BookMark: "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me" By Sherman Alexie

Jul 28, 2017

I have been a fan of Sherman Alexie’s since I saw his 1998 movie “Smoke Signals.” His new memoir, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” gives a heartbreaking look at how kids who are different are treated. It also happens to be set in a small town on the Spokane Indian reservation, giving a complex and not always flattering picture of tribal life.

Throughout the book, Sherman Alexie describes how he suffered at the hands of reservation bullies, kids — and sometimes adults — who did not like the bipolar egghead who was too smart for reservation schools.

The book opens with the harrowing story from his childhood. During a drunken New Year’s Eve party, Sherman Alexie saw his mother punch a woman in the face because she thought she was cheating in a card game. Sherman Alexie writes that, “blood ran between the woman’s teeth like water flowing around river rocks.”

The stories in “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” mostly center around Sherman Alexie’s mother, Lillian. She was one of the last native speakers of the Spokane Salish language. He says she was also bipolar. In fits of mania and desperation, she often stayed up all night sewing quilts to sell so the family would have money for food. Sherman Alexie forgives his mother her poverty, but not her cruelty. There’s a constant push and pull in the book. He understands the U.S. government policies that ended the traditional Spokane way of life, and laments that hydroelectric dams ended the salmon runs in eastern Washington that were a mainstay for the tribe.

Yet he keeps his distance as his mother lays dying, wary of more difficult interactions. The book is nominally about how Sherman Alexie responded to his mother’s death. The bigger story is how he managed to survive multiple brain surgeries and choose a life off the reservation while staying connected to the people he loves there.

Sherman Alexie structured “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” like one of his mother’s quilts. As stories about Lillian Alexie are told and retold, the author gains a depth of understanding that also rewards the patient reader. It’s remarkable how the memoir parallels the art of quilt making, piecing together scraps of stories, poems and personal introspection.

Readers who are visually impaired will be pleased to know “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” is available in large print. But you may want to listen to the audio book instead. Sherman Alexie reads it himself, sometimes mimicking the lilt of a reservation dialect when he quotes his relatives. At one point, you can hear he’s close to tears. It’s that emotion and the window into Spokane reservation life that make “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” an intense and rewarding read.

“You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” by Sherman Alexie is published by Hachette Book Group.

Reviewer Cindy Simmons is a professor in the college of communications at Penn State University Park. She’s also an avid reader and writer. Watch for her journalism novel, “Wrong Kind of Paper.”

I have been a fan of Sherman Alexie’s since I saw his 1998 movie “Smoke Signals.” His new memoir, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” gives a heartbreaking look at how kids who are different are treated. It also happens to be set in a small town on the Spokane Indian reservation, giving a complex and not always flattering picture of tribal life.

Throughout the book, Sherman Alexie describes how he suffered at the hands of reservation bullies, kids — and sometimes adults — who did not like the bipolar egghead who was too smart for reservation schools.

The book opens with the harrowing story from his childhood. During a drunken New Year’s Eve party, Sherman Alexie saw his mother punch a woman in the face because she thought she was cheating in a card game. Sherman Alexie writes that, “blood ran between the woman’s teeth like water flowing around river rocks.”

The stories in “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” mostly center around Sherman Alexie’s mother, Lillian. She was one of the last native speakers of the Spokane Salish language. He says she was also bipolar. In fits of mania and desperation, she often stayed up all night sewing quilts to sell so the family would have money for food. Sherman Alexie forgives his mother her poverty, but not her cruelty. There’s a constant push and pull in the book. He understands the U.S. government policies that ended the traditional Spokane way of life, and laments that hydroelectric dams ended the salmon runs in eastern Washington that were a mainstay for the tribe.

Yet he keeps his distance as his mother lays dying, wary of more difficult interactions. The book is nominally about how Sherman Alexie responded to his mother’s death. The bigger story is how he managed to survive multiple brain surgeries and choose a life off the reservation while staying connected to the people he loves there.

Sherman Alexie structured “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” like one of his mother’s quilts. As stories about Lillian Alexie are told and retold, the author gains a depth of understanding that also rewards the patient reader. It’s remarkable how the memoir parallels the art of quilt making, piecing together scraps of stories, poems and personal introspection.

Readers who are visually impaired will be pleased to know “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” is available in large print. But you may want to listen to the audio book instead. Sherman Alexie reads it himself, sometimes mimicking the lilt of a reservation dialect when he quotes his relatives. At one point, you can hear he’s close to tears. It’s that emotion and the window into Spokane reservation life that make “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” an intense and rewarding read.

“You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” by Sherman Alexie is published by Hachette Book Group.

Reviewer Cindy Simmons is a professor in the college of communications at Penn State University Park. She’s also an avid reader and writer. Watch for her journalism novel, “Wrong Kind of Paper.”