Friday, March 22, 2024

Sherman Alexie brilliantly explores the lack of integration into U.S. society for Native Americans

Sherman Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and nearly all his characters are desperate alcoholics, ravaged by poverty and with little hope to escape it, but readers of any stripe can relate to them because so much of what happens in his short stories and novels is centered around the iconic pop-cultural landmark movies, TV shows, 7-Elevens, and popular advertising campaigns that connect us all. 

I fell in love with his writing back in college when I stumbled across a short story in a 1996 Granta collection called “Integration,” which was an excerpt from his second novel, Indian Killer.

Although he enjoyed reading books from the library from a young age and his father was an obsessive reader too, Alexie always thought he had to play basketball to get girls to notice him, but then he discovered poetry while taking his first literature class at Washington State University and when he started writing his own, he noticed that the girls were noticing. That marked the end of any of his hoop dreams.

Actually, even before he could read, he would look through his father’s books and he became fascinated with the concept of paragraphs and how “they had some specific reason for being within the same fence.” He loved Superman comics and realized each of those panels worked much like a paragraph. 

I revisited two short stories that I loved in my 20s:

“Integration:” This excerpt is actually the very beginning of Indian Killer, all about a man named John who is adopted as a baby into a white family but dreams of what his life might have been like growing up back in the reservation. He meets a girl named Marie when they are college age and she is a Native American but doesn’t know much about that culture. Meanwhile, ex-cop Jack is trying to write a book that will reveal what it’s like to be a Native American. This excerpt begins from John’s point of view as he is being born in the tribal hospital under the care of one of the white doctors who works there. He is immediately flown to Seattle where his new adopted parents await. We aren't informed why he is taken from his natural mother. The story shifts to his high-school years at the upscale St. Francis, where he integrates well with the white boys he would never talk to after high school and the white girls he made out with whose fathers would soon discourage them from dating an adopted Indian. John holds his anger in very well, but i's definitely lurking beneath. Re-reading this intro to Indian Killer definitely makes me want to re-read the full novel. 5 out of 5 stars.

“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven:” Film buffs might recall that this 1993 short story was turned into the acclaimed movie Smoke Signals in 1998. This is simply a beautiful and powerfully sad story about a young man who has left the reservation, gone to college, and begun life in Seattle. Two vignettes occur in the city: one of him visiting a 7-Eleven to buy a Creamsicle and one of him breaking up with his girlfriend who wants to “change the world.” He returns to Spokane and sits around doing nothing, but then he gets sober and plays basketball against a very good white kid who is the son of the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also talks to his old girlfriend again, and he has vivid and awful dreams about how Native Americans don’t fit in and aren’t welcome in any neighborhood in the entire country. 5 out of 5 stars.

Next on my list from Alexie is his young-adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s listed in 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, which notes its revered status as a favorite on banned-book lists by school boards. It’s “controversial in the way life itself is controversial: unsettled, uneasy … devastating one day and comic the next.” Alexie also won the 2009 Odyssey Award for his reading of it as the year’s best audiobook.

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