Sherman Alexie was born in 1966 and grew up on
the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state. He has
written twenty-two books including poetry, short fiction and
novels. His latest short story collection, War Dances, was
published in October 2009. He lives in Seattle, Washington
with his wife and two sons.
Love the review? Disagree violently? Come rant and rave in our
"If word got around that Corliss was
ordinary, even boring, she feared she’d lose her power and
magic. She knew there would come a day when white folks
finally understood that Indians are every bit as relentlessly boring,
selfish, and smelly as they are, and that would be a wonderful day for
human rights but a terrible day for Corliss."
Reviewed by Loree Westron
Sherman Alexie had already published four collections of poetry by the
time he gained national attention in 1993 by winning the prestigious
PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction for the short story
collection The Lone-Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. In 1996, he was named as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in recognition for his first novel Reservation Blues. Two years later, he won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival for the screenplay of Smoke Signals.
all, Alexie has published eighteen books and screenplays in sixteen
years, making him one of the most prolific writers working in the
United States today. But his multi-genre talents don’t stop with the
written word. He has also collaborated on an album with musician Jim
Boyd, turned his hand at film directing, and does a spot of stand-up
comedy on the side. He is undoubtedly highly driven, and one might be
forgiven for thinking that he has set himself the goal of artistic
While much of Alexie’s earlier work explores life on the Spokane Reservation, where he himself grew up, the stories in Ten Little Indians,
his third collection, capture the lives of Indians living in Seattle.
Alexie himself is Spokane Indian, a term he prefers to the politically
correct "Native American" and "Indianness" is central to everything he
writes. In this collection, however, the characters are less ethnically
strident: being Indian is only part of who they are.
In The Search Engine,
nineteen-year-old Corliss sees herself as being different from the
other members of her tribe. She is solitary and bookish in a communal
society of blue-collar sensibilities. After straying across a book of
poems by Harlan Atwater, a previously unheard-of Spokane Indian, she
sets off on a quest to find the author, believing him to be a kindred
spirit. What she finds, of course, is not what she expected, for
Atwater is Indian in DNA only, and both are left to struggle with the
question "What is Indian?"
In numerous interviews, Alexie has
discussed the way the focus of his writing changed after September 11,
2001. Where much of his earlier work was tainted with an antagonistic
"them and us" tribalism which examined the minutiae of Native American
adversity, the stories produced after that date incorporate a broader,
more universal view of the human condition. While his protagonists are
still almost exclusively Indian, their personal traumas are not defined
by, nor the result of their ethnicity. They are human beings first, and
Indian by accident of birth. It is this breaking down of old tribal
affiliations – affiliations that encourage an unwavering sense of
righteousness – that differentiates this collection from Alexie’s
Two stories, Can I Get a Witness and Flight Patterns,
deal explicitly with the after-effects of 9/11. In the former, a
middle-class Spokane Indian woman is having lunch in a Seattle
restaurant when a suicide bomber walks in off the street and detonates
the bomb strapped to his chest. She emerges from the rubble seemingly
unscathed and confesses to her would-be rescuer that she had been
longing to be released from her life by just such a "suicide by
At its centre, the story criticises America’s
indulgence in the "grief porn" which flowed out of the media after the
9/11 tragedy, and questions the way that those who died were treated as
saints and heroes. When the woman suggests that some "did deserve to
die" and that there may be a wife or a daughter who "thanks God or
Allah or the devil for Osama’s rage" the man repeatedly says "I don’t
want to hear it." It was tribalism which caused men to crash planes
into the Twin Towers and it was tribalism which prevented Americans
from asking why people would do such a thing. When George W. Bush said
to the world, "You’re either with us or against us” he not only stifled
debate, but also set the rules for membership of his tribe. By refusing
to listen to the woman’s blasphemous suggestions, the man in the story
is protecting his place within that tribe.
Redemption, in both senses of the word, is the theme of the story What You Pawn I Will Redeem.
In it, Jackson Jackson, a homeless Spokane Indian man, finds his
grandmother’s stolen dance regalia in a pawnshop window. Believing that
the cancer from which she died began with the theft, Jackson sets out
on a quest to buy back the regalia and wonders if by doing so he might
also bring his grandmother back to life.
Alexie has made a
career out of breaking apart white stereotypes of Indian characters,
building stories which are honest, surprising, challenging and complex.
Each collection has delivered a different world, full of humour and
poignancy, rage and atonement but Ten Little Indians, despite its title, is the first book he’s published where being Indian has been incidental.
Read a story
from this collection in the New Yorker