Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467
Erdrich’s novel The Antelope Wife makes a leap of style, incorporating deep history from a scene similar to nineteenth century Ojibwe clashes with the United States Army with a mythic child who is raised by a herd of antelope. Her narrative shifts from the physical world of the plains to the spiritual world of animals who can communicate with humans and lend them their traits. She also leaps several generations, bringing the mythic influence on Matilda Roy into the twentieth century where it shimmers in the actions and personalities of the antelope women Klaus Shawano shadows in the early chapters. When Klaus kidnaps the mother of the girls, he has taken on more than he can handle, and the results play themselves out several generations later.
Rozina Whiteheart Beads invites us in to the narrative as a modern voice in chapter 3. Mother of Cally and Deanna, the fourth set of twins in the Blue Prairie Woman line, she says at the close of her chapter: “I would go back if I could, unweave the pattern of destruction. Take it all apart occurrence by slow event.” She refers to early complications when soldier Scranton Roy follows, saves, and raises a female Indian child after he has been involved in slaughtering members of the child’s band. The unassuaged grief of the girl’s mother leads her toward madness until she is renamed and treks off to find her lost daughter, leaving the first set of twins to be raised by their grandmother. Years later, Rozina, one of the third set of twins in the Shawano line, picks up the story, which entwines offspring of the Roy and Shawano families in ways so complicated that readers must often keep a list to sort out who is related to whom.
Throughout the novel, characters try and decipher who they are. All seem to be seeking answers in love or history, family or tribe. Cally confronts her Grandma Zosie midway through the book.What does my name mean? Where is my sister? What about my father? And Mama, will she ever stop avoiding Frank and make him her destiny? What does she want? . . . I look into her too-young brown eyes and get lost in all that I don’t know.
Rozin makes the final journey to Frank’s arms from loss and grief teetering between the real and spirit worlds. There are answers for Cally and a future for the characters who survive in Minneapolis, the city full of noise and danger for Ojibwes. Erdrich’s novel ends with a catalog of questions. “Did these occurrences have a paradigm . . . [?] Who are you and who am I, the beader or the bit of colored glass sewn onto the fabric of this earth?” The answers reside in the nest of her words.