“So, okay, in the end, maybe I am proud to be an Indian. But I don’t want to wear a T-shirt with my tribal enrollment number printed on the front and a photograph of Sitting Bull ironed on the back.”
Title: Ten Little Indians
Author: Sherman Alexie
Short Story Collection ♦ 243 pages ♦ Grove Press, 2003
The nine stories in this collection give voice to the daily realities of urban Native Americans and soundly thrash the romanticized notions that white culture holds about the Native American experience. Sherman Alexie delivers these stories with humor, grace, heartache, and profundity, taking the reader on a mad chase into the lives of very different characters who share one or more traits in common.
Though each story is different, Alexie revisits certain themes time and again. Ceremony. Racism. Belonging. Insanity. Rebirth. The setting is generally the same: Seattle. Preferring the term “Indian” to “Native American,” he creates characters displaced in one way or another from their roots. Each story ties back to some sort of identity, however, as characters struggle with who they wish to be, how they wish to be perceived, creating community and desperately longing for more.
**Disclaimer Time: I’ve never before reviewed a collection of short stories, so for this one I’m going to do a brief summary and review of each of the nine stories. Bear with me, please, as it may get long, and I’m sure my words can’t do these stories justice.**
The Search Engine: Corliss is a college student in love with poetry. After an awkward encounter with a poser in the cafeteria, she’s inspired to check out a book of W.H. Auden’s poetry, and a small book of poems by a Spokane Indian literally drops on her head. Corliss becomes obsessed with finding this man, as she never heard a single person other than herself on the reservation admit that poetry was something word pursuing. This is her vision quest, and becomes a healing ceremony for herself and those she meets along the way.
Lawyer’s League: Half black, half Spokane, Richard works for the governor as the official liaison to Washington state’s 29 Indian tribes. He has big plans to run for Senate and to show the country that Indians are capable of excellence. Hobnobbing with politicians and lawyers is his way in–and oh yeah, he’s passionate about basketball. He accepts an invitation to play with a lawyer’s league, and when he begins showing up the white players during a game, one white man in particular begins harassing him. Tired of the abuse, Richard acts on impulse and has to deal with some consequences.
Can I Get a Witness?: A fifty-year-old woman sits in a cafe, thinking back on her life and how things were so much simpler when she spent time in the words near the Spokane Reservation as a child. She’s unhappy, tired, living a life she hates. A suicide bomber walks into the cafe. The woman doesn’t die, and walks out onto the street and goes home with a passerby. She’s half-mad and gives him a sort of confession at his apartment. She isn’t angry at the suicide bomber; she’s glad he was there. This is her chance to walk away from her unhappiness and start a fresh new life.
Do Not Go Gentle: A young father is sick with grief. He and his wife’s newborn baby is in a coma, and has been for a week. In a desperate plea with the universe, the father goes into a sex shop and emerges with a 15″ vibrator called the Chocolate Thunder and uses it to perform a musical ceremony in the NICU, hoping it will unite all the grieving mothers and fathers in a common chant for healing.
Flight Patterns: William Loman is a traveling salesman who wants nothing more than to be home with his family. Nightmares and visions haunt him when he’s away from them, but he must set out again on another journey. The taxi driver who picks him up is black and wants to talk. William doesn’t like talking, but the taxi driver begins asking him questions that he can’t help but answer, and soon William finds himself talking with this stranger about the shared experience of being not-white in post-9/11 America.
The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above: It’s the 1970s, and a young man lives alone with his mother, Estelle. She drags him to women’s empowerment courses, sexual liberation meetings, and other various feminist groups in a quest to become whole. Along the way, she as a Spokane woman becomes an icon for liberal white women to rally around, much to the chagrin of her son who can’t understand why she would be willingly used for people wanting to exoticize his family’s culture.
Do You Know Where I Am?: A young Spokane man and his Apache fiance are deeply in love, passionately in love, breathtakingly in love, with each other and all things poetry. Their love for this shared interest in the world of fine literature holds them tightly together, until a lie threatens to tear them apart. 20 years later, the now-older man pays for this betrayal in an unexpected way.
What You Pawn, I Will Redeem: Jackson Jackson is homeless. Walking around the streets of Seattle with a couple friends one day, he notices a beaded display in a pawn shop window. Going in to inspect it, he discovers it’s his grandmother’s stolen pow-wow regalia. The pawn shop owner makes him a deal: if he can get $999 in 24 hours, he’ll sell it to Jackson.
Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church?: Frank used to be a superstar basketball player, known throughout all of Seattle for his nearly supernatural presence on the court. Now he’s a quiet, unmarried Forest Ranger living with his father Harrison. When Harrison dies of a heart attack, Frank cracks, crumbles. He quits his job, hires a personal trainer, and throws himself full-force into recreating his glory days as a tribute to the parents he’s lost.
What I love about all these stories is the way they’re told. Alexie writes predominantly from an omniscient perspective with only a couple stories told in first person. Normally, I feel like most writers don’t handle 3rd person omni very well, but in Alexie’s hands, it’s magical.
Having not read a collection of short stories in years, I’m so pleased that these went so well. If you read it (which I STRONGLY recommend), be prepared for quiet moments as well as feeling punched in the chest with emotion from seemingly nowhere. And be prepared to laugh. And to confront uncomfortable truths. And for basketball metaphors. And above all, to experience life through the eyes of remarkable people, remarkable because they are alive and living life in the ways they know how.
About the Author
Sherman Alexie grew up in Washington State on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He has written more than 25 books, including the controversial semi-autobiographical novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. An outspoken advocate for small and independent publishers, he now lives in Seattle. For more information or to contact him, visit his website at FallsApart.com.