Ten Little Indians
 by Sherman Alexie

Secker & Warburg (Random House)
2004, Paperback
Third collection

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.

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"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.

In 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 domination.

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 previous books.

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 inertia".

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

Loree Westron grew up in Idaho and has lived in the UK since 1988.  Her fiction and literary criticism have been published in journals including London Magazine.  She has recently embarked on a PhD for which she is writing a novel involving Nez Perce, son of the explorer William Clark.
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