More Sherman Alexie
This weekend I had to complete 3 novels! I am taking an American Literature course which I actually looked for to taking—at first—but after reading Washington Square and A Modern Instance, I just don’t know any more. 19th century literature can be a snooze, but I have ten more books selections to read before I can actually confirm that statement. Maybe Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson will be my saving grace. I’ll have to write a scholarly paper about something soon and I guess the deciding factor will be which books keep me awake the longest or which ones allow me to skip the least amount of pages. Between Shakespeare and American Literature, I don’t know if I’ll get to read anything thrilling enough to blog about. We will see. Only I have the power to control my positive thinking, right?
So, right now I’m sure you’re wondering which book was most worthy of a blog post, right? I’m certain you can guess if you read the last entry.
In his first book for young adults, bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by acclaimed artist Ellen Forney, that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.
That’s right, Sherman Alexie‘s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was this weekend’s reading highlight. It’s young adult fiction, but I’m telling you I almost shed a tear by the time I reached the final page. I even found an excerpt to post here! So here’s the setup. In the following scene, the main character, Arnold “Junior” Spirit’s grandmother has passed on. The Native American community gathers on a football field to pay their respects, but a White intruder also decides to make his presence known. Here’s the excerpt (in an unaltered format):
About ten hours into the wake, a white guy stood. He was a stranger. He looked vaguely familiar. I knew I’d seen him before, but I couldn’t think of where. We all wondered exactly who he was. But nobody knew. That wasn’t surprising. My grandmother had met thousands of people.
He held that thing tight to his chest as he talked.
“Hello,” he said. “My name is Ted.”
And then I remembered who he was. He was a rich and famous billionaire white dude. He was famous for being filthy rich and really weird.
My grandmother knew Billionaire Ted!
We all were excited to hear this guy’s story. And so what did he have to say?
We all groaned.
We’d expected this white guy to be original. But he was yet another white guy who showed up on the rez because he loved Indian people SOOOOOO much.
Do you know how many white strangers show up on the Indian reservation every year and start telling Indians how much they love them?
“Listen,” Ted said. “I know you’ve heard that before. I know white people say that all the time. But I still need to say it. I love Indians. I love your songs, your dances, and your souls. And I love your art. I collect Indian art.”
Oh, God, he was a collector. Those guys made Indians feel like insects pinned to a display board. I look around the football field. Yep, all of my cousins were squirming like beetles and butterflies with pins stuck in their hearts.
“I’ve collected Indian art for decades,” Ted said. “I have old spears. Old arrowheads. I have old armor. I have blankets. And paintings. And sculptures. And baskets. And jewelry.”
Blah, blah, blah, blah.
“And I have old powwow dance outfits,” he said.
Now that made everybody sit up and pay attention.
“About ten years ago, this Indian guy knocked on the door of my cabin in Montana.”
Cabin, my butt. Ted lived in a forty-room log mansion just outside of Bozeman.
“Well, I didn’t know this stranger, ” Ted said. “But I always open my door to Indians.”
“And this particular Indian stranger was holding a very beautiful powwow dance outfit, a woman’s powwow dance outfit. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It was all beaded blue and red and yellow with a thunderbird design. It must have weighed fifty pounds. And I couldn’t imagine the strength of the woman who could dance beneath that magical burden.”
Every woman in the world could dance that way.
“Well, this Indian stranger said he was in a desperate situation. His wife was dying of cancer and he needed money to pay for her medicine. I knew he was lying. I knew he’d stolen the outfit. I could always smell a thief.”
Smell yourself, Ted.
“And I knew I should call the police on this thief. I knew I should take that outfit away and find the real owner. But it was so beautiful, so perfect, that I gave the Indian stranger a thousand dollars and sent him on his way. And I kept the outfit.”
Whoa, was Ted coming here to make a confession? And why had he chosen my grandmother’s funeral for his confession?
“For years, I felt terrible. I’d look at that outfit hanging on the wall of my Montana cabin.”
Mansion, Ted, it’s a mansion. Go ahead; you can say it: MANSION!
“And then I decided to do some research. I hired an anthropologist, an expert, and he quickly pointed out that the outfit was obviously of Interior Salish origin. And after doing a little research, he discovered the outfit was Spokane Indian, to be specific. And then, a few years ago, he visited your reservation undercover and learned that this stolen outfit once belonged to a woman named Grandmother Spirit.”
We all gasped. This was a huge shock. I wondered if we were all part of some crazy reality show called When Billionaires Pretend to be Human. I looked around for the cameras.
“Well, ever since I learned who really owned this outfit, I’ve been torn. I always wanted to give it back. But I wanted to keep it, too. I couldn’t sleep some nights because I was so torn up by it.”
Yep, even billionaires have DARK KNIGHTS OF THE SOUL.
“And well, I finally couldn’t take it anymore. I packed up the outfit and headed for your reservation, here, to hand-deliver the outfit back to Grandmother Spirit. And I get here only to discover that she’s passed on to the next world. It’s just devastating.”
We were all completely silent. This was the weirdest thing any of us had ever witnessed. And we’re Indians, so trust me, we’ve seen some really weird stuff.
“But I have the outfit here,” Ted said. He opened up his suitcase and pulled out the outfit and held it up. It was fifty pounds, so he struggled with it. Anybody would have struggled with it.
“So if any of Grandmother Spirit’s children are here, I’d love to return her outfit to them.”
My mother stood and walked up to Ted.
“I’m Grandmother Spirit’s only daughter,” she said.
My mother’s voice had gotten all formal. Indians are good at that. We’ll be talking and laughing and carrying on like normal, and then, BOOM, we get all serious and sacred and start talking like some English royalty.
“Dearest daughter,” Ted said. “I hereby return your stolen goods. I hope you forgive me for returning it too late.”
“Well, there’s nothing to forgive, Ted,” my mother said. “Grandmother Spirit wasn’t a powwow dancer.”
Ted’s mouth dropped open.
“Excuse me,” he said.
“My mother loved going to powwows. But she never danced. She never owned a dance outfit. This couldn’t be hers.” Ted didn’t say anything. He couldn’t say anything.
“In fact, looking at the beads and design, this doesn’t look Spokane at all. I don’t recognize the work. Does anybody here recognize the beadwork?”
“No,” everybody said.”
“It looks more Sioux to me,” my mother said. “Maybe Oglala. Maybe. I’m not an expert. Your anthropologist wasn’t much of an expert, either. He got this way wrong.”
We all just sat there in silence as Ted mulled that over.
Then he packed his outfit back into the suitcase, hurried over to his waiting car, and sped away.
For about two minutes, we all sat quiet. Who knew what to say? And then my mother started laughing.
And that set us all off.
Two thousand Indians laughed at the same time.
We kept laughing. (161-6)
I hope you enjoyed that excerpt as much I did. I would blog more about the book, post an interview with Alexie, or something more, but it’s late and the long list of school “to dos” doesn’t end with sleep. But you can check out the NY Times review if you’re truly interested in learning more about the book. I didn’t read it (my bad), so somebody comment if it says anything negative!
Happy reading, ya’ll!