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No Reservations

Stories probe cultural snags of being American Indian

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Sherman Alexie once said, "I think we're all struggling with our identity. . .regardless of the ethnicity, Southern, New Yorker, black, white, Asian, immigrant -- everyone's trying to find a sense of belonging."Often called the Jack Kerouac of reservation life, this time around Alexie leaves the reservation behind, but returns to the theme that has dominated much of his work. Mostly about Native Americans and their struggle with what they are told it means to be Indian, the characters of his new collection often find themselves lost, at a cultural crossroads without the comfort of ancestral ceremony, trying to redefine themselves in a modern urban setting -- in this case, Seattle, home of Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Bruce Lee (and Alexie himself). In their search for recognition, resolution, and redemption, these lost souls seek the dream of their actual selves and attempt to reinvent their lives, but are usually distraught, and often crushed, by the weight of their experiences with racism, classism, and sexism.

The stories here are often shaped as physical journeys. Someone travels to a place for shelter or to rediscover lost experience or opportunity. The difficulties of the voyage, and the nature of the people encountered, contribute to the central character's awareness or problem. Space in these stories is crossed to recover time, and in the process, a sense of tribalism.

Consider the narrator of "What You Pawn I Will Redeem": "One day you have a home and the next you don't, but I'm not going to tell you any particular reasons for being homeless, because it's my secret story, and Indians work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks."

In this story, a homeless Indian man must raise $1000 in 24 hours to buy back his grandmother's powwow regalia that was stolen from her over 50 years earlier. In the process he rediscovers a part of himself he thought lost, and finds himself alone at the Wharf with three Aleut men singing their strange and beautiful ceremonial songs about his grandmother and their own.

Alexie writes superbly, without bathos, about grief and disappointment. In "Don't Go So Gently," the narrator explains that he and his wife didn't know what grief was until their small child got his face "stuck between his mattress and crib, and suffocated himself blue," then fell into a coma. He explains when you are hurting it feels good to hurt somebody else. But you have to be careful. "If you get addicted to the pain-causing, then you start hurting people who don't need hurting."

Alexie is equally adept at lending his characters the gift of wit and laughter in the face of tragedy. The same bereaved father of "Don't Go So Gently" drives by a store called Toys In Babeland. He stops to get his ill son a rattle or a teddy bear, unsure of what kind of toy to buy for a child in a coma, but what he finds is a sex toy store. Upon returning to the hospital with "Chocolate Thunder," the doctors and nurses and other parents are half-stunned by what they see. The father waves "Chocolate Thunder" over his dying son, performing a healing ceremony, trying to cast spells with it.

He remarks, "And it was a strange and difficult thing. It was sex that made our dying babies, and now here was a huge old piece of buzzing sex I was trying to cast spells with."

These stories are often dark, with much at risk for the reader and, one imagines, the writer. Ten Little Indians takes us beneath the surface of racism, classism and sexism and immerses us in quandaries we all recognize. Consider Corliss, a young college student in "The Search Engine": "She knew racism, tribalism, and nationalism were encoded in human DNA, and we'd all save our own child from a burning building even if it meant a thousand strangers would die, and we'd all kill in defense of our wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, parents, and children. But she also wanted to believe in human goodness and mortal grace."

These stories often remind us that our allotted choices are betrayal or self-betrayal, and they question the relationship between love and loyalty, and how much we can expect of each other. Alexie brings these kinds of intractable questions to his stories and gives us a humane collection with, at its center, a searching emotional generosity.

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