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What do you mean "we", white man?
on October 12, 2004
I should preface this book with a personal explanation. The best way to approach Sherman Alexie is to look into your own personal history regarding American Indians. For me, I grew up with the vague notion that Indians didn't exist anymore. I think a lot of kids that don't live near large Native American populations suffer from this perception. I mean, where in popular culture do you ever come across a modern day Indian? There was that movie "Smoke Signals" (based on one of the stories in this book) and possibly the television show "Northern Exposure" but that is it, ladies and gentlemen. In my own life, realization hit when I started Junior High and read "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" for the very first time. If you've read the book then you know that it dwells on the character "Chief" and his past. I read about him and found out that I knew diddly over squat about Native Americans. They show "Dances With Wolves" in high school homeroom and through that you're supposed to infer contemporary Indian culture? That's like watching "Gone With the Wind" and wondering where all the happy slaves are today. It doesn't make sense. This is why I'm nominating, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven" as the book that should be required in every Junior High and High School in the country immediately. We've all read our "Catcher In the Rye" and "Scarlet Letter". Now let's read something real.
The book is a collection of short stories, all containing repeating characters and events. There is no single plot to the story and while the character of Victor is probably the closest thing the book has to a protagonist, he hardly hogs the spotlight for very long. In this book we witness a single Spokane Reservation. We watch personal triumphs and repeated failures and mistakes. Author Alexie draws on history, tradition, and contemporary realism to convey the current state of the American Indian. You'll learn more than you thought to.
My favorite chapter in this book, bar none, is "A Good Story". In it, a character's mother mentions that her son's stories are always kind of depressing. By this point the reader is more than halfway through the book and has probably thought the same thing (deny it though they might). In response, Junior tells a story that isn't depressing. Just thoughtful and interesting. It's as if Alexie himself has conceded briefly that, no, the stories in this book aren't of the cheery happy-go-lucky nature the reader might be looking for. That's probably because the stories are desperately real and fantastical all at once. To be honest, I feel a bit inadequate reviewing this book. It's obvious that Alexie is probably the greatest writer of his generation. Hence, these stories are infinitely readable and distressing.
This is a good book. This is the book to read when you ask yourself, "What author haven't I ever read before?". This is the book you will find yourself poring over on subways, buses, and taxi cabs. You'll leave it on park benches and run twenty blocks north to retrieve it again. I don't know how many other ways I can say that it's a good book. Well worth reading. Funny and taxing all at once. Sherman Alexie deserves greater praise than any I can give him. All I can say then is that this book is beautiful. Read this book.