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The Pale Indian

by Robert Arthur Alexie

Adding to the genre of shameful histories of white exploitation of the Canadian native population, The Pale Indian is a fictionalized account of a Northwest Territories aboriginal community that has seen its share of racism, grief, and sorrow.

The novel is made up of two linked narratives. One story focuses on John Daniel, who was taken from his abusive native parents and adopted by a white family, with mostly pleasing results. Searching for his native roots, he returns to his birthplace, where he marries and appears headed toward a happy life. The other story, that of Daniel’s uncle Edward – the “pale Indian” of the title, who has been sent to a mental institution because of a dark family secret – provides the novel’s best-written passages. The story of John and his wife Tina is another matter: the dialogue is pedestrian and predictable, talk of their sexual exploits juvenile rather than erotic. Here the plot staggers forward at an alarmingly slow pace.

The novel’s greatest flaw, however, is the confusion as to what exactly the story is about. Alexie begins with a cogent history of the mistreatment of native Canadians. But the theme of racism is only tenuously linked to the actual story, which ultimately is simply a tragic family saga that could have happened to almost any family, of any race, at any time. Granted, the discovery of John’s native identity and the description of the native community are both potent, but these elements ultimately provide only background material and do not find their way into the heart of the narrative.

The Pale Indian holds the promise of further illuminating the pain of this ill-treated population. But in the end, the novel only serves as yet another prosaic tale of family tragedy.