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Book Review: Sherman Alexie's Flight
The Out-of-Body Adventures of an Outcast
Otis Hampton
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I confess that though I’m a writer, I don’t read as many books as I used to. I can’t even remember the last time I read a book that piqued my interest. I’m not interested in vampires fighting werewolves (Twilight); or girls who are confused about their sex lives (any book by Zane); or the fantasies of a teen who has a different idea of love or some crap (Lucky). But a book called Flight by Native American author Sherman Alexie revived my interest in reading.

The book is narrated by a 15-year old kid known as “Zits,” whose mother died when he was six and whose father left him, he says, “about two minutes after I was born.” Zits has been in and out of the foster care system. He believes he inherited his father’s “acne-blasted face” along with his Native American heritage, though his father didn’t stick around long enough to teach him about that heritage. He has also inherited a lot of anger and sadness from the loss of his parents, as well as from moving from foster home to foster home, none of which felt like family.

When the story opens, he’s in a juvenile detention center for hitting his foster mother. Zits has seen a lot of violence in his life, and he says that he dreams about hurting and killing people.

Meeting Justice

At the juvenile detention center, he meets a 17-year old white kid named Justice who knows a lot and says he’s read “all the books.” They develop a bond. Zits says of Justice, “He stares at me with kindness. Real kindness. I just met the guy and already I feel like he cares about my skin and me.” Even though Justice is just a teenager, he has a powerful effect on Zits, who sees him as a sort of understanding father figure. Only Justice is about to send Zits on a dangerous mission.

At their second meeting, Justice shows Zits a paintball gun and a real gun, and then teaches Zits how to use these guns. The boys go out shooting people with the paintball gun and threatening them with the real gun. Then, things get more serious. Justice talks Zits into shooting people in a bank one day with the real guns. Zits doesn’t question this mass murder plan, even after Justice fails to show up at the bank and he’s left to shoot people by himself.

It’s not clear what’s real and what’s fantasy. One man who Zits is aiming his gun at in the bank says, “You’re not real.” Perhaps the man thought it was a dream and the bank shooting wasn’t happening. Perhaps Zits wasn’t sure if he himself was real. Zits then experiences his own death when the bank guard shoots him in the back of the head. My interpretation of the rest of the book is that Zits is seeing his life flash before his eyes.

Zits’s soul seems to enter the body of people from other times whose lives have a connection with his own. An FBI agent named Hank from the 1970s; the son of a Oglala Sioux warrior during the Battle of Little Bighorn (when tribes got together and kicked Custer’s butt); a 19th century white war veteran, Gus, who tracks Indians for the army; a pilot; and a drunken man all coincide with different aspects of Zits’s past: Hank the FBI agent may have interrogated, tortured, and killed people on the reservation. The Sioux warrior is a reminder of Zits’s heritage. Gus appears to share Zits’s grandfather’s experience in war. The pilot connects to Zits’s fear of flying. And the drunk—well, that’s one of the book’s surprises, so you’ll have to see for yourself.

Soul Travel

Entering other peoples’ bodies completely changes his perspective. While inhabiting a body with his own spirit, Zits feels curiosity and empathy for the person whose life he temporarily jumps into. Sometimes he is inside a white person’s body and sometimes he’s in a Native American’s body. He has to find a way to make peace with both.

This reminds me of all the wars and hatred going on in this world today. Some people need to learn to forgive their enemies and forget about the past. Zits realizes this and also that violence isn’t the answer to everything. He learns that sometimes you must unite with your nemesis in order to resolve conflict. That’s a lesson that I believe will be learned from this book.

As the old tracker Gus, for example, Zits leads white men to a camp of Indian “enemies.” “I don’t kill anybody,” says Zits-as-Gus, “But I ride with killers, so that makes me a killer.” When he sees a white soldier rescue a Native American child and desert the army, Zits is able to take over Gus’s actions and help the white man save the little boy.

Alexie’s fantasies of entering someone else’s body allows you to understand what it’s like to see and feel the world through the eyes of another. Zits discovers strength and wisdom through other people’s lives. Those who have ever felt alone or scared in a world full of violence and negative reaction will appreciate the acknowledgement of problems that teens often face while in foster care, such as isolation, resentment, or wanting to belong.

The rest of the book also makes you think about what’s wrong or right through the scenarios in the different bodies. Flight taught me a lot about making certain decisions, like choosing whether to argue with someone or just leave well enough alone. The scenarios made me think about what life could be like without hate.

Sherman Alexie’s insight into Zits’s choices will make you think twice before making a bad decision just because you’re angry or think you have something to prove. The general message of the book is in order to understand who you really are, you must first look through the eyes of others who have affected you or changed your life. The book shows a new way to watch your life flash before your eyes—through the eyes of someone else. Living through so many violent episodes shows Zits that violence and war are pointless.

A Shot at Redemption

Alexie isn’t all serious though. His writing is full of wit and guts. His sense of humor will most likely appeal to teens because of Alexie’s sarcasm and macho, “f*ck you” attitude. At the beginning of the story, he wakes up in a strange room (“It’s what I do.”) and describes the music he prefers—the White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, PJ Harvey, or Kanye West—“something that cooks your guts, gets you angry and horny at the same time.” Contributions like this tell the reader that Zits is just a regular teenager just like you, me, or any other teen who gets angry and horny and likes to feel those feelings sometimes with the help of loud music.

Flight is not like any other book I’ve read. Most books I’ve read tell you how to talk to a pretty girl or how to deal with bullies in school, but they don’t teach you anything about yourself. To some people I may come off as a loner or a “Goth” or “emo.” I’ve told people about my personal life and they’ve used it against me, so it’s hard for me to open up.

But if people can be patient with each other, we can eventually reveal who we really are. Justice kind of breaks into Zits’s psyche and forces a friendship. At the end of the book, Zits opens up to a woman named Mary, the wife of a policeman that Zits meets, about everything that has gone on in his life. She hugs him and as he feels her embrace, he wants to cry. These were his thoughts:

"I’m happy.
I’m scared too. I mean, I know the world is still a cold and cruel place.
I know that people will always go to war with each other.
I know children will always be targets.
I know people will always betray each other.
I know that I’m a betrayer.
But I’m beginning to think that I’ve been given a chance. I’m beginning to think I might get unlonely.”

He also tells her that his real name is Michael. What this ending says to me is that despite the condition of the world and regardless of everything you may have done in your life, even the bad things; you get a shot at redemption. Zits lost everyone close to him and he became cold and violent. But he learns that there’s more to life and that violence is not the answer. You can’t trust everyone, but you need to trust someone.

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(WEB-2010-09-01)

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