Sherman Alexie, “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem”

This is one of my very favourite short stories. I have taught it in several different courses and it has gone over well in all of them. I’ll be using it this week with my Street Humanities class, so I’ve decided to share my lesson plan and handout here with you.

LESSON: “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” by Sherman Alexie
PURPOSE: to introduce students to the quest narrative and symbolism; to introduce them to ideas about colonization and the situation of First Peoples in North America
MATERIALS: copy of the story for each student (available online at The New Yorker); copy of handout (optional)
PREP TIME: very low

OPENING EXERCISE

Students write for 5-10 minutes on one of these prompts and then turn in their writing:

  1. What is the significance of the story’s title? What are the meanings of the words “pawn” and “redeem”? Do they have more than one meaning?
  2. What was your initial response to the story (intellectual and/or emotional)? Were you surprised at the author’s treatment of racist stereotypes?
  3. What do you think of the narrator, Jackson Jackson?
  4. What do you notice about the structure of the narrative? How does the author keep us wanting to read more?

SMALL GROUP DISCUSSION

Students discuss what they wrote in the opening exercise.

LECTURE/LARGE GROUP DISCUSSION

Cover the following topics with the class:

Race/Social Issues

  • remind students of Alexie’s background as a Native American author
  • differences between terms describing Aboriginal people in the US and in Canada—e.g. Native American, Aboriginal, First Nations, Indian; highlight Alexie’s controversial choice to use the term “Indian” in his works
  • discuss the portrayal of racist stereotypes in the story
  • touch on the cultural explanations for behaviour that seems self-destructive; e.g. giving away part of his lottery winnings to Mary; taking his Aleut friends for a meal
  • touch on the societal/structural factors behind some of the self-destructive behaviour; mental illness and substance abuse/homelessness; institutionalized racism and poverty

Quest Narrative

  • ask ss if they are familiar with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the Hunger Games books, or Indiana Jones movies, or the story of King Arthur and the search for the holy grail
  • explain that all of these are quest narratives, a very old traditional literary form
  • go over some of the common elements of the quest narrative/hero’s journey:
  1. hero
  2. problem
  3. task (sometimes involves search for sacred object)
  4. journey
  5. helpers/companions
  6. obstacles
  7. final challenge (moment of truth—will s/he succeed or not?)
  8. return
  • ask students to get back in groups and discuss the ways that “What You Pawn” is a quest narrative; find quest elements in the story

Symbolism

  • explain the difference between traditional/archetypal symbols and original symbols
  • ask students to think of some possible symbols in the story and think of what they could represent

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