- Sherman Alexie: A Collection of Critical Essays
A collection of essays wholly devoted to one author’s work often comes posthumously, and a Native American author may not ever attract the academic attention such a collection signals. (Notable exceptions include Leslie Marmon Silko: [End Page 391] A Collection of Critical Essays  and Studies in the Literary Achievement of Louise Erdrich .) Enter Sherman Alexie: A Collection of Essays, coedited by Jeff Berglund and Jan Roush—published as Alexie is industriously producing new work. This text is the antidote for essay collections in the style of Edward Sheriff Curtis’s photography that attempt to contain, crystallize, or summarize a retired or dead author in one stagnant, glossy package.
The collection’s essays live up to the epithet “critical”: topics are thorough, urgent, contradictory, and diverse in both content and structure. Fourteen essays constitute the collection, which Berglund introduces by simultaneously scaffolding readers new to Alexie as well as illuminating those already familiar with his work. The introduction is interlaced with substantive quotes and contextualizes Alexie’s reception, audiences, themes, and tropes. Berglund concludes the collection by discussing Alexie, authorship, and critical authority.
Some essays within the collection focus on central symbols or motifs within several of Alexie’s works: Lisa Tatonetti charts Alexie’s metaphors as they progress from the personal to the political, and Philip Heldrich examines the dark humor of Alexie’s poetry and fiction. Margaret O’Shaughnessey’s piece cleverly catalogs Alexie’s invocation of the “Ten Little Indians” rhyme in his texts, though beginning her essay by calling the rhyme politically incorrect and offensive undermines the rest of the rich essay, which links the doom of the rhyme’s last exterminating line to the survival Alexie propounds.
Other essays by Nancy J. Peterson (who analyzes both Alexie’s synthesis of and tension between Anglo poetics and tribalism in The Summer of Black Widows) and Meredith James (who isolates the captivity narratives and urban alienation of Indian Killer) closely read just one of Alexie’s texts. Stephen F. Evans’s piece on gender and sexuality in The Toughest Indian in the World is a particularly important addition because of its focus on pedagogy, stereotype subversion, and homophobia. Jan Johnson’s essay on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is timely, as fallout over this young adult novel since this collection was published has included book bannings and a response from Alexie in a Wall Street Journal blogpost. Elizabeth Archuleta’s essay on law and language in “The Trail of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” is of particular note, though defining for readers the burgeoning field of law and literature would have been helpful.
Two essays concentrate on Smoke Signals: James H. Cox’s essay defines reservation cinema and lists ways in which the film contests what traditionally undergirds Hollywood films. Angelica Lawson’s essay looks at the film’s female characters, who flout rather than conform to conventions of women in the “buddy film”; instead, for Lawson women are catalysts for plot development and character growth. Susan Berry Brill de Ramírez’s essay on Alexie’s poetry is the most formalist of the essays and will challenge readers unfamiliar with scansion, [End Page 392] though the intervention is welcome because, as Ramírez indicates, Alexie’s fiction has received more scholarly attention than his poetry.
P. Jane Hafen’s essay analyzing Alexie’s musical references devotes one half to theory and the other to a personal response from Hafen’s female aboriginal subject position. For Hafen, both evaluating Alexie’s work through tribal and intellectual sovereignty and also recognizing that Alexie’s content and characters are real is more challenging than just applying theory. In many ways Hafen’s dichotomy is picked up by Patrice Hollrah’s essay, “Sherman Alexie’s Challenge to the Academy’s Teaching of Native American Literature, Non-Native Writers, and Critics,” a title that announces a critical conversation. Hollrah narrows in on Alexie’s characters who challenge the figure of...