Analysis (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
In this first collection of Sherman Alexie’s work, the author presents a selection of his writing around a central theme: what it means for Native Americans living on the reservation to find themselves delicately balanced between their tribal traditions and an impinging modern world outside the reservation. The conflict that such a situation engenders extends far beyond the confines of the Spokane/Coeur D’Alene Indian Reservation at Wellpinit in eastern Washington, where Alexie lives and about which he writes. His writing has cogent meaning for members of all subcultures within American society, whether racial or religious or those dictated by such factors as age, gender, or sexual orientation.
The Business of Fancydancing is divided into three sections entitled “Distances,” “Evolution,” and “Crazy Horse Dreams.” The most allegorical of these sections is certainly the last, which deals—fancifully at times—with the history of a native people. Elements of this history surface in the two other sections, although they are not as central to them as they are to “Crazy Horse Dreams,” which, at thirty-one pages, is the book’s longest section.
Fancydancing, from which Alexie derives his title, refers to the ritualistic tribal dances through which major elements of the history and tradition of Native Americans are communicated. These rigidly programmed dances are performed in elaborate costumes decorated with the feathers of rare birds and with ornaments made from seashells and from semiprecious jewels, often turquoise, topaz, or agate.
A picture of the author dressed in a typical fancydancing costume appears on the cover of the book. This costume cloaks all of his body save for part of the face and the hands. The legs are covered with chaps, the feet with soft, decorated slippers. The size and ornateness of the costume purposely minimize the fact that it covers a person, deemphasizing the performer—who is virtually lost in a flurry of feathers—in favor of focusing attention on the traditions that the dances convey: People are transient, tribal traditions eternal.
In most of the pieces in this collection, Alexie deals with the inherent conflicts of being a Native American in the late twentieth century. Some of the conflicts are overtly external. The police in eastern Washington discriminate against Native Americans, pulling their cars over threateningly and accusing them of infractions, often of drunk driving, as in “Traveling,” the first selection in the book.
A more internal conflict is that between the Native Americans who live on the reservation and the tribal police—their own people—who have to enforce the laws. The most extended piece in which Alexie deals with this situation is “Special Delivery,” perhaps the most psychologically and structurally complex story in the collection. It contains some of the most amazing writing in the book, mixing reality and fantasy in spine- tingling ways.
In this story, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, whose life generally follows an unwavering routine, leaves for the post office, as he always does, at 9:15 A.M. Eve, the reservation’s postmistress, is supposed to open the post office at 9:30, but she is late and Thomas stands in the cold waiting for her. As he waits, his mind reverts to a conversation he had with a fellow tribesman, Simon, a whimsical character, often drunk, who makes a habit of weaving when he drives soberly so that the tribal police will not notice a change in his driving habits when he has been drinking.
Simon has caused Thomas to think about what he calls the politics of time, distance, and geography. Simon, in a talk with Thomas when they are both drinking, contends that Point A is where a person is and Point B is where that person ought to be: If Point A, for example, is drunk, Point B is drunker. What falls between the two points is, according to Simon, politics.
As Thomas stands in the cold musing about this insight, Simon comes weaving down the road in his car, stone sober, jumps the curb, plows through a shrub, and parks directly behind Mary Song’s station wagon. Mary shrieks at him, telling him to get his truck away from her vehicle. He obliges, backing his truck all the way down the street until he hits a utility pole and disrupts electrical service. As sparks fly, “crawling along the grass like blind snakes,” Simon observes profoundly that “electricity is just lightning pretending to be permanent,” certainly one of the most memorable statements in the book, one...
(The entire section is 1848 words.)
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