Saturday, 8 October 2016

Review of Sherman Alexie's Ten Little Indians

Sherman Alexie had already published four collections of poetry by the time he gained national attention in 1993 by winning the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction for the short story collection The Lone-Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.  In 1996, he was named as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in recognition for his first novel Reservation Blues. Two years later, he won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival for the screenplay of Smoke Signals

In all, Alexie has published eighteen books and screenplays in sixteen years, making him one of the most prolific writers working in the United States today. But his multi-genre talents don’t stop there.  He’s also collaborated on an album with musician Jim Boyd and turned his hand at film directing, too.  And in his free time?  He does a spot of stand-up comedy as well. 
While much of Alexie’s earlier work explores small-town life on the Spokane Reservation where he grew up, the stories in Ten Little Indians (2004) focus on the lives of Indians who’ve gravitated to SeattleAlexie himself is Spokane Indian, a term he prefers to the politically correct ‘Native American’ and ‘Indianness’ is central to everything he writes.  In this collection, however, the characters are less ethnically strident: being Indian is only part of who they are.

In The Search Engine, nineteen-year-old Corliss regards herself as being somehow different from other members of her tribe: she is solitary and bookish in a communal society of blue-collar sensibilities.  When she comes across a book of poems by the previously unheard-of Spokane Indian Harlan Atwater, Corliss believes she has found a kindred spirit at last, and sets off on a quest to track him down.  What she finds, of course, is not what she expected, for Atwater is Indian in DNA only. In the end, as in so many of Alexie’s stories, both characters are left to struggle with the question ‘What is Indian?’

In numerous interviews, Alexie has discussed the way the focus of his writing changed after September 11, 2001.  Where much of his earlier work was tainted with an antagonistic ‘them and us’ tribalism which examined the minutiae of Native American adversity, the stories produced after that date incorporate a broader, more universal view of the human condition.  And although his protagonists are still almost exclusively Indian, their personal traumas are not defined by, nor the result of their ethnicity.  They are human beings first, and Indian by accident of birth.  It is this breaking down of old tribal affiliations – affiliations that encourage an unwavering sense of righteousness – that differentiates this collection from Alexie’s previous books.

Two stories, Can I Get a Witness and Flight Patterns, deal explicitly with the after-effects of 9/11.  In the former, a middle-class Spokane Indian woman is having lunch in a Seattle restaurant when a suicide bomber walks in off the street and detonates the bomb strapped to his chest.  She emerges from the rubble seemingly unscathed and confesses to her would-be rescuer that she had been longing to be released from her life by just such a ‘suicide by inertia’. 

At its centre, the story criticises America’s indulgence in the ‘grief porn’ which flowed out of the media after the 9/11 tragedy, and questions the way that those who died were treated as saints and heroes.  When the woman suggests that some of the victims ‘did deserve to die’ and that there may be a wife or a daughter who ‘thanks God or Allah or the devil for Osama’s rage’ her rescuer refuses to listen and tells her repeatedly ‘I don’t want to hear it.’  It was tribalism which caused men to crash planes into the twin towers and it was tribalism which prevented Americans from asking why anyone could possibly want to do such a thing.  When George W. Bush said to the world ‘You’re either with us or against us” he not only stifled debate, but he also laid down the rules for membership of his tribe.  By refusing to listen to the woman’s blasphemous suggestions, the man who came to her rescue is protecting his place within that tribe.

Redemption, in both senses of the word, is the theme of another story in the collection.  In What You Pawn I Will Redeem, we meet Jackson Jackson, a homeless Spokane Indian man who finds his grandmother’s stolen dance regalia on display in a pawnshop window.  Believing that the theft of the precious regalia sparked the cancer from which his grandmother died, Jackson sets out to reclaim it and wonders if by doing so he might also bring his grandmother back to life. 

Alexie has spent his career smashing apart Indian stereotypes and creating, instead, characters which are challenging, honest and complex.  Each of his collections has opened up a world that few in his white readership have seen, worlds full of humour and poignancy, rage and atonement.  Despite its title, however, Ten Little Indians is the first book he’s published where being Indian has been incidental.

This review was first published on The Short Review in 2011.  Alexie’s most recent collection of short stories, Blasphemy, was published in 2013.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Putting the Pieces Together

A Review of Diane Simmons' The Courtship of Eva Eldridge: 
A Story of Bigamy in the Marriage-Mad Fifties

When she is made executor to the estate of family friend Eva Eldridge, the author comes into possession of a large collection of letters which Eva has carefully bundled up and stored away.  Kept with such conscientious orderliness, the letters and check stubs and notes scribbled on the backs of envelopes form a personal archive, and one gets the feeling that Eva, who never spoke to Simmons about the deep mysteries of her life, had saved these letters, purposely, so that one day someone might make sense of her life. 

Eva’s story begins in 1958, when she is working in a cigar stand in the swanky Hotel Boise.  She is slim and attractive, and glamorous in the way that women of that era seemed to be: her long hair is swept into a roll at the back of her head, her dress is nipped in at the waist to accentuate her figure, and ‘open-toe, open-back high heels’ add to her statuesque beauty.  She is also ‘deeply, deeply in love’ with Vick, ‘the hotel’s handsome new chef’ to whom she has been married for almost a year.  At thirty-five, Eva knows she is lucky to have found Vick when she did.  She’s not getting any younger, after all, and ‘as anyone who goes to the movies is constantly reminded, being single in the 1950s is a terrifying experience.’  When Eva arrives home one night to find Vick gone, along with their brand new car, she – and Simmons – set about trying to track him down.

In many respects, The Courtship of Eva Eldridge reads like a novel.  Part 1 shifts back and forth in time, between Eva’s years of independence and adventure in a wartime shipyard on the Oregon coast and her life in Boise, with and without Vick, a decade-and-a-half later.  Each chapter reveals a piece of her story, highlighting her complicated history with men, along with her family’s and society’s assumptions and expectations. 

In Part 2, Simmons’ detective skills really come into play as the extent of Vick’s deception – and his serial bigamy – becomes apparent.  Having read between the lines of Eva’s letters and winkled out clues to her relationship with Vick, Simmons travels the country, tracking down witnesses and enlisting expert help to explore possible explanations for Vick’s bizarre behaviour.  Was he in fact suffering from PTSD as Eva suspected; was he a psychopath, without empathy for his victims or remorse for his crimes; or was he simply a con artist, taking advantage of vulnerable women who were afraid of growing old alone? 

Coming from the same arid landscape as Eva, between the Cascade mountains and the Snake River basin, Simmons imbues Eva’s story with an authentic sense of place. The book also gives the occasional aside to reveal snippets from Simmons’ own eventful life where it unexpectedly crosses with Eva’s: during Simmons’ ‘hippie period’, she briefly worked as a waitress in the cafĂ© where Vick curiously cashed all those five and ten-dollar checks whose stubs she would later find. 

The Courtship of Eva Eldridge is genuinely engaging on a number of levels thanks to Simmons’ scrupulous research.  As a biography, it documents key moments in the lives of Eva and Vick and builds a well-developed picture of two quite extraordinary individuals.  As a social history, it examines an era which we think we know and reminds us of what the women of Eva’s generation did and did not achieve.  It is as psychological investigation, however, that the book really stands out.  Simmons digs and digs until she exhausts every clue and at last reaches well-considered explanations for Vick’s – and Eva’s – astonishing behaviour.  

The Courtship of Eva Eldridge explores the deep complexities of identity and the human psyche, and ultimately it makes us question how well we can ever really know another human being.

About the Author:  Diane Simmons grew up on a farm in Eastern Oregon but now lives in New York where she teaches English at City University of New York.  She is the author of two novels, Let the Bastards Freeze in the Dark (1980) and Dreams Like Thunder (1995).  Her short story collection, Little America (2013), won the Ohio State University Prize for Short Fiction.  She has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in English Literature.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Breaking the Addiction

Today, while I perused the pens and pretty notebooks at my local newsagent’s, I resisted buying a writing magazine. Silently, I vowed to stop reading about writing and just write.  At home, I have piles of Mslexia, Writing Magazine, Writers’ Forum, Write Right, Write On, and The Writer’s Block cluttering the flat surfaces of my living room and office (those last three titles, in case you’re wondering, are fictitious – hey! I’m a writer! – but if they existed in the real world I undoubtedly would have bought them, too). 

Most of the writing magazines I’ve purchased over the years are lightly thumbed, with rings drawn round competitions I might enter, and the details of agents and publishers seeking new clients highlighted in neon green.  At one time, I studied the articles intently, gleaning what I could about point of view and how to write a synopsis but over time I have seen the same topics discussed and the same advice repeated.  I’ve been teaching Creative Writing for over a decade, now, and have published several dozen articles and short stories, and though I know I still have much to learn, I’m no longer convinced these magazines have anything new to teach me.  And yet, I continue to buy them.

Several years ago, I tried to become a tidy writer, and found a place within my bookshelves for a stack - or three - of magazines which I told myself would be a useful resource, both for my own writing endeavours and when looking for ideas to use with my students.  And there, for the most part, they have stayed.  Recently, though, while preparing for a week-long visit by a friend from the States, I had a bit of a clear out.  In my frenzied attempts to give the appearance of order, I cleared my shelves of a dozen lever-arch files containing handouts and lesson plans produced during my PGCE (2006), photocopied readings and writing exercises from my MA (2005), essays on the teaching of Basic Skills (2002), and countless reflective comments from a counselling course I did at the turn of the millennium. During this frenetic purge of a large part of my academic career I also managed to transport a short stack of writing magazines to the recycling bin.  And it wasn’t easy: my inclination is to collect and compile not declutter.

Archives, after all, contain secrets and knowledge and wisdom, all of which I fear I lack.  I’ve yet to publish my first novel, and though I have completed a fairly detailed outline of my second, I find myself struggling with some of the basics: characterisation, motivation, organisation elude me.  You still need those magazines, a little voice whispers, for they contain the key to a successful writing career.  It honestly feels like I’m trying to break an addiction. If only I search their pages long enough and hard enough, the voice tells me, I’ll find that key.  But if I toss those magazines into the bin with my yoghurt pots and tin cans, what then?