2 by Sherman Alexie chosen for 'One Book' in Philadelphia

"The Absolutely True Diary" tells of a Spokane Indian teenager who leaves the reservation to attend an all-white school.
"The Absolutely True Diary" tells of a Spokane Indian teenager who leaves the reservation to attend an all-white school.
Posted: October 26, 2010

This time, one book isn't enough, but one author still is.

The "One Book, One Philadelphia" project, which aims to promote literacy and bring the community together by suggesting one book for all Philadelphians to read, is recommending two for the 2011 program.

Both come from American Indian author Sherman Alexie, and both have won major literary awards.

Mayor Nutter announces the selections Tuesday morning at the Free Library of Philadelphia, which sponsors "One Book, One Philadelphia" in conjunction with his office.

One of the books is War Dances, a collection of short stories and poems published last year and winner of the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

The other, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a novel for teens published in 2007, won a National Book Award.

The "One Book" program, entering its ninth year, has recommended books for teen readers since 2006 as companions to the main selection, but this year, for the first time, "both books will occupy center stage," said Marie Field, chair of the program.

The Absolutely True Diary, with art by cartoonist/illustrator Ellen Forney, offers the perspective of youth, and War Dances the perspective of maturity, she said.

So, while the program will distribute copies of Diary to the city's public high schools for class use, "We are . . . also recommending it for the readership in general," she said. "War Dances is for the general public, but we're also giving the high school teachers the option of including it."

(There is also a recommended companion book for younger children, The Good Luck Cat by Joy Harjo.)

Reading War Dances and Diary together will make for "a synergistic, doubly rich reading experience," Field said.

Alienation and isolation, perennial problems for big-city dwellers, have been constant themes for Alexie, 44, a Spokane/Coeur D'Alene Indian who lives in Seattle.

"The story of Native Americans is the story of cultural isolation, identity crisis, battling against generations of poverty, fear, and oppression," he said by phone Monday from Pueblo, Colo., where Absolutely True Diary is a "One Book" selection (as it was last year in Mount Laurel, Burlington County).

Novelist Elizabeth Mosier praised War Dances in an Inquirer review last year as a "powerful and perfectly ordered collection of stories and poems . . . a different kind of journey through unfamiliar territory - one that seeks to understand the causes of modern men's alienation, whatever tribe they've wandered from or tried to claim." (The review is online at www.philly.com/entertainment).

Absolutely True Diary deals with the misadventures of a Spokane Indian teen who leaves the reservation to seek a better education at an all-white school.

Alexie, born in Spokane and raised on a reservation in eastern Washington, has been a frequent visitor to Philadelphia throughout his career. While his books have been chosen for "One Book" programs elsewhere, Philadelphia is the largest city, and the first in the East, to do so.

"I've always had such a great time in Philadelphia," said Alexie, who will not be at the Tuesday's ceremony but will appear on video. "The audiences are as diverse as anywhere in the country."

"One Book, One Philadelphia" will run from Jan. 19 to March 17, with a series of events including discussions, workshops, and dance and musical performances. In March, Alexie will visit the city for school and public readings.

"I just am so excited to read his work," said Field. "I think he is such a profound writer, as well as embracing that full range of emotions. He grabs your heart and doesn't let it go."

Contact staff writer Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or mschaffer@phillynews.com

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