Thursday, November 4, 2010

Book Review: Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie

Indian Killer
Sherman Alexie

To celebrate Native American Heritage Month, I want to highlight a book by National Book Award winning author Sherman Alexie, of the Coeur d'Alene and Spokane tribes.

For many people, the words Native American or Indian or American Indian still conjure images of tepees, headdresses, and buffalo, or in the more modern version--pow wows.

Alexie takes the stereotypes--pretty much all of them--good and bad, and shatters them. He challenges the view that all Native Americans like powwows. He covers Indian gaming. He addresses - head on - how many Native Americans feel when white Americans who have never lived on a reservation, say, "Oh, I'm part Native American too" --Native American "wannabees."

Alexie is a master of metaphor. The book is ostensibly about a schizophrenic American Indian man living in Seattle--but really, he's not mentally ill. The book can certainly be viewed as cultural criticism, but not at the expense of the plot. This is a crime novel, but not a mystery. It is clear from the beginning who the killer is, but I would say, somewhat less obvious who or what he is killing.

Here is 21st century Native American life that is as close to authentic as you will find in a book. (The term "Native American" annoys Alexie. To him, it is just another label imposed by outsiders, glossing over the huge variety among the over 500 tribes in the United States.)

Normally, I read non-fiction, but I found the social commentary in this novel strong enough to hold my interest. It did help that I had the chance to meet Alexie when he was a guest author at the Clark County Library in 2008, but I had never read this book until now. What pushed me over the edge to read it was finding the book listed in, of all places, a footnote in a law journal article.

The overall effect is genius for giving a truly nuanced view of modern Native American life. Some of Alexie's writing does seem a bit rough compared to the polish of his more recent books, but I still highly recommend this book for its originality.

Other recommendations:

The movie Smoke Signals--screenplay by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian--winner of the National Book Award

No comments: