YOU DON’T HAVE TO SAY YOU LOVE ME, by Sherman Alexie. Little, Brown and Co., 457 pp., $28.
“Did she love me?” Sherman Alexie asks about his mother in his memoir of their complicated and conflictual relationship.
“When I gather up all the available evidence, I have to say, ‘Yes, Lillian Alexie loved Sherman Alexie Jr.’ But I can only render that verdict with reasonable doubts.”
In “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” Alexie serves as both prosecutor of and defense counsel for Lillian. He also takes turns as judge, ruling on the admissibility of evidence. Early on, he highlights both his mother’s and his impeachability as witnesses: both known storytellers, both having bipolar disorder, both formerly active alcoholics.
Alexie is best known for his acclaimed and occasionally banned classic, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which won the National Book Award for young people’s literature in 2007. His new memoir mixes short prose chapters with related poems. In both modes, he’s compulsively readable, a literary writer with the guts of a stand-up comedian.
He grew up in brutal poverty on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington state. Lillian was a Spokane, the writer’s father a member of the Coeur d’Alene. Alexie doesn’t mince words about the rez: “Indian reservations were created by white men to serve as rural concentration camps and I think that’s still their primary purpose.”
While decrying white treatment of Indians as genocide, and seeing roots of his parents’ difficulties in that history, he also is pointed in his commentary about how Indians treat each other on and off the rez, including the ones who bullied him as a hydrocephalic child prone to seizures, and the adult critics who don’t think Alexie is Indian enough.
He credits Lillian with saving his life twice: once in 1973, when she stopped drinking and made the family home “relatively safe,” and in 1979, when she and Sherman’s father gave him permission to go to the white high school in town. At the time of her death, she was one of the few fluent speakers of her tribal language, but she told young Sherman that English would be his future.
Yet they fought bitterly — he recounts in literary slo-mo the time (he claims) she fired a can of Pepsi at his fragile post-surgical head. At one point, they did not speak for a three-year period, even when they were at the same events.
After she dies, he mourns her, complicatedly, seeing her ghost everywhere and questioning what he did and didn’t do for her. He also likens her in poems to the wild salmon, the sacred creature of his Salish people.
Alexie is something of a salmon himself: He left the rez, but in his writing he returns again and again.
In piecing together his mother’s history from the stories she told him (and more than once he refers to her as a liar), Alexie concludes that both she and another family member were children of rape, leading to some of his soberest, open-ended reflections on how mothers would feel about children born from those incidents.
In the months following his mother’s death, Alexie underwent brain surgery for removal of a benign but troublesome tumor. I’ve never read an account of neurosurgery as laced with self-deprecating humor as this one, with Alexie giving the best, X-rated punchline to his graceful ICU neurological nurse.
A child of poverty, racism and addiction, Alexie nonetheless sees that his parents left him a legacy. In “Tyrannosaurus Rez,” he concludes “ . . . they left me a trust fund / Of words, words, and words / That exist in me / Like dinosaurs live in birds.”