War Dances- Sherman Alexie

War Dances by Sherman Alexie

I chose to read War Dances to fulfill one of my Read Harder Challenge tasks– a book by or about someone from an indigenous culture.  I have read some of Alexie’s works in the past and listened to him narrate The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, so when I saw he narrated this collection of short stories and poems on audio, I knew I would enjoy it.

What I liked:  I love Sherman Alexie’s writing and narration.  As a whole, the short stories were funny and genuine and awkward and heartfelt.  There was always something in them that pushed the bounds of comfortable, but in a subtle sort of way, rather than being there as a shock tactic.  In one story, we have Paul Nonetheless, who is charming in spite of the fact that he is an awful father and husband– absent and adulterous.  I found myself rooting for him to hook up with the married Sarah Smile, even though he was pretty much the epitome of a sad middle-aged man with very little to redeem himself.  Another story features George Wilson, who has beaten to death a young black man who had broken into his home.  He can’t explain why he snapped.  He doesn’t really feel guilty, but he also doesn’t understand why he killed someone.  He never thought of himself as a defender of property and while he acted in what is legally defined as self-defense, he’s not really sure he was actually defending himself.  He was a sympathetic character, despite his grappling with being a killer.  I had previously read the story that involved a man in the hospital after his alcoholic, diabetic father had his feet amputated, but it was one whose tenderness resonated with me again.

What I felt meh about: My problems with this book mostly had to do with the audio production. The poetry didn’t add anything for me and was hard to separate out from the short stories because it felt pretty prose-like. Also, there was hardly any pause between stories/poems and some of the stories were told in numbered parts and it was hard to distinguish between separate works some of the time. Perhaps this was intentional, but it was confusing and as much as I like Alexie’s narration and think it adds something to the reading experience, I almost wish I’d had the print to refer to so I could see how the stories were formatted there.

All in all: I will always recommend Sherman Alexie’s work and will probably read more of it in the future.  He writes with such insight, truth, and humor that I will always appreciate his stories.  I do, however, think I most enjoy him in more traditional narrative-style, longer-form short stories and novels, rather than poetry.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian- Sherman Alexie

Junior is a 14 year old boy growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation.  When he realizes that his only chance to improve his life comes from leaving the reservation, he transfers to a white high school off the res.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is Junior’s story as he deals with finding his identity as he moves between two worlds.  He is neither Indian nor white.  It makes it hard for him to fit in on the res (his old best friend feels abandoned) and it takes a long while for him to make friends at his new school.

This book offers a great depiction of life in some of the poorest parts of the United States– Indian reservations.  The issues of poverty and widespread alcoholism wind their way through the book; Junior’s life is impacted in big ways by both.  Sometimes he doesn’t get dinner.  Getting to school 22 miles away is a challenge when gas prices are up.  Alcoholism destroys the lives of several of the people closest to Junior.  I really appreciated this peek into modern res life because it isn’t something that I’ve had personal experience with or have seen much in literature.

This is a very “boy” book, if there is such a thing.  There is talk about masturbation and erections, as well as other “boyish” topics like farting and basketball.  Junior is pretty unapologetic about it all, too.  I, for one, liked that these topics were included– they made Junior seem like an actual, honest teenage boy.  Just keep in mind that you are dealing with a teenage boy narrator here, something I’m not sure that would appeal to everyone.

I listened to this on audiobook narrated by the author, who turns out to be an excellent narrator.  I’m pretty big on accents in audiobooks and Alexie has that reservation Indian accent that I’m not sure I really realized existed (outside of stereotype) until listening to this whole book.  Accents really lend an authenticity to the story for me and give me something I can’t easily imitate when reading, so this was a huge highlight for me.  However, it seems that the print version of the book includes cartoons which you don’t get with an audiobook (obviously).  I feel like this audiobook might be good for a reread or to be read in conjunction with the book.  I hear the cartoons are great and I hate that I missed out on them.  One day I’ll track this down and read it properly!

Overall, I really enjoyed this book.  It had both funny and sad moments in it and it offered an interesting depiction of contemporary Native American life and identity.  If you are looking for a male narrator who isn’t white (!), I’d highly recommend you check this out.