Truth, lies and poetry


War Dances
Sherman Alexie
209 pages, hardcover, $23.
Grove Press, 2009.

In the title story of War Dances, a World War II veteran tries -- and fails -- to glorify the dying moments of a fellow soldier. "I was thinking about making up something as beautiful as I could," he tells the dead soldier's grandson. "But I couldn't think of anything good enough. And I didn't want to lie to you. So I have to be honest and say that your grandfather didn't say anything. He just died there in the sand. In silence."

The soldier's attempted lie is emblematic of War Dances, a collection of short stories and poems by novelist Sherman Alexie. This March, Alexie -- a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian whose recent young-adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was partly inspired by his own childhood -- received the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award. The same week, War Dances won the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. The book is filled with characters determined to edit the truth of their lives, whether out of denial or for the sake of art. The same grandson who hears the veteran's story proceeds to write a heroic poem about his father. And yet, after the last verse, he lets loose with a string of written corrections that destroys every assertion he makes in his poem.

As in Alexie's other books, such as The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Flight, the characters in War Dances wrestle with the nuances of Native American heritage. A Spokane Indian seeks out a black nurse rather than her white colleagues, hoping for better treatment. A white professor "addicted to the indigenous" yearns for the day when "Brown people" will seek revenge for centuries of oppression. And in a haunting story halfway between poem and prose, Alexie chronicles the last days of Chief Joseph as he watches his Nez Perce people dwindle in exile. It's this range of writing styles and characters that helped War Dances clinch the PEN/Faulkner Award; in the words of one of the judges, reading the book "was like watching a dance."

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