Style and Technique

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Some scholars of Native American writings believe that “mixed blood” writers such as Erdrich—the daughter of a Chippewa Indian and a German—approach writing as a means of linking not only their own cultures but also the worlds of spirits and human beings. Erdrich had such difficulty in writing Tracks that she put her original manuscript aside for ten years. Only after she had worked backward in time by writing Love Medicine (1984) and The Beet Queen (1986) did she return to Tracks and begin to link it to her completed novels about more recent generations of Chippewa and white settlers in North Dakota.

Within Erdrich’s long fiction, points of view often change, with the narrative voices shifting among both characters and occasional omniscient narrators. In shifting points of view, the reliability and truthfulness of narrators is always in doubt—as is the case with Pauline and Nanapush in Tracks. Nanapush, an old man who has lost his family and becomes a father figure to Fleur, repeatedly insists that Pauline does not always tell the truth. Readers must therefore remember that only Pauline’s narration reports on Fleur’s rape.

Erdrich’s technique of changing narrators and publishing chapters as individual stories breaks down the traditional form of the novel. Each appearance of an individual narrator suggests a separate “storytelling” experience, perhaps a return to a time when the line between history and myth was not clearly defined. This technique seems to be common to Native American writers. As a result of these separate storytelling experiences, separate chapters such as “Fleur” also stand alone as short stories.

Erdrich’s style and language also reflect and present blurring of cultures and boundaries between myth and reality. Although her language is concrete and specific, her allusions are subtle, often leaving the reader not knowing exactly what has occurred. For example, the Chippewa language uses the same word for both flirting and hunting game—a coincidence that subtly connects Fleur’s sensuality with her hunting in a man’s domain. Another Chippewa word suggests both using force in intercourse and killing a bear with one’s bare hands. These connotations merge in Pauline’s narration. Thus, Erdrich presents her major themes through style and language as well as through her use of double narrators and shifting point of view.

Historical Context

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North Dakota in the Early Twentieth Century

West of Minnesota, on the southern border of Canada, and within the large area of the central United States known as the Great Plains, North Dakota has an arid climate with extreme temperatures and a rural economy. Sparsely populated until the late-nineteenth century, the state has a history of groups of Native Americans and immigrants competing for land. Anglo-American and Canadian settlers moved to North Dakota in the mid-nineteenth century to farm and participate in the fur trade, but many moved away in the late-nineteenth century, and Norwegian and German-Russian immigrants began to replace them. By 1910 North Dakota had an uncommonly large percentage of foreign-born residents, and its two main immigrant groups tended not to mix.

North Dakota experienced a population boom between 1898 and 1915, when railroads had been completed, connecting the region with the West. In politics, Republican Progressives instituted reforms and made a number of businesses public enterprises in order to stand up to the Minneapolis-St. Paul grain traders. They were accused of mismanagement, pro-German sympathies, and socialism, however, and they were removed from office in the recall election of 1921. In 1913, the year the events of “Fleur” take place, people were beginning to suffer in small towns, farms, and on Native...

(This entire section contains 529 words.)

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American reservations, which were particularly hard-hit by disease, drought, and lack of food. Sioux, Chippewa, and other tribal lands had been greatly reduced by this time, to some of the least fertile areas of the state, and Native Americans continued to die after the disappearance of buffalo herds and the onset of disease and malnutrition in the late nineteenth century.

Chippewa

The Chippewa, otherwise known as Ojibwa or Anishinabe, first came in contact with French colonial fur traders in the sixteenth century, in the Great Lakes region. Traditional Chippewa lifestyles varied according to region, but most Chippewa were hunters and not farmers, a tradition that continued into the twentieth century. Many Chippewa became involved in the French fur trade after contact with Europeans, which led to alliances with the French. Like other Plains Native Americans, they were gradually driven off their indigenous land by westward expanding Americans of European descent. In addition to killing Chippewa in conflicts such as the French and Indian War and the War of 1812, these Americans forced Chippewa tribes into undesirable areas, depleted the plains of animals for them to hunt, and spread disease. Chippewa tribes were also involved in a series of disputes with the Sioux, whom they drove south as they made their way to Minnesota, North Dakota, and Ontario.

After the buffalo were nearly exterminated and many Native Americans faced malnutrition, the American government passed the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. Forcing Native Americans to give up tribal lands for individual land grants, this policy led to the transfer of nearly sixty percent of Native American land to whites by the time it was repealed in 1934. Because of disease, inadequate hunting space, malnutrition, and the loss of land to whites, the suffering of the North Dakota Chippewa persisted into the early twentieth century. Untold numbers died, lived in poverty, and/or suffered from depression as they were forced to change their way of life.

Literary Style

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Magic Realism

Pioneered by post–World War II Latin American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, magic realism is a literary technique in which supernatural elements appear within an otherwise realistic narrative. Magic, spiritual powers, and inexplicable paranormal events all may be elements in a story employing this technique, which tends to challenge the reader’s perception of ordinary reality.

Erdrich uses magic realism when she implies that Fleur has special powers that enable her to swim with the water spirit Misshepeshu, drown and still live, and summon a storm to kill men who attack her. Events that can be explained logically, the narrator invests with magical interpretation. Fleur is infused with magical power from the spiritual world. In this story that takes on the quality of myth, Erdrich is able to locate the essence of Fleur’s significance in the ambiguity of her sexuality, in male attraction to and fear of female power. Erdrich presents the magical as real, without restricting herself to verisimilitude.

First-Person Narrative Perspective

Observant, unobtrusive Pauline is a mysterious person, who tells this story filtered by the lens of superstition and myth. She deliberately shapes the story as she reports it, on the one hand saying she sees more than others because she is “invisible,” and on the other, admitting that there are some things one cannot say. For example, Pauline states that Fleur studied evil ways “we shouldn’t talk about,” which implies that Pauline censors or alters as she narrates.

Pauline’s bias in favor of Fleur becomes particularly important as the story comes to its climax, when she stresses that Fleur is responsible for the deaths of the three men. In fact, the events of the story suggest that Pauline herself is responsible for their deaths. By the end of the story, when Pauline states that the old men chattering about the story “don’t know anything” about what really happened, the reader senses that Pauline knows what happened herself and that she chooses not to tell all of it. Erdrich’s use of such a first-person limited perspective allows her to add intrigue and mystery to the story and question whether it is ever possible to really know what happened in such a situation.

Literary Techniques

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Erdrich is first and foremost a sensuous and feminist poet. She adroitly uses the techniques of imagery and symbolism to advance her themes and reveal her characters. She commands the full range of linguistic resources of all levels of English from "literary" English to the more colloquial and common language spoken by the drunken men. The scene of the "dance" of Lily and the old sow, through its setting in the dark and mire of the pig pen, make a powerful indictment of the bestial response of the three drunken men to Fleur and her card playing. Day after day, week after week, she has bested the men in the symbolic combat of poker, winning exactly a dollar each time, no more, no less. Infuriated by their inability to beat "the squaw," they drink and plan their attack, revealing their true bestial natures.

Another of her techniques glimpsed here in this short story and revealed more fully in her novels is the use of recurring characters, settings, and themes. As she puts it in an "Atlantic Unbound" interview (January 17, 2001), "I'm working on one big continuous novel anyway. All of the books are part of it." In "Fleur," Fleur Pillager and Pauline [Puyat] are two Native characters who have left the reservation to come to Argus. Fleur has been, the story suggests, driven from the reservation by tribal in-fighting. Pauline had come down from the reservation with her mother, the wife of Dutch James, the year before. When Pauline's mother died, Dutch took Pauline out of school to take the mother's place. Pauline is the narrator of the story, carefully placed and conceived so that she knows the tribal lore concerning the Pillagers generally and Fleur specifically. She is also "invisible" as a skinny girl, nothing like Fleur and, as Pauline says, the men "were blinded [by Fleur's sexuality], they were stupid, they only saw her in the flesh." Pauline is also a mystic. After the storm, they both return to the reservation because "the blood draws us back, as if it runs through a vein of earth." Pauline goes to Fleur's cabin on Lake Turcot to help when Fleur bears the child (whom Father Damien will baptize as Lulu in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse).

Erdrich's narrative strategy in this short story is relatively straight-forward, opening with a six-paragraph history of Fleur presented in terms of the local gossip and legends attached to her "story" by the community. Then the narrative focuses on the summer of 1920 when Fleur went down to Argus, a village of three hundred people, two stores, two grain elevators, three churches, and a train depot to get a handout and a job. The balance of the story focuses with increasing sharpness and tightness on the events that take place in the butcher shop, the card games, the dark night attack, and the heavenly retribution visited upon the town in the form of a tornado. The final seven paragraphs narrate the discovery of the fate of the three men and bring the reader back to tribal lore about Fleur, the belief in the power of the blood lines, and the on-going story-telling by which the tribal community creates and recreates itself.

Erdrich describes with selective but powerful and specific detail the settings of the village of Argus, Koska's butcher shop, and the powerful mythic tornado. The very name of the town, "Argus," suggests "Argus of the Hundred Eyes," the watchdog of Homeric epic, who had been set to guard the chastity of Io. But the name is ironic of course because no one sees what is happening to Fleur and by extension to Native women who are in the general societal context of racism and conquest without defense. Erdrich's physical descriptions of Fleur and Pauline and of the men, especially Lily Veddar possess intense evocative power and allude to their mythic natures. As Pauline tells the story, Fleur Pillager lures men to their destruction with her beauty and her special powers that travel "in the bloodlines, handed out before birth." Her power is revealed in her hands with "their sensitive fingertips good at dealing cards" and "through her eyes, too, belligerent, darkest brown, the eyes of those in the bear clan." Thus, Erdrich subtly weaves together Homeric myth and Ojibwe legend creating an atmosphere of mystery and power that makes this short story reverberate with suggestion and insinuation so that people will wonder, and the old men will talk "turning the story over" and getting it wrong, knowing only that they "don't know anything."

Ideas for Group Discussions

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"Fleur" provides an excellent introduction to the body of Erdrich's work. But it is such a tightly focused work that it also rewards rereading and analysis. One of its narrative strategies, the choice of Pauline as the sole voice in the story and through whose eyes the action is made known, could serve as the starting point for discussing the story.

1. How do we learn about Fleur? What is the source of our information? What are the implications for a reader's knowledge of character and action of Erdrich's choice of point of view?

2. List all of the specific details that relate to the setting of the story. What is the consequence of such a dense layering of facts about the physical and cultural context of the story?

3. Fleur and Pauline are both Ojibwe. In what ways does Erdrich raise the issues of ethnic prejudice and its consequences?

4. What elements of the setting and action reveal theme most significantly?

5. Research the history of the Ojibwe (also known as Chippewa) from the time of first contact with Europeans to the time of the story.

6. As a class project, form groups of 4 to 6 persons, write a script for the story, select actors to play the parts, find or create locations, memorize your parts, and shoot the video. Write an analysis of what you are trying to accomplish with a video adaptation of the short story and assess the results of your work. Share your video with the rest of your class.

7. As an individual or class project, develop adaptations of "Fleur" in other media, e.g., performance media such as dance, opera, or musical.

8. Create an interpretation of "Fleur" in drawing, painting, or sculpting. Write an analysis of your experiences and what you learned from the process.

9. Research traditional Ojibwe tribal arts such as quill work, bead work, or dance. Prepare a report that relates the results of your research to your work with the text of the story.

10. "Fleur" is one small part of Erdrich's "saga" of the Ojibwe community in the upper Midwest. Like William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Erdrich's Ozhibi'iganan or the reservation depicted in her work is a fairly large and diverse community separate from yet connected in various ways to the larger community (e.g., the metropolitan centers of Minneapolis-St. Paul or Fargo, North Dakota). Read her other works and prepare a map of the reservation and its surrounding community. Prepare family trees for Erdrich's characters and schematically represent their interconnectedness. What does such an exercise contribute to your understanding of her art?

Social Concerns

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With the publication in 2001 of The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, Louise Erdrich has fleshed out the story of Fleur Pillager and made it satisfyingly whole. As a character, Fleur first appeared in Erdrich's work in 1986 in the short story "Fleur" (from Esquire, reprinted first in O. Henry Prize Stories, 1987, and later in the 1995 About These Stones: Fiction for Fiction Writers and Readers, edited by David Huddle, Ghita Orth, and Allen Shepherd). In 1988, a slightly different version was published as the first chapter of the novel, Tracks (New York: Henry Holt and Company). Erdrich created the character of Fleur Pillager in these and later stories in which she appears to be basing them on a solid foundation of social issues that emerged as the Ojibwe (also known as Chippewa but known to themselves as Anishinabe, Anishinaabeg, or Neshnabek, meaning The People) were subjected to the overwhelming Euro-American conquest. As the French, the English, and other Europeans pressed against the Native Americans, they assaulted them not only with superior technology, especially firearms, but also with successive waves of European microbes (most destructively measles, smallpox, and influenza).

As a result, the Ojibwe and most other Native American tribes lost their lands (and, often, their identity). The loss of their lands often led to mass starvation and the destruction of their tribal structures and tribal culture. The physical survivors were driven into the ever smaller physical spaces of reservations. These reservations were, in turn, essentially destroyed by the General Allotment Act of 1887, which divided Indian lands into individual holdings of a quarter section (or smaller units), ostensibly to promote the assimilation of Native Americans into the general society of the country by deliberately destroying tribal relations. (See the web site of historian E. A. Schwartz athttp://www.csusm.edu/nadp/ for documents and analysis of this Act of Congress). Historians, such as Brian W. Dippie and Leonard A. Carlson, have agreed with the assessment of John Collier, the "New Deal" Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, that the 1887 Act was, in fact, one more nail in the coffin of all Native cultures. It was, as he put it, the "principal tool" of the old policy of destruction of tribal life and the cause of "poverty bordering on starvation in many areas, a 30 percent illiteracy rate, a death rate twice that of the white population, and the loss of more than 90 million acres of Indian land" (see Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy, 1982) because it starved the Indians and forced the sale of their lands. These are some of the social issues and concerns that help frame "Fleur."

Like D'Arcy McNickle (1904-1977), a mixed-blood enrolled member of the Salish-Kootenai tribes and the first Native American to write successfully about the consequences of the European conquest, Louise Erdrich is a mixed-blood enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe. Much of her work, like that of McNickle, focuses on the First Americans at the level of individual, family, and tribe and their responses to the Conquest. At the heart of the work of both writers, but foregrounded to a greater extent in Erdrich's writing, is the power and beauty of the traditional lore of The People, particularly the oral traditions of story-telling and singing, but also the traditions of native medicine, hunting, family structures, and belief. In both writers, the effects of the European Roman Catholic Church as administered by missionaries, priests, and nuns emerge as mixed "blessings" at best. Finally, however, both writers portray the Catholic Church ultimately as the agent of colonial exploitation and destroyer of Native peoples and their cultures.

A number of other significant social issues emerge in "Fleur" in the details of plot, character, and setting, some subtle, some not. For instance, Erdrich reveals the exploitation of poor women—White, Native, and mixed blood—in the characters of Fritzie Kozka, Fleur Pillager, and Pauline Puyat, who labor in Koska's Meats, a butcher shop in the town of Argus, North Dakota. The work is hot, dangerous, unrelenting, physically challenging, and poorly paid. In addition, each of these women is subject to physical abuse of one sort or another. These abuses are so deeply within the background of the story that the reader may not recognize the pattern until the terrible and violent assault on Fleur by the three men in the pig pen that culminates in Fleur's rape "off stage" in the smokehouse. The story may then be seen as a skillful attack on the treatment of women by men, especially Euro-American men.

Another related theme explores the ideas of responsibility and justice. Some readers of the first three paragraphs misread the narrative as saying that Fleur is responsible for the deaths of three men owing to their interfering with or witnessing her drowning. To accept that reading one would have to accept as literal fact the folk belief in Fleur's supernatural powers. In addition, one would be forced to conclude that the injustices that Native American women and other women suffered in male-dominated communities of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century America were the fault of the victims. Is Erdrich's intention to 'blame the victim' for injustice? Hardly. Indeed, the only recourse available in Erdrich's economical story for unjust actions seems to be possible only through folklore, especially legends and other traditional stories, as well as beliefs in "the old ways." Legend is always a powerful form of cultural expression. In "Fleur" Pauline, the narrator, recounts how much damage Fleur did to Argus—the "white" town nearest the reservation— in the summer when she left the reservation, when "things happened. She almost destroyed that town." The powerlessness of Fleur and the other women, Native and Euro-American, to respond effectively to local injustices, let alone to the overwhelming consequences of the Conquest, leads in Erdrich's fiction to novel and effective ways of retribution. For instance, according to local legend, anytime a man "saves" Fleur Pillager from drowning or other catastrophe, he dies, an apparent cause and effect relationship suggested in the first paragraph of the story. "It went to show, my grandma said. It figured to her, all right. By saving Fleur Pillager, those two men had lost themselves." Later, after Lily Veddar, Tor Grunewald, and Dutch James assault and rape Fleur, a violent tornado swoops down on Argus, destroying Koska's meat packing plant except for the living quarters of Pete and Fritzie. The three men seek shelter in the meat plant's locker building, where the meat is kept frozen by the great blocks of ice harvested from Lake Turcot every winter. Pauline hears a voice in the wind telling her to "slam down the great iron bar that fit across the hasp and lock" of the lockers leaving the men with no way out.

In the aftermath of the tornado, when everyone discovers that no business had been too seriously hurt, except for Koska's Meats, no one misses the three men for days; when they are finally dug out, the men are discovered frozen solid, despite the bearskins they had taken down and wrapped themselves in. Earlier in the story, we learn that Fleur Pillager is a shape shifter whose tracks change from her own to those of a bear. At the end of the story, the narrator, Pauline, reveals that Fleur is a member of the bear clan and that Fleur gives birth to a baby girl—perhaps as a result of the rape, perhaps fathered by "a man with brass scales or by the lake"—"whose green eyes and skin the color of an old penny made more talk," the story coming up different each time. The legends about Fleur continue and provide a kind of power that adheres to her and her people.

Compare and Contrast

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1910s: Chippewa cope with poverty, lack of adequate hunting space, depression, and loss of land. There is little or no organized resistance to the American government, although Chippewa leaders and activists interact with government agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

1980s: The militant American Indian Movement, founded by three Chippewa in 1968 to address disenfranchisement, poverty, and treaty rights of Native Americans, continues to carry out some activism, including taking over a camp in the Black Hills of South Dakota between 1981 and 1984. The movement is in decline, however, due to Federal Bureau of Investigation actions against it and the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975, which helps to alleviate many of its concerns.

Today: Chippewa continue to struggle with poverty. Most have only the minimum education, and nearly fifty percent are unemployed, for a variety of reasons. The Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota has experienced a longstanding plague of corruption in the tribal council, and the effects of a casino it operates on its land have not been altogether positive.

1910s: North Dakota reaches the end of a population boom as poverty, low farm prices, and bank failures loom on the horizon.

1980s: The North Dakotan economy suffers from a rise in oil prices and a severe drought beginning in 1987.

Today: Although the North Dakotan economy has picked up since the 1980s, much of the state continues to be plagued by drought.

1910s: German-Russian and Norwegian immigrants and white-owned businesses buy up Chippewa land.

1980s: Reservation boundaries are stable, although many consider Turtle Mountain Reservation crowded.

Today: The Turtle Mountain Reservation continues to be crowded, and some land has been developed for a hotel and casino.

Literary Precedents

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Having grown up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, Erdrich absorbed much of the traditional lore and story-telling habits of the Ojibwe people when she visited her grandparents on the nearby Turtle Mountain Reservation. Even though she did not learn her tribe's language, Ojibwemowin, until the age of thirty so that she could get the jokes, she absorbed the stories and traditional oral lore of her Ojibwe ancestry as a young child listening to the flow of stories in the conversation of her family. This early experience provided a significant resource for her work both in its content and its technique. Her creation of strong and self-contained rural and village settings inhabited with several families of characters who continue through her novels as well as her reliance on multiple narrators strongly resembles the work of William Faulkner. The fiction and ethnographic works of the Salish-Cree mixed-blood writer, D'Arcy McNickle (1904-1977), especially The Surrounded and Wind from an Enemy Sky may have also been available to her.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES

Erdrich, Louise, “Fleur,” in Esquire’s Big Book of Fiction, edited by Adrienne Miller, Context Books, 2002, pp. 358–72.

Ferguson, Suzanne, “The Short Stories of Louise Erdrich’s Novels,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 4, Fall 1996, pp. 541–55.

Hoffert, Barbara, Review of Tracks, in Library Journal, Vol. 113, No. 14, September 1, 1988, p. 192.

Rosenberg, Ruth, “Louise Erdrich,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 152, American Novelists Since World War II, Fourth Series, edited by James Giles and Wanda Giles, Gale Research, 1995, pp. 42–50.

FURTHER READING

Peterson, Nancy, “History, Postmodernism, and Louise Erdrich’s Tracks,” in PMLA, Vol. 109, No. 5, October 1994, pp. 982–94.

Discussing Tracks from the standpoint of postmodern theory, Peterson argues that Erdrich has difficulty bringing Native American history into an epoch in which history and narrative are self-referential and not representational.

Stookey, Lorena Laura, Louise Erdrich: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 1999.

Stookey’s useful companion to Erdrich’s novels clarifies and analyzes the relationships and characters in the author’s fictional world.

Williams, Terry Tempest, “Facing the World without Land to Call Home: Tracks by Louise Erdrich,” in Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1988, Book Review Section, p. 2.

Williams’s review praises the detail of Erdrich’s novel.

Bibliography

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Bruchac, Joseph. “Whatever Is Really Yours: An Interview with Louise Erdrich.” In Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Tucson: Sun Tracks and University of Arizona Press, 1987.

Coltelli, Laura. “Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris.” In Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Erdrich, Louise. “Where I Ought to Be: A Writer’s Sense of Place.” The New York Times Book Review 91 (July 28, 1985): 1, 23-24.

Erdrich, Louise. “The Writing Life: How a Writer’s Study Became a Thing with Feathers.” The Washington Post Book World, February 15, 2004, 13.

Hafen, P. Jane. Reading Louise Erdrich’s “Love Medicine.” Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 2003.

Meadows, Susannah. “North Dakota Rhapsody.” Newsweek 141, no. 8 (2003): 54.

Rifkind, Donna. “Natural Woman.” The Washington Post Book World, September 4, 2005, 5.

Sarris, Greg, et al., eds. Approaches to Teaching the Works of Louise Erdrich. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2004.

Stookey, Loreena Laura. Louise Erdrich: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

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