The physical tie between the characters is a piece of land originally allotted to Nector Kashpaw’s mother, Rushes Bear. Most of her children were assigned to parcels in Montana, but she managed to get a piece of North Dakota wheatland and live on it with her young twins, Nector and Eli. Nector went to boarding school, learned white reading and writing, and grew up to be Tribal Chair and a man of importance; Eli, hidden by his mother in a root cellar, lived in the woods and kept some of the old skills. These two men, who became adults in the 1930’s, represent the oldest generation in the novel; the women with whom their lives are entangled include Marie Lazarre and Lulu Lamartine. Marie went into a convent intending to become a saint; after marrying Nector, she compulsively takes in unwanted children. Lulu, with what seems equal compulsion, makes her own babies—eight boys, each by a different father, who grow up supporting, fighting, and caring for one another. Both Marie and Lulu know how to use power; Marie pushes Nector into becoming Tribal Chair, and Lulu, in a truly wonderful scene, forces the council not to sell her land by threatening to reveal publicly—right then in the meeting—who fathered each of her children. Both remain vivid personalities in their old age, strong and salty women using very different tactics to win what they desire.
The members of the middle generation are not quite so compelling; perhaps they are seen less clearly (none is actually a narrator for any extended story) or perhaps they are the generation that suffers most from the conflict between reservation ways and the modern world. June Morrissey Kashpaw dies in the first story; her discarded husband, Gordon Kashpaw, is the protagonist (though not the narrator) of the story “Crown of Thorns,” which is a careful, vivid, underplayed, and totally convincing portrait of delirium tremens. Lulu Lamartine’s son Gerry Nanapush spends half his adult life in prison after a three-year sentence for assault (he keeps escaping and being recaptured and doing additional time for escaping) before he makes the mistake of hiding out on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he inevitably kills a state trooper.
Albertine Johnson and Lipsha Morrissey, members of the youngest generation, are to a certain extent consciously searching for their roots and for a way to understand their ties to the past. Most of their generation has disappeared to Minneapolis or Chicago or somewhere even further beyond the pull of the house and land that form the gravitational center of the Kashpaw constellation. Both Lipsha and Albertine are still in the process of becoming. Albertine, in particular, can change quite dramatically from one story to the next, but despite her relatively small share of Chippewa genes and her sustained drive for education—she is studying medicine by the end of the book—she knows her own need for the bonds of blood and tradition. She tries to talk to her grandfather about tribal politics and how he got things done in the old days. Lipsha, who seems virtually impervious to any kind of teaching (he manages to mangle and misunderstand both the traditional skills he learns from Eli Kashpaw and the education he suffers in white schools) is a wonderfully naive narrator in the Huck Finn tradition. At the book’s end, however, he turns to home instead of lighting out for an individual destiny.