Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Ten Little Indians

by Sherman Alexie

“In [Alexie’s] warm, revealing, invitingly roundabout stories, the central figures come in all shapes and sizes, sharing only their wry perspective on Indian life off the reservation. . . . They are affectionate tales of dealings between men and women.” –Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 272
  • Publication Date April 27, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4117-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $15.00

About The Book

Sherman Alexie is one of our most acclaimed and popular writers today. Now, with Ten Little Indians, he offers nine poignant and emotionally resonant new stories about Native Americans who, like all Americans, find themselves at personal and cultural crossroads, faced with heartrending, tragic, sometimes wondrous moments of being that test their loyalties, their capacities, and their notions of who they are and who they love.

In Alexie’s first story, “The Search Engine,” Corliss is a rugged and resourceful student who finds in books the magic she was denied while growing up poor. When she discovers the poetry of a fellow Native who vanished thirty years earlier after winning the Pulitzer Prize, she makes it her mission to find him. Although he does not prove to be the man Corliss needs him to be, his devastating story will help her in her own struggle to belong. In “The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above,” an intellectual feminist Spokane Indian woman saves the lives of dozens of white women all around her, to the bewilderment of her only child, now a grown man who looks back at his life with equal parts fondness, amusement, and regret. In “Do You Know Where I Am?” two college sweethearts rescue a lost cat–a simple act that has profound moral consequences for the rest of their lives together. In “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” a homeless Indian man must raise $1,000 in twenty-four hours to buy back the fancy dance outfit stolen from his grandmother fifty years earlier.

Even as they often make us laugh, Sherman Alexie’s stories are driven by a haunting lyricism and naked candor that cut to the heart of the human experience. The result is a short-story collection that has been hailed as Alexie’s “best in years’ (Austin American-Statesman) and “proves once again that he is a fearless writer”(Rocky Mountain News).

Praise

“In [Alexie’s] warm, revealing, invitingly roundabout stories, the central figures come in all shapes and sizes, sharing only their wry perspective on Indian life off the reservation. . . . They are affectionate tales of dealings between men and women.” –Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Alexie’s Ten Little Indians serves up nine seamless stories formed in the gut and delivered from the heart, depicting Native Americans caught in contemporary cultural crosshairs.” –Lauren Slater, Elle

“Alexie has always been a master of the short story. . . . In [Ten Little Indians]Alexie blends humor, biting sarcasm and emotion, varying the book’s mood and presenting a spectrum of voices.” –Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

“This is a stellar collection of full-hearted, energetic stories.” –Arion Berger, People Magazine

“With wicked humor and a piercing eye, Alexie dances liehely across America’s racial and historical divides. Not since Langston Hughes’s classic collection The Ways of White Folks have these rifts been so wonderfully minded as they are in Ten Little Indians. . . . This is an inspired collection . . . told with a bittersweet and irrepressible touch. . . . Alexie, like his characters, is on a modern-day vsion quest, and his powers are only getting stronger.” –Anderson Tepper, Time Out New York

“Alexie’s language has energy; his dialogue is both sharp and believable. His characters are ordinary people, extraordinary in their own unique ways.” –Karen Joy Fowler, The Washington Post Book World

“The stories are wide, expansive, and focus on the lives of Spokane Indians inside Seattle for the most part, many of whom are aspiring to nothing less than greatness. . . . The haunting and powerful fictions of Ten Little Indians deserve to be read, contemplated, and savored.” –William J. Cobb, The Houston Chronicle

“[Alexie’s] stories, rambunctious and exuberant, bristle with an edgy and mordant humor all his own.” –Robin Hemley, The Chicago Tribune

“The subjects of these nine stories are passionate in their odd pursuits. Alexie, who wrote the 1998 film Smoke Signals, is an established chronicler of the rituals and ruptures of modern Native American life, but his eye for hard truths transcends any ethnic pigeonholing.” –Emily Mead, Entertainment Weekly

Ten Little Indians deals with a lot of things nobody talks about, from the always loaded subject of cultural authenticity to the influence of politics on everyday life.” –David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

“Alexie paints a full range of human emotions and conditions on a canvas he knows well. . . . Alexie’s nine little worlds contain a quietly glorious literary excellence; each is as pleasing to the mind and the heart–and even the senses–as witnessing the perfection of nature. . . . Neither precious nor academic, Ten Little Indians is a must-read for anyone who desires searing, sad, funny and modern tales of American Indian culture, for readers who love beautifully crafted short fiction and for readers who appreciate both.” –Scott Lax, The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“This humor-laced passel of tales is [Alexie’s] best in years. . . . Read and enjoy Alexie’s skill at crafting characters.” –Sharyn Wizda Vane, The Austin American-Statesman

“Sherman Alexie’s nine well-received stories about American Indian protagonists are energized by the tension between traditional ways and life off the reservation, by trying to decide what to carry and what can be left behind yet still remain oneself in a shifting world.” –Dallas Morning News

“Sherman Alexie’s new collection of stories, Ten Little Indians, proves once again that he is an absolutely fearless writer.” –Jenny Shank, Rocky Mountain News

“The nine stories in Ten Little Indians” are poignant without being sentimental, witty without being brittle, and written with force and clarity. They’re funny, too.” –Diane Roberts, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Kindness is as much a theme in Ten Little Indians as its city settings and its humor in the face of tragedy. Alexie treats both Spokane and non-Spokane characters with extraordinary measures of kindness. Characters are redeemed or not redeemed but always treated with generosity. Despite the sadness achingly present in these stories, the reader is left with a sense of healing and hope.” –Karen M. Poremski, The Columbus Dispatch

“This balance between poetic desire and the hopeless harshness of life is what makes Alexie’s work unique. That painful process of reclaiming something good, something of the spirit, something intensely personal, told with humor and no false sentiment, runs through much of this fine collection.” –Richard Wallace, The Seattle Times

“Alexie is having such a good time, we can have one too.” –Michael Harris, The Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Alexie’s literary voice is distinctive, idiosyncratic, and disarmingly compelling. . . . What unites [the characters] is their deeply conflicted sensibility; perceptive about many things, but often clueless about their own motives; cynical about the world and their place in it but often sentimental and deeply emotional; outraged by the discrimination and damage inflicted on them, but caustically and brutally frank about their own failings and shortcomings as a culture. . . .This is a wonderful book that could have been written only by Sherman Alexie.” –Steve Brzezinski, The Antioch Review

Ten Little Indians once again shows [Alexie] to be not just one of the West’s best, but one of the most brilliantly literate American writers, even funnier than Louise Erdrich, even more primal than Jim Harrison, and even more eloquent than Annie Proulx.” –Ron Franscell, Chicago Sun-Times

“The strength of this book lies in the characters. Alexie writes them with such compassion that even if they abandon their children, it becomes understandable.” –Jessa Crispin, The Austin Chronicle

“[Alexie] is a provocateur who never left a pot unstirred. He’s a trickster not above mocking himself. He’s a proud Spokane/Coeur d”Alene Indian who is just as likely to skewer Indians as he is totem-loving liberals and Yale-educated conservatives. And he’s a bestselling author who knows exactly how far to push the sensibilities of his gentle readers. ” Alexie ranks with the best, even if he stands alone.” –Ron Franscell, San Jose Mercury News

“Ten Little Indians runs the gamut of human emotions, from grief to envy, rage to shame, conjuring a cast of Indians so rich and so vibrant it makes the old nursery rhyme seem not just puerile but racist.” –John Freeman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“[Alexie] loves to make people laugh. And cry. He loves to make people uncomfortable. He loves to make them think. Sherman Alexie is a storyteller. . . . These are not tepid tales. Alexie’s terrain is peopled with Indians who are angry and funny and poignant, vengeful, despondent, exuberant and forgiving, smart and wry and hopeful.” –Jane Hoback, The Rocky Mountain News

“This near-perfect fiction collection is dense with humor, action and affecting characters.” –Time Out New York

“Alexie’s powers of characterization are extraordinary and his stories packed thick with details, yet everything flows effortlessly. . . . As he did in The Toughest Indian in the World, Alexie proves that in this literary kingdom it is indeed a fine day to be indigenous.” –Emiliana Sandoval, The Detroit Free Press

“A brisk, capable assemblage.” –Ariel Gonzalez, The Miami Herald

“Alexie delivers nine more short stories that easily live up to the rest of his acclaimed canon.” –Thomas Haley, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“A short story collection you’ll enjoy very much.” –Henry Kisor, The Chicago Sun-Times

“Alexie isn’t only a top-notch writer, he is also a cultural star. . . . All nine [stories] are insightful and original.” –Jim Grinnell, The Bloomsbury Review

“These stories are about truth, and Alexie is a writer in relentless pursuit of truth. ” Alexie’s characters have an articulateness, a longing for better lives and a willingness to bare their souls that is heart-wrenching and beautiful.” –Tricia Snell, The Oregonian

“What links the characters [in these stories] is their need to understand, to divine meaning, and to find truth. In that way they are not unlike non-Indians. ” Their ruminations conveniently (and perhaps, appropriately) echo Alexie’s own keen observations of contemporary American society. ” Alexie’s observations are as wise as they are brutally sharp.” –Greg Morago, The Harford Courant

“A collection of nine hilarious, powerful stories that capture not just the Native American experience, but a broader, more universal one. . . . Powerful, sad and laugh-out-loud funny, these stories could only be told by Sherman Alexie.” –Jean Blish Siers, The Charlotte Observer

‘most of the central characters in these stories are, like Alexie, Spokane Indians, and there’s a ruthlessness to the way he describes them that can only be rooted in memory and a prickly sort of love.” –Anne Stephenson, The Arizona Republic

“Alexie dispels stereotypes that continue to pervade film and literature.” Chrissy Persico, New York Daily News

“This third collection of stories by the best-selling Native American author combines humor and heartbreak to devastating effect.” –Nan Goldberg, Newark Star-Ledger

“Alexie writes superbly, without bathos, about grief and disappointments’. Alexie is equally adept at lending his characters the gift of wit and laughter in the face of tragedy.” –Kenneth Harmon, Charlotte Creative Loafing

“[Alexie’s] work will make you laugh, break your heart, and scare you witless with its burning anger at the betrayal of American Indian people. Alexie is an incandescent star of the modern writing firmament, full of pulsating energy, glowing confidence, and sweeping productivity.” –James P. Lenfestey, Ruminator Review

“Relating small journeys rather than epic ones, these tales make good stories. In them, the depth of feeling extends beyond the comedy of parochial issues to touch what remains most enduring in human experience.” –Stanley Trachtenberg, San Diego Union-Tribune

“Alexie takes no short cuts. He strides across the core of the human heart with the confidence of a man who knows exactly where he is going. His stories are endearing, disturbing and often very funny. Ten Little Indians is Alexie’s best work to date. As of this collection, Alexie steps out of his own shadow.” –Dan Hays, Statesman Journal

“[Ten Little Indians] has a light exuberant feel to it. The stories are frequently smart and funny. . . . And yet there are many sad and serious moments throughout the stories, and it’s the dance of light and dark in Alexie’s stories that makes them so memorable. . . . He’s a heck of a writer, period, and his self-imposed geographical and cultural limitations don’t seem to limit his imagination or compassionate insight at all.” –Rob Thomas, Madison Capital Times

“Wonderfully written. . . . The characters in Ten Little Indians are funny, even hilarious, and sometimes sad, as they attempt to understand their American Indian worldviews, which are different from those of their non-Indian counterparts.” –Levi A. Rickert, The Grand Rapids Press

“In Ten Little Indians Alexie’s honest portrayal of ” Native Americans of varying socio-economic positions is very refreshing. He really has a knack for fleshing out his complex characters in such a way that you feel as though you really know them.” –Andrew Griffin, Town Talk

“Another stunner. Alexie’s stories have magic, humor, intelligence, and pathos. . . . Haunting and funny. This collection is good. Very.” –The Colorado Springs Independent

“Good writing transforms the reader and Ten Little Indians does that. Whether or not we ourselves are like the characters Alexie has created, we can see ourselves in them; we can see qualities we both admire and detest and the possibilities of redemption. And through these stories, through seeing the myriad of facets of human nature, we, too, are redeemed.” –Marika Brussel, The Santa Fe New Mexican

“Powerful and poetic. Meaningful, casual, surprising. Irreverent. Beautiful. . . . All of the stories in Ten Little Indians show Alexie as an important literary voice. He provides us with a real portrait of humanity, always searching for who we are and what we’re for, usually ambiguous about what we find.” –Matt Kubacki, The Milwaukee Shepherd Express

“His imaginative and keenly insightful stories about modern Native Americans bristle with jokey humor, political and social outrage, and deeply observed tragedy.” –Stephen Deusner, The Memphis Flyer

“Sherman Alexie’s stories treat Native Americans with humor and respect as people who live urban lives but have their own view of American culture.” –Ann D. Garbett, Salem Press

“Alexie’s boldest and most tonally confident work to date.” –Britt Robson, Minneapolis City Pages

“Alexie sticks to his guns with this new collection, firming up his rep as the toughest Indian in the world.” –Ryan Masters, Coast Weekly

“In this new collection of nine stories, Alexie blends humor, biting sarcasm and emotion, varying the book’s mood and presenting a spectrum of voices.” –Camden Courier-Post

“Alexie writes with a savage wit, an eye that focuses on both the absurd and the familiar, and speaks with a voice that is self-defacing, bitter and totally unique. . . . Alexie displays his talents as a writer coming into his full as a craftsman.” –Robert Segedy, The Independent Weekly

“[Alexie’s] humor is contagious. . . . Placing humor in the face of troubling times . . . Alexie combines the emotional opposites to form writing that realistically portrays the world.” –Catharine Walker, Cincinnati City Beat

“[Alexie]is funny, defiant and willing to nettle anyone. . . . He challenges the more reverential writers who have trod this territory.” –Rochester Democrat

“Alexie has always been a master of the short story. . . . In [Ten Little Indians], Alexie blends humor, biting sarcasm and emotion, varying the book’s mood and presenting a spectrum of voices.” –Tacoma News Tribune

“Alexie’s work puts forth a fully, sexy, and biting challenge to static definitions of either side of the hyphen in American-Indian. . . . [He] performs the quintessential postmodern pastiche of drawing deeply from mass and tribal culture. . . .Alexie’s stories are “ambiguously ethnic,” mourning, delighting, and devious in that ambiguity. These characters are transients, confused and untrusting, who are sometimes steadfast and sometimes tempted by fatalism. Yet, when they cry too easily, meet enroute to the airport, or dance in a Seattle intersection, there is something ever so slight and grand they redeem.” –Anne Bergen-Aurand and Brian Bergen-Aurand, RainTaxi

“A raucous collection of short stories guaranteed to capture the heart. . . . While filled with laughter at the raw candor of Alexie’s prose, the reader will be haunted by the pervasive sadness long after finishing the book. These stories are, quite simply, polished gems.” –Sarah Massey, Cowboys and Indians

“The stories read like those of other American short story masters, like David Lodge and Ernest Hemingway.” –Rutherford Ashley, Navajo Times

“With his stories Alexie busily busts stereotypes and skewers taboos. The best thing about Alexie is he hands you his faults if that’s what they are on a platter. . . . Alexie is a writer with an opinion, and he doesn’t hide it. . . . I loved the power and astuteness of Alexie’s writing. Each of the stories explores emotional landscapes and offers bits of description that ring true.” –Robert Struckman, Missoulan

“Alexie is a master at isolating the hyperbole and perfidy that passes for human nature, at articulating the thoughts that run amok in people’s heads. . . . Alexie is fearless in his exploration of character and culture, determinedly unconcerned with the politically correct.” –Beth Kephart, Book Magazine

Ten Little Indians holds within its pages many journeys, at once ordinary and epic.” –Katherine H. Wyrick, BookPage

“A slam dunk collection sure to score with readers everywhere. . . . Fluent, exuberant and supremely confident, this outstanding collection shows Alexie at the height of his powers. Humor plays a leading role in the volume’s nine stories, but it’s love, both romantic and familial, that is the lens through which Alexie examines his compelling characters.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Alienation, second-class citizenship, and revivifying pride in family and heritage–these are the recurring themes in [Ten Little Indians]. . . . Comedy, pathos, heartfelt characterizations, and agendas transformed into thoughtful narratives: Alexie’s strongest book in years.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Alexie’s compassion for his characters, directness in storytelling, and wry and cautiously optimistic worldview transcend any label.” –Marc Kloszewski, Library Journal

“An appealing, intelligent collection that not only challenges white culture’s stereotypes of Native Americans but also shows them grappling with their own assumptions about themselves and others. . . .Alexie’s characters are both memorable and introspective.” –Kristine Huntley, Booklist

“Nine extraordinary short stories. . . . But no brief description does justice to the rich complexity of this story or the others; adjectives such as incisive, ironic, emotional, political, tragic, triumphant, angry, loving, exuberant, and wise come to mind, and Alexie puts everything together in a deceptively casual, often dazzling way. In bursts of exposition, using colloquial language and uncensored thoughts, he creates characters so richly layered and situations so colorfully detailed that readers finish each tale with a feeling of having encountered a real person or event. . . . Those familiar with this author’s earlier work will find his charm, originality, and sheer humanity in full measure here.” –Christine C. Menefee, School Library Journal

“Alexie’s inventive storylines are played for their maximum irony value. Personality types meet their opposites; class groups are forced out of their own end of town, with comic and moving results.” –James Grainger, The Toronto Star (Canada)

Praise for Sherman Alexie

“The world’s first fast-talking, wisecracking, mediagenic American Indian superstar . . . There is an anger in Sherman Alexie’s work that hasn’t been seen since James Baldwin . . . his characters carry the uneasy burden of racism with a resigned form of black humor.” –Bruce Barcott, Men’s Journal

“Stunning . . . Alexie’s prose contains the reverberations and human noise of the best Raymond Carver stories. . . . Although Alexie’s stories may taste like grief, they read like heaven.” –Mark Luce, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Alexie reveals himself to be a more fearless writer than one might ever have imagined; the stories are bold, uncensored, raucous, and sexy . . . apt and true. . . . The lives he portrays are so finely detailed, the tales so carefully woven, that even the most culturally sheltered reader is transported.” –Ken Foster, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

“A funny, irreverent, sardonic but sentimental, rebellious voice set beside his elder . . . contemporaries . . . Alexie is the bad boy among them, mocking, self-mocking, unpredictable, unassimilable, reminding us of the young Philip Roth.” –Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Review of Books

“Lyrical, rebellious, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking stories, where Indians find themselves between worlds, between lives, and between loves . . . Alexie is one of the best American writers of any color today.” –Ron Franscell, The Denver Post

Awards

A Los Angeles Times Best of the Best Selection
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book
A Publishers Weekly Book of the Year
A San Jose Mercury News Best Book and Top 20 Fiction Selection
An Exeter Sunday Herald Top Outstanding Book
A Coast Weekly Read It Now Selection
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Seller
A Denver Post Best Seller
A Book Sense Best Seller

Excerpt

THE SEARCH ENGINE

On Wednesday afternoon in the student union caf”, Corliss looked up from her American history textbook and watched a young man and younger woman walk in together and sit two tables away. The student union wasn’t crowded, so Corliss clearly heard the young couple’s conversation. He offered her coffee from his thermos, but she declined. Hurt by her rejection, or feigning pain-he always carried two cups because well, you never know, do you?-he poured himself one, sipped and sighed with theatrical pleasure, and monologued. The young woman slumped in her seat and listened. He told her where he was from and where he wanted to go after college, and how much he liked these books and those teachers but hated those movies and these classes, and it was all part of an ordinary man’s listmaking attempts to seduce an ordinary woman. Blond, blue-eyed, pretty, and thin, she hid her incipient bulimia beneath a bulky wool sweater. Corliss wanted to buy the skeletal woman a sandwich, ten sandwiches, and a big bowl of vanilla ice cream.

Eat, young woman, eat, Corliss thought, and you will be redeemed! The young woman set her backpack on the table and crossed her arms over her chest, but the young man didn’t seem to notice or care about the defensive meaning of her body language. He talked and talked and gestured passionately with long-fingered hands. A former lover, an older woman, had probably told him his hands were artistic, so he assumed all women would be similarly charmed. He wore his long blond hair pulled back into a ponytail and a flowered blue shirt that was really a blouse; he was narcissistic, androgynous, lovely, and yes, charming. Corliss thought she might sleep with him if he took her home to a clean apartment, but she decided to hate him instead. She knew she judged people based on their surface appearances, but Lord Byron said only shallow people don’t judge by surfaces. So Corliss thought of herself as Byronesque as she eavesdropped on the young couple. She hoped one of these ordinary people might say something interesting and original. She believed in the endless nature of human possibility. She would be delighted if these two messy humans transcended their stereotypes and revealed themselves as mortal angels.

“Well, you know,” the young man said to the young woman, “it was Auden who wrote that no poem ever saved a Jew from the ovens.”

“Oh,” the young woman said. She didn’t know why he’d abruptly paraphrased Auden. She wasn’t sure who this Auden person was, or why his opinions about poetry should matter to her, or why poetry itself was so important. She knew this coffee-drinking guy wanted to have sex with her, and she was considering it, but he wasn’t improving his chances by making her feel stupid.

Corliss was confused by the poetic non sequitur as well. She thought he might be trying to prove how many books he’d skimmed. Maybe he deserved her contempt, but Corliss realized that very few young men read poetry at Washington State University. And how many of those boys quoted, or misquoted, the poems they’d read? Twenty, ten, less than five? This longhaired guy enjoyed a monopoly on the poetry-quoting market in the southeastern corner of Washington, and he knew it. Corliss had read a few poems by W. H. Auden but couldn’t remember any of them other than the elegy recited in that Hugh Grant romantic comedy. She figured the young man had memorized the first stanzas of thirty-three love poems and used them like propaganda to win the hearts and minds of young women. He’d probably tattooed the opening lines of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” on his chest: “Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, Lady, were no crime.” Corliss wondered if Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets only because he was trying to get laid. Which poet or poem has been quoted most often in the effort to get laid? Most important, which poet or poem has been quoted most successfully in the effort to get laid? Corliss needed to know the serious answers to her silly questions. Or vice versa. So she gathered her books and papers and approached the couple.

“Excuse me,” Corliss said to the young man. “Was that W. H. Auden you were quoting?”

“Yes,” he said. His smile was genuine and boyish. He had displayed his intelligence and was being rewarded for it. Why shouldn’t he smile?

“I didn’t recognize the quote,” Corliss said. “Which poem did it come from?”

The young man looked at Corliss and at the young woman. Corliss knew he was choosing between them. The young woman knew it, too, and she decided the whole thing was pointless.

“I’ve got to go,” she said, grabbed her backpack, and fled.

“Wow, that was quick,” he said. “Rejected at the speed of light.”

“Sorry about that,” Corliss said. But she was pleased with the young woman’s quick decision and quicker flight. If she could resist one man’s efforts to shape and determine her future, perhaps she could resist all future efforts.

“It’s all right,” the young man said. “Do you want to sit down, keep me company?”

“No thanks,” Corliss said. “Tell me about that Auden quote.”

He smiled again. He studied her. She was very short, a few inches under five feet, maybe thirty pounds overweight, and plain-featured. But her skin was clear and dark brown (like good coffee!), and her long black hair hung down past her waist. And she wore red cowboy boots, and her breasts were large, and she knew about Auden, and she was confident enough to approach strangers, so maybe her beauty was eccentric, even exotic. And exoticism was hard to find in Pullman, Washington.

“What’s your name?” he asked her.

“Corliss.”

“That’s a beautiful name. What does it mean?”

“It means Corliss is my name. Are you going to tell me where you read that Auden quote or not?”

“You’re Indian, aren’t you?”

“Good-bye,” she said and stood to leave.

“Wait, wait,” he said. “You don’t like me, do you?”

“You’re cute and smart, and you’ve gotten everything you’ve ever asked for, and that makes you lazy and dangerous.”

“Wow, you’re honest. Will you like me better if I’m honest?”

“I might.”

“I’ve never read Auden’s poems. Not much, anyway. I read some article about him. They quoted him on the thing about Jews and poems. I don’t know where they got it from. But it’s true, don’t you think?”

“What’s true?”

“A good gun will always beat a good poem.”

“I hope not,” Corliss said and walked away.

Back in Spokane, Washington, Corliss had attended Spokane River High School, which had contained a mirage-library. Sure, the books had looked like Dickens and Dickinson from a distance, but they turned into cookbooks and auto-repair manuals when you picked them up. As a poor kid, and a middle-class Indian, she seemed destined for a minimum-wage life of waiting tables or changing oil. But she had wanted a maximum life, an original aboriginal life, so she had fought her way out of her underfunded public high school into an underfunded public college. So maybe, despite American racism, sexism, and classism, Corliss’s biography confirmed everything nearly wonderful and partially meritorious about her country. Ever the rugged individual, she had collected aluminum cans during the summer before her junior year of high school so she could afford the yearlong SAT-prep course that had astronomically raised her scores and won her a dozen academic scholarships. At the beginning of every semester, Corliss had called the history and English teachers at the local prep school she couldn’t afford, and asked what books they would be reading in class, and she had found those books and lived with them like siblings. And those same teachers, good white people whose whiteness and goodness blended and separated, had faxed her study guides and copies of the best student papers. Two of those teachers, without having met Corliss in person, had sent her graduation gifts of money and yet more books. She’d been a resourceful thief, a narcissistic Robin Hood who stole a rich education from white people and kept it.

In the Washington State University library, her version of Sherwood Forest, Corliss walked the poetry stacks. She endured a contentious and passionate relationship with this library. The huge number of books confirmed how much magic she’d been denied for most of her life, and now she hungrily wanted to read every book on every shelf. An impossible task, to be sure, Herculean in its exaggeration, but Corliss wanted to read herself to death. She wanted to be buried in a coffin filled with used paperbacks.

She found W. H. Auden’s Collected Poems on a shelf above her head. She stood on her toes and pulled down the thick volume, but she also pulled out another book that dropped to the floor. It was a book of poems titled In the Reservation of My Mind, by Harlan Atwater. According to the author’s biography on the back cover, Harlan Atwater was a Spokane Indian, but Corliss had never heard of the guy. Her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all born and raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation. And the rest of her ancestors, going back a dozen generations, were born and raised on the land that would eventually be called the Spokane Indian Reservation. Her one white ancestor, a Russian fur trapper, had been legally adopted into the tribe, given some corny Indian name she didn’t like to repeat, and served on the tribal council for ten years. Corliss was a Spokane Indian born in Sacred Heart Hospital, only a mile from the Spokane River Falls, the heart of the Spokane Tribe, and had grown up in the city of Spokane, which was really an annex of the reservation, and thought she knew or knew of every Spokane. Demographically and biologically speaking, Corliss was about as Spokane as a Spokane Indian can be, and only three thousand other Spokanes of various Spokane-ness existed in the whole world, so how had this guy escaped her attention? She opened the book and read the first poem:
The Naming Ceremony

No Indian ever gave me an Indian name So I named myself. I am Crying Shame. I am Takes the Blame. I am the Four Directions: South, A Little More South, Way More South, and All the Way South. If you are ever driving toward Mexico

And see me hitchhiking, you’ll know me By the size of my feet. My left foot is named Self-Pity And my right foot is named Born to Lose. But if you give me a ride, you can call me And all of my parts any name you choose.

Corliss recognized the poem as a free-verse sonnet whose end rhymes gave it a little more music. It was a funny and clumsy poem desperate to please the reader. It was like a slobbery puppy in an animal shelter: Choose me! Choose me! But the poem was definitely charming and strange. Harlan Atwater was making fun of being Indian, of the essential sadness of being Indian, and so maybe he was saying Indians aren’t sad at all. Maybe Indians are just big-footed hitchhikers eager to tell a joke! That wasn’t a profound thought, but maybe it was an accurate one. But can you be accurate without profundity? Corliss didn’t know the answer to the question.

She carried the Atwater and Auden books to the front desk to check them out. The librarian was a small woman wearing khaki pants and large glasses. Corliss wanted to shout at her: Honey, get yourself some contacts and a pair of leather chaps! Fight your stereotypes!

“Wow,” the librarian said as she scanned the books’ bar codes and entered them into her computer.

“Wow what?” Corliss asked.

“You’re the first person who’s ever checked out this book.” The librarian held up the Atwater.

“Is it new?”

“We’ve had it since 1972.”

Corliss wondered what happens to a book that sits unread on a library shelf for thirty years. Can a book rightfully be called a book if it never gets read? If a tree falls in a forest and gets pulped to make paper for a book that never gets read, but there’s nobody there to read it, does it make a sound?

“How many books never get checked out?” Corliss asked the librarian.

“Most of them,” she said.

Corliss had never once considered the fate of library books. She’d never wondered how many books go unread. She loved books. How could she not worry about the unread? She felt like a disorganized scholar, an inconsiderate lover, an abusive mother, and a cowardly soldier.

“Are you serious?” Corliss asked. “What are we talking about here? If you were guessing, what is the percentage of books in this library that never get checked out?”

“We’re talking sixty percent of them. Seriously. Maybe seventy percent. And I’m being optimistic. It’s probably more like eighty or ninety percent. This isn’t a library, it’s an orphanage.”

The librarian spoke in a reverential whisper. Corliss knew she’d misjudged this passionate woman. Maybe she dressed poorly, but she was probably great in bed, certainly believed in God and goodness, and kept an illicit collection of overdue library books on her shelves.

“How many books do you have here?” Corliss asked.

“Two million, one hundred thousand, and eleven,” the librarian said proudly, but Corliss was frightened. What happens to the world when that many books go unread? And what happens to the unread authors of those unread books?

“And don’t think it’s just this library, either,” the librarian said. “There’s about eighteen million books in the Library of Congress, and nobody reads about seventeen and a half million of them.”

“You’re scaring me.”

“Sorry about that,” the librarian said. “These are due back in two weeks.”

Corliss carried the Auden and Atwater books out of the library and into the afternoon air. She sat on a bench and flipped through the pages. The Auden was worn and battered, with pen and pencil notes scribbled all over the margins. Three generations of WSU students had defaced Auden with their scholarly graffiti, but Atwater was stiff and unmarked. This book had not been exposed to direct sunlight in three decades. W. H. Auden didn’t need Corliss to read him-his work was already immortal-but she felt like she’d rescued Harlan Atwater. And who else should rescue the poems of a Spokane Indian but another Spokane? Corliss felt the weight and heat of destiny. She had been chosen. God had nearly dropped Atwater’s book on her head. Who knew the Supreme One could be so obvious? But then again, when have the infallible been anything other than predictable? Maybe God was dropping other books on other people’s heads, Corliss thought. Maybe every book in every library is patiently waiting for its savior. Ha! She felt romantic and young and foolish. What kind of Indian loses her mind over a book of poems? She was that kind of Indian, she was exactly that kind of Indian, and it was the only kind of Indian she knew how to be.

Corliss lived alone.

Continues…

©2003 by Sherman Alexie. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Reading Group Guide

ABOUT THIS GUIDE
We hope that these discussion questions will enhance your reading group’s exploration of Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians. They are meant to stimulate discussion, offer new viewpoints, and enrich your enjoyment of the book.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. Sherman Alexie has said that “the true purpose of art is to ask questions.” How faithful to this purpose is Ten Little Indians? What questions or ideas does Alexie ask us to consider? Do any of the stories seem especially pro­vocative or disturbing? What themes emerge?

2. In Ten Little Indians the reader encounters a range of contemporary In­dian characters. What is the effect of this encounter with Indians who are vividly drawn individuals? Does creating highly particular characters seem to be significant on the author’s part? Part of his meaning? Or is sharp attention to character simply a component of Alexie’s technique and literary sensibility?

3. “The Search Engine” opens the collection and is arguably important in setting the tone of the book.

Considering the book as a whole, how sig­nificant is this choice if the reader undertakes the stories in order? Would the reading experience be changed by opening with the later story, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”? Or with ‘do Not Go Gentle”? Does the order of the stories have a logic to it?

4. In “The Search Engine” Alexie explores the romanticizing of Indians in American culture. The story’s protagonist, Corliss, worries that she will lose her “power and magic” once white folks understand “that Indians are every bit as relentlessly boring, selfish, and smelly as they are” and concludes that “that would be a wonderful day for human rights but a terrible day for Corliss’ (p. 11). In what other stories does Alexie ex­plore the consequences of seeing Indians, as Corliss says, with “goofy sen­timentalism”? What are these consequences?

5. Is Alexie only interested in stripping his characters of sentimentalized Indian attributes? Does the reader see more than what Indians are not? What emerges as distinctive about the reality of contemporary Indian life? Are power and magic, in fact, excluded from it?

6. At the same time that tragic events large and small are touched on in his stories, humor in myriad forms rumbles throughout Ten Little Indi­ans. What is the role of humor in Alexie’s work? In what stories does it crop up most? How does it affect you? How important is it? What would these stories be like without it?

7. The word joyous comes up more than once in the stories. How com­mon in everyday parlance is this word? Would you consider it a word in frequent use, on par with happy or depressed? Did you notice it? What do you take it to mean? Does it connect to any of the book’s larger themes?

8. For Alexie’s Indian characters the impulse toward ceremony is natural and strong, and the ceremonies themselves seem improvisational and often untraditional. Basketball, for example, is central to the griev­ing ceremony of the protagonist of “Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church.” Frank grieves the deaths of his parents through a game that is a mainstay of American life; the ritual climaxes with tribal syl­lables pounded on the floor. What is Alexie suggesting about ceremony and how it works?

9. Traditional literary and religious forms recur throughout these stories. Consciously and unconsciously, characters are moved to confessional narrative. They invent ceremonies to drive off grief and survive crises. They improvise personal odysseys and quests. A range of traditions comes into play–classical literature, Indian culture, Roman Catholi­cism. What does Alexie suggest about the force and importance of his­torically long-lived rituals and forms? What role do they play in our modern lives? What is he suggesting in the diversity of form evident in his work?

10. Confession is a particularly frequent literary device in Ten Little Indi­ans. In “The Search Engine” a homeless man confesses to Corliss at McDonald’s. In “Can I Get a Witness’ the female protagonist confesses her unconventional view of September 11. Why does Alexie turn to it so often? Why is confession as a form so attractive to a storyteller? Why is it so useful for Alexie in particular? What so often happens between Alexie’s confessors and auditors? What, does Alexie imply, is the power of story?

11. In its final line “Lawyer’s League,” a confessional monologue, lands with a question posed to its reader/auditor: ‘do you understand I have a lim­ited range of motion?” (p. 68). What, in full, is meant by this question?

12. In “Can I Get a Witness’ a terrorist sneaks into a crowded restaurant and detonates a bomb. Had you sensed tension building before that point? Where? Why does Alexie attach the detonation to a sentence that begins in another way–with a humorous touch, with a search for a missing waiter?

13. “Can I Get a Witness’ deliberately explores and expands upon the possible meanings of September 11. What was your reaction to the woman’s interpretation of the attacks for her personally and for oth­ers? How apt did you find the phrase “grief porn” for the media coverage. Does a post–September 11 consciousness infuse all of these stories? Some?

14. In ‘do Not Go Gentle” a vibrator, Chocolate Thunder, inspires a mother to invent a ceremony that chases death away from her gravely ill child. The narrator reflects on this: “We humans are too simple­minded. We all like to think each person, place, or thing is only itself. A vibrator is a vibrator is a vibrator, right? But that’s not true at all. Everything is stuffed to the brim with love and hope and magic and dreams’ (p. 101). Does Alexie suggest that we should change how we look at the world? Why? How does this meditation connect to other stories and their rituals and ceremonies? Where else and how else is magic touched upon?

15. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” a wedding guest is compelled by the ancient mariner to hear a wild tale of misadventure at sea. The guest does not want to listen and longs to rejoin the wedding party, but in the end, after hearing the story, is “a sadder and a wiser man.” “Flight Patterns’ contains a confessional in a taxicab. At first, like Coleridge’s wedding guest, the protagonist, William, doesn’t want to hear the story of the driver, Fekadu. By the end, however, he wants to learn from Fekadu’s stories (whether they’re true or not). What does William learn? Why, at first, didn’t he want to listen?

16. In “Flight Patterns’ two men discuss how people can become trapped by other people’s ideas of who we are, especially when we are seen in terms of our race. What is the nature of this trap? Is it dangerous? Or merely inconvenient?

17. In “The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above” the narrator chronicles his struggles–with his mother, with his Indian identity, and with how to think about white people. His mother became more Indian in the presence of their white friends. Why? What is Alexie suggesting about how we experience and even use our racial identities?

18. In ‘do You Know Where I Am?” the Spokane male narrator recounts the story of his marriage. He and his Spokane wife have practiced their Roman Catholicism as they have their tribal religions, viewing them as “pitiful cries to a disinterested god” (p. 150). In their skepticism are these characters simply typical contemporary Americans?

19. The penultimate story, “What I Pawn You Will Redeem,” evokes the restless life of a homeless urban Indian. What are the tone and mood of this story? How did they affect you? What is the significance of the narrator’s discovery of his grandmother’s regalia in a pawnshop, priced inaccessibly? Does the story of his quest to regain her regalia have sym­bolic force? What is Alexie suggesting?

20. Like a symphonic leitmotif, three Aleut Indians come and go and even­tually disappear in “What I Pawn You Will Redeem.” What is the role of these characters? Why are they in the story? What would the story be like without them?

21. Spirituality and religion come up quite often in these stories, though not in traditional contexts. In “Flight Patterns’ William is described as not “particularly religious; he was generally religious’ (p. 104). The gym is seen as a church in “Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church.” Everyday elements can take on spiritual force, and different religious traditions intermingle. What does Alexie seem to be saying about the spiritual world today? How does it exist? In spite of modern life, which is culturally complicated and at least apparently impure, can a vital, credible spirituality exist? Does it exist already?

22. In his influential essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot explores the role of tradition in poetic creation. Tradition is of great value, he asserts, but it is more than blind adherence to the successes of the generation before you:

[Tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense . . . and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feel­ing that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his contemporaneity. (Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”)

How traditional in this sense is Sherman Alexie? What sort of his­torical sense does he have? Does he, in his historical sense, blend to­gether the temporal and the timeless?

23. In his essay “On Cannibals’ the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote about the lives of ‘savages.” Together with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montaigne laid the groundwork for how Indians came to be known as “noble savages’:

These nations seem to me, then, barbaric in that they have been little refashioned by the human mind and are still quite close to their original naivet”. They are still ruled by natural laws, only slightly cor­rupted by ours. They are in such a state of purity that I am sometimes saddened by the thought that we did not discover them earlier. . . . It displeases me that Lycurgus or Plato didn’t know them, for it seems to me that these peoples surpass not only the portraits which poetry has made of the Golden Age and all the invented, imaginary notions of the ideal state of humanity, but even the conceptions and the very aims of philosophers themselves. . . . This is a people, I would say to Plato, among whom there is no commerce at all, no knowledge of letters, no knowledge of numbers . . . no divisions of property, no occupations but easy ones, no respect for any relationship except or­dinary family ones, no clothes, no agriculture, no metal, no use of wine or wheat. The very words which mean “lie,” “treason,” ‘deception,” “greed,” “envy,” ‘slander,” and “forgiveness’ are unknown. (Montaigne, “On Cannibals’)

How is Montaigne’s vision of “barbarians’ and their ‘state of purity” evident in the contemporary understanding of Indians as Alexie de­picts them? Consider this passage alongside Corliss’s assessment in “The Search Engine”: “White people looked at the Grand Canyon, Niagra Falls, the full moon, newborn babies, and Indians with the same goofy sentimentalism” (p. 11). Is sentimentalism evident in Montaigne’s pas­sage above?

24. Ten Little Indians can certainly be read out of order, over time, with no particular attention to the continuity of the reading experience. The stories stand on their own. But read together, do the stories seem to focus on a particular overarching subject? In spite of their different subjects, do they form some sort of discernible arc?

25. Quite famously the title of Agatha Christie’s novel Ten Little Indians was changed in American editions to And Then There Were None to avoid any offense associated with the nursery rhyme. What do you make of Alexie’s use of the title?