Louise Erdrich's novel Tracks is about trauma on a number of levels. After reading the first five chapters of the novel, reflect upon the trauma(s) depicted in their pages. Then, consider the narrators—the characters who tell the stories of the trauma. How do Nanapush and Pauline respond to trauma? What are the similarities and differences in the way each narrator articulates and responds to trauma? Why might Erdrich have chosen to use two narrative voices to describe the traumatic situations of the tribe? What is lost in sharing the narration, and what is gained by this artistic choice? What other observations have you made about these narrations in relation to the trauma(s) of the novel?

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Both trauma in general and specific traumas are present in Tracks. Overall, trauma characterizes the environment and times in which all the characters live. The large issue of separation and loss is the most fundamental and widespread trauma. For the Ojibwe Erdrich presents, physical removal from the land, linguistic loss, religious conversion, and dismantled families are among the most significant issues. Another level of trauma that intertwines with all of these is the difficulty, or even impossibility, of remembering. Trauma can come from painful memories or even from the absence of memories, such as of events in infancy or the inability to retrieve what has been suppressed. Along with this, the challenge of recovery—and the confrontation of its impossibility as time passes—are further causes and effects of trauma. In Tracks, specific traumas include rape for one woman and guilt over not stopping the attack for another.

Nanapush, a gifted storyteller, is not only the guardian of secrets but also figures prominently in revealing traumas. Yet the complexity of his character combined with his structural position within the novel mean that he cannot be the source of resolution or the primary agent of healing. He feels his stories as a burden:

I shouldn’t have . . . had to squeeze so many stories in the corners of my brain. They’re all attached, and once I start there is no end to telling.

His narration “begins to integrate Ojibwe trauma into a social narrative memory and, ultimately, to a sense of convalescence,” according to D. A. Barnim (2010), who also sees Nanapush as representing all Native peoples’ collective experience—an experience of hybridity that is inherently traumatic.

Fleur’s position as a survivor of family tragedy, cut off from her people and too young to verbalize memories, is a source of trauma from which she struggles to recover. Her fights for their land and her relations to Nanapush and Pauline further complicate the question of resolution. Fleur’s rape and Pauline’s guilt over not saving her are two traumas that go beyond single life events through their continued consequences. Pauline’s memory is what persists in replaying what she could not repress:

there is nothing more to describe but what I couldn’t block out.

While the two women’s situations are highly distinct and intensely personal, they are also combined into female experience unavailable to the men.

The two narrators complement and contradict each other. The old man and the young woman provide the most obvious contrast, but Erdrich does not indulge in simplistic dualism. Nanapush is not just an Ojibwe elder but also the trickster. Pauline’s youth does not represent a guileless innocence. She is also critical of Nanapush and his ways of knowing and telling:

she hears the old men talk, turning the story over. It comes up different every time, and has no ending, no beginning. They get the middle wrong too. They only know they don’t know anything.

Not using a single narrative may be seen as limiting clarity in following a plot. Both interplaying the competing narratives and twisting the temporal frame aid Erdrich in making the reader aware of the limits of healing over time. They also help the reader understand that the story she tells is not just one story and will be “different every time,” so she could not have reduced it to the perspective of a single narrator.

Source: Barnim, Douglas Andrew (2010). "'Even our bones nourish change'": Trauma, recovery, and hybridity in Tracks and Four Souls. Native Studies Review, 19 (1): 53–66.

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