Time and Place: Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” (2003)

Fewer than 500 words.

Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. Read it for free here.

I am a firm believer in the adage, “Form follows function,” and thus if a device is present in a story, it must serve a good purpose.

Sherman Alexie’s short story, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” begins with a time indication—“Noon” (8)—and we soon find that the time structure is vindicated because the plot and climax depend on it. More than three pages go by before the next time indication—“1 p.m.” (12)—shows up. By that time (no pun intended), we’ve nearly forgotten about the time structure. What reminds us of it shortly before this transition, though, is the conflict that has arisen: the main character, a homeless Native American in Washington named Jackson Jackson (sic), must find $999 by noon the next day to purchase his grandmother’s stolen ceremonial regalia from a pawnbroker. Otherwise, the deal’s off (12). The clock is ticking, and the time structure becomes the device driving the story. This lets us ruminate upon Alexie’s second device: place.

Alexie identifies the places, or settings, in which Jackson finds himself within the prose, instead of tacked alongside the time indication. That’s because Jackson moves between a few places within most of the time slots. Time is the story’s driving factor (nothing tenser than a clock counting down!) but place becomes the story’s tapestry.

We see everything from a 7-11, to a pawnbroker’s shop, to an alley, to a newspaper publisher, to a Korean grocery store, to a bar, and back to the pawnbroker’s shop (and I’m sure I missed one or two). That’s a lot to cover in one story! But that’s the life—we assume—of a homeless man. If we tie that to Jackson’s Native American heritage (whose Spokane ancestors lived there thousands of years before [Alexie 8]), we can think of Jackson living out that stereotypical concept of the wandering Indian living off the land, such as the land is now.

Jackson’s story is a time-driven quest through his native land in search of redemption. There are helpers along the way, like the Big Boss at the publishing house and the good cop Officer Williams, but Jackson is his own worst enemy: every dollar that goes in goes right back out; and yet, he never gives up the search.

Finally, time and place collide as Jackson returns to the pawnbroker. We understand that the pawnbroker’s shop might itself be part of the mythos of this Indian’s quest, for it is not where Jackson remembers it, and no one seems to have heard of it (Alexie 27). He wanders and wanders, and then finds it right in the nick of time. But he doesn’t have the money. The pawnbroker accepts $5—a different $5 than Jackson started with (28)—because it wasn’t about the money at all. It was about the quest.

We are often willing to forgive the hero his sins, overlook his self-bloodied soul, and pardon his empty-handedness if, in the end, he arrives at the right time and the right place.

My review: This is my first introduction to Alexie’s work, although I have heard of him before. I appreciated the honesty and clarity with which this story was written. Cultural-driven literature is not my preference (although one could argue that all literature is culture-driven and it only seems not to be when it’s your own culture), but when a writer makes it accessible—that is, when a writer does not rely on guilt to “move” the reader—I truly appreciate it. I enjoyed this story.

Favorite quotes:

  • “I didn’t break hearts into pieces overnight. I broke them slowly and carefully.” (8)
  • “I love the smell of ocean water. Salt always smells like memory.” (13)
  • “‘Just like a man,’ she said. ‘You love money and power more than you love me.’ ¶ ‘It’s true,’ I said. ‘And I’m sorry it’s true.’” (17)

Work Cited

Alexie, Sherman. “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” The Seagull Reader: Stories. 2nd ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, United States, W.W. Norton, 2008, pp. 8-28.

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