Sherman Alexie’s brave new memoir delves into his childhood

“You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” tells of the author’s youth on the Spokane Indian Reservation. His mother, Lillian, was at the core of his deepest hurts.

“You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”

by Sherman Alexie

Little, Brown and Company, 457 pp., $28

Confessional memoirs are popular because, through reading about the foibles and failures of others, we tend to feel better about ourselves. It’s not the most gallant way to read a work of literature. But Sherman Alexie’s new book, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” pulls readers so deeply into the author’s youth on the Spokane Indian Reservation that most will forget all about facile comparisons and simply surrender to Alexie’s unmistakable patois of humor and profanity, history and pathos.

His memoir is a hybrid, braiding prose passages with poems that together create the quality of a song, with story lines that ebb and return, like a chorus or fugue — the tale of Alexie’s older half-sister, Mary, who died in a house fire; the tale of his mother Lillian’s rape that conceived Mary; and the rape that conceived Lillian herself.

There is a guileless, everything-but-the-kitchen sink quality to these pages that sometimes feels as if we are leafing through Alexie’s private notebooks. We see Alexie as a boy, born brutally poor on the Spokane Indian Reservation to parents so desperate, they sometimes sold their blood for food money.

Yet now that Alexie has ascended to become a celebrated writer, a man who hobnobs with U.S. presidents and Hollywood elites, he resents being the family member with money, the one who can afford to buy his mother accommodations in a fancy retirement home.

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“I felt my back spasm and ache from the heavy burden of my messiah complex,” he writes after offering to cover rent on a nearby apartment for his siblings.

By that point Alexie’s father, a gentle…

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