The theme of “The Leap” by Louise Erdrich is that survival often depends upon the ability to use reason. The narrator’s mother exhibits quick-thinking when lightning strikes the tent pole during her trapeze act with her first husband. Erdrich writes,
My mother once said that I'd be amazed at how many things a person can do within the act of falling. Perhaps, at the time, she was teaching me to dive off a board at the town pool, for I associate the idea with midair somersaults. But I also think she meant that even in that awful doomed second one could think, for she certainly did. When her hands did not meet her husband's, my mother tore her blindfold away. 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. Her body twisted toward a heavy wire and she managed to hang on to the braided metal, still hot from the lightning strike.
In this part of the story, the “act of falling” symbolizes impending doom. In the passage, the mother has remarked upon the amount of actions that can be taken to survive “within the act of falling," or within the split second between enjoying safety and facing doom. Rather than reaching for her husband’s ankle, which seems like the most obvious and emotional reaction to falling with a beloved, the mother twists her body around and hangs onto the “braided metal, still hot from the lightning strike.” Subjugating her natural responses of physical and emotional pain to reason, the mother survives.
This value of presence of mind during crisis is also later reinforced when the narrator tells the story of how her mother rescued her from the burning room when she was a child. In the story, the narrator too has done everything she was instructed to do during a fire situation, and in so doing, demonstrates the ability to stay calm and use reason during a crisis situation. She has tested the door handle to see if it is hot, stuffed her rug into the crack to contain the fire, and then sat down to wait for help. In this scenario, fire represents impending doom. Just as the narrator is about to be consumed by the fire, her mother has the presence of mind to act when others, such as her husband and the firemen, do not. She uses the tree and her skills as a trapeze artist to get to her daughter’s upper story room through the window, and even presents herself as calm to avoid frightening her child, even though her heartbeat tells another story.
Finally, darkness represents impending doom in the story, but at a slower pace. The narrator’s mother cannot see, readers are told at the beginning of the tale. Despite being ultimately doomed to deteriorate further, the mother lengthens her well being by moving slowly and carefully about the house. The narrator says that her mother has never “lost her balance or bumped into a closet door left careless open,” and in the very next sentence, the narrator attributes her mother’s carefulness to “early training.” What the reader must put together is that the training that has led to her mother living such a careful life was in the moments of disaster she survived.
The following quote probably best represents the connection between symbolic darkness and the calm use of reason to survive:
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. She is one with the constant dark now, just as the air was her home, familiar to her, safe, before the storm that afternoon.
The narrator's mother lives in the frame of mind that darkness is “constant”; just as she was comfortable and felt safe in the air as a trapeze artist, despite the obvious dangers, so now she is familiar with the idea that death is always a threat, and operates as if comfortable with the reality.