At one time it was a deliberate policy of both the United States and Canada to remove Native American children from their parent's homes. In the early years they didn't make any excuses and just rounded them up and took them off to residential schools where they stole their language, religion and identity from them.
But in latter years they became more sophisticated by simply sending social workers onto reserves and declaring conditions unfit for children. The children would then be placed into foster homes with white parents and in white neighbourhoods where they stood out like sore thumbs. If being subject to the racism of their peers wasn't bad enough, all they learned about their people were the stereotypes taught in schools and depicted by movies and television.
This practice was theoretically stopped in both countries by laws that required Native children to be fostered with Native families. Only if a suitable Native family couldn't be found or if a child somehow fell through the cracks by not being a registered, or status, Indian, could they end up being placed with a white family.
Sherman Alexie's most recent novel, Flight from Black Cat Press and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, is about the sense of displacement felt by children who end up on the merry go round of foster care. Zits is a fifteen year old half Irish half Indian on his twentieth foster home. At the beginning of the book he asks us to call him Zits because that what everyone calls him and it's all he has in terms of self-identification
According to him he's got forty-seven zits on his face and he can’t even begin to count the number of them on his back. Ugly, unlovable, revolting; is how he feels and how he looks. It must be true, he's only been in foster care for six years and already he's screwed up so badly that he's been thrown out of nineteen foster homes.
He ended up on the foster care merry go round because his father left his mother about two minutes after he was born – left her in the hospital bed with a newborn kid – and his mother died of breast cancer when he was six years old. The Indian Removal Act should have kept him with Indian families but he was never registered as an Indian.
He keeps getting arrested and sent to juvenile prison and then sent back out to another foster family. He's committed arson, he's stolen cars, and he got drunk when he was twelve with some street Indians in Seattle the city where he lives. Soon he'll run out of chances, he'll run out of options and start going to adult jail, become an adult drunk Indian alone with his anger, his loneliness, and his feelings of abandonment. Alone with the hurt of being alone and not loved.
But then something strange happens to Zit. He gets arrested for pushing his twentieth foster mother (she said he punched her and who you going believe anyway a good hearted women with six foster children and the government cheques that go with them or a half-breed kid who's been in and out of jail since he was twelve). Getting arrested isn't the strange part it's meeting the white kid called Justice in the prison that's strange.
Justice talks about justice and the form that he preaches is vengeance. Don't you want to get back at the all the white people who made you what you are today? Aren't you angry he says? When Justice gets out of jail he comes and breaks Zits out of the juvenile halfway home he goes to from juvenile prison. He takes him to live with him in an old abandoned warehouse.
He gives Zit two guns – one a thirty-eight special, the other a paintball gun. Zits goes to a bank to exact justice and starts shooting people until a guard blows the back of his head off. It's when he wakes up and he's not dead that he thinks are weird. Especially considering the fact that when he wakes up he's a white FBI agent and it's no longer 2007 but 1973 and he and his partner are out in Indian country to put down the Indians who are raising a ruckus demanding rights and everything.
And so it goes: he goes to Little Big Horn as a twelve year old Indian child and is forced to kill somebody as revenge for a soldier almost cutting his throat; he becomes a scout leading a troop of cavalry to revenge the murder of settlers by Indians and ends up saving the life of a soldier who rescues a small Indian child; and he comes back to the future where he's a white airplane pilot who teaches people how to fly, one of whom is a terrorist who crashes a commercial plane into downtown Chicago.
He learns from each of them the futility of revenge and how betrayal can make you lonely and that everybody hurts when they are abandoned. The last body he ends up in is his father's, the man who betrayed him, the man he wants vengeance against for destroying his life. Then he finds out his father hates himself, was made to think he was worthless by his father, and was too scared to be a father himself and ran away into the bottle in a back alley in Seattle.
Zit gets saved in the end, he never killed anyone he discovers and didn't get his head shot off in the bank. He comes back from being his father and is still standing in the bank with the guns in his coat. That's when he remembers his aunt's boyfriend after his mother died, and what he did to him. Zit set him on fire when he was eight.
He learned how to shut down and try not to feel after that. If you didn't love anyone they couldn't hurt you, if you didn't trust anybody they never could betray you, and if you didn't want to be with anyone they couldn't leave you. But now he also knows that you end up empty if you're just filled with hate, you end up alone if you push everyone anyway, and revenge turns you into the people you want revenge against.
Sherman Alexie has written a heart-wrenching novel about loss of self and the loss of identity. While his central character is part Indian, and Native Americans have been treated in such a manner that a whole generation of people were guaranteed a similar fate, he makes if clear that it can happen to anybody no matter what their nationality or race. People who are sexually abused as children, emotionally abused by a partner or parent, or physically abused all have had their sense of self perverted if not destroyed.
There are only so many times you can be told you are a piece of shit before you believe it and then what happens to you? That's what you become. In order to overcome that you have to go on the type of journey of self-discovery Zits went on, inside of yourself to find the truth of who you are and what made you that way.
This is one of the best books I've ever read on the subject. Even though it is fantastical with the time travelling, it is the most straightforward and honest depiction of the affects of abuse I've come across. Instead of just the clinical descriptions of what a person may or may not experience, through the character of Zit you live out the emotional reality.
The use of a fifteen year old street kid whose been in and out of detention centres and is not a sympathetic character makes it all the more effective. It takes a while for us to think of him as more then just another arrogant street punk, and it's only as he takes us on his journey of self discovery and he begins to care about himself that the reader will start feeling anything like compassion for him.
This is a story about one fucked up kid who finally figures out he needs help or he will end up dead. He happens to be part Indian, but that doesn't matter. What happened to Zits could have happened to anyone. That it does happen to a disproportionate number of Indian children is a stain on our society that needs to be corrected, but that it happens at all, to anyone is the biggest crime of all.
(Originally posted July 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.