War Dances Discussion Questions

1.    To varying degrees, each of the 23 entries in this collection is a stand-alone work.  How cohesive is this collection?  What are some of the stronger connecting themes in the book?

2.    The book primarily presents a male voice.  In what ways, if any, is this significant to you, as a reader?  How do you respond to the general absence of the female voice?   Do you think that men react differently to books that are perceived to be primarily reflective of the female voice than women react to books that tend to be more representative of the male experience?  In the selection, Home of the Braves, Alexie makes the statement that “all men are alike.”  Are there are other instances in the book where Alexie seems to support this opinion?  Reflecting on the entire book, what might be some generalizations about men that Alexie would consider valid?  To what extent do you agree or disagree?

3.    Why do you think that the collection is titled:  War Dances?  What is a War Dance?  Is this title an attempt to connect all the selections in the book or does the title simply reference one of the selections?  Is this a good title? If you were to select an alternative title, what would you choose? 

        Explain the cover.  Why were these particular shoes selected for the cover?

4.    What are Alexie’s purposes for writing this book?  To what extent are these purposes realized?

5.    Did you expect Sherman Alexie to be a voice for Native Americans?  If yes, why? To what extent, were your expectations met? Does each selection connect to some degree with the Native American experience or culture?

        Does this work attempt to break away from Alexie’s identification as a NA writer?  

        The degree to which the selections inform about Native Americans varies.  Which selections expanded your knowledge about and understanding of Native Americans?  How does this book show a different perspective about Native Americans than most other books?  In this book, how does Alexie attempt to shape readers’ opinions about Native Americans?  To what extent is he successful?

        Some of the selections are more universal in focus:  reflective of American life rather than only the Native American experience.  How do those selections transcend ethnicity and/or class? How strong are his stories when they are less focused on the NA?

         To what extent does Alexie break down stereotypes about Native Americans?  Is this a strong purpose of the writing?  Which selections attempt this and to what extent is each successful? How is  his content or characterization used to dispel stereotypes?

         On the other hand, some critics have argued that certain NA stereotypes seem to be promoted by Alexie in some stories. What is your opinion?   In the title story:  Alexie describes his father as dying from the “natural Indian death:  alcohol and diabetes;”  explain your reaction to this statement?

        How are we impacted by the way that others perceive us? Why do stereotypes exist; how do they come to be? Are there positive stereotypes?  Are there advantages to stereotyping or being stereotyped?  Disadvantages?  What are some stereotypes about NA? 

        Alexie often  focuses both on disabilities he suffered because he was born with hydrocephalism and on the problems caused by his father’s alcoholism.  How seriously does he take these problems?  Is he bitter?  Amused?  What role do these challenges play throughout the book and seemingly in Alexie’s life?  What do we learn about the way Alexie deals with illness and disability?  Discuss his self-deprecating style, as it emerges in other selections?  What is your reaction to Alexie’s thinking about such life challenges?

        How does Alexie deal with the issues of alcohol dependency and alcohol abuse among Native Americans?   Why do you think there is so much drinking by Native Americans?  What are the consequences of there being so many Native Americans with alcohol issues? Does Alexie take these things as a matter of fact?  Does he think that they are amusing?  Does he seem hopeful that things will change?

        Discuss how Alexie conveys the general sense of poverty and hopelessness that exist for many Native Americans, particularly those living on reservations.  Is Alexie angry and bitter about the general quality of life for Native Americans?  Is he able to keep a sense of humor about things, or is he simply depressed?

6.    At times, the book is highly political.  The author has much to say about our society.  What appear to be some of the more important societal issues from his perspective?  What are his opinions on these issues?  How effectively are these opinions substantiated?  Explain your opinions and how they were affected by Alexie’s thinking or points of view?

        Sherman Alexie has said that “the true purpose of art is to ask questions.”  Do you agree?  In  War Dances, Alexie asks some tough questions . . . what  tough questions are posed by Alexie? Are some questions raised repeatedly?  Do any themes emerge?  To what degree does Alexie answer his own questions?   How obvious are his opinions?   To what degree, are readers encouraged to answer these questions for themselves?  Explain why certain stories/questions were especially provocative for you.

        Some authors believe that a writer should explain nothing.  To what extent does Sherman Alexie seem to follow this principle of leaving the answers, particularly about right and wrong, up to readers?


7.    Often the book uses direct language.  What is your reaction to this?  How effectively does the use of direct language advance the purposes of the writer?

         Alexie’s use of strong direct language is offensive to some.  When giving a talk at an Illinois High School, Alexie used similar language and some students walked out. According to a newspaper report, Alexie apologized to anyone he had offended but stood by his use of the words in his novel “. . . because that was what was said. And to blunt the hatred of that insult blunts the incredible obstacles my character had to face.”  (“Author Defends Using Slur, but Apologizes to Students,” by Melissa Jenco, Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, IL, October 6, 2007.) Do you agree with Alexie that in order to make his points, he sometimes has to use words that inevitably would offend some people?


8.    Sherman Alexie has referred to humor as “an antiseptic that cleaned out the deepest personal wounds.” (The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor)  To what extent, is this definition reflected in War Dances?  Is there a selection where Alexie’s use of humor worked especially well for you?  War Dances has been said to “. . . ask tough questions in a funny voice.”    http://www.cleveland.com/books.   What are your thoughts about Alexie’s use of humor in War Dances?

9.    The book is structurally inventive, combining a variety of poems and prose pieces.  Some entries actually are difficult to categorize.  How do you respond to this approach?  Did you find this structure effective?  Does it widen or diminish the book’s appeal?

        The book begins and ends with poems.  Do these poem choices work for introducing and concluding the book?  Compare and contrast the opinions expressed in the first and last poems.  The Limited opens the selections.  How does it prepare the reader for the collection?  Does it set a tone for the collection? Why was Food Chain selected to conclude the collection?

10.    Discuss some of the selections that focus on the process of self-identification.  How one defines herself/himself changes through life.  How do you identify yourself?  Has that identity been fluid?  How did you come to identify as you do today?  What are some of the most influential forces that shape one’s identity? How important is self-identification? How does it shape behavior, attitudes and values? How does self-identification influence who you are, how you present yourself and how you view others and the world through time?  Is a self-identity important?  What are the pluses and minuses of a having a strong self-identity?  Which selections focus on self-identification?  How does each deal with the process?  What do the selections tell you about Alexie’s views about self-identity and self-identification?

        Discuss some the selections that examine the difficulty in knowing who people are.  Why is truly knowing someone a challenge?  What prevents you from knowing another person?  Through time and space, masks are lowered and often we learn more about ourselves and others.  What contributes to this phenomenon?  Select a story that focuses on the experience of learning that another person is not whom you had thought?  Based on the readings, what are Alexie’s opinions are about such discoveries?  How can getting to know someone better impact you— your self-view; view of others; world-view; feelings about your past as well as those about the future.

         In the story “Breaking and Entering,” the narrator succeeds in thwarting a burglary of his house.  Why didn’t this make him happy?  Describe his conflicting emotions.  Did he have any sense of shame?  Why would that be?  Then, when the radio announcer describes him as a “white man,” why does he call the station to correct the record?  Did that make him feel better or worse?  Why?  Have you ever done (or said) something that at first seemed like a victory and then later brought you shame?


11.    Why are you who you are?  How does your past determine who you are?  How does it determine who you want to be?  And who you become?  Why do we wear masks?  Are masks essential?  What are the benefits and drawbacks of wearing masks?  Are there differences between wearing masks and misrepresenting yourself?  What risks are involved in lowering your mask?  What are the benefits and drawbacks to lowering your mask?  Are there stories that highlight these benefits and drawbacks?  Given these particular selections, what are Alexie’s opinions about being more of yourself with others?

         Much of the book focuses on the past.  The past is a powerful influence on the present and the future. Is nostalgia a positive or negative word?  Why does it often provoke anger, hostility or other negative feelings and behavior?  Why does it also support positive feelings and behavior? Which selections that deal with the past, particularly resonate with you?  To what extent do these selections demonstrate Alexie’s historical sense and sensibilities regarding the past?  Which stories evoke or illustrate the author’s perceived power of the past? What are Alexie’s thoughts and feelings about the past?


12.    Not all past experiences are positive.  Survival is another theme of this collection. Alexie offers ideas about surviving tragedy and/or injustice.  Which of the selections reveal his ideas for surviving and/overcoming negative life experiences? What are your thoughts about his suggestions for or philosophy about survival?  Which stories inform about and/or inspire surviving?

         In some instances, Alexie focuses on collective injustices or injustices perpetrated on a specific group, such as the Native Americans.  Which selections reflect his feelings and thoughts about the injustices suffered by Native Americans throughout history?  How would you describe his feelings?  What are your thoughts?

         Upon reflection about War Dances, how does Alexie think history, as both lived and written about, is created?


13.    Throughout the book, Alexie provides his thoughts about efforts to change or save other people.  What are his opinions and how do they mesh with your own?  Is it true as he claims in the opening selection that “The only life I can save is my own?”  After reading the entire book, what do you think Alexie thinks about his own claim?

        In the poem “The Limited,” what did the narrator do to stop the “bad behavior” of the other character (the one who tried to run over a dog)?  Do you think words are enough when you see injustice?  Do we always take action?  Why do people act or fail to act as witnesses to injustice?  Can we always take action?  How often are we able to “do something about it”?

14.    How might the story of Paul Nonetheless be seen as a story of a man stuck in adolescence?  Are we meant to feel sympathy for Paul or disdain?

What are the ways in which Alexie holds up the experiences of adolescence as seminal in the formation of his characters? Which characters/experiences from youth, revealed in his stories and poems, take on significance as he remembers them from the perspective of adulthood?  Is there a pattern in those stories, particularly in the kind of moments or people that continue to move him?

Why do so many of Alexie’s references to adolescence include the feeling of humiliation or shame?  Is Alexie sharing a personal reality or is he speaking for most of us?

Does Alexie idealize the people and experiences from adolescence or remember them with clarity, nostalgia and/or pain?

How does Alexie’s identity as a Spokane and Coeur d’Alene influence his memories of adolescence?  Do his stories reflect a universal experience or does the specific context make them unique?

15.    What does Alexie believe about the relationship between father and son?
Do his stories engender primarily feelings of disappointment, shame, warmth and closeness and/or respect? Which story or stories do you think provide the truest key to Alexie’s feelings or desires?

16.    How do the issues of forgiveness and shame merge in the selections  to elucidate the experience of the narrator or the author?  Do Alexie’s characters exhibit the capability to forgive themselves and/or the people closest to them?

  • Why does the narrator in Breaking and Entering say, “It’s not oil that runs the world, it’s shame.”?
  • What does Alexie believe about forgiveness?  Is it infinite?   Should it be?
  • In several stories, the narrator is very hard on himself.  What does Alexie seem to be saying about forgiving oneself?


17.    In the opening story of War Dances, “Breaking and Entering,” Alexie describes his background training as an editor, who was instructed to “skip the door…and you will be set free; advice he applies to his writing and to his “entire life.”

  •  What is Alexie’s definition of “editing”?
  •  Why does he give this information to the reader at the outset of his book?
  •  Through this information, what insights does the reader gain about the writer?
  •  As a result of this “editing” process, what common themes emerge in this collection?
  •  Which selections seem most strongly to exhibit this artistic style?

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