Spokane in Seattle: Ten Little Indians

Alexie_2003_ten_little_indians_pb_2004Humour in literature can be very hard to pull off. Maybe I am too serious a reader, but I rarely find myself laughing out loud when I’m reading. However, Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians managed to get me laughing numerous times. I was impressed by his ability to make humour out of otherwise tragic or depressing circumstances. His irreverent humour kept me entertained and I quickly finished this book even though I was supposed to be reading a different novel. I don’t want to promote the “all Indians are funny” stereotype, but there’s something about Native story-tellers and humour that I really enjoy. In fact, the last book I might have laughed at/with was one by Thomas King, a Canadian indigenous story-teller.

Alexie’s collection of short stories is quite good. Most of his protagonists are Spokane Indians in the Seattle region yet they hold a broad range of social positions from international salesmen to forest ranger/high school basketball stars to homeless Indians on the streets. The narrative arcs are mostly comic in the sense that Alexie never sinks into pathos even if he is quite critical of the way indigenous homeless people are treated. “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” takes up one homeless Indian’s attempt to purchase his grandmother’s stolen regalia from a pawn shop. The narrator is an alcoholic though and he struggles to save any of the money people give to him throughout the day. Yet Alexie imbues a kind of heroic quest into his attempt and rather than seeing him just as a failed and broken man, readers also see the narrator as a person with the capability to do great things.

The one story that I did not like was “Can I Get a Witness?” It seemed like too different stories mashed together. In it, a female character is eating in a restaurant when it is blown up by a suicide bomber. She leaves the rubble with a bystander, but is adamant that she was not in the explosion. They arrive at his apartment and the story takes on a Dostoevsky-esque tone with questions of morals, forgiveness, and human cruelty being thrown around. Something in me resisted this change in tone. The story is very closely linked to the events of Sept. 11, and, in some ways, is a meditation on those events and their cultural ramifications. However, there was something that did not work in the story for me. Perhaps, and this is my fault not Alexie’s, it took too serious a tone for what came before and what followed.

The rest of the stories are quite delightful. Alexie is a very talented writer who can craft magic in condensed space. Having read Carver a couple of weeks ago, I liked the prolixity of Alexie. This is not to say that he is too verbose, but I do like writers who aren’t so economical with their words that readers feel like they are staring at a blank wall trying to intuit meaning. Being careful with words is great, but being too sparse can turn reading into a frustrating experience.

I would highly recommend this book for all readers, especially those who like a humour and seriousness in equal doses.

Alexie, Sherman. Ten Little Indians. New York: Grove Press, 2003. Print.


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