(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Chris and Ellen Van Eenanam are still adjusting to life together as a couple, to the death of their stillborn child, and to the changes inevitable in young adulthood. Chris needs to complete the writing of his dissertation, the final step in attaining his Ph.D. in mathematics. In an isolated cabin in upper Michigan, Chris intends to concentrate on his writing and his marriage.

Chris Van Eenanam is of mixed blood (Lakota on his grandfather’s side) but has always considered himself more white than red, having been raised and educated in New York. His relocation will prove to be cultural as well as geographic, personal as well as regional, as he grapples with issues of self-identity. His move inland toward the center of the nation positions him closer to his heritage in a type of reverse migration. Through encounters with other American Indians, Chippewa whom he initially disdains, Chris gradually sees a reflection of himself and acknowledges his Indian heritage, but it comes at a cost—increasing estrangement from his wife, Ellen.

In this novel of personal reversals, Chris makes a final identity shift. His decision to return to New York at novel’s end suggests an abandonment of his newly acquired American Indian persona and a return to the assimilated mainstream Chris Van Eenanam, the selfsame character that he was at the novel’s beginning. In the final analysis, Chris appears to don identities as he dons clothing, wearing that which is most conducive to the social and geographic climate at hand. Woiwode seems to propose that in an age of uncomplicated travel and increasingly merged ancestries, a clear sense of self becomes difficult to sustain. That a unified Chris could emerge with a hybrid identity, one both white and Indian simultaneously, unfortunately is not an option.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Indian Affairs describes the internal and external events experienced by Chris and Ellen Van Eenanam as they live under primitive conditions in her grandparents’ hunting lodge in the wilderness of northern Michigan during a freezing winter in 1971. The novel is subtitled Book Two: The Native Son, identifying the work as the second volume of a planned trilogy by Woiwode. The first part, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, Book One: The Boy, published in 1969, tells the story of Chris and Ellen’s courtship, marriage, and honeymoon at the same hunting lodge in Michigan. Much of the background of the characters in Indian Affairs is provided, and although the second volume may be read independently of the first, familiarity with What I’m Going to Do, I Think greatly enhances the reading of Indian Affairs.

By the end of the first novel, Chris has decided that in order to provide financially for his wife and their expected child, he will not return to the graduate school where he has been studying mathematics. The child, however, arrives prematurely and dies shortly after birth. Indian Affairs opens with the couple returning to the hunting lodge in the dead of winter; six years have passed since the action of What I’m Going to Do, I Think. Chris has returned to graduate school, this time to study English literature, and plans to finish his dissertation on the poetry of Theodore Roethke. Ellen intends to write a personal journal that explores her feelings about the death of their child and their continuing childlessness.

Shortly after their arrival, Chris and Ellen learn of a fire that has burned down a shack in a small Indian village nearby. This is the first in a series of mysterious fires—apparently the work of an arsonist—that occur throughout the novel. Along with this mystery, Ellen and Chris have...

(The entire section is 776 words.)