Ever since I joined the Association for Mormon Letters email list the main author that has been held forth as a model for good Mormon writing is Chaim Potok. We like him because he managed to take an insular, idiosyncratic community (Hasidic Judaism) and craft novels that can speak to a wide audience.
A few days ago I ran across a book that provides another compelling model, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. I’ve read a number of Alexie’s books before, so I knew I was in for some good writing, but I was amazed this time around at how elegantly he dealt with the subject we value Potok for, namely how a person (especially a young person) deals with the tension between the community he/she was raised in, and the larger world.
The story is about a Spokane Indian boy named Junior who, on the advice of a teacher, decides to leave the reservation school and pursue his education in a nearby town. He believes it’s the only way he’ll escape the fate of pretty much everyone he knows: alcoholism and an early death.
The book is filled with cartoons. One shows a boy standing next to directional signposts. The one that points behind him reads, “Rez: Home.” The boy is considering the direction of the other signpost, the one that reads “Hope???”
But everyone Junior cares about interprets his leaving the reservation school as a betrayal. They call him an “apple” meaning that he’s red on the outside and white on the inside. Going into the white world, even if it means he’ll live a longer, happier and more productive life, is simply unacceptable to Junior’s neighbors.
You simply don’t leave the reservation.
Of course, in the outside world Junior finds both good and bad things. But ultimately he does find hope. And he makes it very clear that he could not have found that hope on the reservation. He does have other very important things on the reservation: family, friends, and heritage. And he wants these as well. This tension between the white world (hope) and the reservation (family) produces some very moving and insightful moments.
This plot is very much like Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev where a young Jewish artist finds himself pulled between his religious world and the art world.
Potok and Alexie believe something that (it seems to me) the majority of Mormons I have come in contact with don’t. Namely, that all truth and goodness cannot be found in one place. Now I’m not just talking about optional or supplemental truth and goodness, I’m talking about indispensable truth and goodness. Had Junior stayed on the reservation he would have had his family and community, but he would not have had hope. Had Asher ignored his artistic talent, an essential part of him would have remained in darkness.
The reservation is the place where family and community are. The White world is the place where hope is. The Hasidic worldview is where family and faith are. The art world is where transcendence is (for Asher, anyway). Junior and Asher need both worlds in order to become whole. But in order to partake in both, they have to become a stranger in both.
Mormons often admonish each other to be in the world but not of it. In other words, we’re encouraged to be strangers to the world. But we are taught to never be strangers in our own community. Don’t leave the reservation. Don’t wander into the mists of darkness.
The fact of it is some of us have to leave the reservation. Maybe we're crazy. Maybe we're arrogant. Maybe we're broken. Maybe we're brave. But somehow the nutrients from the fruit of the Tree of Life are too few and we find that we're dying.
Whenever I think of the beginning of the Mormon hero’s journey, I imagine her stationed at the Tree of Life peering across the dark canyons, filthy rivers and greasy mists to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
This is the dilemma Mormon artists often face in our lives and our work. We feel ourselves becoming strangers to our own community. So many of us stand to lose so much if we become complete strangers. We lose family, friends, social ties, a common language, perhaps even our souls. Yet the world doesn’t accept us completely either. We’re strange.
What tribe can we be a part of? Where can we pitch our tent? Do we have to be nomads for the rest of our lives?
At the end of Part-Time Indian, Junior gives his best answer to that question.
“I wept because I was the only one who was brave and crazy enough to leave the rez. I was the only one with enough arrogance.”
“I realized that I might be a lonely Indian boy, but I was not alone in my loneliness. There were millions of other Americans who had left their birthplaces in search of a dream.”
“I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of book worms.”
“And the tribe of cartoonists.”
“And the tribe of chronic masturbators.”
“And the tribe of teenage boys.”
“And the tribe of small-town kids.”
“And the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners.”
“And the tribe of tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers.”
“And the tribe of poverty.”
“And the tribe of funeral-goers.”
“And the tribe of beloved sons.”
“And the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends.”
What is the possibility that we can have many homes, instead of having to give up the one we came from? Can we be a part of the tribe of Mormons, sex scene writers, pantheists, mocha ice cream lovers, Burning Man enthusiasts, and beloved sons and daughters?