Sherman Alexie,
Indian Killer
(Warner Books, 1996)

I've always been fascinated by Indian culture. Perhaps it was a result of my grandfather's stories about his grandmother (full-blooded Cherokee), or maybe it was because I always wanted a little Paint war horse when I was growing up. The sad thing is, I grew up on a glamorized, TV version of Indian lore. My childhood stories never once mentioned the homeless Indians that populate the streets of Seattle and the pages of Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer.

An Indian serial killer is terrorizing Seattle, hunting and scalping white men and kidnapping small children. As a result, a complex group of people are thrown together as the city attempts to understand and stop the Indian Killer.

John Smith, a full-blooded Indian, was adopted at birth and raised by a wealthy white family. As the rest of Seattle wages a war against the Indian Killer, John wages his own private war, constantly reinventing scenes of his birth and struggling to understand his Indian heritage. Marie is a young Indian activist who shuns her family on the reservation and devotes her time to helping feed the homeless Indians in Seattle. Outraged by Jack Wilson, a white mystery writer who claims he is part Indian, Marie encourages her classmates to stop perpetuating misbeliefs about Indians and Indian culture. Finally, Truck Smith, a famous radio personality, whips the city into an Indian-hunting frenzy with his racist slurs and updates on the latest actions of the Indian Killer.

Alexie tells his story in the form of a mystery, although none of the characters eventually add up all the clues and figure out who the Indian Killer is. In fact, the resolution will probably spark quite a bit of conversation as each "suspect" is weighed and considered. Despite the constant finger-pointing at each character as the Indian Killer, Alexie treats them with compassion without becoming cloudy-eyed.

Where Alexie really shows his stuff, though, is in the disturbing truths about Indian/white relationships (from American history to the present) and racism in general. Alexie's prose is knife sharp, with a keen eye for pacing and sardonic humor. Each character is fully developed, with sometimes haunting inner struggles and clear motivations. Alexie manages to balance the twisting and complex stories of each character without sacrificing suspense or movement. Indian folklore also plays a large role in the story, with many of the scenes (espcially between John and the priest) taking on mythic proportions.

Sherman Alexie is known as a poet and author of humor and lyricism, but Indian Killer raises the stakes and shows readers that he is capable of dealing with issues that hit close to home in a universal and highly talented manner. Few Native American authors have Alexie's ability to deal with alienation and justice not in Indian terms but in human terms.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]



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