is a 2009 collection of short stories and poetry written by Sherman Alexie. As with Alexie’s other works, much of this book focuses on Native American peoples and their contemporary struggles. Writing from that point of view
, War Dances
centers on themes such as the influence of history, the power and purpose of words and writing, loneliness, and unexpected surprise.
A poem, “The Limited,” asks the question, “Why do poets think they can change the world?” According to the poem, they can only change themselves. This commentary on poetry and poets does not take away the poet’s power, but redirects it from external influence to internal influence.
“Breaking and Entering” is about George Wilson, whose house is broken into by a teenager. The teen attacks Wilson, who uses a baseball bat in defense, killing the teen. The fallout from this event causes an uproar in the media, leading to Wilson’s isolation.
“Bird-Watching at Night” is about the end of a relationship. The narrator recollects when his girlfriend ended their relationship because he thought he was an owl. The destruction of this relationship leaves him lonely and forlorn.
“War Dances,” the short story for which the collection is named, features a narrator suffering from sudden hearing loss. This causes him to fret because he thinks he either has a brain tumor or that the hydrocephalus he suffered from as a child has returned. Hydrocephalus is a rare condition that, though treatable, is worrisome due to fluid buildup in the brain. As it happens, the narrator has neither hydrocephalus nor a brain tumor, but while worrying about these diagnoses, he recalls when his father was hospitalized. At the time, another family gave his father the gift of a blanket with a song on it to fight illness. The narrator determines that such a song cannot actually heal illness, though it can provide comfort.
“Catechism” is about the blend and clash of traditional tribal beliefs and Christianity. The narrator’s father is an atheist, whereas his mother is a devout Christian. She works to tie traditional beliefs in with her belief in God.
“The Senator’s Son” begins when a Republican senator’s son assaults Jeremy. They used to be friends, but Jeremy has come out as gay. Jeremy, who also happens to be a conservative Republican, offers forgiveness and says that the senator is the best their state has ever had. He also maintains that there are bigger problems in the world than being beaten.
“The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless” is about Paul’s loneliness and connections through singing. Paul believes he sees the same woman twice at two different airports and decides they’re connected. He expresses his interest in the first woman and is rebuffed more than once due to the fact that she’s happily married. Later in the story, Paul meets a woman who looks like the first, and comes on to her. She also rejects him, but he won’t accept her rejection. Because he won’t leave her alone, security detains him. Paul starts singing to the guards at the end of the story.
“On Airplanes” is a commentary on loneliness and relationships. The narrator discusses how he always gives up his seat in order to allow couples to sit together for the duration of a flight.
“Fearful Symmetry” is about a screenwriter. After the studio demands too many changes to his latest script, he quits his job. Following that, he enters a crossword competition, which he loses. Then, on a flight back home, he tries to impress the passenger beside him by quickly filling in a New York Times
crossword puzzle. He realizes that he’s lying, but excuses the lie because he believes that all fiction writers are liars. The story ends as he reminisces about an earlier time in his life when he felt he could write.
“Salt” is a short story in which the narrator temporarily works as a writer—specifically, he writes obituaries. One day, he visits a widow to collect details to write an obituary. While visiting her, he discovers that she lives alone and is suffering from dementia and loneliness.
Sherman Alexie is a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene-American writer. He’s written short stories, novels, poetry, and screenplays. In addition to War Dances
, some of his most notable works include Smoke Signals
, Reservation Blues
, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
. Alexie has won multiple awards for his works, including the 1996 American Book Award, the 2007 National Book Award, and the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award. The latter was awarded to War Dances
. Though many of Alexie’s works are about and evoke a tone of sadness, he’s known also for his use of humor and pop culture references.