I'd never read Sherman Alexie's first great breakout book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I'm not sure why. I was interested; perhaps I was saving it. Instead I chose to read at this time his new memoir which could also be read as a eulogy for his mother.
His upbringing sounds like it was a rough time all round. His parents were alcoholics. Sherman didn't come out unscathed, but he has been reaching out--he is fearless in revealing himself and his family. Perhaps he has found this makes him more likable, relatable.
The end papers of this hardcover memoir are printed with a quilt pattern. Alexie tells us his mother quilted all the time, even through the night. He himself has at least ten quilts of hers and he uses all of them. But when his mother died, he wanted to collect all the quilts she'd left behind and burn them all. I didn't get the impression he did so. For whatever reason.
Lillian, that was her name. Lillian was one of the last speakers of his ancestor's native language. In a chapter entitled "Eulogy," Alexie repeats the phrase My mother was a dictionary over and over, every couple lines, but she never taught me the tribal language. The poem ends,
She always said to me, 'English will be your best weapon.'Perhaps my favorite poem is one of his shortest, called "Communion" in which sentiment pairs with form:
She was right, she was right, she was right.
we worshipThe chapter entitled "Missionary Position" will stay with me a very long time. While in high school, one of Alexie's friends said something deeply racist in his company, having momentarily forgotten he was Indian. He ended up dating her for a few years, and once gave her a pawnshop ring that was worth $20. When they broke up, she gave the ring back. He sold it back to the pawnshop for $10.
In the beginning of the book, in a chapter called "Scatalogical," Alexie explains there is something called a grief poop. After everyone had left the funeral home, two days after the death of his mother, Alexie stayed behind to use the restroom. A sign hung on the wall behind the toilet: Please be gentle with our toilet. The pipes are old. Be judicious in your use of toilet paper. He tells us "I took the largest shit of my life. I expelled everything." He ended up breaking up the poop into pieces and had to hold the pieces in his hand so he could flush them in four tries. "Thing was as big as a walrus." I'd never known about grief poops, but it makes sense.
Alexie's work has become indispensable for the well-read American. One cannot claim any credibility as a reader without having dipped a foot into his world and walked awhile in his boots. Reading Alexie is a kind of responsibility.
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