Bridges Picks ‘Reservation Blues’ for Summer Reading

Andy Monserud

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Another in a series of “lasts” for President George Bridges came over spring break, when the Whitman Office of Communications announced his choice for this year’s summer reading, “Reservation Blues” by Sherman Alexie. The office also announced that Alexie will visit campus on October 1 and 2 to give a lecture to the community.

Alexie will give a talk on “Reservation Blues” for the benefit of the first-year class and other interested members of the community, but his plans for the remainder of his two-day stay on campus have yet to be announced.

Director of Penrose Library Dalia Corkrum, who has met the author and served on the reading committee that helped to select the book, has high hopes for the visit.

“He’s just a wonderful man,” Corkrum said. “Very interesting [and] very, very funny, but very serious also, and he can make some very important points in a way that really … [makes] people think.”

Bridges selected the book with input from several members of the Whitman community. He fielded recommendations from the entire community and pared it down to a smaller list. He then gave that list to a small reading committee comprised of professors, administrators and students, who gave feedback and their own recommendations back to Bridges.

Bridges followed a non-traditional path in choosing this summer’s book. He followed usual protocol for the initial stages of selection but ultimately selected a previously unmentioned book. “Reservation Blues” did not appear on the original list of recommendations from the community, but another Alexie book, 2007’s “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” did. The list also included another book dealing with Native American culture and history, Louise Erdrich’s “Plague of Doves.”

Each committee member read as many of the books as possible over winter break and returned with feedback on each. They narrowed the list down to four recommendations, including “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” and “Plague of Doves.”

Despite its local relevance and the  availability of the author––both major factors in choosing a summer reading book––concerns regarding the teenage target audience for “The Absolutely True Diary” followed it throughout the vetting process.

“There were some concerns along the way raised about [The Absolutely True Diary] … that some high school kids were already reading that,” said Assistant Dean for Student Engagement Noah Leavitt, who served on the committee. “Is the reading of that book, which was written with a target audience of 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds the right one for a college reading list? So those two concerns carried along with the very strong endorsement for the book.”

In response to these concerns, Bridges made an executive decision to select “Reservation Blues.” The book has many of the commonalities found in the other books recommended, and Leavitt speculated that Bridges attempted to find a book that fit the general trajectory of the discussions but had no such baggage attached.

“It seemed like President Bridges got the message that the review committee was interested in a book about Native American issues,” said Leavitt.

Junior Tatiana Kaehler, who served on the committee, supports Bridges’s choice but has a few ideas with regard to the selection process. She and another student on the committee cast their votes for Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,which did not make it to the final round, and they didn’t receive any follow-up information on their pick.

“They actually didn’t communicate with us what the final four ended up being,” said Kaehler. “So afterwards, when I got back from break, I had to provide input on the books … and then after that I didn’t really hear that much … I think it’s really great that they involve students in this process, [but] I think it would be good to have a little more discussion on the book following break.”

“Reservation Blues,” Seattle resident Alexie’s 1995 debut novel, follows the formation and exploits of an all-native rock band from the Spokane reservation at Wellpinit. The book thrives on contradiction. Myths from all cultures permeate the otherwise bleak portrait Alexie paints of the Spokane reservation at Wellpinit. The first chapter, for instance, details a meeting with legendary Depression-era bluesman Robert Johnson, even though the rest of the book is set in modern times and Johnson died in 1938.

These apparent contradictions go beyond myth as well. Alexie tinges even the book’s darkest moments with wry humor, and protagonist Thomas Builds-The-Fire’s stories swerve chaotically between oral tradition and improvisation.  Alexie’s narration takes all this in stride, easing the reader into stories that often seem like nonsense––and sometimes are––but that retain enough grit and realism to keep them interesting. 

Corkrum said that “Reservation Blues”‘ themes interplay with issues faced by the Whitman College community, the incoming first-year class and the state and nation at large.

“It talks about so many things that resonate with us right now,” Corkrum said. “It talks about displaced peoples, it talks about the environment and how what we’ve done to our land is reflected in society. It talks about the struggles of being a young person. It talks about the struggles of learning to find yourself.”+

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