War Dances is a collection of short stories and poems composed and written by Sherman Alexie that covers a wide range of social issues. The collection captures the lives of individuals whose life has taken a hazardous course with irreversible consequences. Many of the characters are men, depicting the challenges facing fathers and sons in native Indian societies in America. These challenges include alcoholism and chronic diseases due to lifestyles and general economic situations based on the larger American society set up. By delving into the problems facing native men, War Dances slowly introduces the reader to the intricate issues of the family and its challenges of divorce and sons’ poor mentorship from their fathers. This is all aligned within the social inequalities, which the natives suffer in their Country. This collection is a classic portrayal of people who have given up hope in standing against their predicaments and start adopting anti-social behaviors, which further leads to negative consequences. War Dances depicts a sense of injustice, nostalgia, and identity.
The characters in War Dances are either victims of injustice and inequity or view their present situations with nostalgia. In some cases, the identity and self worth issues are raised. The ‘Senator’s son’ is a story of the United States Senator who is mired in confusion and anger and who struggles in mind when he learns that his best friend – Jeremy - is gay. The story portrays a young man who is having a problem with his identity. He is portrayed as a morally straight lad, but who has sometimes to compromise his uprightness by lying. The identity clash can be identified in statement such as, "it had never occurred to me to be something different" (81). This is apparently in reference to Jeremy. The difference is seen in relation to the Native’s community view of homosexuality.
‘Go, Ghost, Go’ is another story which portrays identity challenges in the lives of the native Indians. The Ghost dance is a religious way of life among the American Indians. This dance had an ultimate goal, in that, dancing the dance well was supposed to lead to freedom of all American Indians tribes. Also they were to gain peace and prosperity. The Professor in the story is portrayed as an addict of indigenous way of American Indian life. This shows that, in spite of modern education, the senior members of the American Indian society still value their traditional form of beliefs. This is unlike the younger generation, which is abandoning this tradition for modernity.
‘The Theology of the Reptiles’ is more of a satirical poem than serious. The dead snake, which the two brothers find, resembles two snakes. This may be because the snake was larger than usual. The narrator asks whether his brother was being cruel by hanging the dead snake in electric fence and gives an affirmative answer. Of course, the snake is dead and no cruelty can be inflicted on it. But to the surprise of the two brothers, the snake “spiraled off the wire and splayed, Alive, on the grass …then…Uncurled, stood on end, and swayed”. This means that the snake was not dead after all. The ‘dead snake’ is deliberately used to present a ‘resurrection’. This implied by the narrator’s assertion that his brother has ‘become one snake’s god’. This metaphor could be intended on resurrection on many of the community’s ‘deaths’. The community with many ailing challenges requires a courageous man to put it in a “lighting bolt” for it to resuscitate.
‘Breaking and Entering’ is a short story narrated by George Wilson. Wilson, who is a professional film editor, is unable to edit his story. He asserts that to “skip the door” is one of his maxims which he has applied throughout his career. As an editor, this idiom represents avoiding unnecessary information in construction of a story. This style is manifested in the story immediately when it starts unfolding. The story swings to actions when the editor enters the basement and finds the teenage burglar, whom he whacks to death. The dead kid would turn to be a “good kid,” and his mother blamed it on hatred and racism of whites against blacks, since the boy is African American. The identity issue is shown when Wilson indignantly asserts that he is not white but a member of the American Indians. This action, however, will put him in constant fear of retribution from black people. The setting of the story is a multiracial suburb of Seattle, and the issue of racism and crime seem to be prevalent.
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War Dances’ stories also capture the center nerve of the society’s challenges of alcoholism, especially among men. The story is about a father and a son, and the affection-disappointment relationship between them. The father, who was an alcoholic and who was also suffering from diabetes, caused more wounds to the son because of his habits. The son would remember his departed father with nostalgia, especially his funny and philosophical gab. He recalled the way he used to hilariously make comments about his brain being beautiful. He misses his dad and no one, including his wife, could appreciate him like his departed father. The meanness of alcoholism had robbed him of a father figure at a younger age and left bitterness in his memory. The young man misses his father fondly with a tinge of resentment for his behavior: “I miss him, the drunk bastard. I would always feel closest to the man who most disappointed me”.
Thus, the main themes portrayed by the War Dances include family relations, traditional way of life clash with modernity as well as the religious beliefs in the context of traditions. Also, issues of individual identity as well as inequality and justice are pointed out. The stories and poems are sometimes told with a satirical set up. The family relations and the challenges affecting these relations, alcoholism and its consequences on the family in the American Indian community are highlighted in the story.
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The religious beliefs in the wider context of the tradition are captured in the “Catechism” story. The writer’s traditional American Indian religious beliefs are brought into light in shade of the modern life in this collection. Also inequality and injustice formed from racial prejudice can be identified in some stories like in “Breaking and Entering”. The set up which is multiracial, consisting of blacks, whites, and natives, shows a community which is wary and suspicious of each other. The incidence of the black lad killed by Wilson is a key pointer. The black community reads hatred and racism in this death committed by a native, whom they mistake for a white folk. On the other hand, Wilson becomes mad because of being labeled white. He goes to the extent of producing his identification documents to correct this. By his action, the story illustrates the deep rooted sense of racism; producing documents to prove his identity supersedes the more serious murder issue involved.
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In an attempt to deliver his message home, Sherman Alexie does not seem to be confined to any particular setting. He demonstrates his ability to fit his story in any given set up. The sense of humor and satirical use of characters make the stories lively and not stereotypical.