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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My latest read: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

I just got through reading Sherman Alexie's collection of short stories entitled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. No where in the book did I read an account of the Lone Ranger and Tonto fistfighting in heaven or any other place.

I did read 22 interrelated stories that center on a collection of Native American characters who live or have lived on a reservation near Spokane, Washington. Most of the stories have little or no real plot to them. Instead, they present a near stream-of-consciousness telling of modern Native American life. Alienation and survival are the stories' prominent themes since most of the characters have trouble belonging to the world outside the reservation, and have even more trouble living on the reservation.

Dancing is one of the many motifs Alexie uses to show how his characters to survive and overcome their alienation. For example, the tale "Family Protrait" centers on dancing. The speaker says about his family:
Then there was music, scratched 45's and eight-track tapes. We turned the volume too high for the speakers, and the music was tinny and distorted. But we danced, until my oldest sister tore her only pair of nylons and wept violently. But we danced, until we shook dust down from the ceiling and chased bats out of the attic into the daylight. But we danced, in our mismatched clothes and broken shoes. I wrote my name in Magic Marker on my shoes, my first name on the left toe and my last name on the right toe, with my true name somewhere in between. But we danced, with empty stomachs and nothing for dinner except sleep. All night we lay awake with sweat on our backs and blisters on our soles. All night we fought waking nightmares until sleep came with nightmares of its own. I remember the nightmare about the thin man in a big hat who took the Indian children away from their parents. He came with scissors to cut hair and a locked box to hide all the amputated braids. But we dance, under wigs and between unfinished walls, through broken promises and around empty cupboards.

It was a dance.

Dancing provides an apt symbol representing both means of the individual identity and social cooperation necessary for survival. Added to those means is that of story-telling. One character named Thomas Builds-a-Fire is an unstoppable story teller. We read of Thomas that he:.
once held the reservation postmaster hostage for eight hours with the idea of a gunand had also threatened to make significant changes in the tribal vision.

Thomas had agreed to remain silent and did so for twenty years.
But recently Thomas had begun to make small noises, form syllables that contained more emotion and meaning than entire sentences from the BIA.

Thomas goes through a kafkaesque trial and is imprisoned to silence his stories which endanger the social order. There Thomas begins his stories anew telling them to his fellow inmates. Fortunately, Sherman Alexie has yet to suffer Thomas's fate, so far.

The book became the basis for the movie Smoke Signals for which Mr. Alexie wrote the screenplay. I have not seen the movie, but plan to do so as soon as is feasible. I enjoyed experiencing Sherman Alexie's point of view and recommend it to anyone wanting to gain new perspectives

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