Why I Don't Do War Dances

Last Monday was an idyllic day.  The boy and I picked up the girl from school and proceeded directly to the library.  I grew up going to the Eastgate branch, and while it is familiar as a spoon, I now prefer the downtown branch.  I tell my kids it’s because it’s closer, and it is; however, I prefer it because of how large, contained, and engaging the children’s section is.  Unfortunately, the rest of the library is pretty dismal.  In recent years, our city and county have half-heartedly discussed the possibility of improving the downtown branch, but politics and money (the heartbeat of all things holy) inexorably stand in the way.  They even paid some consultants to tell them, “Yep, your system is pretty much broken, and your downtown branch is depressing,” but they have not yet found a way to respond to such a critique.  But the children’s section is huge, it has decent light, and thankfully, the computers are not the most important fixtures in the room.  They are there, and for some children, they are a good resource.  But books take center stage here, and their characters populate the walls, the display cases, and, with luck, the imaginations of the kids who come.

My children prefer to start with the board books.  I’m sure this behavior stems from that being the spot where I would dump them as tiny ones.  They would happily gum book corners and look at dump trucks and Moo, Baa, La La La while I quickly skimmed a few and got them in my bag.  Now, they are much too old for such fare, but they still often start there.  Then, they browse the chapter and older picture books for awhile.  Inevitably, one needs to go to the bathroom or get some water, and I can trust them (and the place) to go around the corner on their own.  At some point, they stop to look at the exquisitely crafted mouse house regularly on display.  It is a sculpture about 2½ feet tall, and it shows a family of mice performing various mousely tasks: tucking the baby mice into acorn cradles upstairs, fishing in the pond out front, swinging beneath the branches of their oak tree home, gathering flowers in the yard.  My children (and I) love it. 

Meanwhile, I can pull books from shelves, read, admire Giselle Potter’s artwork, giggle at Mo Willems’ Piggie and Elephant, listen to my children pulling Magic Tree House books they’ve already read from the shelves and laughing again at names like Stinky and Pinky from Pirates Past Noon.  I can eavesdrop as the librarian praises an 8 or 9 year old boy for his recent report card.  He’s there with his tutor, working on his reading skills.  He’s there every week, and he knows this place as well as my children do.  He trusts its transformative power, too.  Like satellites, my kids return at intervals, checking that I am still the largest thing in the room, and then scamper off again to revel in the beautiful mystery of so many words.  I don’t find many things more pleasurable.

When we finally left, arms full of books, we made our way to the check out where I allowed myself to browse the new books shelves.  I haven’t done this since the girl (now almost 6) was an infant.  I’ve mentioned before the burden my TBR shelves have placed on me and how I have eschewed the library in an effort to focus more on those I own.  This time, though, I found several I wanted to check out.  And ignoring that little voice in my head, I brought one home: Sherman Alexie’s War Dances.  
I first read Alexie in the Spring, and I was captivated by the strong narrative voice in Flight.  I’m actually teaching it for the first time later this semester, so I’ll be interested to see how students respond to it.  War Dances is a collection of short stories with poems interspersed.  There were moments of stark brilliance, but overall, I was not taken so willingly captive.  I can point to no particular wrongdoing of Alexie’s.  The poems offered a thoughtful counterpoint to the stories, and I liked some of the wordplay he used.  The stories themselves were cogent, cohesive, and weighty.  However, they did not sing to me.   And I think I know why.  The stories are populated with people, mostly men, who are brash, forceful, angry at times, and coarse.  They use profanity and discuss tits while dealing with real and difficult life experiences like alcoholism, adultery, and homicide.  I don’t think Alexie is wrong to draw these men in this way; in fact, I feel they are probably familiar to Alexie’s reality, so it’s appropriate.  However, it is not my reality.  My reality is quiet libraries with imaginative, precious children; my reality is red metal picnic tables, umbrellas, and sounds from nearby climbing walls; my reality is nap time and prayer and meals around the table.  Really, it is.  I recognize fully the place of privilege I inhabit.  I know I have a power to exclude certain things from my life that others have no control over.  But there are stories, there are entire bodies of work (David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs), that force me to enter into a reality I just don’t want to make room for.  Lest you think me closed-minded, allow me one moment of explanation.

I believe one of the greatest measures of good writing is exactly the way it allows or even forces us to enter into those “other” places.  I believe it is important to see through those lenses, to feel the anger, the self-righteous burn of those who have been oppressed, especially if you have been among the oppressors.  I believe it is enriching and fulfilling to live in other times, other places, other people’s realities for a time because it allows us to be more in our own.  So, do not mistake my discomfort for disapproval.  I’m glad Alexie has written what he has written and the way he has written it, and I hope he will keep singing his song.  I’m glad for his voice, his experience, as well as the numerous other authors who say and do and feel things I’d rather not know about.  I just don’t want to learn the words to their songs by heart.  I’ll stick with Fais Do-do and Sun Salutation and the downtown library’s children’s section.  At least for today.

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