Forms and Devices

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The narrative and language of the poem are based on another group of texts: historical “captivity narratives.” Erdrich explicitly directs the readers to consider the existence and meanings of the captivity narratives by quoting Mary Rowlandson’s narrative and providing basic information about her situation. Rowlandson was taken prisoner by the Wampanoag “when Lancaster, Massachusetts, was destroyed, in the year 1676.” In order to understand the poem’s themes fully, some knowledge of the historical circumstances is necessary. Rowlandson’s narrative has become one of the most well known of numerous published captivity stories, but it is by no means the only one. Frances Roe Kestler, in The Indian Captivity Narrative: A Woman’s View (1990), identifies approximately five hundred narratives, published in twelve hundred editions, during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The narratives were written by men and women who were held captive by various tribes during the centuries of conflict between the European immigrants and the American Indians who lived in the areas where the Europeans settled.

According to Kestler, Rowlandson’s was the first narrative known to be composed by a woman. The experiences of and perceptions about women who were held captive differed from those of men because of the different cultural expectations regarding women, especially regarding sexuality. Rowlandson had immigrated to Salem with her father and later married Joseph Rowlandson, a minister. They had four children. The three children who survived infancy were taken captive, along with their mother, in February of 1676. The youngest child died during captivity; the older two escaped or were ransomed. Rowlandson was ransomed in May after three months of captivity.

The unnamed narrator of Erdrich’s poem cannot be Mary Rowlandson, who was taken captive with three children, the youngest age six, but Erdrich clearly intends readers to view the poem as a captivity narrative by a woman who had similar experiences and fears, especially regarding the possibility of being forced to “love” her captor through some charm or spell placed on food. The narrator, like Rowlandson, fears her captors as being completely different and “other” than human.

Another important aspect of the poem is the imagery, especially the image clusters relating to religion and food. The religious images and allusions would be natural usage to a Puritan woman, and they primarily are references to natural disasters as representing God’s punishment. The narrator is dragged from “the flood,” a reference to the biblical flood, which was God’s punishment of humanity. She prays after realizing that she is understanding some of “his” language, recalling the Tower of Babel, which led to God causing humans to speak in different languages. After she goes apart with him, she believes that she is being punished by God: Trees fling “down/ their sharpened lashes.” God’s wrath is made clear in natural manifestations (“blasting fire from half-buried stumps.”)

Her belief that God punishes humanity through the earth changes in the last stanza when the narrator imagines herself joining in the chant, “begging” the earth “to open// and feed me honey from the rock.” The change from earth as a place of sinning and punishment to earth as a nurturing mother implies a change from the Puritan worldview to a belief common to American Indians.

The final stanza links religious and food imagery, but the food imagery begins in the epigraph which speaks of Rowlandson’s determination not to eat any food from the hand of her captor because it might make her love him. When the narrator’s child is hungry, a woman provides food. The narrator herself plans to starve but ultimately accepts food “from his hands,” the second time that...

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he saves her life. The food is the flesh of an unborn fawn, and it causes her to follow him (“I followed where he took me”). At the end of the poem, the speaker begs the earth, through her chant, to feed her “honey from the rock,” a new and different kind of food, linked to her captor. The food imagery being associated with children (her child and the unborn fawn) shows the link between food and sexuality or birth.


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