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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Friday, July 28, 2017

Sherman Alexie's justly famous story neither moralistic nor sentimental

Sherman Alexie's famous story What You Pawn I Shall Redeem, in the 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories anthology, is moving, sometimes sad, sometimes funny tale of an adult Native American (he uses Indian throughout) in Seattle, homeless for 6 or so years, alcoholic and in illhealth but in good spirits, and his 24-hour odyssey or heroic quest to attain $999 to redeem from a pawn shop a beautiful prayer jacket that he believes his late grandmother made and that was stolen from her - how exactly is never touched upon. Over the course of 24 hours money flows in and out of his hands, and he both experiences and exhibits great kindness and generosity - as well as serious alcohol poisoning, getting slugged by a bar owner when he refuses to leave at closing time, arrest, illness - and many encounters w/ other Indians of other NW tribes, all of them sorrowful and lost. The great beauty of this story is Alexie's complete avoidance of cliche and homily and "feel-good" endings; yes, people give the narrator $ and he even wins $100 on a lottery scratch ticket, but he ends up giving away or spending all the $ - and not to bring about good in others, as a sappy, moralistic writer might have it, but to buy rounds of drinks for fellow Indians already too far gone, etc. So Alexie stares directly upon the miserable lives of homeless Indians in Seattle, never sentimentalizes or romanticizes, but without bitterness and hatred: two of the people who are kind to the narrator are a Seattle cop and the pawnshop owner, for example. There's a touch of magic realism and religious overtones as well (see the title); I won't give the ending away, but suffice it to say that it's never entirely clear that the pawnshop and the prayer jacket actually exist outside of the narrator's imagination. In the end, it's he himself who is redeemed - through his connection to ancestors, family, and his community, although we wonder about his future and his fate; he has made us look at the think about the rootless and homeless in a different, more sympathetic and open manner - a fine piece of writing top to bottom.

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