An Exploration into the Role of Grace in Sherman Alexie’s “What you Pawn I will Redeem.”
“The longing you seek… it is in front of you.” — Maz Kanata
Jackson Jackson stands in the doorway to the pawn shop. Now aware of a desire other than his typical longing for alcohol, he brainstorms feverishly about how a homeless man could possibly make $999 in a day. Newspaper sales? Lottery tickets? His options are slim, and the future of his grandmother’s regalia, a tangible representation of his Indian heritage, is uncertain. The day in front of him holds just as many unknowns as it does possibilities for Jackson to avenge his family’s powwow regalia. However, Jackson Jackson is not one to cower away from a fight. Boldly, Jackson vacates his comfortable homeless routine, and steps into the great unknown to find the money he needs for the regalia.
The year is now 1830, but that does not matter. Time is not something that the Redman tracks. He prefers to spend this effort on the deer. His people, who some call Indians, have inhabited the same lands for centuries, and presumably, for centuries more. The Georgia clay is ingrained in their Cherokee blood, which flows, powerful and sinuous, through the body like the great river that cuts through the land. They have survived by hunting and gathering, in each action embodying the pride and tradition so richly entrenched in Native American culture. Even in times of poor harvest, his people have remained steadfast in their dedication to preservation. They have not moved because these lands, the lands of towering pines and long, sweet grass, the lands of limitless resources, are home. His people have been graced by nature. The white man changes everything. Entitled as he is, the white man regards Indian life to be an intrinsic roadblock to expansion in the New World, so he perceives removal to be the only course of action. Trails of tears are left as the Redman and his people are evicted from their land, leaving in their wake a fertile, natural landscape. The white man has made a fortuitous trade off — land for better land. The fact that he has done so at the cost of human life does not even cross his mind, and life goes on as if he had just blown the remaining scratch-off dust from a lottery ticket.
Prior to its use, an unscratched lottery ticket represents tangible hope. It is purchased with the intent to get lucky and garner a few more dollars than it was bought for. However, the second the UV ink is compromised by a fingernail, the laminated ticket embodies something much more than hope: grace. In the case of the Caucasian colonizers of America, the figurative lottery ticket manifested itself in the trade of Western land for Indian territory. Its purpose in Sherman Alexie’s, “What you Pawn I will Redeem,” is far more complex. Jackson Jackson, the protagonist of Alexie’s piece, is no different than any other customer in the sense that he sought fortune when he exchanged what little money he had for a lottery ticket, but his circumstances could not have been more unique. As a homeless man perpetually burdened by misfortune and the history of Native American exploitation in America, Jackson rarely had spending money. When he did, it was typically diverted towards his alcoholism. His acquisition of a lottery ticket is, therefore, incredibly ironic given his dearth of financial stability. Regardless, the reader finds himself/herself hoping that Jackson is graced with a lucky ticket to prove that he’s more than just a drunk Indian. Jackson gets lucky and spends the money on 80 shots for a bar full of his Indian brethren. A blunt but necessary act that leads the reader into the world of grace beneath the callous surface of Alexie’s piece. The lottery ticket no longer embodies a spirit of hope, and no longer a spirit of grace, but rather a rabbit hole into the narrative’s underlying message about the necessary progression of grace in a literary piece.
The remainder of this analysis is written with the intention to illuminate the way Alexie Sherman conceals and reveals grace throughout “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” and how this cajoles the reader towards its conclusion. I also wish to demonstrate that this utilization of grace is not limited to one literary work, but rather can be applied to many pieces, and is often responsible for making good writing great writing. In the third episode of the popular science fiction series “Star Wars,” Anakin Skywalker, a Jedi knight, is burdened by the prophecy that his wife, Padme, will die in the labor of his twins. So, in an effort to avoid this, he seeks the aid of the Dark Side and becomes a Sith Lord. In doing so, he paradoxically ends up being the individual responsible for her death, as she loses her will to live. Most pundits criticize “The Revenge of the Sith” for being the most mundane and ineffective film in the series. However, the reason it intrigues so many fanatics is due to the apparent irony of the protagonist’s efforts to bestow grace. Despite Anakin’s true intention, it is evident in the end of the film that the drastic measures he took to save Padme’s life were futile, leaving the grace in the movie unrealized.
Like Anakin, President Andrew Jackson believed he was bestowing grace upon the Native American population when he instituted the Indian Removal Act. By relocating the native population, it was his hope to preserve their culture and curtail any conflict between the pioneers and the Indians. Ironically, in doing so he initiated a displacement which would kill thousands of natives and cause a great rift in their culture for generations to come. In “What you Pawn I will Redeem,” this rift is evident in Jackson’s struggle to survive from day to day. Alexie depicts a character who has been so beleaguered by a life of misfortune that it becomes nearly impossible to see any lucid evidence of grace in his life. In fact, at the onset, the only time grace is ostensibly recognizable is when Jackson wins a cash prize from a lottery ticket, but even this small fortune, when contrasted with the magnitude of his problems, appears to be practically useless. Even take the protagonist’s name for example. Derived directly from Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, “Jackson Jackson” serves as a constant reminder of the lack of grace offered the Native American population through the devastating approval of the Indian Removal Act. The name “Jackson,” however, serves not only as an allusion, but also as an etymological hint as to how grace will progress in the story. “Jackson” is a Scottish derivative of the surname “John,” which, like most Anglo-Saxon words today, comes from the Greek “Ioannes” which, likewise, came from its Hebrew predecessor “Yochanan.” The literal meaning of “Yochanan is “God has been gracious, he has shown favor,” an ironic declaration for a character who has faced nothing but hardship. It is this juxtaposition between the grace that Jackson’s name and history demand and his current circumstances that leave the reader feeling unfulfilled. Alexie employs this tactic of revealing grace and just as quickly concealing it to propel the reader onward in the hopes of discovering the grace her protagonist deserves.
Jackson’s name is not the only etymological hint present in Alexie’s piece of course. In “What you Pawn I will Redeem,” Mary is the name of the Korean grocery clerk from whom Jackson purchases his lucky lottery ticket. In the Bible, Mary is the name of the woman who is recognized as being the Mother of the Messiah; however, she is often colloquially referred to as “the mother of Grace.” Therefore, Grace is once again hinted at in the form of this ticket, but it’s appearance remains transitory so as to cajole the reader onward in the piece. The sequential paragraphs demonstrate the irony often coupled to grace as Jackson blows the money he won by getting drunk in a bar and engaging in an unnecessarily brutal bar fight. The following morning, Jackson is awoken by a policeman dubbed Officer Williams, a fitting title as “William” comes from the Germanic “Willahelm” meaning “protectorate.” The officer helps Jackson up from the tracks, drives him to detox, and graciously leaves him with $30. At this point, grace in the form of mercy is lucidly discernible, but the reader has been so rigidly conditioned that there is an expectation of an almost immediate act which will negate the evident grace Jackson has been awarded. Instead, Alexie changes the script.
In December of 2015, Star Wars Episode VII, the episode following “The Revenge of the Sith,” made nearly 1.5 billion dollars more in worldwide box office sales than its predecessor. It wasn’t the phenomenal use of computer-generated imagery, nor the immaculate acting which propelled it into box office history, instead it was the lack of grace realized in Episode III. Viewers unsatisfied by the ending of the III Episode eagerly awaited the sequentially released episode in the hopes that their thirst for grace would be quenched. The presence of grace in Sherman Alexie’s, “What you Pawn I will Redeem,” functions in a similar manner. Grace is suggested and then quickly masked throughout the piece as a method of captivating the reader’s attention and encouraging the continuance of the story. Since it is never explicitly offered, the reader must trudge on anxiously awaiting the satisfaction of grace fulfilled.
The word “grace” has its roots in the Latin term “gratus” meaning “pleasing,” an etymological origin which makes sense given the human tendency to seek it out whether it be in a record breaking blockbuster or an appraised literary magazine. Although Alexie may have been reluctant to capitulate such grace throughout most of his piece, he relinquishes it in end in the form of the Indian regalia being given to Jackson by the pawnbroker. This final shift from grace that is revealed and concealed, to grace that is apparent is what ultimately satisfies the reader. Alexie thus completes a magisterially written piece, insinuating that in order to effectively urge a reader on in a piece, grace must be concealed until the conclusion, when it is often presented in dramatic fashion. Alexie’s suggestion thus purposefully leaves the reader with only one question: when will the Native Americans get their due grace?