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Book Review

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

In 24 vignettes, Sherman Alexie draws from his Native American heritage to write about a fictional Spokane Indian named Victor and his tribe. Many stories are set in the 1970s, but some take place earlier. The characters battle rampant alcoholism, poverty, hunger, prejudice and hopelessness on the reservation. In spite of their struggles, many still dance and love and play basketball and try to find ways to survive in the chaos.

These slice-of-life stories show how the tribe members attempt to cling to their traditions while increasingly falling into dangerous new patterns such as drug use, alcoholism and family abandonment. Characters often hurt and criticize others harshly, reflecting their own misery and self-hatred.

The opening story is about a New Year’s Eve party. Drunken adults fight one another as young Victor observes it all. As teens, Victor and his friends try new drugs and drink frequently. Victor is a talented basketball player, but his drinking ruins his game.

He and his friends follow other up-and-coming basketball players on the reservation but are rarely surprised when they, too, allow alcohol to ruin their chances of success. In another story, Victor and his friends try a new drug and tell each other what they’re seeing while high. Their fantasies often involve being warriors like their ancestors. At a carnival, Victor goes back to a woman’s Winnebago and sleeps with her. Before he leaves, he tells her she is nothing important.

Victor’s friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire tells stories long after anyone will listen to him. When Victor’s father dies, Thomas flies across the country with Victor. Victor must search the trailer in which his father’s body was found. Thomas helps him retrieve the small amount of money left in his dad’s bank account and drive his dad’s pickup back to the reservation.

Thomas says Victor’s father once told him the boys needed to take care of each other. Victor recalls having beat up Thomas for no reason when they were kids. He also remembers the time he and other kids mocked Thomas because he jumped off a roof and tried to fly. Victor says the truth was, he and the others were jealous. Everyone had dreams about flying. Because of Thomas’s bravery, he did fly for a moment.

Many of the stories are told by unnamed narrators. One narrator saves a baby’s life in a fire. The child’s parents perish, so he takes the child home as his own. Years pass before the boy talks, and he never cries. The author says taking care of this child is his religion. The same narrator later says he doesn’t know anything about religion and doesn’t confess his sins to anyone except the walls and furniture and the boy, who forgives him easily. At age 7, the boy begins to speak. He immediately makes deep, philosophical statements.

A character named Samuel works as a housekeeper at several hotels. He takes pride in his work and sometimes gives money to the prostitutes there so they can take a night off. After getting fired several times and cleaning up a room where a teen died of a drug overdose, Samuel falls on railroad tracks. The narrator doesn’t clarify whether his death was accidental or suicide.

Various characters battle alcoholism, and most lose. Others try to find love or sex. Some leave to study in cities but end up returning to the reservation. One character, Junior, goes to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. He has a one night stand with a white girl, and she gets pregnant. He offers to marry her, but she says she doesn’t love him. As a Catholic, she refuses abortion. Her parents won’t accept that their grandson is part Native American. Junior finds himself with a son he only sees on rare occasions. He drops out of college and returns to the reservation.

Junior recalls a time when he and his college basketball team of white boys played against a team that had an ex-convict as a player. The 28-year-old grew up in a rough inner-city area but worked hard to make something of his life after his jail time. Junior never stops regretting the hateful things he and his team members said to this player who was trying to improve himself.

Christian Beliefs

Victor prays as a hurricane approaches, just in case his parents had been wrong about God all those years. Victor mentions that Jimi Hendrix was younger than Jesus Christ when he died. Victor also suggests if basketball had been around in Jesus’ day, He would have been the best point guard in Nazareth. Junior impregnates a Catholic girl. She refuses to have an abortion because she says she would go to hell for sure.

Other Belief Systems

Victor and his people adhere to traditional Native American beliefs and legends about the earth. The tribe’s medicine woman gives Victor a drum. He says it is the only religion he has. He suggests the medicine woman has so much good medicine that she may be the one who created the earth.

One story says Native Americans about whom no one is thinking simply disappear, turning into birds or dust or sky. One character thinks God was nothing but this planet’s maid. The man tells a story about Coyote, the creator of all things, sitting on a cloud watching the Native Americans. Coyote got bored, the storyteller says, so he clipped his toenails and they fell to earth. They grew in the ground like seeds and became white men. When Coyote realized what he had done, he said, “Oh s---.”

One character sees a painting of Jesus lying on the floor of a burning house. He’s surprised to discover Jesus portrayed as white.

Authority Roles

Victor’s parents are alcoholics, as are the majority of adults mentioned in the book. As such, they are often neglectful. Victor’s father eventually leaves the reservation. Victor says Native Americans are just learning to abandon their families, something white men have done for years.

Profanity/Violence

The Lord’s name is used in vain frequently. Words including d--n, s---, h--- and the f-word are used constantly. Drunken Native Americans often get into fistfights. Two boys from the reservation severely beat a white boy, almost to the point of death.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Victor says his dad must have passed out on top of his mom a hundred times while having sex. As a boy, he would lie awake and listen to them having sex. He contrasts them with white people who try to keep sex quiet and pretend they never do it. He says he knows exactly how his parents’ sex sounds.

Victor sleeps with several women. One woman spent some time as a topless dancer in a Seattle bar to put food on the table for her children. A woman named Rosemary has a baby near Christmastime and claims she is still a virgin. This makes the storyteller call her child Jesus Christ’s half-brother.

One narrator mentions having kissed a girl who was later raped by her foster father. Another dreams he was having sex with a missionary’s wife in a barn when the missionary caught them and shot him. Junior sleeps with a girl at college while thinking of various euphemisms for sex. He uses a condom, but she still gets pregnant. Many characters have sexual encounters outside of marriage.

A woman named Norma sometimes takes men back to her tepee. Some say she also takes women. Junior says homosexuals were once given special status in the tribe because they were believed to have powerful medicine. Junior agrees that they must have some magic to be able to assert their identity without paying attention to others’ opinions.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Alcohol: Drinking and alcoholism are pervasive themes in this collection of short stories. Victor frequently sees his parents passed out drunk. He talks about his father drinking vodka even on an empty stomach. He recalls his parents’ skin tasting like alcohol. Victor drinks a lot as a teen and can no longer play basketball well. Another promising high school basketball player in the tribe reportedly starts drinking Sterno. When Victor gets older, he battles his alcoholism and later gets sober. He often buys alcohol and fights himself to keep from drinking it. Many jokes are made — both by Native Americans to each other and by whites — about the rampant alcoholism of the Native Americans. One character’s father admits to having accidentally killed a white man in a car accident. He wasn’t charged because the white man had alcohol in his blood. Some Native Americans fight and commit crimes under the influence of alcohol.

Drugs: Victor and his friends try new drugs and talk about what they see while they are high. A girlfriend of Victor’s gets in with a crowd of cocaine users. She says she could really get addicted to it. Kids sniff rubber cement to get a buzz. One of Victor’s friends uses drugs while driving, saying that will make the high even better.

Deception: Doctors trick several Native American women into being sterilized after giving birth.

Eating disorders: From the boys’ bathroom, one narrator can hear bulimic white girls making themselves throw up. He is a hungry boy and begs them to give him their lunches if they’re just going to throw them up anyway.

Racism: The stories of the tribe members highlight the prejudice and scrutiny under which they live. Many are treated unjustly or ridiculed by white Americans.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

18 and up, but often used in high school AP and IB courses and programs

Author

Sherman Alexie

Cast

Director

Distributor

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic Inc.; Originally published in 1993; this edition reprinted in 2005

Released

On Video

Year Published

1993

Awards

Pen/Hemingway Award, 1993; Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Award, 1995

Reviewer

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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