The Toughest Indian in the World (2001) is one of Sherman Alexie‘s collections of short stories. It comes before his most recent collection (Ten Little Indians) but after The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (which features many of the characters who would later appear in Alexie’s novel Reservation Blues). It is also the first one I read. Unfortunately, I feel like it may not have been the best first choice.
Alexie is a wonderful writer, of whom I am a huge fan. His writings usually revolve around the lives of various Indian (“bow and arrow not dot on the head”) characters and their complicated feelings about the reservation they love while being desperate to get away from it. This collection of stories follows a similar theme.
The thing about short stories is they’re short. Writers only have a limited amount of time to explain everything and to develop characters. I don’t know how other readers feel, but I’m of a mind that I like Alexie better as a novelist because there is more time to get to know his unique characters and understand his (at times) complex plots. I found The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven to be more engaging because different stories clearly refer to the same characters–making them more dimensional.
Back to this collection:
As is true with any talented writer, Alexie does have some gems here. “Saint Junior,” “One Good Man,” and “South by Southwest” are especial favorites of this reviewer possibly because these stories most resemble the combination of acerbic humor and gravity common to Alexie’s novels. To take “Saint Junior” as an example: Alexie examines the relationship between a married couple who met at “Saint Junior” university and continue to choose each other every day. In the story, the husband goes to take his SAT’s wearing a traditional dance costume while, later in the story, his wife preserves the tribal tradition of making Salmon mush.
These stories are not passive. If anything, they are visceral. This collection combines elements of magical realism with painfully real moments of sadness and hardship in the lives of Alexie’s modern Indian characters.
The main problem I saw with this collection is that it remained distractingly distant. Most protagonists go unnamed, sometimes barely described, which makes it difficult to connect with either the characters or their stories. Worse, the stories alternate between nearly absorbing to disturbingly jarring. “The Sin Eaters” hauntingly presents an apocalyptic world where Indians are put through their own kind of Holocaust. This story is angry and, no doubt, important. But by the end it is too angry and too horrific, so that it became a chore to read the remainder of the book for fear of what other catastrophes it might describe.
Any fan of Sherman Alexie’s writing will want to read through The Toughest Indian in the World to get a better sense of Alexie’s work on the whole. That said, readers unfamiliar with Alexie would be better off beginning with one of his novels or perhaps a different story collection.