Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie’s Story Broke My Heart

Facebook reminded me that I wrote this post on my then-blog eleven years ago when I lived in Taos, NM. The notification inspired me to reread Sherman Alexie’s short story, ‘Basic Training’ that appeared in Blasphemy. Ah, my reaction to his story was the same as it was in 2013. 

I don’t know author Sherman Alexie, but I do his writing. I have all his novels and have read them all, a few more than once. He deservedly won the National Book Award for his YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Yes, I am a fan.

His collection, Blasphemy, contains a few stories selected from other books like ‘The Toughest Indian in the World’ and ‘The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven’. Most are new.

I enjoyed reading the stories in Blasphemy. They are solid Alexie.

And then, I got to the second-to-the-last story, ‘Basic Training’, about a Donkey Basketball outfit. For those unfamiliar with Donkey Basketball, it’s like the regular game but the players do it while riding donkeys. Donkey Basketball teams travel from town to town, raising money for schools and good causes. They are a throwback to another era. Not many of them are left.

In ‘Basic Training’, Carter & Sons is one of the last Donkey Basketball teams. Business is bad and Emery Carter is unlikely going to pass the business onto his son, who has other plans. Emery Carter brings the donkeys to a game at the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. Then, they are on their way to another.

I’m not going to spoil what happens next in ‘Basic Training’ but it has the kind of power that makes the reader feel incredible pain. At least it did me.

I don’t write authors, but I did Alexie. I told him “you broke my heart” and not much more than that.

No, I didn’t hear back from him. I didn’t expect it. But if I ever write something that moved someone as much as this story did me, I would want to know.


Give It Ten

Plenty of times Hank and I have come to the end of an enjoyable TV series or movie and have to hunt for something new. How about this one? We liked that actor in something else. Or someone we know recommended it. Or it got great reviews. Or the trailer looks promising. Okay, let’s try it.

But then, it comes down to this ultimatum: “We’ll give it ten.”

Yes, ten minutes is enough time for us to determine whether a show or movie would be something worth watching.

Often it doesn’t take that long to make a decision. The acting is bad. The storyline doesn’t grab us. It’s filmed poorly. For me, dubbed is a deal-breaker. Give me the original language and subtitles please. I can handle it.

Other times we hit viewer pay dirt although there are those days we lament “all these programs and nothing to watch.”

It works the same way for me with books although I measure my interest by pages instead of minutes. I don’t have an exact number, but I figure out pretty quickly, ten or twenty pages in, sometimes fewer, if this book is for me no matter the reviews or what best-seller lists it made. Perhaps it’s a case in which a well-known author ran out of gas with this novel. (I suppose that’s how agents and publishers make their decision when considering a manuscript although they are also mulling its monetary value.)

I know people who will finish a book no matter what. Me? Nah. I only did that when I was a student because it was required.

One of the joys is finding a book I can’t put down. Really. And I don’t mean what people like to write in reviews. But truthfully, this book steals me away from everything I should be doing like making dinner.

That’s happened many times: Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees; Sherman Alexie’s Diary of a Part-Time Indian; John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row; Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News; Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter. The list goes on. Most recently, I felt that way with Daniel Black’s Don’t Cry for Me. And, frankly, I hope readers feel the same when they read the books I write.

What about you? Do you have a test?


Know When to Fold ‘Em

Undoubtedly you’ve heard the Kenny Rogers’ song, The Gambler, in which the singer encounters a seasoned card player who gives him advice while on “a train bound for nowhere.” On the surface, the gambler talks about playing cards but the words could apply to other experiences. Certainly that was true this week for a book I was writing. 

For the past few months, I’ve been writing a sequel to my book The Sacred Dog. No spoilers but I wanted to write how the people living in a small town couldn’t bring themselves to forgive a man who committed a horrible crime. I call it The Unforgiving Town.

The Sacred Dog was released last Dec. 27. Ah, but I wrote that novel over twenty years ago, the first one I completed, and despite my efforts and those of a former agent to get it published, that didn’t happen until my publisher, darkstroke books, agreed to take it on. The Sacred Dog is not part of my mystery series, but it has the same setting — the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. This book is about a feud between two men destined for an ugly reckoning. (The Sacred Dog is the name of the bar one of them owns.)

So I decided to dive into what might happen to one of the characters after he did time in prison. The story flowed pretty easily for weeks. And then at 25,000 words or so, I realized I had reached an impasse. Huh? This wasn’t a writer’s block. I had one of those that lasted 25 years earlier in my life, so I know what that’s about. Instead, here was my realization: My head simply wasn’t in the same place as it was when I wrote The Sacred Dog. It is a well-written book, but I have gone onto other books, other stories, other styles. I wasn’t the same writer.

These words by Kenny Rogers made absolute sense: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em/  Know when to fold ’em/ Know when to walk away.”

Yes, indeed.

So earlier this week, I walked away from The Unforgiving Town

I saved the document for on my computer, and moments later, I started a new book — the eighth in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. This one is tentatively called Finding the Source. The victim this time? The town busybody. Certainly every small town has at least one. 

I am a few thousand into Finding the Source, and so far, so good. 

MORE BOOK NEWS: Missing the Deadline, no. 7, has a Dec. 21 release on Kindle. In that one, Isabel Long is called upon to investigate the case of a literary agent who was shot and left to die outside his country home. 

Author reading

Sweet Homecoming at The Millicent Library

It was indeed a warm welcome when I gave a reading Oct. 18 at the Millicent Library in my hometown of Fairhaven, Mass. I was touched by the people who came, including many who had read my Isabel Long Mystery Series, which the library carries. Thanks Friends of The Millicent Library for hosting me.

When I was a kid, my mother brought me there to borrow books. As I told those who came for the reading, I tried to read the library’s entire Wizard of Oz series — a friend in the audience said he actually had it at home when it was bought at a sale the library held long ago — plus the one for Nancy Drew, when I and everyone else thought it was written by a woman named Carolyn Keene.

When I moved onto the adult books, I vowed to read every one in the library, an impossible task for certain.

I never know how many people will come to a reading or who will be in the audience. I was surprised right away when a man named Mike presented me with a large black and white photo taken a while back of my parents and his parents dancing at an event. How thoughtful.

Chairs were added as more people came. My cousin, Michael, who has read my books, was there. Several classmates from Fairhaven High School, who had likely seen my post on Facebook, were present. There were people I hadn’t seen in a very long time. Beth David was shooting photos for her Fairhaven Neighborhood News, the local paper.

The talk and reading went fine. I had prepared a script, with each opening sentence highlighted and the script in 22 point, which I had practiced ahead of time so I had most of it in my brain. I talked about my connection to the library and writing experience before delving into the books I have written. I read from them briefly, including the first chapter of Northern Comfort, my latest.

Then I opened it up to questions, which was fun. One man suggested I do podcasts. (Thanks for the suggestion. I am thinking about it.) People had questions about the books such as do I have a hard time keeping characters straight in my different books. (No, I don’t.) What authors do I like? Advice about publishing.

Afterward when I was signing books people bought, I was approached by my ninth-grade history teacher, Dennis Duval. I had written a blog post, The People Who Teach Us, about meeting him last summer at my mother’s convalescent home. I had no way of knowing how to reach him, but he told me he found it online by chance. He had printed it out and asked me to sign it for him. 

It was a sweet homecoming for certain.

NEXT READING: I will be doing one Sunday, Oct. 22, 2 p.m. at the Arms Library in my village of Shelburne Falls.

ABOUT THE PHOTOS: Hank took the ones of me talking and signing books. I snapped the one of the audience.

Northern Comfort

Bar Scene in Northern Comfort

As I’ve said before, bars are a constant in my adult fiction. Sometimes, as in Northern Comfort, my most recent release, or my Isabel Long Mystery Series, there is more than one. These watering holes always have a purpose in the plot.

For many small rural towns, say a thousand or so people, bars are gathering spots for the locals, and in my novels they are an opportunity to have characters react to one another, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. For Isabel Long, working Friday nights at the Rooster has had more than one benefit — good sources for her investigations and the relationship she developed with its owner, Jack. But for this post I am going to concentrate on the bars in Northern Comfort, which is not part of the series.

Personally, I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent in bars or brewery taprooms, conversing, listening to music, and maybe dancing with my husband. They are also a great place to people watch, a definite hobby of mine. 

One of the books in the mystery series, Working the Beat, is dedicated to Steve and Diane Magargal, the former owners of Liston’s in Worthington, which Hank and I frequented when we lived in that Western Mass. hilltown. The Rooster is not Liston’s, but it certainly inspired it, that and when I tended bar for a long-closed restaurant in the same town.

Unlike the Rooster, the bars in Northern Comfort are more on the seedy side. There’s the Bull’s Eye Tavern in a small New Hampshire town where Junior Miller now lives. Ever the opportunist, Junior lives with the bartender although he suspects their relationship is nearing its end. He will stick it out in her trailer until spring. One night, he gets an important call at the Bull’s Eye concerning news that his young son, who he abandoned, was killed in a sledding accident. (The book takes place prior to cell phones.)

Then there’s the Pine Tree Tavern in Hayward, where Junior used to live and where the accident happened. The Pine Tree has a few significant scenes, like when Willi Miller goes there for the first time at the insistence of her bossy sister, Lorna, and Junior’s encounters with the man who was driving the truck that accidentally killed his son.

To increase the drama, I purposely made the clientale at both taverns to be on the rough and tumble side, and strictly for townies. Snowmobiles, pickups, and junks filled the parking lot. 

Here’s the scene from the Bull’s Eye when Junior gets that call from Lorna.

“Hey, Lorna, that really you?” he said into the phone. “How the hell are you?”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s me all right. I finally tracked you down.”

He strained to hear Lorna’s voice over the noise. “Track me down. What for? Your sister put you up to this? This about money again?”

Lorna was silent. “No, it’s not about money. It’s about Cody. He was in an accident.” She paused. “Cody died, Junior. Yesterday.”

Junior held the phone tighter to his ear. “What’d you say? You gotta speak up. It’s so damn loud in this bar.”

“Your boy died in an accident yesterday.”

“What’d you say, Lorna? I still can’t hear you.”

Junior felt a heavy hand on his back. One of the guys from the lumberyard tried to get his attention. The man grinned beneath his beard.

He heard Lorna say, “Junior, you listening to me?”

Junior put his hand over the receiver. “Hey, buddy, not now. I’m on this call.” He was back on the phone. “Start over.”

Now, Lorna was practically yelling into the receiver. “Cody. Cody’s dead.”

His voice matched hers. “What do you mean Cody’s dead? What the hell happened?”

Sherrie and the guys around him stared. He didn’t care.

“He was on a sled,” Lorna said. “He got away from Willi and he slid down that hill behind her house and at the bottom he crashed into a truck.” Another pause. “The doctor said he died right away. He didn’t suffer.”

Junior gripped the phone. The news slammed him like that guy’s hand. He closed his eyes. “Lorna, tell me. Who was driving the truck?”

“Miles. Miles Potter.”

“That asshole didn’t do somethin’ to keep outta my boy’s way?”

“The cops say it wasn’t his fault.”

Junior tried to swallow. “Not his fault?”

“That’s what they said.”


“You gonna come to his funeral? It’s Monday. The whole town’s gonna be there.”


Junior’s heart revved like the engine of his snowmobile. He listened to Lorna talk about the funeral plans. “You don’t have to worry about money ’cause the funeral home’s doin’ everything for free,” she said. “The pastor helped work that out. The old ladies at the church are taking care of the food for the reception afterward.”

He heard half the words Lorna said.

“How she doin’?”

“How do you think Willi’s doin’? She’s taking it really hard. I’m staying with her.”

Junior tried to remember the last time he saw Willi and their boy. Maybe it was around Christmas after the old man died. She made it clear she wanted nothing to do with him. Neither did the boy. It got real easy to forget he ever knew them.


“You gonna come to the funeral or not?” Her voice had a sharp edge.

“When is it?”

“I told you Monday. In the afternoon.”

“I gotta tell my boss. I’ll call Pop.” He glanced up at Sherrie. She was pouring beer into a pitcher for a waitress. “Lorna, I need to ask you somethin’.”


“How old was Cody?”

“You dunno? Shit, Junior, he was seven.”

ABOUT THE IMAGE ABOVE: That’s the full cover for Northern Comfort, which will be available in paperback very soon.