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Book World: The pain, and weirdness, of Alexie’s mother’s life and death

Sherman Alexie, pictured in 2016, at a celebration of Indigenous Peoples in Seattle’s City Hall. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Sherman Alexie, pictured in 2016, at a celebration of Indigenous Peoples in Seattle’s City Hall. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
By Scott W. Berg Special to the Washington Post

In May 2015, author Sherman Alexie’s mother, Lillian, was rushed to the hospital from her home on the Spokane Indian Reservation after she found it difficult to breathe. One month later, his mother fading fast, Alexie was stopped by his sister on the porch of the family home and given a warning before he could go inside and say his goodbyes. “I wanted to prepare you,” his sister said. “You see, Mom is being affectionate. She’s, like, hugging people and telling us she loves us. It’s weird.”

“You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” the memoir of Alexie’s troubled life history with his mercurial mother, is his first full-length work of nonfiction. For an author whose work in fiction and poetry is shot through with barely disguised personal elements, it’s, like, weird to get the story in a form that purports to be free of made-up stuff. Weird – but also inventively arranged, wonderfully told and always utterly heartwrenching.

“There’s too much real pain in this story for it to be a lie,”Alexie writes. “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” is a master symphony, a rock opera, a long jazz-fusion jam on the theme of pain of all sorts: physical, psychic, cultural, tribal, economic, historical, romantic, linguistic and on and on. That pain begins in pre-memory, when, 5 months old and hydrocephalic, Alexie needs surgery to relieve the excess cerebral spinal fluid pressing on his brain, and from that moment on, the hits keep coming. It’s the familiar reservation pain of too many funerals to count, too many rapes to fathom, too many family members in prison, too few roads leading away from poverty and too many roadblocks for those who do try to get out. It’s the pain of living with his mother’s on-again, off-again love for her children; with her searing, penetrating intelligence; with her sometimes simmering, sometimes boiling anger; and with her near-constant meanness, interrupted by acts of astonishing, and confusing, kindness, practiced for the most part on people other than her children.

“I imagine my mother’s pain and shame were so huge that she could only approach them piece by piece,” Alexie writes. In this way he, and his book, are much like his mother. Just as Alexie’s struggles to grow up and make his own way in the world seem like so many shards of sharp glass, rarely coalescing into a single pane through which he can see clearly, so too is the book fractured: Its more than 450 pages are broken into 160 chapters. More than half of these chapters consist of poems or micro-prose pieces that serve to remind us that while Alexie may have first come to wide notice as a short-story writer (“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”), and then rose to fame as a young-adult author (“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”), he is first and foremost a poet, in love with little bits of language that add up to something big.

His days on the Spokane reservation (Alexie eventually moved to Seattle) were “like living inside an Edith Wharton novel – a place where good and bad manners were weaponized” while grief becomes “a flash fire in our bones” and a first kiss is “a naked Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil of the soul.” An early girlfriend is “an eccentric small-town empath”; his younger self “the dry drunk poet with a Scrabble board full of mental illness acronyms”; his mother “a lifeguard on the shores of Lake F—-ed.”

Alexie looks to the tortured prisoners of Abu Ghraib in Iraq to find a fitting analogy for the corporal punishments visited on him and other Native American students by a white teacher in the second grade. He looks to “Star Wars” to explain the differences between more- and less-traditional Salish Indian families. And most movingly, he looks to the wild salmon population wiped out by the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930s for an equivalent in the animal world to his mother, last speaker of the tribal language, the “last wild salmon that remembered … who, in these pages, dies and dies and dies and is continually reborn.”

Lillian Alexie died in June 2015; “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” was all but finished by late 2016. The book is, in one simple way, the story of that year and a half, an urgent and sustained burst of writing that begins with his mother’s death and encompasses a forest fire in August 2015, two months after her funeral, that threatened to wipe out the family home and the Spokane reservation, along with another bout of brain surgery in December 2015 that left Alexie temporarily unable to concentrate on much of anything. Intertwined with that slow-moving, recursive narrative are sections that skip and leap across the dynamic history of his family and his tribe.

Fourteen years ago, I read a notice that Alexie had contracted for a work of memoir titled “Inventing My Grandfather,” billed as “a journey in search of a grandfather he never knew who died serving in the American Army in Okinawa in 1945.” We’re still waiting for that book. This delay isn’t unusual for Alexie, who’s well known for writing contracted books on his own schedule; nonetheless he has produced a considerable body of work: five collections of short stories, four novels, two screenplays and nine books of poetry. But having followed his career over that span, I wondered, where was that Alexie family history?

Now we know: He was waiting for a more urgent call, one created by his mother’s death.

“I’m always in pain,” Alexie writes. “But I always find my way to the story. And I always find my way home.”

Berg’s books include “38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End.” He teaches nonfiction writing and literature at George Mason University.

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