Tracks (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
This novel is the third in a projected four-novel cycle by the author. Erdrich’s two earlier works, Love Medicine (1984) and The Beet Queen (1986), share a North Dakota setting and certain characters with Tracks, but this third novel takes place earlier than the two previous books. Tracks seeks to examine the struggle of Native Americans during the first two decades of the twentieth century. It is an era marked by natural obstacles, including plague and famine, and by encroaching “progress,” the white man’s euphemism for a dwindling Indian share of land and for political and economic servitude for all but the craftiest and strongest of Native Americans.
The facts of the era portrayed in the novel take on a highly personal feel through the voices of Erdrich’s dual narrators. The events unfold through the alternating perspectives of Nanapush and Pauline Puyat. Nanapush is about fifty when the story begins; he has survived three wives and is considered a wise elder statesman. Pauline, on the other hand, is only twelve when the story begins.
The conflict between their points of view is clear from the very beginning. Nanapush wants to save his way of life; Pauline wishes to escape hers. They represent different generations, different faiths, different goals, yet each is drawn into the web of events that surround Fleur Pillager, the mythic woman who fuels both of their stories.
The winter of 1912 brings a tuberculosis epidemic to the reservation in North Dakota where Nanapush and Pauline both live. Nanapush, working with a companion from the tribal police, rescues Fleur, then an adolescent, from her family’s cabin near Matchimanito Lake. The rest of the Pillagers are dead, so Nanapush credits himself with saving the last of the clan. The listener for his portion of the story is Lulu, child of Fleur and Eli Kashpaw. Nanapush considers Lulu his grand-daughter. In fact, because of difficulties between Fleur and Eli, he is listed on her birth certificate as her father. His goal for telling his portion of the story is to persuade Lulu to recognize and accept Fleur as her mother.
Rescuing Fleur is an act of some courage on Nanapush’s part. His companion wants nothing to do with Fleur or the corpses of her family because of their reputation for supernatural powers. Fleur has already drowned twice when Nanapush rescues her from the icy cabin in which she is slowly starving to death. When she was a child, two fishermen pulled her from the waters of the lake, only to lose their lives as a result, or so the common belief holds. In the words of Pauline, “By saving Fleur Pillager, those two had lost themselves.”
The second drowning occurs when Fleur is fifteen. This time no one rescues her, but a passerby, George Many Women, bends down to observe that her chest is moving when she washes up on the lake’s shore. For his interference, he suffers Fleur’s challenge, “You take my place.” A careful man, George Many Women thereafter avoids water, only to drown in the new bathtub brought to his home by his own sons.
Thus, the community reasons, Fleur has been chosen by Misshepeshu, the water man, a monster, for his own. The water monster is believed to have a hunger for young girls, especially those, such as Fleur, who are known to be strong and daring. Drowning is a death most feared by the Chippewas, so Fleur’s victory over it is all the more impressive, as is Nanapush’s willingness to save and shelter the monster’s chosen one.
The paths of Pauline and Fleur cross early, when they both wind up living and working in a butcher shop in the city of Argus. Fleur is the object of the fantasies of the men at the shop, and Pauline plays the part of voyeur, watching the men watch Fleur. Erdrich uses vivid details of the slaughtering of animals and the preparation of meats and sausages to capture the brutal physicality of this environment, and she brings the situation in Argus to a terrifying climax when the three men who work at the shop turn against Fleur, who beats them at cards and does not respond to their fantasies.
Natural disaster in the form of a tornado strikes Argus, and Fleur and Pauline both return to the reservation, Fleur to take up residence at her old family home on Matchimanito and Pauline to drift closer and closer to insanity in the guise of religious fervor. Fleur becomes a wife and mother; Pauline seeks to become a nun, in fact, a saint.
Fleur is not a...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Tracks shares with the other novels of Louise Erdrich’s Chippewa tetralogy—Love Medicine (1984, rev. 1993), The Beet Queen (1986), and The Bingo Palace (1994)—its form, a series of short interconnected tales reminiscent of oral Indian narrative cycles; its use of contrasting voices, often recounting the same episodes from different points of view; and many of the same characters. Erdrich’s continuing concern with American Indian family formation and with the development of character over many years here focuses on the crucial time of 1912 to 1924, when widespread disease; the consequences of the Allotment Acts of 1887 and 1904, when reservation land was divided and sold off (usually to whites); and the bitter division between full-bloods and mixed-bloods (in current slang, “skins” and “breeds”) over policy all tore apart the fabric of Chippewa society. This breaking of the “sacred hoop” is Erdrich’s main subject here, and she examines her subject through various memorable portraits of strong Indian women.
Strong is not always, however, good. Pauline Puyat—along with Nanapush, one of the two first-person narrators of the novel—is an unreliable and steadily deteriorating character. She does not have, like Nanapush, a direct narratee for her story. Nanapush reminds the reader throughout that his primary audience is Lulu, whom he has helped to rear, has saved from the government school she loathed,...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
All of Erdrich’s fiction offers believable portraits of strong, capable, and interesting women. This is probably as reflective of the pronounced matriarchal tradition in Chippewa tribal life as it is of the role models that Erdrich has credited among her relatives and friends. Of all of her female portraits, Fleur, Pauline, and Margaret Kashpaw (Rushes Bear, a name she earns from a confrontation in this novel) are among the most memorable. In Tracks, there is no female bonding such as that seen in The Beet Queen: Each of these women is bound into her own psyche and her own world. Their coming together in the novel results from need rather than from any genuine liking. None of them, however, is reducible to the kind of stereotype—love object, goddess, mother figure—so prevalent in (mostly male-authored) earlier portraits of women.
Margaret, who is in the process of assimilation, is a churchgoing Catholic whose family name (“cash-paw”) implies a turning away from the woods and toward the white man’s road. Her sons are divided: Eli prefers the woods and the old ways, as is seen in both Love Medicine and The Beet Queen; Nector represents the future of the tribe, as is especially apparent in Love Medicine but also here in his selfish use of Nanapush and Fleur’s allotment money to pay the fine on Kashpaw land. Fleur’s late-blooming love affair with Nanapush is damaged (although not permanently) by her...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Brogan, Kathleen. “Haunted by History: Louise Erdrich’s Tracks.” Prospects 21 (Annual, 1996): 169-192. Brogan focuses on the themes of death and preoccupation with the past. She views Erdrich’s novel as a “contemporary Ghost Dance,” suggests that translation is necessary to the survival of Native American culture, and shows how Nanpush and Pauline try to establish history by reconstructing the past.
Burdick, Debra. “Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, and Tracks: An Annotated Survey of Criticism Through 1994.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 20 (Summer,...
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