“You know there are some children who aren’t really children at all, they’re just pillars of flame that burn everything they touch. And there are some children who are just pillars of ash, that fall apart when you touch them… Victor and me, we were children of flame…and ash.” Thomas Builds-the-Fire
A 1998 movie based on the short stories by Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), tells the story of Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who live on the Spokane Reservation, and make an epic journey together to recover the ashes of Victor Joseph’s father, who died while living in Phoenix, Arizona.
Their relationship is contentious, mainly because Victor is angry and Thomas challenges him with his stories and questions about his father and life, forcing Victor to look inward about his choice to live closed off from the world in his grief and anger.
Alexie’s brilliant prose, dusted with humor and tears, set the tone of introspection, pain and grief, and revelation for two young men disenfranchised from life outside the reservation. That is the world Arnold Joseph fled to when he abandoned his wife and son, weighed down with alcoholism and a defeatism as poor Native Americans. Arnold Joseph also carries with him the guilt of setting Thomas’ parents’ home ablaze while drunk during their Independence Day party, where Thomas was saved by being tossed out of a window, leaving him an orphan to be raised by his grandmother.
From Thomas’ tales of Arnold Joseph’s adventures and pressing Victor to see how things truly are, “And I told Victor, I thought we were all travelling heavy with illusions,” to Victor’s memories of his alcoholic and dysfunctional family and his insistence that his father was a horrible dad, the young men battle and connect as they recover the ashes of Victor’s father.
In the end, Thomas helps Victor to embrace love instead of hate. Suzy Song, who found Arnold Joseph dead in his trailer, enables Victor to realize how much his father loved him when she recounts the story Arnold Joseph told her about his son winning a Basketball game and how Victor made the winning goal, “It was the Indians vs. the Christians that day, and for at least one day, the Indians won! Yeee!”
In essence, as narrated by Thomas Builds-the-Fire, transformation comes from an epiphany—that if we choose to forgive, we are faced with the stark reality of ourselves…a place where real soul work begins.
“How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream. Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often, or forever, when we were little? Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage, or making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage there at all? Do we forgive our fathers for marrying, or not marrying, our mothers? Or divorcing, or not divorcing, our mothers? And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness? Shall we forgive them for pushing, or leaning? For shutting doors or speaking through walls? For never speaking, or never being silent? Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or in theirs? Or in their deaths, saying it to them or not saying it. If we forgive our fathers, what is left?”