- Sherman Alexie: A Collection of Critical Essays
Jeff Berglund and Jan Roush’s book is an exciting addition to the growing body of scholarship on Sherman Alexie’s work. The fourteen essays in the collection—diverse in terms of coverage and approach—are arranged roughly according to the publication date of the Alexie work(s) they consider. Berglund explains in his introduction that the essays focus on “intertextual readings—readings across the genres of Alexie’s works—to find intricate reworkings and meditations on common themes, emblems, and motifs, as well as characters” (xvii). This is a refreshing approach, given the growing corpus of Alexie’s writing, and what can be gained from thinking through the relationships between and among his stories, poems, novels, and films.
A wonderful example of this intertextual approach can be seen in the first essay, Lisa Tatonetti’s “Dancing That Way, Things Began to Change,” which traces Alexie’s use of Wounded Knee and the Ghost Dance as metaphors throughout his work, as they morph from signifiers of loss into ways of imagining pan-Indian survivance.
Next, Philip Heldrich’s essay on dark humor in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Toughest Indian in the World presents some interesting close readings of the stories in these two collections. Elizabeth Archuleta very adeptly examines “The Trial of [End Page 123] Thomas Builds-the-Fire” in terms of legal discourse and the role of silence, which, she argues, works as empowerment.
P. Jane Hafen’s essay, “Rock and Roll, Redskins, and Blues in Sherman Alexie’s Work,” is a revised version of her 1997 sail essay, which combines a discussion of Alexie’s use of popular music with an introspective response to his sometimes essentialist portrayals of Indian identity. What redeems Alexie’s work despite this is, for Hafen, his gritty realism, his ability to make his audience laugh, and his use of a “universal chord”—a register of historical and emotional understanding for Indian readers.
A pair of essays offers new readings of Smoke Signals. In “This Is What It Means to Say Reservation Cinema,” James H. Cox argues that Smoke Signals is an antidote to conventional Hollywood Indians, and he articulates the ways in which Smoke Signals operates as a Native film without all of the usual markers of Indian identity. Instead, Alexie relies on other factors, like geographic location, the reservation, as a “construction of a cultural space distant from non-Natives,” and the act of community storytelling performed by Thomas Builds-the-Fire to signify that this is indeed a film about Natives (84). Angelica Lawson’s essay, “Native Sensibility and the Significance of Women in Smoke Signals,” reads the film as a version of the hero-twin story—instead of a buddy or road-trip story—and argues that by reading from a Native perspective, female characters become central to the plot, as “stable arbiters of Native culture” (106).
Two essays, Susan Berry Brill de Ramírez’s “The Distinctive Sonority of Sherman Alexie’s Indigenous Poetics” and Nancy J. Peterson’s “The Poetics of Tribalism in Sherman Alexie’s The Summer of Black Widows,” offer some insightful readings of Alexie’s poetry. Brill de Ramírez takes a formalist approach by focusing on Alexie’s poetic craft, while Peterson traces Alexie’s employment of tribalism as “worldview or critical consciousness,” particularly in the “Bob’s Coney Island” section of The Summer of Black Widows. Peterson posits that as Alexie’s poems move further away from the reservation, geographically and thematically, they invoke a stronger sense of tribalism. In poems like “Capital Punishment” and “Sonnet: Tattoo Tears” Alexie takes up tribally important ethical issues, [End Page 124] such as the disproportionate number of American Indians in prison and endangerment of ecosystems on tribal lands, while in “Things (for an Indian) to Do in New York (City)” Alexie articulates what it means to be “brown” in both local and global networks. Peterson writes, “Alexie’s...