This year, the Pierce County Reads program is breaking all of the stereotypes. Instead of a fairly new book with local relevance explored by a myriad of programs at Pierce County libraries, the annual community reads event has cut down to a handful of big non-library events, plus library book and film discussions, all centered around author Sherman Alexie.
Five books by the award-winning Northwest poet, novelist and screenwriter have been chosen, from short stories to novels to young adult, all dealing with contemporary Native American life. And to give you time to read all five, the Reads program is now 12 weeks long, from Sunday (Feb. 7) until Alexie speaks April 29 at Clover Park Technical College.
“We changed up the way we’re doing programs this year,” said Linda Farmer, Pierce County Library’s communications director, who co-organizes the Reads program. “Instead of lots of little programs at every one of our 20 library locations, we focused on bigger, more regional topics that would draw people to the urban centers of the county.”
The Reads program gives participants four weeks to read five of Alexie’s best-selling books before eight weeks of programs at library and regional venues. The programs will be announced March 6 in The News Tribune and on the library’s website.
Alexie’s books span time and genre.
The young adult classic, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” (2007), is largely autobiographical about a young Spokane Indian who decides to leave the reservation for a white high school. The young adult novel “Flight” (2007) is about an urban half-Indian teenager whose flight from foster care to extreme violence takes him on a time-traveling journey of redemption. The novel “Reservation Blues” (1995) is about what happens when blues legend Robert Johnson leaves his guitar on the Spokane reservation. Short story collections “War Dances” (2009) and “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” (1993) deal, respectively, with urbanized and reservation Native Americans.
“Given where we’re at historically with race (issues), we wanted the chance to talk about diversity, identity, even parenthood … (Alexie) does such a good job of that.” Jaimie Prothro, librarian
“We could have selected him a decade ago,” admits librarian Jaime Prothro, the program’s other co-organizer. “He’s among our staff’s favorite authors. But this year we were looking to explore fiction, after the last few years of nonfiction. And he’s local, he’s such a supporter of libraries and the freedom to read. And given where we’re at historically with race (issues), we wanted the chance to talk about diversity, identity, even parenthood. … (Alexie) does such a good job of that.”
Alexie was born in 1966 on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He suffered hydrocephalus as a child and beat a drinking problem in his 20s, attending Gonzaga University and graduating from Washington State University. He’s been named one of the New Yorker’s top 20 writers for the 21st century and been awarded WSU’s Highest Alumni Award, the Katherine Anne Porter Award in Literature, the Pushcart Prize and, in 2014, a literature award by the American Academy for Arts and Letters. His books have received many awards, including a National Book Award for “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” He wrote the screenplay for the film “Smoke Signals” (based on “The Lone Ranger”), which won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival.
He lives in Seattle with his family, working on sequels to “The Lone Ranger” and “The Absolutely True Diary,” and co-hosting the podcast “A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment.”
In his books and films, Alexie is a social commentator. He describes life for contemporary Native Americans with brutal honesty and pain, and gives an uncensored view of their side of American history. With some of his books banned by some school districts (though not Washington), he writes unflinchingly about alcohol, sex, drugs, racism and death, confronting taboos head-on with candor and black humor.
Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” topped the American Libraries Association 2014 list of Frequently Challenged (or banned) Books
But above all, Alexie is a storyteller, infusing his prose with poetic metaphor and symbolism, and linking past and present in a continuous whole. His characters reappear in different novels, relating to other characters and exploring their own lives and contemporary Native American culture with a mixture of adventure and philosophy. And he’s not shy about talking live about these issues, earning the description from Men’s Journal of “the world’s first fast-talking, wisecracking, mediagenic American-Indian superstar.”
“The world’s first fast-talking, wisecracking, mediagenic American-Indian superstar.” Mens’ Journal, on Sherman Alexie
“He’s very vivacious, very funny, very charged up,” says Prothro, who heard Alexie speak at a library association conference. “He told a lot of stories.”
For the program’s wrap-up, Alexie will speak and sign books at 7 p.m. April 29 at Clover Park Technical College’s McGavick Conference Center. There’ll be 45 minutes of “free-range Alexie,” as Prothro puts it, followed by a 15-minute question-and-answer session. Alexie will meet beforehand with local Native American students. Books will be available for purchase at the event.
Will everyone in Pierce County love this Alexie book binge? Not necessarily. As well as heading up the 2014 Banned Books List, Alexie’s been criticized for his negative stereotyping of Native Americans as no-good drunks, for his one-dimensional female characters, his lack of description and rushed pace. Reading all five of the Pierce County Reads selections in one go could be a depressing dive into a bleak landscape, and parents will want to read first to decide how much of it their kids can handle. Events in the books range from masturbation and eroticism to drugs, mass shootings and being burned to death.
“At times, his writing is unsettling,” Prothro says. “On the other hand, it can be funny and beautiful. He does an outstanding job at reflecting all the emotions you feel in life, going from people being really insensitive in one chapter to boys just being in love with basketball in the next. It’s lovely.”
Above all what Prothro and her fellow librarians want Pierce County readers to get out of this year’s program is a communal sense of empathy.
“Any time we do this program, the goal is to engage people in a variety of discussions, from events to libraries to just on the street. We’re hoping that through these discussions, the level of empathy and understanding that our community gets for when someone is an outsider, when they’re not treated right, when they’re challenged, makes us think how we can better understand and help.”
Pierce County Reads
The author: Sherman Alexie.
The books: “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” (2007), “Flight” (2007), “Reservation Blues” (1995), “War Dances” (2009) and “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” (1993).
Event: Alexie speaks and signs books, 7 p.m. April 29, Sharon McGavick Conference Center, Clover Park Technical College, 4500 Steilacoom Blvd SW, Lakewood.
More information: piercecountyreads.org.