The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

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“Victor could hear that near-poison fall, then hit, flesh and blood, nerve and vein. Maybe it was like lightning tearing an old tree into halves. Maybe it was like a wall of water, a reservation tsunami, crashing onto a small beach.”
I’m stunned. And I’m only on page seven. These aren’t the Indians I’ve known in my mind.
Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven presents a variety of short stories, flashbacks and dreams that describe in vivid detail the continuing destruction of Native Americans due to drug and alcohol abuse on reservations today. Never before had I peered beyond what I thought was still a pure and simple race. Alexie’s novel showed me that the romanticized image of Native Americans that I had formed was a fabrication of American history.

For many summers, my family and I ventured to Montana, Colorado and Wyoming, exploring the wilderness areas, and learning about the western range wars. Visiting the Custer Battlefield and the Fetterman and Wagon Box sites left strong impressions of what Native Americans were like and how they lived. It was easy to idealize these people, especially after I had the opportunity to meet members of the Lakota tribe during a “spiritual learning conference” hosted at Culver. Wild West movies and TV series further cemented an idyllic picture of Native American life. Reading Alexie’s book, however, brought a dramatic and shocking disillusionment to my view of the American experience.

Alexie sets his novel around the Spokane reservation in Washington State and trails the corrupted life of a nine-year-old boy named Victor Joseph. Young generations become immediately consumed by the inevitable social condition where “your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you” and “your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you.” In one unique story, Victor explains his father’s daily routine with alcohol, and the nightly ritual of his father’s listening to Jimi Hendrix while passed out on the vomit-stained sofa. Relating Native Americans to rock stars surrounded by drugs and alcohol should be paradox.

I was instantly drawn into this book and the heart-wrenching stories of Victor and his ill-fated childhood. The sheer desperation of life on the reservation, shown through Alexie’s frank and unblinking gaze, shattered my notions of an authentic, noble race living in dignified protection. It’s hard to shake the images of what Native American Indians have become, hard to forget that they’re living in decrepit communities with little hope of escape. If one criterion of good literature is that it lingers, then The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven qualifies. I may not read it again, I may not remember each story. But I’ll never forget what reading it felt like.





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