Study Guide

The Antelope Wife

by Louise Erdrich

The Antelope Wife Analysis

The Antelope Wife (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In THE ANTELOPE WIFE, Louise Erdrich’s seventh novel, a United States Cavalry private, Scranton Roy, sent to quell a Native American uprising in Minnesota, mistakenly attacks a neutral village instead. He captures an Indian dog with an infant strapped to its back and rears the baby as his own. In this way the white Roy family begins its intricate relationship with the two Ojibwa families of Showano and Whiteheart Beads.

Typically, the book is peopled by many complex characters. The baby’s grieving mother marries a man named Showano and bears twins. Her granddaughters Zosie and Mary Showano figure prominently as the twin mothers of Rozina Whiteheart Beads and grandmothers of Rozina’s twin daughters. Meanwhile, Rozina, married to tribal businessman Richard Whiteheart Beads, falls in love with baker Frank Showano. That love triangle echoes the one formed years before by Zosie and Mary Showano and the grandson of Scranton Roy. Finally, Klaus Showano, Frank’s brother, is nearly destroyed by his infatuation with a seductive antelope woman, a creature of legend whom he meets at a powwow.

Welcome flashes of humor appear in the wisecracking monologues of the Indian dog Almost Soup, a four-legged standup comic who tells dirty dog stories. Black comedy also occurs at the disastrous wedding of Rozina and Frank Showano, where the bride’s first husband menaces the wedding party and is felled by a blow to the head with a frozen turkey.

Erdrich is at her finest when she writes through Native American culture and consciousness. Here she returns to the lyricism of her earlier work, introducing a vital new group of characters. Her poetic skill and perceptive insights remain undimmed.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, March 1, 1998, p. 1044.

Library Journal. CXXIII, March 15, 1998, p. 92.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 17, 1998, p. 9.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. XCV, September, 1998, p. 48.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, April 12, 1998, p. 6.

Newsweek. CXXXI, March 23, 1998, p. 69.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, February 9, 1998, p. 72.

The Wall Street Journal. March 20, 1998, p. W7.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, May 17, 1998, p. 11.

The Antelope Wife (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In her seventh novel, Louise Erdrich uses as a historical backdrop the 1862 uprising of the Dakota (Eastern Sioux) people at a time when starvation stalked the reservation. However, her characters actually belong to the Ojibwa tribe, also known as the Chippewa. A young U.S. Cavalry private, Scranton Roy, is sent with his company to quell the Dakota rebellion but mistakenly stumbles into a neutral Ojibwa village and attacks the inhabitants instead. Sickened by guilt, he captures an Indian dog that is fleeing with an infant strapped to its back, names the baby Matilda and rears her as his own, nursing her with his own miraculous milk in a touch of Magical Realism. In this way the white Roy family begins its intricate relationship with the two Ojibwa families of Showano and Whiteheart Beads.

The child’s grieving mother, Blue Prairie Woman, marries a man named Showano and bears him twin daughters, the first of four generations of twins. Not much is known about the first pair, but the second set, also named Zosie and Mary, figure prominently in the action as the two mothers of Rozina Whiteheart Beads and the grandmothers of Rozina’s twin daughters, Cally and Deanna. Slowly Zosie, Mary, and Rozina reveal themselves as beaders- creators, while Cally eventually becomes an observer and chronicler of their story, a wise woman and “namer” in the way of her grandmothers.

Just as quilt-making provides the underlying framework for Alias Grace (1996), Margaret Atwood’s novel of nineteenth century Canada, the traditional Ojibwa craft of beading serves here as both a literal and figurative underpinning. The Antelope Wife opens with a near mythic passage describing two archetypal beaders at work: “Ever since the beginning these twins are sewing. One sews with light and one with dark. . . . They sew with a single sinew thread, in, out, fast and furious, each trying to set one more bead into the pattern than her sister, each trying to upset the balance of the world.” These cosmic twins embody the positive and the negative, the good and the bad, the whole of experience. Yet the reader remains largely unaware of their skillful, steady work as they sew “us all into a pattern, into life beneath their hands. We are the beads on the waxed string, pricked up by their sharp needles.”

It is Cally Whiteheart Beads who notes that family stories also repeat their patterns from generation to generation: “Once the pattern is set we go on replicating it. . . . the vines and leaves of infidelities . . . a suicidal tendency, a fatal wish. . . . From way back our destinies form. I’m trying to see the old patterns in myself and the people I love.” These patterns become more evident as the novel swells with accounts of lost daughters, lost mothers, lost wives, even lost dogs.

The number three seems to be significant: Blue Prairie Woman is identified by three different names and is the mother of three daughters. Disastrous love triangles occur: Rozina, who is married to tribal businessman Richard Whiteheart Beads, falls in love with Frank Showano, a baker. That triangle echoes the ménage à trois formed years before by twins Zosie and Mary Showano and Augustus Roy, the grandson of Scranton Roy. In love, Augustus once traded the precious red whiteheart beads for Zosie in marriage but soon found himself equally attracted to her sister. Each of these triangles results in death.

At least four of the male characters—Augustus Roy, Richard Whiteheart Beads, Frank Showano, and his unhappy brother Klaus—are smitten with dark, beautiful women. Klaus, an urban Indian besotted with the wild, speechless antelope woman he meets at a Montana powwow, binds her to him with strips of sweetheart calico. (She is given the name of this flowered cloth.) Even Scranton Roy quotes his mother’s poem: Come to me, thou dark inviolate.

Food always plays an important role in the rituals of love, death, and holiday feasts. Klaus feeds Ojibwa love tea to his beloved before he carries her off to Minneapolis. Master baker Frank Showano longs to duplicate the delicate flavor of the Blitzkuchen, a cake baked by a German refugee in order to save his life, but he searches in vain for the...

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The Antelope Wife Literary Techniques

In an essay in American Literature, Catherine Rainwater isolated several characteristics in Erdrich's novels that make them different...

(The entire section is 644 words.)

The Antelope Wife Ideas for Group Discussions

Multiple narrators and a non-linear narrative structure are just two of the nontraditional elements that Louise Erdrich employs in...

(The entire section is 373 words.)

The Antelope Wife Social Concerns

The action of Louise Erdrich's The Antelope Wife, which spans more than a century, traces guilt and love through several generations...

(The entire section is 778 words.)

The Antelope Wife Literary Precedents

William Faulkner's linked short stories in such works as Go Down, Moses foreshadow the structures that Erdrich creates in her novels....

(The entire section is 242 words.)

The Antelope Wife Related Titles

While earlier Erdrich novels feature characters who appear in all or many of her first five novels, such as Lulu Nanapush and Marie Kashpaw,...

(The entire section is 289 words.)

The Antelope Wife Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, March 1, 1998, p. 1044.

Library Journal. CXXIII, March 15, 1998, p. 92.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 17, 1998, p. 9.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. XCV, September, 1998, p. 48.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, April 12, 1998, p. 6.

Newsweek. CXXXI, March 23, 1998, p. 69.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, February 9, 1998, p. 72.

The Wall Street Journal. March...

(The entire section is 63 words.)