Sherman Alexie,
Ten Little Indians
(Grove Press, 2003)

Sherman Alexie's nine stories, mostly about Spokane Indians living in Seattle, create a picture of an urbanized class of native people who struggle in different ways to maintain their connection to their families and community back home on the reservation.

Ten Little Indians is also a stereotype-busting book. The main characters are not on reserves but are middle-class people concerned about such things as weight and their sexuality. They are not poor. They are people with rooms full of books, who study or teach at the local community college. They play basketball. They deal with post-9-11 fears. Even the one homeless protagonist, who tries to buy back his grandmother's regalia from a pawnbroker, was formerly middle class.

The stories turn convention on its head in other ways too. One protagonist, clearly middle class, insists on calling taxi drivers and porters "sir" to be more egalitarian. In this story, he rides in a taxi with an Ethopian fighter pilot who came to the States to avoid having to wage war against his own village. The reader wonders if, by joining mainstream society, the protagonist isn't also being implicated in helping exterminate his people.

While these characters have integrated into urban society, the white and black people in the stories are bit players while the main characters are all Spokanes: this is a switch in itself. The Spokanes maintain their reservation wit and cling to the familiar ceremonies in times of trouble.

One character (in "Search Engine") is a student, Corliss, who discovers there is a Spokane poet, Harlan Atwater, that nobody back home has ever heard of. She tracks him down, but disappointingly, he is not, perhaps, what he pretended to be, or even what he was. One very poignant story is about a marriage, while the final story, "Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church?" is about how 40-year old Frank deals with the loss of his parents. In yet another story, a son deals with his relationship with an unusual mother.

Ten Little Indians reads easily. Yes, there is some unevenness in the prose and overall story quality. But, while the stories don't appear that profound at first, they do haunt. What seems simple really isn't. Plus, Alexie is good at endings.

He's also a writer who never, for a moment, forgets where he is from. To use Wendell Berry's phrase, Sherman Alexie's Spokanes are human because they have "a place on earth." They know who they are.

These are really good stories. Maybe not great, as in "for the ages" great, but certainly good. Enjoy them.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 17 April 2004

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