“War Dances” by Sherman Alexie, Part 1

I decided to break up this book into a couple posts, as it is a collection of short stories and poems.  I picked up this book at the National Book Festival back in September.  Alexie’s novels are often challenged in schools because his writing addresses the problems faced by Native Americans in the modern US.  It doesn’t try to lightly tiptoe around issues such as alcoholism, homophobia, or rape, but rather confronts those issues head-on with a sense of irreverence and humor.  His writing is funny and touching at the same time.  So, without further ado…

The Limited

This poem serves as an introduction to the collection.  It uses the story of a bystander watching a man hit a dog to describe the limitations and power of the poet in society.

Breaking and Entering

The narrator’s home is burglarized, and he confronts the burglar with a bat and kills him.  He then struggles with the results of his action as he watches the media present the case as the violence of a white man against a black youth.  However, the narrator is actually a member of the Spokane tribe and has faced much discrimination of his own life.  This story confronts problems such as inner city crime, racism, and regret in a poignant manner in which one feels that there really is no right answer.

Go, Ghost, Go

This poem describes a Native American student who is taking a university course where the professor has idealized Native Americans to the extreme.

Bird-Watching at Night

This one made me smile.  It is a poem about a young man on a date with his girlfriend who decides to play chicken with an owl while driving.

After Building the Lego Star Wars Ultimate Death Star

This poem explores the idea of children playing war.

War Dances

This is a somewhat longer short story about a man who begins to go deaf in one ear.  His experiences with doctors remind him of a time that his alcoholic father was hospitalized years before.  Normally stories about illness tend to be depressing, but this one is told with a sense of humor, especially in the flashback about the narrator’s father.  I thought that this was extremely well-done, as normally the father would be a statistic–an alcoholic who drank himself to death.  This humorous tribute shows another side of the same story, and reveals the father’s humanity.

The Theology of Reptiles

Two boys find a dead snake in the wood.  This story was spot on on the description of kids playing.  It also made me smile.

Catechism

This was another personal favorite.  Told in a question-answer format, it explores religion in a Native American family, and the way that many people have stereotypical views of what Native Americans should believe.  It’s irreverent tone is used to make a point on the importance of family.

Ode to Small-Town Sweethearts

A teenager braves driving in a dangerous snowstorm to see a girl.  This story reminded me of growing up in Western Pennsylvania, where white-out blizzards were just a part of winter, but never to be taken lightly.

The Senator’s Son

This was one of the more painful stories in the collection to read, but also incredibly touching.  The narrator is the privileged son of a Republican senator.  He respects his father for his morality.  One day in college, the narrator is involved in an act of violence against a homosexual couple, coming to the realization that one of the men being attacked, Jeremy, was his childhood best friend.  Jeremy recognizes the narrator, but doesn’t report him because he doesn’t want to destroy his father’s political career.  However, Jeremy asks to meet with his former friend, and confronts him with a powerful lesson in forgiveness.  I found myself despising the narrator for what he did, while at the same time recognizing how very lost and confused he is when trying to face the world.  Meanwhile, Jeremy is portrayed almost as a Christ figure, remaining silent because of his own beliefs and ideals.  I think that the primary lesson in this story lies in the power of forgiveness and the need for understanding.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m loving this collection far more than I thought I would.  When I picked up the book, I did so because it was Sherman Alexie’s newest, and I had hoped to include it in a project for my multiculturalism class.  I haven’t read anything quite like it before.  Alexie manages to take very difficult issues and approach them without being depressing, and uses humor to create a greater sense of respect than I think would have been possible if he had written in a more traditional tone.  Stay tuned for Part II!

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Categories: Fiction, YA | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on ““War Dances” by Sherman Alexie, Part 1

  1. I love, love, love his fiction…especially when I’m trying to recommend something for young adult males. So wonderful and lately he’s been really breaking into poetry in literary magazines. He was just published by the Raleigh Review, and Tar River poetry – both of these with really awesome poems.

    • His writing is so good! He’s one of those authors that can touch on important themes while remaining both readable and articulate. I love his poetry as well… I don’t read nearly enough poetry, but I’m trying to read more of it this year!

  2. Sounds good. I’ve never read any Alexie. Maybe I should start here?

  3. When I was in college I took a class that was on Native American literature and history – one of those weird liberal arts college classes. It was surprisingly interesting to learn more than what we had been taught about the Native Americans growing up. That being said, I’m very interested in reading this as well as some of his other works – The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been on my “Do I want to read this?” list for a while now.

    • I’d recommend it. It’s an interesting perspective to learn about, and Alexie’s a pretty good writer.

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