Collection of new stories about Native Americans who, like all Americans, find themselves at personal and cultural crossroads, faced with heart-rending, tragic, sometimes wondrous moments of being that test their loyalties, their capacities, and their notions of who they are and who they love.
I almost stopped reading because of the first story, “Search Engine.” He wrote such a bad stereotype of a librarian, I though “Gee, is he going to paint everyone with this broad a brush?” But he even flipped that notion on its head. Now, I think that’s my favorite story in the bunch. “The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above” is a story that started with such a vulgar but frank tone, I wondered if I wanted to keep reading it, but his description of a mother/son relationship was so perfect in how odd it was. I’m sure we’d all love to write our mothers a letter like the one he thinks up.
I highly recommend this book.
The stories open up a piece of society that we (the non-indians) wrap either in a cloak of mysticism or in a burlap bag to hide away. Alexie says, No, wait. Look at who this person really is. Here's what you think you know, and here is what is real. Deal with it.
Laugh, cry, then laugh some more. Then pick up a mirror.
The most obvious example are the Indians (that’s what they call themselves) in the stories are searching for new ceremonies for the lives they lead outside of tribal systems, outside of their traditions, and trying to assimilate into the urban west of the 21st Century. Significantly, the first story is titled “The Search Engine.” From Corliss in “Search Engine” to Frank Snake Church in “Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church?” all the characters are searching for new ceremonies in their lives or to adapt some of their traditional ones to modern life. They work and live in an assimilated world. Something is missing in their lives. As they try to put their finger on it they discover it’s the lack of the traditional life they all have memories of or that is only a generation removed and their parents or grandparents told them about.
Most of the characters discover the same solution to their problem by creating new ceremonies and rituals for the lives they lead. Corliss in “The Search Engine” is very aware of creating new rituals as she tracks down a native American poet who doesn’t turn out to be all that she imagines him to be. “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” is almost a fairy tale of a homeless alcoholic Indian and his quest to redeem at least a part of his traditional heritage and what at first seems to be a growing tragedy transcends that altogether and becomes something quite unexpected.
Don’t let all this talk of ritual and searching for new ceremonies deter you. The stories have humor to them. Not only do the characters have a cynical outlook on themselves or a sarcastic remark to comment on their situation, but Alexie invests the stories with humor and has fun with the characters. You can tell upon reading that Alexie likes his characters. Even when the characters don’t act so nice it’s evident that Alexie respects the characters and has a certain amount of sympathy for the people in the portraits he’s rendering.
While the stories are all of Indians, there are a few Anglos that enter their worlds. What turns the stories to the universal is that the search for new ceremonies for the new world we’ve created isn’t exclusively an Indian pursuit. Today more and more people turn to Native American culture and religion (the last ultimate act of assimilation?) to find their answers in life and we’re passing each other in the opposite direction looking for the same thing.
Nine stories by Mr. Alexie, each featuring a Native American character or characters (I'm thinking the author himself is the tenth Indian). Let me say upfront that I very much like this author, although somehow I was expecting more from this book. Also, I keep thinking he's going to try another novel (his rookie novel, Reservation Blues was excellent) so I was a little surprised when I heard this, his latest, was more short stories. Mind you, he's good at short stories, but I just know he's got another great novel in there somewhere (and it wasn't Indian Killer, either). Let it out, Sherman, let it out!
Grade: B+, bordering on A-. Two of the stories on their own get a solid A.
Recommended: I'd give this a positive general recommendation to just about anyone, esp. anyone who is interested in present-day Native American experiences, as opposed to Daniel Day Lewis type sentimental stuff.
I found Alexie to be as great a writer as I have been hearing that he is. With his sharp touch, he explores the contradictions within his characters, Indian and non-Indian alike. In critical jargon, he “destabilizes” their identity, asking what does it mean to be an Native American, white, or anything else. He writes about people on the edges of their cultures. And in depicting the contradictions and complexes of his characters, Alexie lays bare those of his readers.
But however Alexie complicates our sense of who we are, his characters never lose their unique Indian identity and their sense that white America has somehow cheated them. Several find ways to translate their bitterness into humor. They never join the amorphous, patriotic, white blob, with which the Tucson school authorities seek obliterate their students’ sense of ethnic identity and oppression, as reported by Gary Young of The Nation magazine.
In any set of short stories, we have favorites, the stories that touch us most deeply. One of my favorites in this collection was about an Indian boy’s mother and the weird group of white women who idealized her and tried to be like her. A cautionary tale for all of us white women. Another was the wonderfully drawn Indian in his pin-striped suit and braids off on a flight both afraid of terrorists and of being considered a terrorist.
My favorite story was about the young college woman who loved books and reading. She is grateful to white teachers, “their whiteness and their goodness blending and separating,” who had helped her know find what she needed to read and learn. She is a “resourceful thief, a narcissistic Robin Hood who sold a rich education from white people and kept it.” At her college library,
The huge number of books confirmed how much magic she’d been denied for most of her life, and now she hungrily wanted to read every book on every shelf.
Her love of poetry by whites is derided by her much-loved father and uncles, and she struggles with being an Indian who loves poetry by white Englishmen. Then she discovers a book of poetry by a man from her own tribe…and the story goes on from there.
I don’t expect those who ban books to be sophisticated thinkers, but I found this selection of theirs particularly ironic. This is anything but a virulent book urging hatred of whites, such as I could expect them to ban. Instead it challenges us to think about the lines we try to draw between categories like red, white, and black. Perhaps, challenging, but not removing, those lines is the most subversive thing anyone can do—and Alexie does it well.
I heartily recommend this book to everyone.
Alexie is a masterful storyteller. I first heard of him a number of years ago, in relation to his screenplay, Smoke Signals, and the movie that was made from it. Alexie is Native American and the central characters in this collection of short stories are all Native Americans from the same tribe as his own. Like Alexie, the characters have grown up on the reservation and then relocated to Seattle. Using these common elements as a starting point Alexie takes his characters through a wide swath of life adventures, some elements of which are based in Native American culture and other parts are more universal, or generic 21st century American culture.
Having recently moved onto a reservation for vocational reasons I had a different understanding of the way in which he portrayed influences of Native American culture in shaping his characters and their subsequent interaction with non-Natives off of the reservation than I would have had a few months ago. While I have been warmly welcomed here there are some ways in which I will always be an outsider, no matter how many years I stay. His characters, long time residents of the city, remain outsiders while living in their own homeland.
I picked Ten Little Indians off my shelf figuring it was finally time to read it and send on to someone else. I was delighted by the stories and characters within its pages and may find myself seeking out Alexie again.
My favorite was “Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church” about a high school basketball player in later life. But in truth, I quite liked them all. Most of them are set in and around Seattle and explore all kinds of generational views and conflicts in the Native American experience.
There is something for everyone in this slim volume. Sherman Alexie is a Northwest treasure that rarely gets the amount of exposure he deserves. I believe he has a loyal local following and I know at least one of his books has been made into a motion picture.
This is a solid but slim volume, perfect for short story readers or fans of Northwest story telling. 3 ½ stars.
The collection of short stories can speak to people from all walks of life with their own struggles, and I loved them all. Well, I didn't like the one that focused around basketball, but that is just because of my personal aversion.