a very dramatic reading. Anyway, I read the book, which was about a group of Indians on a reservation in Washington (I think most of his writing revolves around similar characters) who end up sta ...more
Jul 09, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“Mr. Builds-the-Fire, I sold my soul to the Gentleman so I could play this damn guitar better than anybody ever played guitar. I’m hopin’ Big Mom can get it back"

I'd like to write a linear review of Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues, but the story is only part of the story and a linear summary would miss it. Robert Johnson – the Robert Johnson – gives his guitar to Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who gave it to Victor Joseph. Under the guitar's tutelage, their musical skills grew and the friends began
Nov 15, 2011 rated it liked it
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I heard about Sherman Alexie for years before I finally picked up one of his books. Unfortunately, that book was "Flight," a short little tale that bored me in the telling and left me unimpressed. Surely, I thought, this is not the kind of writing that gave Alexie his literary stature?

I picked up "Reservation Blues" because a few of my students were reading it for an English class, and I liked the idea of being able to discuss it in our adviser meetings. From
Aug 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Thomas-Builds-a-Fire is one of the greatest characters in 20th century literature. Period.

What a fantastic novel. Stronger than Alexie’s debut collection, RESERVATION BLUES explores similar territory with an even greater scope as he takes his compelling, hilarious, and tragic characters (Thomas-Builds-a-Fire, Victor, and Junior) off of the reservation while also bringing outsiders onto it. The result is a convincing portrayal of the complex status his characters find themselves in: eroded conne
Mission Blue
Nov 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: english
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Apr 04, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: native-american
Years after reading it I still remember the book and its characters.
Feb 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
makes me want some fry bread
Feb 04, 2008 rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Joe Fahey
Dec 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is one of those books I didn't want to end. I've been reading it off and on for a while now and I liked picking it up and having a read whenever I felt like escaping for a bit. Any book that starts out with Robert Johnson mysteriously appearing at the Spokane Indian Reservation decades after his death and handing off his enchanted guitar with its devil-dealed skills ready to transfer to its next caretaker is all right with me. I was easily charmed with the dialogue and the subtle humor of a ...more
Apr 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literary
The Indian Wars Today (2012)

Alexie, Sherman (1995). Reservation Blues. New York: Warner Books. 306 pages.

I confess immediately that I am a huge fan of Sherman Alexie and I think this book is an artistic masterpiece. I acknowledge that most of my friends do not share my opinion. Okay, that's out of the way.

Each chapter opens with lyrics from a song. The first is from Alexie’s imaginary (as far as I know) song, Reservation Blues: “Dancing all alone, feeling nothing good, It’s been so long since s
Mary Anne
Mar 26, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, kobo
This is my second Sheman Alexie book (first was, of course, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian). I love the subject matter and writing style, so this was an easy buy for me. That said, it’s been some time since I’ve read the former, so I didn’t have much in terms of expectations. I might have expected a bit more humor, but otherwise it wasn’t off in any way.

I think the book surfaces a lot of issues concerning Native Americans (and American culture) that I liked more than the plot li
Patrick Hurley
Oct 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
There's magic in this book. Not the shimmering fairy dust of Disney, not the creeping shadows of Poe, but a magic of a different sort. An older magic, and a sadder one, probably because it's all true.

I picked up Reservation Blues from the library because it was being displayed as a prominent book in Banned Book week. I'd read and listened to (even published at GBF) Sherman Alexie's work, but had never heard of this one. When I read the premise, that of famous blues musician Robert Johnson (who
Maria Kramer
This story meanders a lot, which takes away from its effectiveness, IMO. That said, it's still a heart-tugging work that really digs into the pain of life on the reservation without presenting any easy solutions. ...more
Rhuddem Gwelin
Jan 30, 2021 rated it really liked it
It was this novel that brought me to the world of Sherman Alexie. It's a magical and tragic and hilarious and raging world. I recommend all his books. ...more
Sep 05, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: native-american
Thomas Builds-the-Fire is a young man with a talent for telling stories and writing poems and song lyrics, living on a Spokane reservation. One day he sees a black man on the road, carrying a guitar. It turns out to be the famed guitar player, Robert Johnson. Johnson's hands are severely scarred and burned, and he's looking for a woman who is supposed to heal him. Thomas tells him about Big Mom, and Johnson believes she is the one he seeks, so Thomas drives him to the edge of the mountain where ...more
Oct 01, 2011 rated it it was ok
Other than a few silly comments tossed here and there, I did not like the bulk of the book. I understand it is a fictionalized, mystical story as seen with the Big Mom character symbolizing the Native American culture-- but some parts were so fantasy that I could not follow the story, get to the point, or even care. It was just laughable at times. The characters make it easy to dislike them, and the book overall makes Indians out to be dumb, alcoholic, hopeless people incapable of making their l ...more
Sweet, sad, and satirical portrayal of life on a Spokane Indian reservation and attempts by a group of young men to break free by forming a blues-rock group. Good balance of a vivid and dramatic story interwoven with myths, legend, dreams, and whimsy. Elucidates the paradox of the white society seeming to value Indians for their spirituality and respect for nature while holding negative and inaccurate stereotypes. Alexie is sympathetic to whole cast of characters he populates this book with and ...more
Vel Veeter
Sep 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is the debut novel by Sherman Alexie, who had already put out a near perfect short story collection: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven a little earlier. I always think about Alexie as being a very talented writer, but it’s interesting to consider that because his output is varied in terms of type, the over all collective oeuvre is a little harder to assess.

This novel begins with the blues musician Robert Johnson making his way onto the Spokane Indian reservation and finding a wa
Jan 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-i-own
Sherman Alexie is such a talent. When I was in primary school, I watched Smoke Signals and even though I wasn't old enough to appreciate the messages that were subtler than the fact that Victor was a bully and Thomas was a nerd, that film still retains a fast hold on my memory twenty years later. A couple of years ago, I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I enjoyed that one, although it leaned heavily towards the young adult genre. With two such disparate and long-separated ex ...more
Vince Wetzel
Jun 15, 2021 rated it liked it
It's a story of the rise and fall and mystical wonder of an Indigenous blues band. Perhaps I was expecting more. Perhaps, it straddled the line between mystical and wild folklore and music business reality. Perhaps a couple of the characters just were so unlikable, but I came away disappointed. One side, there is the story of life on the reservation itself and understanding the sense of hopelessness one can have when a people have been pushed somewhere and then given rations. On another side, th ...more
Jul 02, 2019 rated it liked it
As a major music-head, I really liked how Alexie tackled the idea of neo-colonialism and lived experience of Indigenous communities through the angle of music. There's a lot of social and historical content packed into the story from the prejudice that one can experience from members of their own community to distorted perceptions of self as a result of years of mistreatment. Each chapter opens with a brief poem/lyric which beautifully sets up the mood for the following pages.

While I enjoyed th
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Sherman J. Alexie, Jr., was born in October 1966. A Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, he grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, WA, about 50 miles northwest of Spokane, WA. Alexie has published 18 books to date.
Alexie is an award-winning and prolific author and occasional comedian. Much of his writing draws on his experiences as a modern Native American. Sherman's best known works in

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