I first heard of Sherman Alexie in connection with the brilliant film Smoke Signals which is based on various characters and stories fund in this collection of 22 short stories, first published in 1993. Most of the stories are told from the viewpoint of Victor and Thomas-Builds-The-Fire, also the main characters in the film. They, like Sherman Alexie himself live on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington, so I suppose it’s fair to say that many of the people, their life circumstances and stories described here are based on his own experiences growing up there. The often troublesome circumstances in which Native Americans live on (and off for that matter) reservations in the second half of the 20th century and the start of the 21st are permeating pretty much every sentence in these stories.
One of the quotes on the book jacket is focusing exclusively on the humoristic side in some of the stories, but don’t let that fool you. While there certainly is humor present that claim is as least overdone if not downright misleading. The wrong that has been (and is) done, and all the problems arising from it, to Native American tribes and their people is never far away in all of those stories.
Take The Only Traffic Signal On The Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore, in which Victor and his friend Adrian are watching proceedings on the reservation from their front porch. The story centers (if from afar, he’s only spoken about) on Julius Windmaker, a talented 15-year-old basketball player. The guys wonder if he’ll make that hoped-for by all on the reservation career or, if he, like many equally promising players before him, will fall prey to drinking. The latter is sadly the case, as, in the last paragraph of the story, he’s crashed out sleeping on Victor’s living room floor after a basketball match which he played drunk, looking ‘puffy around the edges’. A glimmer of hope however is on hand however as an apparently equally talented 3rd grader called Lucy is seen by Victor and Adrian walking with her friends on their way to a game. One can’t help but wonder what happened to her.
One of the very best stories in here is called Because My Father Always Said He Was The Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. It’s a touching story about the stormy marriage of Victor’s parents, ending in divorce, with his dad leaving the family and the reservation to live in a number of large cities in the Western US. It is told full of childish wonder, Victor’s admiration for his dad and his infamous past and hurt.
This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix Arizona is equally heartbreaking and forms the nucleus of Smoke Signals. In it, Victor and his former friend Thomas-Builds-The-Fire, so wonderfully played by Evan Adams in the film, fly out to Phoenix to retrieve the ashes of Victor’s dad. It’s told in bittersweet words, with two friends/cousins having lived through so much together but now being somewhat estranged, making this trip together as Victor needs Thomas’ money and Thomas blacklisting him to take him with him. Obviously it’s very sad too, not only because of Victor having to drive from Phoenix to Spokane with all that’s left of his father. But it is made even more so, because of Thomas’ sad life and the abuse he’s had to endure, not least at the hands of Victor who once beat him up drunk, when they were both 15 in front of their friends. The dignity with which Thomas is mastering his life as an orphan and storyteller nobody wants to listen to anymore is admirable and touching. He’s managing to stay compassionate and friendly even to Victor, knowing full well that Victor can’t be nicer to him even if he wants to, as ‘I know your friends would give you too much shit about it”. Moreover he’s always good-natured and seemingly devoid of any hard feelings with a big dose of humor to boot.
Jesus Christ’s Half Brother Is Alive And Well On The Spokane Indian Reservation is marvelous too, charting 8 years in the life of the narrator (Victor?) taking care of a little child he not quite rescued from a burning house in which young James’ parents both die (the story gets used in Smoke Signals too). He fails to catch the boy who falls to the ground but miraculously survives and people quickly decided that he has to raise the little boy by himself. James turns out to be a slow-developer, but when he finally does start to talk is turning out wisdom after wisdom.
Imagining The Reservation is a free-form story, I couldn’t honestly tell you what it’s about, but the imagery used throughout the story put me into an almost trance-like state of mind for the few minutes it took me to read the rather short story. Impressive.
A Good Story is rather light-hearted compared with the serious subject matter that is at the very core of most other stories in here. The story told by the narrator to his mother ends with the sentence: “Uncle Moses sat down in the story chair and told this very story’ which shows you a great deal about how inventive Alexie’s writing style is, if you think about it.
What I liked especially about these stories is their language. They are interspersed with sentences that don’t really seem to make sense. I guess that’s the influence of Native American storytelling, to me as a ‘white men’ it’s very appealing and greatly contributes to making this book a wonderful experience to read.
It’s an important book, touching on so many contemporary issues affecting Native Americans at this day and age. That it’s wrote in such an entertaining way and such a singular language makes it only more commendable and outstanding.