Using comedy as his vehicle, Sherman Alexie told a rambling tale of how he obtained a dozen World War II medals awarded to his grandfather on the Oprah Winfrey television show while being in the throes of the flu, garnering chuckles aplenty.
He concluded on a sober note by explaining what he imagines the medals meant to his own dad, during which you could have heard a pin drop.
Mr. Alexie, who grew up on an Indian reservation in Washington and lives in Seattle, writes about contemporary Native American life.
He regaled an audience of 426 Wednesday night at the Stranahan Theater, as part of the Authors! Authors! series sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. He’s won acclaim for his semiautobiographical young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, for Ten Little Indians, and Reservation Blues. He wrote the screenplay for the film Smoke Signals, which was the audience favorite at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.
Wednesday night’s story, saturated with comedic asides, began in early 2003, when he learned his grandfather was killed at Okinawa during World War II. Mr. Alexie’s father was 5 years old, and within the year, the child’s mother died of tuberculosis, leaving his father to be raised by a grandmother. His father spoke little of those experiences, he said.
Mr. Alexie sought war medals at the same time he was taking part in an anti-Iraq War parade, at which he noticed a woman carrying a “Vegans for World Peace” sign.
“I mean, ‘World Peace’ was in the prepositional phrase,” he said.
Comedic asides: The measure of a city’s arrogance is the number of food trucks it has. Seattle has one that sells gourmet fry bread, a Native American favorite. And a cousin who carved a totem pole featured the Kama Sutra with animals in the act instead of humans. And being “an ambiguously colored person,” which contributed to the suspicions the flight crew had of him on the airplane to Chicago to appear on Oprah’s show. He was felled by the flu and made numerous trips to the restroom, walking like kokopelli (which he demonstrated to audience delight.)
Receiving his grandfather’s World War II medals from a brigadier general on the Oprah show was a surprise. “When Oprah calls, the U.S. Army listens,” the general explained.
Later, when Mr. Alexie gave his father the box of medals, neither man said much. But his father decided to stop dialysis and died several months later.
“He’d been so unhappy and so sick for all his life, but he got them.”
And, Mr. Alexie said, he likes to think that something went full circle for his father, allowing him to let go.
“My father’s dying has helped me to live in the mystery.”
Next in the series is Jimmy Santiago Baca, whose memoir, A Place to Stand, recounts his years in a maximum security prison. He’s also written for young people. He’ll speak at 7 p.m, Oct. 2, in the Main Library’s McMaster Center.
Contact Tahree Lane at: firstname.lastname@example.org and 419-724-6075.