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...
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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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Ideas for Group Discussions
Erdrich had great difficulty writing Tracks. She let the 400-page manuscript sit for ten years, publishing Love Medicine and The Beet Queen first, before she returned to the novel. What was probably difficult for her was that in Tracks she was establishing the origin or beginning of the dissolution of the tribe, the atomizing of its life. Since the novel explores how and why this happened, small wonder that Erdrich had such difficulty with the book. Politics and history compose the action of the novel; artistry sees that these are given imaginative human representation. A good discussion needs to examine the causes of trouble the Chippewa experience and how Erdrich presents them.
1. While Native Americans participate in their own undoing in Tracks, whites are the originating cause. What acts by whites, either by contact or law, seem most pernicious in the imagined world of this novel?
2. Fleur Pillager does not have a voice in the narration of this novel, but she is certainly important to the tribe, in part through fear, in part through admiration. What do members of the tribe fear and admire about Fleur? How does her character seem to represent the tribe?
3. Nanapush's narrative is primarily oral; it is told to Lulu. Pauline's narrative is written. What is the effect of the continued juxtaposition of these narratives?
4. What is the effect of Pauline's Christianity on her? How does...
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Techniques / Literary Precedents
As in much of Erdrich's work, the literary influence of Faulkner is evident. The friendly and hostile narrators of Tracks are reminiscent of the narrators that present a picture of Caddy in The Sound and the Fury (1929). Since the tribal vision of Nanapush and the jealous vision of Pauline both magnify Fleur's importance, the significance of her life becomes much greater as a result.
As Nanapush says, Fleur is the "funnel of our history," so what happens to her happens to the tribe. This substitution of character for tribe allows Erdrich to simplify and compress her story; Fleur's personal story translates into the tribe's story.
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Tracks is part of a tetralogy that includes Love Medicine (1984), linked short stories; The Beet Queen (1986), novel; and The Bingo Palace (1994), novel.
While Tracks stands as an independent work, the novel gains in resonance when seen in the context of Love Medicine and The Beet Queen. The butcher shop and its owners, the Kozkas, and other characters, such as Russell Kashpaw, were introduced in The Beet Queen. The sadistic nun, Sister Leopolda of Love Medicine, who tortures Marie Lazarre, is none other than Pauline, one of the narrators of Tracks, and the girl she is torturing in Love Medicine is her own illegitimate daughter, the girl she tries to abort and unwillingly gives birth to in Tracks. Erdrich's newer novels seem to enlarge previous ones, deepening the texture of her fictional world.
In Tracks Erdrich has simplified her narrative perspective and her story line, creating a novel more symbolically compressed and unified than her earlier works. Tracks is a more painful book than its predecessors, and possibly more powerful.
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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, 1996): 137-166. Discusses the cyclical nature of time, diversity of narratives, lyrical prose style, tragicomic appeals of characters (including the trickster figure), and the cultural significance of three of Erdrich’s novels.
Flavin, James. “The Novel as Performance: Communication in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks.” Studies in American Indian Literature 3, no. 4 (Winter, 1991): 1-12. Noting that the novel form, unlike the indigenous oral song or tale, is questionable as a vehicle for expressing American Indian subjects, Flavin discusses Erdrich’s use of assumed orality to overcome this difficulty. Particularly with the narrator Nanapush, addressing a listener and constant reference to the...
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