Flight, by Sherman Alexie
Flight: A Novel
Sherman Alexie

“Flight” is an exploration of how to grapple with and respond to oppression. One option is through
violence: Alexie’s central character Michael, a.k.a. Zits, is a troubled teen driven out of desperation to
the point of committing an atrocity. In the name of “justice,” both personified as a human character and
symbolized in the form of firearms, Michael is prepared to commit a mass shooting of numerous, mostly
Euro-American people who happen to be present when he goes to rob a bank.

Michael is prevented from completing this violent act through a divine intervention which sends him
traveling through time and across different personalities so he can better understand who and where he
is. In the course of his "flight," Michael considers his act within the context of such historical events as
the Battle of the Little Bighorn, 9-11, and other terrorist acts, as well as Ghost Dances by Indians who
hoped to eradicate Euro-Americans altogether.

Michael remarks that Crazy Horse, “the greatest warrior in Sioux history[,] is a half-breed mystery” and
concludes that a successful Ghost Dance would destroy not just Euro-America, but he himself, since he
is a product of intermarriage between an Indian and a Euro-American. Alexie frames the question of
whether and how to exercise individual power over others' lives and deaths – not only in reality, but in
the mind – in terms of whether the main character should be willing to kill a random Euro-American if it
means he can have his deceased mother back - who was, incidentally, of Irish descent.

Through his Flight, Michael is able to transcend himself and thus ultimately concludes that the violent
choice would constitute an act of treason against humanity, and against his own sense of humanity. This
conclusion is valuable to him not so much as an Indian person or as a complete and permanent solution
to his personal problems, but as a young man in trouble who needs powerful, psychological weapons to
combat the ill-effects of the negative, self-indulgent, and insensitive authority figures who have
traumatized him through his early life.

Some of the people whom Michael inhabits during his Flight seem so different from him initially as to be
anathema and impossible to connect to his own perspective. First, for example, he is forced to confront
ugliness, irony, confusion, hypocrisy, and social complexity head-on in the shoes of a white FBI agent
dealing with Indians who secretly collaborated with the agency on a reservation in the 1970s. Michael
questions whether he can legitimately challenge the atrocities against Indians of the FBI agent whom
he inhabits if he was willing to shoot random bystanders during a bank robbery. Believing he has already
committed the mass shooting, and after spending some time living in the agent’s shoes, Michael
decides he is no better than the FBI agent.

Michael later finds himself incarnated as a boy at home with his family in an intact Indian community at
the site of the impending Battle of the Little Big Horn. As the boy, Michael is voiceless because a white
soldier cut his throat on a prior occasion. As Custer’s Last Stand unfolds according to historical fact
rather than familiar legend, Michael contemplates revenge, cycles of violence, and their consequences.

He then finds himself in the form of a 19th century Irish soldier (an ancestor on his mother’s side?) at the
scene of an U.S. Army massacre of an Indian community. As this nightmare unfolds, Michael is struck by
the act of a white U.S. “traitor” who deserts to try to save an Indian boy from the slaughter even though
this act will likely prove futile and suicidal. In contemplation of betrayal, which is an overarching theme
of the book, Alexie conveys the message that the real traitors at the site of the massacre are not
deserters, but soldiers who comply. Acts of violence perpetrated against others constitute a form of
treason. Those few who see reality for what it is at the time events unfold and who choose to stand on
the side of real justice do not enjoy glory. They are martyred unceremoniously, but they preserve their
humanity as they make their own, anonymous last stands.

Michael’s Indian father is a mystery to him because he disappeared soon after Michael was born.
Michael’s mother cherished him until she passed away when he was very young. As an orphan of mixed
heritage, Michael was subsequently neglected, abused, and then abandoned by his Euro-American
relatives, and wound up in the foster care system. The father Michael never knew embodies the
confusion and complexity in his family background.

In Michael's final incarnation during his flight and before he returns to himself, he steps into his father’s
shoes and comes to understand some of the reasons that he abandoned his wife and baby son.
Understanding his father better helps Michael begin to move past anger, resentment, confusion, and
insecurity, and to possibly embrace a more loving life in a healthy and positive environment with the
“almost real family,” as he calls it, into which he is finally placed.

Flight is an exploration of issues faced by children of Indian descent in foster care, and a plea on their
behalf.

- Glenn Anaiscourt


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by Glenn Anaiscourt