English 1102, Section 38
16 March 2004
Unisex Father Wounds
Dale Whitman’s “Rechartering the Feminine Space” examines the effects of a father’s absence on an individual’s growth. His argument proposes that abandonment at an early age leads to internalized rejection and compromised worth, culminating in a cycle of “a lack of self assertion” (1). Whitman argues that only a “journey toward reclaiming self” (1) can affect a resolution and implies that recovery from a destructive cycle comes about through personal creation. While originally intended for a female character, John Eldridge’s “father wound” (1) is equally applicable to James Victor, the main character of Smoke Signals, an independent film by Sherman Alexie.
After Victor’s wound has been inflicted, he fails to acknowledge or deal with pain caused by his father. Internalizing all his emotions, he relives his pain daily, gaining strength in anger and lashing out in potential relationships. The film medium lends itself to the development of Victor’s “father wound” through the symbol of the fire and the placement of flashbacks in the storyline.
Immediately the audience is forced to watch the Fourth of July fire. Described as a “bring your own fireworks” party, it is supposed to be a cause for celebration individualized for every Indian wishing to participate. Symbolically, the home and family are burned alive and “every Indian in the world was there” to watch. Every Indian participated unknowingly as well, since the fire purposely began in the dark, while everyone was asleep. Time elapses and the wind blows at the flames, but nature cannot put out this man-made fire. Two generations, representing those who came before and those who came after the fire, cry to the night of equal loss as the generation of children and parents in between is consumed. The fire rages all night as long as dark persists, and the magnitude of the tragedy is only recognized by the morning light, much too late. The narrator ends the scene with a classification of all “children born of flame” into “pillars of flame” or “pillars of ash.”
Victor “burns everything [he] touches” after he is forged in that flame. As a child, his rage and contempt grow while his father still lives with him. He dons a white shirt rimmed in fire red at the neck as his anger builds. A burning wound on his face from his father’s fist requires a wardrobe change to a red tee shirt covered in a flannel shirt. The flannel shirt is lighter in color but has red undertones, as though Victor’s pain is bleeding through his clothes as well as his false front of stoicism.
Ironically enough, Victor’s father has the power to end fire, shown in his dismissal of Thomas-Builds-the-Fire and his sparkler fire toy. Arnold Joseph steps back from his fatherly duty of quenching fires and would prefer to “poof, poof” magically vanish them. Victor looks to his father repeatedly during the car ride talk, awed to speechlessness, glad to be bonding with his father and seeing that his father has compassion. The spilled beer concluding the ride bubbles forth liquid that might extinguish flames like the reassuring words of Indian bonds, but instead Arnold chooses his beverage over his son, a lesson not lost on Victor.
Arnold Joseph is the arsonist of his own home. In a rampage, his gigantic red form flies about the house, touching this with anger, stinging his wife’s cheek with a backhand, and burning his role as dominant male and protector into his son’s impressionable mind. With little fires started, an open door adds oxygen, and the sparks from his combustion engine figuratively ignite his home as he drives away. Minutes later Victor burns others around him as his father taught, beating Thomas blood red in an attempt not to be his father. Wind in his hair, his swift flight from the scene doesn’t quell the fires inside, but stoke them.
Later in life, Victor is still wearing his pain and ember red clothes. During basketball, he insults Thomas and tries to fight an Indian he had just called “cousin” within moments of each other. Victor’s ability to admit “If I say it’s a foul, it’s a foul” is expressive of his true feelings, but displaced on someone who has done him no real harm. By the same manner of thinking, Victor has only to disregard his father and there is no wound to be felt. Action upon this motto is seen as Victor repeatedly flares up when his father is mentioned. He is visibly riled, but pushes Thomas and his offer of dousing water away in the middle of a desert, as though his anger and denial can get him through emotional and physical trials. Victor also acts out his aversion protocol when offered his father’s ashes. He waits until Thomas reaches out to hold them and then wants to immediately run home.
When Suzy Song names Arnold Joseph the culprit of the Fourth of July fire, Victor is on the brim of inferno. He might have pulled tight a red blanket of anger, choosing its warmth on the bus of cold shoulders, but now he combats the cool night with his seething. His internalized feelings of abandonment burst to the surface and his true concern is not whether or not his father had killed two people, but that he had left his child and had not cared enough to return. His perception of the events is challenged and when allowed to let his motivating fires subside, he retorts, “Who are you anyway!” as though Suzy knows nothing. This is more likely posed to himself, as he glimpses a self devoid of meaning, uneducated in being a passive male, and lacking personal relationships. Continuing that frightened theme of the unknown self determination, Victor spits fire at Thomas, “everything burned up…everything, everything!”
The conclusion of the body—and psyche—jarring crash finds Victor running again, pushed onward by self-loathing and scenes of inner fire. This time, however, Victor is journeying for help and finds it. He asserts himself and creates the immediate resolution of the car crash. The emotional accident is solved by an apology that is new to Victor’s demeanor, as is his neutral colored shirt. Further assertion comes as the truck refuses to crank. Arnold Joseph’s magic is truly gone and Victor wills the engine to life on his own. Fires end in ashes that are still hot, but all that is left of Arnold Joseph and his legacy are the emphasized smoke of his trailer and his dust seen floating in the truck as Victor divides his remains. Victor shares him with Thomas, proof also that Victor has embraced and released his father’s fiery past.
The placement and viewpoint of the flashbacks within the film are significant, noting Victor’s inability to cope with his abandonment and how the past may sometimes be spun in a more pleasant light, retrospectively. The flashback of the fire is the first event of the film, as it is the extended metaphor explored by the piece. Narrated by Thomas, the events are more legendary in an attempt to convey the literal and figurative meanings in a way that simply showing would not achieve. All Indians are brought into the scenario and all children are classified by Thomas’s account, to signify the prevalence of the destruction of the Native American family. Narration also permits bias and interpretation. As the story unfolds, Victor believes he was left in the house, but the narration shows Victor safely in the arms of his mother while Thomas is being perilously hurled from the second story window of a burning house. This suggests that Victor may not be as justified as he believes in his hatred for that day’s transgression.
Merged flashbacks show the cyclic nature of actions by comparing two events separated in time. Victor’s berating words to Thomas on the basketball court are in the tradition of a pattern begun in the childhood flashback, rather than some rudeness for no occasion. The separation in time indicates the damage that Victor has suffered and how this has affected his relationships for the entire span between events. No narration is required when the intent is to show situational management by characters. In the scene, Thomas, with fire reflecting in his glasses, attempts to get Victor to come to terms with either the symbolic fire or his father, first prompting him with, “What do you know about fire?” Were Victor to discuss either, he might come to understand his father’s fallibility and not need his answer of proposed violence.
Victor again thwarts attempts on Thomas’s part to convey an understanding of fire in a merged flashback, saying, “Nah, you keep it.” He rejects the sparkler and potential knowledge. The ride home shows Victor’s lessons in aversion as his father wills his son and himself into invisibility, undermining any sense of identity for a child or the man he might become. Merging back into the storyline as Victor enters the same house, the placement suggests Victor lives daily with the reminder in a house, not a home, and the physical punch sustained long ago emotionally reverberates.
The blending of flashback into dream and wakeful deluge shows that Victor is having more trouble maintaining his denial. The journey is inherently going to face son and father’s past, but Victor is unwilling to accept that truth. This is not a merged flashback, but instead a memory breaking through the stoicism. The dreamed portion of telling his father he doesn’t have a favorite Indian is his way of regaining some control. Again in the breaking portion, Victor is looking into a mirror trying to submerge the memory, willing it into inexistence rather than talking about it. Even in the memory, he is standing in the only light in the night, daring his parents to see him and therefore themselves. This battle of suppression and denial will come to light as well.
Spontaneous recall of happy events is difficult for Victor. When asked to tell the story of his mother’s magic fry bread he has no words, no ability to create. Thomas narrates the flashback so that he might spin the outcome and control creation. A dilemma is solved through half-lies and half-truths hinging on perspective Victor lacks at this point.
The final flashback is also a break through Victor’s composure. When running, all the images of fire as he knew it, of his father and destruction, come to the surface. When those images have been consumed as fuel to keep running, Victor collapses, only to be helped up by his own image of his father, straight from one of Thomas’s stories. Assimilation is the precursor to his own controlled creation. Without rage and harnessing this new control, Victor suffers no more flashbacks.
Victor’s abuse at the hands of his father while present, and self-abuse in his absence is characteristic of Whitman’s cycles after a paternal abandonment. Repeated use of the fire as a symbol of the continuing destruction of Arnold Joseph aids in the cyclic construction. A journey of self-accreditation ensues beginning with general, explanatory flashbacks and continues until the memories cannot be stopped. Once dealt with, the source of discontent and lack of control ceases to cripple Victor’s relationship skills, and he is free to make his own life.