Before the Europeans colonized America different tribes of Native Americas appointed storytellers to keep the tribes history alive. In “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”, by Sherman Alexie an odd boy named Thomas Builds-the-Fire holds the title of storyteller. This short story is about a journey Thomas takes with his old friend Victor to claim Victor’s father’s ashes from Phoenix, Arizona and bring them back to their reservation in Spokane. The story ultimately portrays the strain between Victors and Thomas’s friendship. Alexie uses Thomas and his friendship with Victor to show that not everyone conforms to what we call the social norms.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire is different from the other boys from his reservation. In the opening scene Victor is standing in line at the trading post. He has a hundred dollar check in hand to cover travel expenses to find his father when he notices Thomas at a magazine rack. When Thomas approaches Victor and they start a conversation about his father. All the Indians at the trading post are surprised Victor is actually talking with him. In “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” perspective is shown by “All the other Indians stared, surprised that Victor was even talking to Thomas. Nobody talked to Thomas anymore because he told the same damn stories over and over again” (Alexie 171). This is when we first find out that Thomas is not accepted by his by his own people and is considered an outsider. Thomas is not taken seriously and is not listened too because he enjoys recounting story’s of his tribes past.
Thomas makes a proposition to Victor agreeing to help with expenses for his journey to reclaim his father’s ashes if he is allowed to come. Victor reluctantly agrees to Thomas’s terms. The boys sat next to each other on the flight along with a tiny white woman who had the window seat. Thomas begins a conversation with the woman despite Victor’s embarrassment. In “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” character is shown by ““Excuse me, miss,” Thomas asked. “Are you a gymnast or something”” (Alexie 173)? Thomas is out spoken and is not afraid of being embarrassed unlike Victor who is sitting quietly hoping Thomas will stop. Victor eventually chimes in at the end but it is Thomas’s outspokenness that started the conversation. In this scene not only does the author show that Thomas is different but that the gymnast is unusual as well. In “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” character is shown by “She was busy twisting her body into pretzels. She was flexible” (Alexie 173). Most people on an airplane would find it a bit uncomfortable to be sitting next to someone contorting their body!
Once Thomas and Victor had reclaimed Victor’s dad’s ashes they drove to the bank and retrieved the three hundred-dollars from his fathers account. While on the road back to there hometown Spokane Victor recounts the story of when Thomas flew. In “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” perspective is shown when “Once, he jumped off the roof of the tribal school and flapped his arms like a crazy eagle. And he flew. For a second he hovered, suspended above all the other Indian boys, who were too smart or to scared to jump too” (Alexie 175). Thomas fell and broke his arm in two places, but Thomas did what no other boy would do, even though they all wished too. This is not something many people would do but the author uses this to show that Thomas is not swayed by other people’s opinions.
While the boys drive through Nevada the landscape is described. In “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” setting is shown when “Thomas and Victor had been amazed at the lack of animal life, at the absence of water, of movement” (Alexie 176). The setting of Nevada is desolate and baron of life. There are rarely any animals that are seen during the day. Since Nevada is one big desert most of the animals are nocturnal they come out after the sun has set and the oppressive heat has resided. The symbol of the Nevada desert is used to describe the feeling of being alone. The setting is used to show the feeling of being alone and how both boys are experiencing it.
Alexia succeeds in portraying a message about not conforming to social norms in her short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”. Through out the story Thomas shows that he is different and that he isn’t going to change for anybody. Thomas despite being faced with many hardships, judgments, torments and even being beat up never faltered in his beliefs. Being different and not conforming the social norms is not an easy thing for people to do and this is what Alexia was trying to portray.
Courtney from Study Moose
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