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Celebrated author Sherman Alexie opens Montana Festival of the Book

By Lailani Upham

A line was formed around the block of the Wilma before dark fell according Missoula resident. Hundreds of people were turned away after the Wilma Theatre was packed to see and hear a Northwest favorite writer, Sherman Alexie. (Lailani Upham photo) A line was formed around the block of the Wilma before dark fell according Missoula resident. Hundreds of people were turned away after the Wilma Theatre was packed to see and hear a Northwest favorite writer, Sherman Alexie. (Lailani Upham photo)

MISSOULA — It was full house at the Wilma Theatre last Thursday to see Native author Sherman Alexie kick off the 14 annual Montana Festival of the Book.

The line was the longest many have ever seen at the theatre. It wrapped clear past the Stockman’s Bar down West Front Street and remained that length even as attendees entered into the theatre.

Hundreds of folks were turned away after the place was packed to the ceiling.

The Humanities Montana Festival of the Book is known as one of the largest cultural events in the Northwest with sponsors such as the National Endowment for the Humanities; The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation; the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation; the Missoula Art Museum; the Missoulian; the National Endowment for the Arts; Montana Arts Council; Trail 103.3; and Montana Public Radio.

The event was free to the public.

Mayor John Engen opened up the show with a bit of his own hometown comical self-observances.

Alexie stated he enjoyed Engen’s act and said he has never met a mayor with a great sense of humor, and went on to say he had no chance at getting elected in higher office with a character like that. The crowd roared with amusement.

Lois Welch, wife of the late James Welch, Blackfeet author, introduced Alexie and shared she and her husband’s personal experiences with Alexie.

Alexie, Spokane tribal member, named off all his tribal affiliations including Salish and Kootenai. He said his wife added more Indian blood to their son; when his son is asked what tribe he is, Alexie responded, “All of them.”

The crowd had several doses of laughter by the time the show was over with Alexie’s quick wit and animated facial expressions that added connection to his description of stories.

Sherman Alexie demonstrates stories with his book readings with uncut descriptions through explanation and gestures. (Lailani Upham photo) Sherman Alexie demonstrates stories with his book readings with uncut descriptions through explanation and gestures. (Lailani Upham photo)

Not only did Alexie have the crowd laughing out loud, but he had the entire packed theatre singing Donna Summer’s song, ‘Love to Love You Baby’ to accentuate one of his poems that brought the experience of a crush he had — on his cousin.

In an interview with the Missoula Independent prior to his reading event, Alexie was asked about being an “outspoken proponent of live readings.” His response: “With live readings, it’s the immediate emotional reaction. It is multimedia, in a way that multimedia isn’t. I can smell a room full of people, I can hear them. I can look in their eyes. It involves every one of my senses, and every one of theirs.”

Sherman Alexie, Jr., is a poet, writer and filmmaker; much of his work draws on his experiences as a Native growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Some of Alexie’s best-known works are The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), a book of short stories, and the movie Smoke Signals (1998), a film based on a short story from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

His first novel, Reservation Blues, received one of the fifteen 1996 American Book Awards. His first young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is a semi-autobiographical novel that won the 2007 U.S. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the Odyssey Award as best 2008 audiobook for young people that is read by Alexie himself.

His collection of short stories and poems, entitled War Dances, won the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Alexie is also producer of the film “Winter in the Blood,” a film based on James Welch’s novel. He worked along side filmmakers Alex and Andrew Smith.

Alexie currently lives in Seattle, Wash.

One person tweeted to the Montana Festival of the Book, “Thanks for bringing Sherman Alexie to Missoula. An evening I will remember forever.”

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