“The Leap” by Louise Erdrich is a short story about choices people make in their lives. In the author’s view, decisions made over a lifetime carry with them consequences that often impact other lives to a great extent. This story is narrated by a daughter whose very existence is owed to decisions, or leaps, her now “sightless” elderly mother made during her lifetime, and she recalls through flashbacks three major incidents that have permanently affected her attitudes toward her own existence. However, there are numerous hidden literal and figurative leaps students should explore for a complete analysis.
Erdrich uses the literary technique of providing both literal and figurative challenges to portray decisions the narrator’s mother made, her motivations for making them, and the reasons the narrator feels forever indebted to her mother. The daughter states directly, “I owe her my existence three times.”
The elderly mother Anna was once a member of a troupe of trapeze artists known as the Flying Avalons. The first literal leap occurs when Anna’s first husband and trapeze partner Harold Avalon loses his life in a tragic accident when lightning strikes the trapeze pole during a storm. The narrator has no first-hand knowledge of the occurrence but pieces her conclusions together from tabloids. However, the narrator reveals a fact not shared with the news media of the time, which introduces the first figurative leap in the story:
Anna was pregnant at the time, seven months and hardly showing, her stomach muscles were that strong. It seems incredible that she would work high above the ground when any fall could be so dangerous, but the explanation—I know from watching her go blind—is that my mother lives comfortably in extreme elements.
The narrator makes it clear that the first figurative leap is when Anna makes the conscious though quick decision to save herself rather than grab her husband’s hand as he falls during his literal leap:
As he swept past her on the wrong side, she could have grasped his ankle, the toe-end of his tights, and gone down clutching him. Instead, she changed direction.
The narrator reflects on a second literal leap when illiterate Anna decides to jump into the world of her educated doctor:
I owe my existence, the second time then, to the two of them and the hospital that brought them together. That is the debt we take for granted since none of us asks for life. It is only once we have it that we hang on so dearly.
Anna meets her second husband, the narrator’s father, while recovering in the hospital. After falling in love and marrying, the couple chooses to remain in the same town where the disaster took place. They could have moved anywhere, but this conscious leap to move onto “the old farm” even after the loss of Anna’s baby in the accident is the factor that brings the narrator back to the locale of the tragedy to care for her mother, which becomes a figurative leap for the narrator:
Since my father's recent death, there is no one to read to her, which is why I returned, in fact, from my failed life where the land is flat. I came home to read to my mother, to read out loud, read long into the dark if I must, to read all night.
The final literal leap occurs when a fire breaks out at the home when the narrator is seven years old. She is trapped inside, and even the volunteer firefighters are unable to reach her. Anna climbs a broken ladder leaned onto a tree and jumps to the edge of the roof. Using her acrobatic skills, she manages to save the narrator from the burning building. Figuratively speaking, Anna’s love causes her to leap into action throughout her life. This story is a daughter’s drum roll for a loving mother:
I know that she's right. I knew it even then. As you fall there is time to think... I slowly wondered what would happen if we missed the circle or bounced out of it. Then I wrapped my hands around my mother's hands. I felt the brush of her lips and heard the beat of her heart in my ears, loud as thunder, long as the roll of drums.
Through the narrator’s flashbacks, the reader sees how love had influenced her mother’s choices in life, and she learns from those experiences. In extreme circumstances, life provides opportunities to leap to safety. It is worth further exploration of Anna’s leaps toward life rather than death in each of her extreme challenges. Furthermore, Anna’s mindset after losing her first child is material for examination of additional literal and figurative leaps, since she reacts quite differently than most people would expect. Rather than giving up or succumbing to depression, she moves on with her life, marries, has another child, and continues making her life choices bravely.