Beyond the book: WOLM series examines life’s lessons through literature

Ken Kutska, Staff Writer

A story that captivates and causes a person to read into an event, culture or person is what resonates from SRJC’s Solkov Work of Literary Merit (WOLM).  This semester’s selected novel, “Reservation Blues” by Sherman Alexie, blends soulful humor with down-to-earth situations involving a group of troubled people.
Over the years the WOLM has brought in books from all corners of the literary world, from last semester’s, “Into the Forest” by Jean Hegland, a dark tale about a post-apocalyptic world, to classics like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain.
Wayne Neel, an SRJC English instructor and a speaker on the Nov. 14 WOLM panel described the book and nomination process. “Any department instructor can nominate books. He or she then present the book’s value at one or more meetings, some exclusively held to discuss past experiences with the novel, play or essay collection. Finally, an election is held to select books for the following year,” Neel said.
The WOLM started in the early ‘80s when a handful of English instructors implemented the program as a way to incorporate several teachers’ views in every classroom. “One of several reasons was to encourage students to continue the study of literature,” Neel said.
All English 1A classes, about 1,600 students, read the WOLM book.  Other classes including English 100 and 1B also often have the opportunity to read the book.
Each semester a lecture series accompanies the WOLM where students, faculty and the general public learn from a wide range of scholars about the selected work.  Aside from the English Department, faculty and staff from several disciplines, provide insight into current events related to the WOLM selection.
The “Reservation Blues” lecture series commenced with a lecture by Richard Speakes on blues artist Robert Johnson, a figure in “Reservation Blues.” At several points in the book, blues and rock n’ roll is referred to as the “devil’s music.” The plot is the story of a group of young Native Americans who are trying to use music as an escape from the reservation.
Psychology instructor Brenda Flyswithhawks explained what life is like living on a reservation in a lecture called, ‘Living on the Rez… Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” The book depicts life for Native Americans in today’s society as extremely harsh.  “Reservation Blues” sheds light on a group of people who have all kinds of trials and tribulations.
The Nov. 14 panel discussion included instructors Abby Bogomolny, Ed Castellini, Lori Kuwabara, Wayne Neel and Karen Walker,. They discussed how “Reservation Blues” uses plot, theme, symbols and characterization.
The panel discussed how fiction and literature influence the personal lives of readers and discussed how Alexie’s humor in the book is exemplary of how to bring a lighter note to a dark story.
The history of the Spokane Native Americans and the region of Washington was also included in the discussion, used to explain the vices this particular group has.  The past is brought up through songs at the beginning of each chapter and in characters’ dreams.
“Reservation Blues” gives insight into a group of people who are often misunderstood. English instructor Bogomolny, who has taught English for almost 30 years, said,  “Many people have no idea of the bitter laws and policies our Indian brothers and sisters faced in the ‘land of the free’. Reading takes us into other people’s realities and helps us understand what it is like to be human in circumstances other than our own. This is always good.”
Neel added, “My Native American students seem to appreciate the subject. We have done other books by Native American writers in the past. Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony,” Greg Sarris’ “Grand Avenue” and Louise Erdich’s “Tracks”.”
The WOLM for next semester will be Charles Dickens’ classic, “A Tale of Two Cities.”