Several weeks ago I walked over to my local library branch and checked out the new literary effort by Sherman Alexie. Considering this was just a few days after he had received the prestigious Faulkner/Pen award, I was surprised to find that the book was still on the shelf, but there it was. I guess I should draw some kind of conclusion about the reading habits of people in my hometown, Portland (ME) or the popularity of Alexie or the importance of the award, but I don’t know what to say so I’ll let in go.
However, the book was a very interesting read and perhaps a bit of a disappointment after having recently read The Autobiography of a Part-time Indian. For those who enjoy good old-fashioned storytelling, then “Autobiography” might be just the book for you. It’s an engrossing story and it is easy to speculate how this recently published novel might have swayed the jury.
Stylistically, War Dances is just the opposite. It is a mixture of poems and short stories that jumps all over the place in location and meaning. Still the seemingly unrelated potpourri of written material comes across very well and still gives the reader a lot to ponder and enjoy.
After having read the book, I was a little puzzled that the book earned an award. Not because of its content, but for the reason that the text covered so many different events. I guess some modern juries are more willing to take a chance with unorthodox writing than I realized.
“I think white folks should be ashamed that it’s taken an Indian to save part of their culture.” Sherman Alexie, while appearing on the Steve Colbert show.
Today it was announced that Sherman Alexie has won the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Award for fiction, which comes complete with a $15,000 financial attachment. His most recent literary effort called “War Dances”, a collection of short stories, essays and poems is the chief reason for the presentation. The Pen/Faulkner award is the largest peer chosen prize offered in the United States and Mr. Alexie is the first Native American recipient of the award.
Sherman is the author of many novels, short stories and poems. In fact, his last book, which was entitled The Absolute True Autobiography of a Part-time Indian received a national book award for Young Adult fiction. This novel is the straightforward, first-person account of a young teenager, who decides to leave the reservation to attend high school in a nearby farming community in eastern Washington. The book is unique in the large number of drawings and illustrations that accompany text, yet overall effort falls way short of being classified as a graphic novel.
Sherman Alexie is not a newcomer to the book world, for he has been trailblazing around the U.S. for at least the last decade promoting his books and talking to audiences of all sizes at bookstores in all parts of the country. In a recent appearance on the Steve Colbert show (see the video) Sherman talks in detail about his experiences on the road and the current struggle of the printed page to keep its audience. He describes his book tours, “I was a storyteller around a fire…. it was a metaphorical fire inside a bookstore.”
Then Alexie goes on to describe his last book tour, where he was promoting the same publication that earned him the Pen Award; “I went to a lot of afternoon matinees. The local media for books is gone.” Keep in mind that “War Dances” was published in 2009 and that this last book tour occurred within the last six months.