If you’ve read the wonderful children’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian you know the PG version of Alexie’s life story growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is the adult version, and it’s beautiful, haunting, devastating, and raw. When his mother Lillian died in 2015 he began writing this book. She was a complex woman: brilliant, an amazing quilter, cruel at times, and damaged by growing up Native in these United States. Unlike her son, she did not attain her dreams. I kept thinking of Langston Hughes’ “dream deferred” as I was reading about her. Alexie struggles with her in death almost as much as he did in life. She was not an easy character, and though he says he does not believe in ghosts, he felt so haunted by her, depressed, and physically and emotionally grief-stricken, that he discontinued the book tour in order to take care of, and as he says, mother himself.
Alexie masterfully uses repetition and the interweaving of poetry and prose. It’s hard subject matter, but the great writing, sprinkled with humor, makes it bearable and beautiful. I was moved to tears, and I had to put it down numerous times when it became too intense. The trauma of the Native childhood in this country is stark and damning, and he says he didn’t even have it as bad as most. There are stories and memories of alcoholism, abuse, and neglect by the adults in his life, in home and at school. There are stories and poems of genocide and the spiritual ruination of his Salish salmon-worshipping people when the Grand Coulee dam went up in the 1930s. He left the reservation school to attend the white high school, which he says saved his life. In a recent interview he talks about a John Hopkins study that showed that Indian children who live on reservations have the same rate of PTSD as combat veterans. As a child he had hydrocephalus and spent a lot of time in hospitals where he came into contact with driven, bustling, white doctors who showed him that a different kind of life of the mind was possible. He found a way out of the reservation and the grinding poverty. He calls himself a city Indian, and is thankful to be one.
This is an important book. I’ve been recommending it left and right. It will speak to anyone with a traumatic childhood, anyone who’s lost a parent, and anyone who has a heart and cares about the shameful history of how Native people in this country have been, and are often still, treated. He also dives deeply into the belly of grief, expressing what is common to everyone, but so hard to articulate: the reckoning of our parents’ lives, their parenting, our relationships with them, and also of the world they lived in. Most importantly, his is a crucial voice of America that reveals our country, our history and our ongoing struggles.