In 1969, Larry Woiwode published his first novel, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, wherein he introduced Chris and Ellen Van Eeananam. In that novel, Woiwode explored the problems of marriage and belief, as his characters strove to resolve the confusions of a disturbing present: their youth, Ellen’s pregnancy, their troubled and uncertain love. By the novel’s end, Ellen loses the child after a premature birth and Chris, rifle in hand, strides to a Michigan lakeshore to take a potshot at the fate or force that dealt out such catastrophe.
In Indian Affairs, Woiwode takes up the lives of these two characters again, some seven years later and in the same northern Michigan woods. However, where the dominant force in What I’m Going to Do, I Think was the present, in Indian Affairs the controlling element is the past; where the story in the earlier novel was primarily Chris’s, the story in Indian Affairs belongs to both Chris and Ellen (though the narrative focus remains upon Chris). Both characters are attempting to find themselves, sorting through and ordering as best they can the detritus of the past, looking for sense amid their personal chaos.
The central fact of that chaos is the death of their infant son seven years previous. That particular tragedy rendered an already tenuous marriage even more fragile, and still rattles their psyches with guilt. The image of the “lost son” becomes a central figure in this novel, as Chris and Ellen try both to measure their degrees of responsibility for the death of that child and to measure the degree to which their marriage was defined by that child’s presence.
And so they come again to the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and to the same cabin (owned by Ellen’s grandparents, her guardians following her parents’ death) they inhabited during their honeymoon, looking to recover something of what has been lost in the intervening years. Ellen starts there the composition of a book based upon a year’s journal; that book’s initial page begins: “On the night I was brought the news that my first child was dead.…”
Ellen also comes, in related fashion, to better understand herself as woman, one of the novel’s subtexts being the problem of woman-as-wife and woman-as-mother. While staying at the cabin, Ellen is drawn into a local consciousness-raising group by an odd, bearish woman named Peggy, who comes to take both a personal and a political interest in Ellen. The group seems to confuse Ellen more than enlighten her, but the protracted effect is a clearer notion of what she must be to herself and to Chris.
At the same time, too, Chris struggles for self-definition. Like his wife, Chris carries the burden of his son’s death, and seeks to comprehend that death in several ways. As a son, Chris looks to his own parentage, grasping for the meaning of what might be called “sonhood.” What he finds is the even more troubling question of his heritage: One of the familial threads of his ancestry runs to the Native American tradition, and Chris quickly wraps himself in the matter of accepting that ancestry.
Chris works toward that acceptance in various ways. One of his ostensible reasons for coming to the cabin is to complete his dissertation on the American poet, Theodore Roethke, and in the course of that effort he involves himself in the intellectual reconciliation of the two dominant American spiritual traditions: the Indian and the Christian (or Puritan, essentially). As these forces exerted their influences upon Roethke, so they are felt by Chris; like Roethke, who sought an empathetic connection with the native tradition, so Chris seeks a direct spiritual and blood connection. Chris must act—he must know what he is going to do—this time. He must acknowledge his past and claim his birthright.
While Chris puzzles out the Indian question in the realm of theory, he also lives out the very real and immediate problems of his nature. With increasingly mixed feelings, he buys liquor for some underaged Indian boys, a practice that entangles him in a web of responsibility for their actions. He acts, at first, paternally, reading to them from Vine Deloria and Black Elk Speaks; but as he gradually backs off from that relationship, seeing the anger and violence in their world and the ways in which he has contributed to that condition, Chris becomes the object of that same anger and violence.
What draws him safely away from this involvement—what allows him to abandon these “lost sons”—is his more complex and challenging relationship with Beauchamp Nagoosa, a college-educated Indian to whom Chris is drawn (at times, against his will) spiritually and intellectually. Beau is one of the “real ones,” an Indian who has reclaimed the native tradition even after having experienced the white world. He becomes a sort of father to Chris-the-lost-son, instructing him in the ways of spirit. It is Beau, too, who serves as a sounding board, off of whom Chris bounces his ideas on Roethke and the American spiritual tradition; their discourses provide Woiwode’s novel with historical and metaphysical substance, the dialectic of their arguments gradually shaping itself into Chris’s own recognition.
A key stage in the process of that recognition comes when Chris and Ellen, under the influence of peyote provided by Beau, drive to nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes. There, in a scene which collects to itself a number of significant...
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