“A Time of Togetherness”: How Alexie Sherman and Velma Wallis use Christmas to Present Contemporary Native American Issues
The difficulty for most contemporary Native American authors is how to present their work to a populace who is not entirely familiar with the modern Indian situation and lifestyle. One way that Alexie Sherman and Velma Wallis achieve this in their books The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Raising Ourselves is by presenting their tales alongside the almost universally-known holiday of Christmas. The average, middle-class, American reader is then able to compare his own vision of the holiday to Alexie and Wallis’ more dismal version, thus making the author’s point clearer through the stunning contrasts between the reader’s perceptions and the author’s perceptions of the same event. The reader’s idea that Christmas is a peaceful holiday filled with family and good times conflicts with the Indian view that Christmas is a time of discord and alcohol abuse. Alexie and Wallis use this strategy of twisting a well-known holiday into something the common reader no longer recognizes in order to better show the issues faced by modern Indians, such as alcoholism and familial troubles.
Alexie describes Christmas as an event that separates family members rather than brings them together as a result of alcohol’s influence. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the father of Junior, the protagonist, leaves on Christmas Eve with the family’s money, gets drunk, and doesn’t come back until January 2. After Junior tells his father that “it’s okay,” he remarks to the reader that “It wasn’t okay. It was about as far from okay as you can get. If okay was the earth, then I was standing on Jupiter. I don’t know why I said it was okay. For some reason, I was protecting the feelings of the man who had broken my heart yet again.” (Alexie 151) Junior still adores Christmas like many other children his age, and this quote expresses how hurt he is that the holiday was ruined. His repetition of saying that it wasn’t okay several times demonstrates his sheer frustration at the situation and how Junior takes the holiday seriously and did not wish for it to fail. In addition, Junior uses several phrases that distance himself from the situation and from his father’s alcoholism. He says that “It was about as far from okay as you can get” and “If okay was the earth, then I was standing on Jupiter.” At its farthest point, Jupiter is about 601 million miles away from Earth. Junior uses this example to show how far away and disconnected he is from his father emotionally. These statements serve to remove Junior out of the problem that brought him to this point, alcohol, and they remove him from his family on a holiday that people believe should bring family together. Junior also uses many uncertain expressions, such as “I don’t know” and “For some reason,” to demonstrate that alcohol has brought confusion and disruption into his family life, to the point where he calls his own actions into question. For the average reader, the fact that Junior’s father chose to abandon him on Christmas is shocking as many believe that you cannot have a successful Christmas unless an entire family is present. Children are supposed to be happy and joyous on Christmas, but instead Junior is upset and morose. This excerpt turns what Junior expected to be a happy day into a sad mix of confusion and anger amidst his family.
Wallis also uses Christmas to bring up the issues of alcoholism and familial stress so the reader can compare the holiday to his own perception. In Raising Ourselves, when Wallis is talking about Christmas, she states that “Barry and I dreamed of having a good Christmas, which meant a sober mother and a time of togetherness like our family once had. When things didn’t work out that way, we would just call it a bad Christmas.” (Wallis 149) The placement of the terms “sober mother” and “time of togetherness” right next to each other emphasizes that Wallis could not have one without the other. In addition, she directly attributes a good Christmas to a sober mother, demonstrating how the success of the holiday was entirely dependent on whether or not alcohol was involved. Wallis also seems to blame the family’s lack of togetherness on alcohol, saying “sober mother” right before talking about what her family “once had.” Clearly, Wallis believes that alcohol is one of the biggest reasons for her family troubles. For example, Wallis does not use terms like “Merry” or “Jolly” to describe her Christmas. She simply uses the term “Good,” which indicates how Wallis’ expectations of Christmas are already quite low, even if the holiday is pulled off successfully. Finally, she says that she “dreamed” of having a good Christmas, which suggests that Wallis thought a good Christmas was something extremely difficult to obtain, and that she didn’t necessarily expect to get it. In addition, this statement also draws parallels to recognizable popular culture in the form of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” song, which has the lyrics “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.” The song also mentions “The ones I used to know,” which is similar to Wallis’ “Like our family once had.” The song title Wallis is contrasting, “White Christmas,” can also be bringing up issues of race, claiming that the white version of Christmas is nothing at all like the Indian version. These details allow the reader to draw upon their personal notions of the holiday, and then contrast with Wallis’s.
Though Alexie does use Christmas as a platform to talk about poverty, he shies away from materialistic present giving and instead focuses more on the thoughtfulness of the holiday. When the sole present he receives from his father on Christmas is a $5 bill, Junior remarks that “My father must have really wanted to spend those last five dollars. Shoot, you can buy a bottle of the worst whiskey for $5. He could have spent that five bucks and stayed drunk for another day or two. But he saved it for me. It was a beautiful and ugly thing.” (Alexie 151) In this statement, the paltry gift of five dollars is not as important as the fact that his father thought to give it to him in the first place. Junior repeats several phrases. One of them is “five dollars,” repeated in different ways three times. Junior’s repetitive mentioning of the gift indicates how much the gift means to him, not because it’s substantial, but because given his father’s alcoholic absence he never expected to receive it in the first place. In addition, Alexie uses phrases like “Must have,” “You can,” and “Could have” to signify the difficulty his father probably had in reserving those five dollars for his son. By presenting all the alternative uses for the money, it makes the father’s gift seem all the more heartfelt because he turned down several other viable options in favor of his son, an action that Junior never believed would occur. Alexie goes on to state how “It was a beautiful and ugly thing.” Alexie places two words with opposite meanings side by side in order to suggest that good actions can occur among flawed ones, similar to how the father engaged in an unexpected act of kindness amidst his selfish drunken episode. In speaking more about the implications of the gift rather than the gift itself, Alexie is telling the reader about the Indian problem of poverty while at the same time praising the little things in life that people remember. All Junior wanted for Christmas was for his father to be with him and acknowledge him, and even though his father leaves for Christmas, he does not forget his son.
Wallis takes a different approach, and instead declares that later in life the materialism of Christmas gradually became more and more prevalent as her family life worsened, like a drug addiction that slowly tears her apart. When talking about Christmas, Wallis states that “It got to the point that the less we had in the way of family, the more we tried to fill the void with material goods.” (Wallis 149) It is after this that Wallis goes on to make the “Barry and I dreamed of having a good Christmas” statement about her sober mother and a time of togetherness. Adding in the reference to material goods, it becomes apparent that not only was alcohol ruining Wallis’ Christmas, but the preference to materialism over family was a factor as well. When talking about her definition of a good Christmas, Wallis never mentions presents or goods, she focuses on “togetherness” within her family. The idea that presents are an essential part of Christmas is left out of her perfect Christmas image. However, Wallis’ reality is much different, as Christmas presents become essential to getting through the holiday season in order to fill a “void” within her that is normally filled with her family, but has recently become empty as a result of troubles at home. She makes this “void” seem critically important and something that must always be filled. In addition, Wallis says that they “tried” to fill the void with material goods, meaning that they were not and could not possibly be successful. A void is a vast amount of empty space, and to fill this incredible area with just material goods would be near impossible. However, Wallis continues to try, adding that “Christmas became an obsession.” for her family. Christmas is widely regarded to be the most materialistic holiday there is, so it makes sense that Wallis would put greater emphasis on this particular holiday in order to satisfy her materialistic addiction. When she says that Christmas was an obsession, she is more closely referring to the excuse for materialism that comes with it rather than the holiday itself. Wallis is using the holiday to show the average reader how contemporary Indians are sadly replacing traditional family ties with an addiction to consumerism to the point where they feel it is necessary for their well-being. In this respect, Wallis invokes a much deeper attachment to goods around Christmas than can be found in Alexie’s book, illustrating a different coping mechanism for the same problem found in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Most Americans see Christmas as a holiday involving family bonding and the exchange of presents in a peaceful setting. Alexie and Wallis take this image and turn it upside down. By presenting Christmas as a tumultuous event filled with alcohol abuse and familial discord, they are attempting to shock their readers and make them question their own image of the holiday. This, in turn, will enable them to come closer to understanding the reality that Native Americans face every day. Alexie and Wallis each use this strategy of a shared holiday in their own way in order to forge a common ground with a predominantly non-Indian audience.
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