(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Scranton Roy is the son of a Quaker father and a reclusive poet mother. When a traveling drama troupe visits his Pennsylvania community in the nineteenth century, Scranton is smitten by a tall, slender blonde actress who wants nothing to do with him. Angry at her rejection, Scranton enlists in the U. S. Cavalry in St. Paul, Minnesota. After training, his company marches west and raids an Ojibwa village. Despite Scranton's Quaker heritage, he takes part in the indiscriminate killing and bayonets an old woman. As he pulls the bayonet from her body, he sees his own mother in her. Disgusted with his own savagery, Scranton runs away, but as he flees, he sees a dog with a baby strapped to its body. After pursuing the dog for several days, he befriends it and begins to care for the baby, whom he nurses as if he were female. Abandoning the army, Scranton builds a sod house for himself and the baby, whom he names Matilda after his mother. When Matilda Roy is old enough for school, she is attracted to her teacher, Peace McKnight, whom Scranton Roy brings into his house and marries. After Matilda's mother, Blue Prairie Woman, comes for her, Matilda Roy leaves Roy, who is saddened by the loss. However, he has a son with Peace McKnight, who is weakened from the "mottled skin sickness" and dies from a protracted labor. Roy not only puffs air into the baby's lungs but nurses his son Augustus, just as he has earlier nursed Matilda. Years later, when he is an old man, Roy takes most of his possessions and his grandson, Augustus, and attempts to find the tribe he raided forty years before. Erdrich never mentions any of Scranton Roy's other activities or his end, so that his character, as depicted by the scenes portraying it, is a tracing of passions, from rejected love, to hatred, to love again through Matilda, to an attempt at restitution for his part in killing innocent people.

Blue Prarie Woman is the mother of both Matilda Roy and the twins Zosie and Mary. According to Cally Whiteheart Beads, who is Blue Prarie Woman's Shewano grandmother, Blue Prairie Woman is called "So Hungry" by her tribe because of her insatiable hunger. Devastated by the loss of Matilda during the cavalry raid on her village, Blue Prairie Woman is so miserable that the tribe renames her "Other Side of the Earth." Seven years later, unable to bear the loss of her baby, Blue Prairie Woman walks west in search of her daughter, leaving her twins to be raised by their grandmother, Midass. Accompanying her is a dog, Sorrow, that she nursed to ease the pain in her breasts when Matilda disappeared during the raid. When Blue Prairie Woman finds Scranton Roy and Matilda, she leaves with Matilda without Roy's knowledge; however, Matilda carries the mottled skin disease that quickly kills Blue Prairie Woman. Before her death, Blue Prairie Woman kills the dog Sorrow that she fed with her own mother-milk; Sorrow's flesh will provide food for her daughter. Blue Prairie Woman also gives her daughter the same second name she was given by her tribe, "Other Side of the Earth," a name which will be a key to Matilda's destiny.

After her mother's death, Matilda, who is now "Other Side of the Earth," feeds on the dog that drank her mother's milk and lives and travels with a herd of antelope, whom she interests. For Erdrich, Matilda becomes the prototype of the antelope woman, a woman with grace, beauty, and wild passion. Erdrich never specifically states what happens to Matilda after her journey with the antelope, but the fact that her story is known by the Ojibwa suggests that eventually she rejoins the tribe. Her name and her mother's name are given to later daughters of the tribe.

Zosie Roy, the wife of Augustus Roy, and her sister, Mary, are identical twins. Although Augustus Roy is married to Zosie, he also tries to have an affair with Mary. Problems arise when he has difficulty identifying the woman with whom he is making love. At first, Augustus can differentiate between the twins because their hair "whirlwinds" spiral in opposing directions. However, the twins have paradoxical emotions about their relationship with Augustus. Each wants him to recognize her individuality, yet each refuses to allow him the means for that recognition. To keep Augustus from recognizing them by their hair, they arrange their hair in new patterns. When Augustus gives Zosie a gold ring, she senses its purpose and only wears it once. Then, Augustus tries burning each sister in hopes of producing an identifying scar, but his "accidents" never permanently mark the twins. Missing the communion of "twinship," Mary and Zosie resent the separation that Augustus has caused. Finally, when the frustrated Augustus marks Zosie's earlobe when he nearly bites it off during an act of love, the sisters respond by making him disappear, presumably by eating him.

As older women, Zosie and Mary's resistance to identification extends to Rozina Whiteheart Beads and her daughter, Cally. Rumors abound of their existence and their residence, making it nearly impossible for Cally to find them, to know which one she addresses, or even which one is her real grandmother. Both do ornamental bead work, and as Erdrich describes their weaving and sewing, they appear as the fateful bead workers of the Ojibwa myths....

(The entire section is 2143 words.)