Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6178
In a 1985 essay titled “Where I Ought to Be: A Writer’s Sense of Place,” Erdrich wrote that the essence of her writing emerges from her attachment to a specific locale: North Dakota, the site of a Chippewa reservation and of the neighboring white communities founded by European immigrants. In this essay, Erdrich defines her mission as a writer by comparing it with the function of a traditional storyteller in tribal cultures like the Native American Ojibwe:In a tribal view of the world, where one place has been inhabited for generations, the landscape becomes enlivened by a sense of group and family history. Unlike most writers, a traditional storyteller fixes listeners in an unchanging landscape combined of myth and reality. People and place are inseparable.
Although three-eighths Chippewa, Erdrich has not aspired to become precisely this kind of traditional storyteller. She realizes only too keenly that the tribal view in its pure form is no longer tenable for American Indians because the “unchanging” relationship of Indian people and landscape, of myth and reality, has been destroyed by the massive dislocations and changes brought by European settlement and nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century “progress.” On the other hand, Erdrich’s writing creates a neotribal view by dramatizing the intricate relatedness of people and place in her North Dakota locale. The central paradox of her work is that, though her characters often feel disconnected and isolated, the works themselves reveal how deeply interrelated these people are with their North Dakota homeland, the landscape and the spirits that inhabit it, as well as with other Native people, contemporaries and ancestors.
Erdrich reveals this relatedness by her precise use of setting. Virtually every poem and story gains effectiveness from the way details of location, season, time of day, and weather reflect the emotional state or social situation of her characters. The often extreme elements of the North Dakota environment—its flat plains and dense forests; its marshes and lakes; its scalding, dry summers and frigid, snowy winters; its rivers that vacillate between raging spring torrents and late summer trickles—all function dramatically in Erdrich’s work.
Animals are another feature of North Dakota locale that Erdrich uses to dramatize relationships among humans and of humans with their environments. In traditional Indian myths and folk tales, animals and humans are often closely related—even interchangeable. Erdrich’s poetry repeatedly draws on this aspect of Indian literary heritage in individual figures of speech and as the narrative basis for entire poems. For example, Erdrich sets the poem “A Love Medicine” on a night when the Red River reaches flood stage; she describes her sister Theresa, a young woman seeking sexual experience who is oblivious to possible disaster, in this way:
Theresa goes out in green halter and chainsthat glitter at her throat.This dragonfly, my sister,she belongs more than Ito this night of rising water.
Erdrich’s presentation of animals and the supernatural in her fiction is more complex than in her poetry and is related to the unusual mixture of realism and exaggeration in her fiction. Rather than boldly asserting the metaphoric or mystical connections of animals and people, as she does in poetry, her stories and novels generally begin by establishing a realistic base of recognizably ordinary people, settings, and actions. As her tales develop, these people become involved in events and perceptions that appear to the reader quite extraordinary—exaggerated in ways that may seem deluded or mystical, grotesque or magical, comic or tragic, or some strange mixture of these.
The chapter (or story) titled “Love Medicine” in Erdrich’s first novel richly illustrates this mixture of realism and exaggeration as well as other characteristic features of her fiction. In this story, the young man Lipsha Morrissey begins by reflecting on how mundane his life has been: “I never really done much with my life, I suppose. I never had a television.” Under pressure from his grandmother, Marie Lazarre Kashpaw, who wants to rein in her husband’s straying affections, Lipsha tries to concoct a love potion based on the hearts of Canadian geese—birds that mate for life. The story develops comically as Lipsha fails to shoot down the wild geese he thinks he needs and instead substitutes turkey hearts that he buys in a supermarket. The story takes a grotesque, tragicomic turn when Marie’s suspicious and reluctant husband, Nector, chokes to death on a turkey heart that Marie nags him into eating.
The story leaves the reader wondering how to interpret Nector’s death. Is it evidence of the power of traditional Indian spiritualism, an ironic punishment of Marie for trying to trick her husband into loving her, or mere monstrous bad luck? As so often in her fiction, Erdrich withholds authorial comment that would provide a direct or conclusive answer to the often supernatural mysteries she presents. Instead, she relies on a first-person or, occasionally, third-person limited point of view. She concentrates on dramatizing what the characters think and feel about the mysteries in their lives. In “Love Medicine,” Lipsha and Marie share a sense of guilt over Nector’s death until, in another surprising twist, his ghost returns to visit them. Lipsha’s interpretation of this event is so moving and profound that it seems a more meaningful act of “love medicine” than the supernatural magic he had failed to perform earlier:Love medicine ain’t what brings him back to you, Grandma. No, it’s something else. He loved you over time and distance, but he went off so quick he never got the chance to tell you how he loves you, how he doesn’t blame you, how he understands. It’s true feeling, not no magic. No supermarket heart could have brung him back.
One other element of Erdrich’s fiction often praised by critics is her poetic, often lyrical style. Erdrich intensifies many moments through aptly chosen images or figures of speech, yet she is also a master at drawing such poetically heightened language from her characters’ experience. For example, in “Love Medicine,” after Lipsha has encountered the spirit of his dead grandfather, he compares life to a kind of clothing that he knows well:Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart’s position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won’t ever come by such a bargain again.
Erdrich often ends her stories with a lyrical flourish, a series of images that extends feelings and themes in vivid, though sometimes oblique and unexpected ways. At the conclusion of “Love Medicine,” Lipsha decides to pick some dandelions as a way of reconnecting his life with the forces of nature. Rather than ending the story with clear narrative sentences that neatly tie up a conclusion, Erdrich ends with a curious series of sentence fragments, images of what Lipsha sees that invite interpretation like lines in a poem: “The spiked leaves full of bitter mother’s milk. A buried root. A nuisance people dig up and throw in the sun to wither. A globe of frail seeds that’s indestructible.”
First published: 1984 (collected in Jacklight, 1984)
Type of work: Poem
In the harsh glare of “jacklight,” animals emerge from the woods and beckon hunters to follow them back into a realm of mystery.
“Jacklight,” the opening and title poem in Erdrich’s first book of verse, is a haunting dramatization of male-female and of white-Indian relations. The poem begins with an epigraph citing that “the same Chippewa word is used both for flirting and for hunting game,” so that the encounter between hunters and animals enacted in the poem is also an allegory for sexual gamesmanship between men and women. The title refers to an artificial light, such as a flashlight, used in hunting or fishing at night. This detail, along with a number of others, suggests that the poem is also an allegory of an encounter between white and Indian cultures. Erdrich does not indicate whether the male hunters in the poem are white or Indian, but in either case their equipment and character traits clearly suggest aggressive and exploitative aspects of white culture.
The poem begins not with the hunters going into the woods, but with the animals coming out—perhaps because of their curiosity, flirtatiousness, or trusting openness:
We have come to the edge of the woods,out of brown grass where we slept, unseen,out of knotted twigs, out of leaves creaked shut,out of hiding.
In these lines and throughout the poem, Erdrich’s use of assonance and consonance (such as “Out of brown” and “knotted twigs”) and of parallel syntax (such as the repetition of “out of”) creates a charged atmosphere that suggests repeated, ritualistic behavior.
The harsh assaultiveness of males and of white culture is portrayed in the beams of the jacklights, which “clenched to a fist of light that pointed,/ searched out, divided us.” The perverse power of this jacklight, in contrast with the powers of nature, is such that the animals (or females, or Indians) are compelled into separating from their group. Although the animals in the poem smell many repulsive aspects of the hunters (“the raw steel of their gun barrels,” “their tongues of sour barley,” “the itch underneath the caked guts on their clothes”), they do not retreat. Erdrich seems to be suggesting that women (if they want to have husbands) and Indians (if they want to avoid total destruction by the advancing white culture) have no choice but to deal with such brutishness.
In the last two stanzas, however, the animals declare that it is time for some concessions:
We have come here too long.It is their turn now,their turn to follow us. Listen,they put down their equipment.It is useless in the tall brush.And now they take the first steps, not knowinghow deep the woods are and lightless.
For the male who is in search of a female, or the white in confrontation with an Indian, or the reader who may be white or male and about to enter the world of a female Indian poet, there must be a willingness to deal with complexities and mysteries for which their “equipment” or preconceptions are inadequate. Yet Erdrich’s readers may also be assured that though “the woods” of her poetry may seem “deep” and at times “lightless,” they always contain authentic rewards of feeling and experience.
First published: 1984 (revised and expanded, 1993)
Type of work: Novel
In the years from 1934 to 1984, members of five Chippewa and mixed-blood families struggle to attain a sense of belonging through love, religion, home, and family.
Love Medicine is both the title and the main thematic thread that ties fourteen diverse short stories into a novel. Although it refers specifically to traditional Indian magic in one story, in a broader sense “love medicine” refers to the different kinds of spiritual power that enable Erdrich’s Chippewa and mixed-blood characters to transcend—however momentarily—the grim circumstances of their lives. Trapped on their shrinking reservation by racism and poverty, plagued by alcoholism, disintegrating families, and violence, some of Erdrich’s characters nevertheless discover forms of “love medicine” that can help to sustain them.
The opening story, “The World’s Greatest Fishermen,” begins with an episode of “love medicine” corrupted and thwarted. In 1981, June Kashpaw, once a woman of striking beauty and feisty spirit, has sunk to the level of picking up men in an oil boomtown. At first she hopes a man she meets will be “different” from others who have used and discarded her, then tries to walk to the reservation through a snowstorm. June fails in those last attempts to attain love and home, two goals she and other characters will seek throughout the novel. Although she appears only briefly in this and in one other story, June Kashpaw is central to the novel because she embodies the potential power of spirit and love in ways that impress and haunt the other characters.
Part 2 of “The World’s Greatest Fishermen” introduces many other major characters of Love Medicine, when June’s relatives gather together several months after her death. Several characters seem sympathetic because of their closeness to June and their kind treatment of one another. Albertine Johnson, who narrates the story and remembers her Aunt June lovingly, has gone through a wild phase of her own and is now a nursing student. Eli Kashpaw, Albertine’s great-uncle who was largely responsible for raising June, is a tough and sharp-minded old man who has maintained a traditional Chippewa existence as a hunter and fisherman. Lipsha Morrissey, who, though he seems not to know it, is June’s illegitimate son, a sensitive, self-educated young man who acts warmly toward Albertine.
In contrast to these characters, others appear flawed or unsympathetic according to Albertine, who would like to feel her family pulling together after June’s death. Zelda and Aurelia, Albertine’s gossipy mother and aunt, host the family gathering but do little to make Albertine feel at home. Albertine admires “Grandpa,” Zelda’s father Nector Kashpaw, for having once been an effective tribal chairman, but Nector has become so senile that Albertine cannot communicate with him. Gordie Kashpaw, the husband whom June left, is a pleasant fellow but a hapless drunk. In marked opposition to Lipsha, June’s legitimate son King is a volatile bully. Although King gains some sympathy when he voices his grief over his mother’s death, his horrifying acts of violence—abusing his wife, Lynette, battering his new car, smashing the pies prepared for the family dinner—leave Albertine and readers with a dismayed sense of a family in shambles.
Love Medicine then moves back in time from 1981, and its stories proceed in chronological order from 1934 to 1984, presenting ten earlier episodes in the lives of the Kashpaws and related families and three later episodes that follow the events in “The World’s Greatest Fishermen.” “Saint Marie” concerns a poor white girl, Marie Lazarre, who in 1934 enters Sacred Heart Convent and a violent love-hate relationship with Sister Leopolda. In “Wild Geese,” also set in 1934, Nector Kashpaw , infatuated with Lulu Nanapush, finds his affections swerving unexpectedly when he encounters Marie Lazarre on the road outside her convent. By 1948, the time of “The Beads,” Marie has married Nector, had three children, and agreed to raise her niece June. Marie’s difficulties multiply: Nector is drinking and philandering, and June, after almost committing suicide in a children’s hanging game, leaves, to be brought up by Eli in the woods.
“Lulu’s Boys,” set in 1957, reveals that the amorous Lulu Lamartine (née Nanapush) had married Henry Lamartine but bore eight sons by different fathers; years later, she still has a mysterious sexual hold over Henry’s brother Beverly. Meanwhile, in “The Plunge of the Brave,” also set in 1957, Nector recalls the development of his five-year affair with Lulu and tries to leave his wife Marie for her. All ends badly when he accidentally burns Lulu’s house to the ground.
The offspring of these Kashpaws and Lamartines also have their problems. In “The Bridge,” set in 1973, Albertine Johnson runs away from home and becomes lovers with Henry Lamartine, Jr., one of Lulu’s sons, who is a troubled Vietnam veteran. “The Red Convertible,” set in 1974, also involves Henry, Jr., as Lyman Lamartine tries unsuccessfully to bring his brother out of the dark personality changes that service in the Vietnam War has wrought in him. On a lighter note, “Scales,” set in 1980, is a hilarious account of the romance between Dot Adare, an obese white clerk at a truck-weighing station, and Gerry Nanapush, one of Lulu’s sons who is a most unusual convict; enormously fat, amazingly expert at escaping from jail, but totally inept at avoiding capture. “A Crown of Thorns,” which overlaps the time of “The World’s Greatest Fishermen” in 1981, traces Gordie Kashpaw’s harrowing and bizarre decline into alcoholism after June’s death.
Although in Love Medicine’s early stories the positive powers of love and spirit are more often frustrated than fulfilled, in the last three stories several characters achieve breakthroughs that bring members of the different families together in moving and hopeful ways. In “Love Medicine,” set in 1982, Lipsha Morrissey reaches out lovingly to his grandmother Marie and to the ghosts of Nector and June. In “The Good Tears,” set in 1983, Lulu undergoes a serious eye operation and is cared for by Marie, who forgives her for being Nector’s longtime extramarital lover. Finally, in “Crossing the Water,” set in 1984, Lipsha Morrissey mentions that Lulu and Marie have joined forces in campaigning for Indian rights, and he helps his father, Gerry Nanapush, escape to Canada. As Lipsha heads home to the reservation, he comes to appreciate the rich heritage of love, spirit, and wiliness that he has inherited from his diverse patchwork of Chippewa relatives—especially from his grandmother Lulu, his aunt Marie, and his parents, June Kashpaw and Gerry Nanapush.
The Beet Queen
First published: 1986
Type of work: Novel
In a North Dakota small town in the years 1932 to 1972, two orphaned children, along with their relatives and friends, struggle in attempts to sustain love and family.
In The Beet Queen, Erdrich shifts her main focus from the American Indian to the European immigrant side of her background, creating in impressive detail the fictional town of Argus, modeled on Wahpeton, where she grew up, but located closer to the Chippewa reservation. The novel captures both the flat surfaces of life in small-town North Dakota and the wild incidents and strange passions that seem all the more startling, comic, and heartrending for their appearing in such a mundane environment.
As in Love Medicine, The Beet Queen features first-person and third-person-limited narration to present characters’ diverse points of view. In this novel, however, Erdrich focuses more closely on a few main characters, four later expanded to six, and devotes more time to their childhoods. The novel conveys a richly detailed perspective on how the dynamics of family and friendship affect characters over time.
Like Love Medicine, The Beet Queen begins with a vividly symbolic episode, shifts back in time, and then proceeds chronologically through a series of decades. The opening scene, “The Branch,” dramatizes two contrasting approaches to life that many characters will enact throughout the novel. On a cold spring day in 1932, two orphans, Mary and Karl Adare, arrive by freight train in Argus. As they seek the way to the butcher shop owned by their aunt and uncle, Mary “trudge[s] solidly forward,” while Karl stops to embrace a tree that already has its spring blossoms. When they are attacked by a dog, Mary runs ahead, continuing her search for the butcher shop, while Karl runs back to hop the train once again. As the archetypal plodder of the novel, Mary continues to plod solidly forward throughout; she is careful, determined, and self-reliant in pursuit of her goals. Karl is the principal dreamer—impressionable, prone to escapist impulses, and dependent on others to catch him when he falls.
The Adare family history shows that Karl is following a pattern set by his mother, Adelaide, while Mary grows in reaction against this pattern. Karl, like Adelaide, is physically beautiful but self-indulgent and impulsive. Driven to desperation by her hard luck in the early years of the Depression, Adelaide startles a fairground crowd by abandoning her children, Mary, Karl, and an unnamed newborn son, to fly away with the Great Omar, an airplane stunt pilot.
In Argus, Mary tangles with another beautiful, self-centered dreamer: her cousin Sita Kozka, who resents the attention that her parents, Pete and Fritzie, and her best friend, Celestine James, pay to Mary. Yet Mary prevails and carves a solid niche for herself among Pete, Fritzie, and Celestine, who, like Mary, believe in a strong work ethic and lack Sita’s pretentious airs.
Several episodes gratify the reader with triumphs for Mary and comeuppances for the less sympathetic characters Karl, Adelaide, and Sita. Mary becomes famous for a miracle at her school. She falls and cracks the ice in the image of Jesus. She gains Celestine as a close friend and, in time, becomes manager of the Kozka butcher shop.
Karl becomes a drifter who finds only sordid, momentary pleasure in brief homosexual affairs, and twice recklessly injures himself. Meanwhile, Adelaide marries Omar and settles in Florida, but she becomes moody and subject to violent rages. Similarly, Sita fails in her vainglorious attempts to become a model and to establish a fashionable French restaurant. She escapes her first marriage through divorce and becomes insane and suicidal during her second.
As Erdrich charts the strange and sometimes grotesque downfalls of her flighty characters, she also develops her more sympathetic ones in ways that suggest that the opposite approach to life does not guarantee happiness either. Mary fails in her attempt to attract Russell Kashpaw, Celestine’s Chippewa half brother, and she develops into an exotically dressed eccentric obsessed with predicting the future and controlling others.
Like Mary, Celestine James and Wallace Pfef are hardworking and successful in business, but their loneliness drives them to ill-advised affairs with Karl, and he causes each of them considerable grief. Celestine and Karl’s affair results in the birth of Dot Adare, who grows up to be the obese lover of Gerry Nanapush in the story “Scales” in Love Medicine. Because Celestine, Mary, and Wallace all spoil the child, Dot turns out, in Wallace’s words, to have “all of her family’s worst qualities . . . Mary’s stubborn, abrupt ways, Sita’s vanity, Celestine’s occasional cruelties, Karl’s lack of responsibility.” As a teenager, Dot comes to grief when she learns that Wallace has rigged the election for Queen of the Argus Beet Festival so that she, an unpopular and ludicrously unlikely candidate, will win.
In opposition to the defeats and disappointments that characters bear, Erdrich dramatizes the joy they derive from life. The compensations of family and friendship—ephemeral and vulnerable as these may be—turn out to be significant for all the characters at various times in the story, particularly at the end. The irrepressible vitality of these people, troublesome as they often are to one another, keeps the reader involved and entertained throughout the novel.
First published: 1988
Type of work: Novel
In the years between 1912 and 1924, Chippewa Indians struggle to maintain control of their lives and their lands despite the ravages of plagues, starvation, internecine feuding, and white encroachment.
Tracks is arguably Erdrich’s most concentrated, intense, and mystical novel before the appearance of The Antelope Wife (1998). Her shortest novel, it covers the briefest period of time, twelve years. It alternates between only two first-person narrators compared with seven and six in the preceding novels. This compression serves the story well, for the human stakes are high. At first, and periodically throughout the novel, the Chippewa characters fear for their very survival, as smallpox, tuberculosis, severe winters, starvation, and feuds with mixed-blood families bring them close to extinction. Later in the novel, government taxes and political chicanery threaten the Chippewas’ ownership of their family homesteads. In response, Erdrich’s Chippewa characters use all the powers at their command, including the traditional mystical powers of the old ways, to try to survive and maintain their control over the land.
Nanapush, one of the novel’s two narrators, is an old Chippewa whom Erdrich names after the trickster rabbit in tribal mythology that repeatedly delivers the Chippewas from threatening monsters. In Tracks, Erdrich’s Nanapush often does credit to his mythological model by wielding the trickster rabbit’s powers of deliverance, wiliness, and humor. First, he saves Fleur Pillager, a starving seventeen-year-old girl and the sole survivor of a Chippewa clan that others fear for their legendary dark magic. Then he twice delivers young Eli Kashpaw from the sufferings of love by advising him how to win Fleur’s heart. Nanapush is also instrumental in saving the extended family that forms around Fleur, Eli, and himself. This family grows to five when Fleur gives birth to a daughter, Lulu, and Eli’s mother, Margaret Kashpaw, becomes Nanapush’s bedmate.
As these five come close to starvation in the winter of 1918, Nanapush sends Eli out to hunt an elk, and in one of the most extraordinary passages of the novel, Nanapush summons a power vision of Eli hunting that the old man imagines is guiding Eli to the kill. Nanapush demonstrates the humor associated with his mythological model in his wry tone as a narrator, his sharp wit in conversation, and the tricks that he plays on his mixed-blood antagonists.
Foremost among these antagonists is the novel’s other narrator, Pauline Pukwan. A “skinny big-nosed girl with staring eyes,” Pauline circulates in Argus from the Kozkas’ butcher shop to the Sacred Heart Convent, and on the reservation from the Nanapush-Pillager-Kashpaw group to the Morrissey and Lazarre clans. At first attracted to Fleur by the beauty and sexual power that she herself lacks, Pauline later takes an envious revenge by concocting a love potion that seems to drive Fleur’s husband, Eli, and Sophie Morrissey to become lovers.
The word “seems” is appropriate because Pauline’s account of her perceptions, actions, and powers is sometimes so distorted that she becomes an unreliable narrator. She is so torn between desires for inclusion and revenge, between the earthy sexual and spiritual powers of the Chippewas on one hand and the self-mortifying, otherworldly religion of the Catholic nuns on the other, that at times her character and narration go over the edge into gothic dementia. Ironically, Pauline gives birth out of wedlock to a girl named Marie. At the end of her narrative Pauline enters the convent to become Sister Leopolda—Love Medicine’s cruel nun who influences her own daughter, Marie Lazarre, to grow into a similarly warped personality, torn between fanatical Catholic piety and earthy sexuality.
Although Erdrich clearly feels passionately about the sufferings visited on her Chippewa characters in Tracks, she treats this politically charged material with her usual disciplined restraint. Her dispassionate, deadpan use of first-person narrators never suggests authorial commentary and matches the understated, stoic attitude that Nanapush adopts toward the numerous waves of hardship and betrayal that the Chippewas must endure. It is a measure of Erdrich’s impressive lack of sentimentality that in the struggle over Chippewa family lands that in the last quarter of the novel, it is not merely the whites and their mixed-blood accomplices who rob the Indians. In a startling act of betrayal, Margaret and Nector Kashpaw misappropriate the money that the Nanapush-Pillager-Kashpaw group had raised together. They use it to secure the Kashpaw lands while letting the hereditary Pillager lands fall prey to lumber interests.
Tracks seems to conclude with a feeling of fragmentation and defeat but strikes some notes of solidarity and survival, especially when considered in relation to Love Medicine and The Beet Queen. Fleur disappears, leaving her husband and daughter, but Nanapush’s wiliness helps him to become tribal chairman and then to retrieve Lulu from a distant boarding school. In the end, the reader is reminded that Nanapush has addressed his entire narrative to Lulu: The old man hopes that his story will convince Lulu to embrace the memory of Fleur, “the one you will not call mother.”
The Antelope Wife
First published: 1998
Type of work: Novel
Part myth, part history, the novel begins with Scranton Roy’s and Blue Prairie Woman’s nineteenth century stories and follows the poignant, intertwined tales of their offspring.
Erdrich’s novel The Antelope Wife makes a leap of style, incorporating deep history from a scene similar to nineteenth century Ojibwe clashes with the United States Army with a mythic child who is raised by a herd of antelope. Her narrative shifts from the physical world of the plains to the spiritual world of animals who can communicate with humans and lend them their traits. She also leaps several generations, bringing the mythic influence on Matilda Roy into the twentieth century where it shimmers in the actions and personalities of the antelope women Klaus Shawano shadows in the early chapters. When Klaus kidnaps the mother of the girls, he has taken on more than he can handle, and the results play themselves out several generations later.
Rozina Whiteheart Beads invites us in to the narrative as a modern voice in chapter 3. Mother of Cally and Deanna, the fourth set of twins in the Blue Prairie Woman line, she says at the close of her chapter: “I would go back if I could, unweave the pattern of destruction. Take it all apart occurrence by slow event.” She refers to early complications when soldier Scranton Roy follows, saves, and raises a female Indian child after he has been involved in slaughtering members of the child’s band. The unassuaged grief of the girl’s mother leads her toward madness until she is renamed and treks off to find her lost daughter, leaving the first set of twins to be raised by their grandmother. Years later, Rozina, one of the third set of twins in the Shawano line, picks up the story, which entwines offspring of the Roy and Shawano families in ways so complicated that readers must often keep a list to sort out who is related to whom.
Throughout the novel, characters try and decipher who they are. All seem to be seeking answers in love or history, family or tribe. Cally confronts her Grandma Zosie midway through the book.What does my name mean? Where is my sister? What about my father? And Mama, will she ever stop avoiding Frank and make him her destiny? What does she want? . . . I look into her too-young brown eyes and get lost in all that I don’t know.
Rozin makes the final journey to Frank’s arms from loss and grief teetering between the real and spirit worlds. There are answers for Cally and a future for the characters who survive in Minneapolis, the city full of noise and danger for Ojibwes. Erdrich’s novel ends with a catalog of questions. “Did these occurrences have a paradigm . . . [?] Who are you and who am I, the beader or the bit of colored glass sewn onto the fabric of this earth?” The answers reside in the nest of her words.
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
First published: 2001
Type of work: Novel
Covering the years from 1910 to 1996, the history of Father Damien on the Ojibwe Little No Horse reservation unfolds, complete with an earth-shattering secret.
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse plunges readers into the lifetime saga of Father Damien and his work among the Ojibwes on the Little No Horse reservation. A prologue, containing a 1996 a letter to the pope from Father Damien, begins the book’s four-part narration by returning to 1910-1912. As in all Erdrich’s work, landscape plays a major role. “Eighty-some years previous, through a town that was to flourish and past a farm that would disappear, the river slid—all that happened began with that flow of water.” Novitiate Sister Cecelia, the former Agnes De Witt, is introduced as a young nun whose piano playing contains such emotion it disturbs her community and prompts her leaving. The arrangements she makes to live on a nearby farm catapult her into an adventure that will engulf her life. An accidental brush with petty criminals causes her common-law husband’s death and sets the stage for the rest of the novel. Themes of passionate devotion, religious life, individual will, and survival in the face of overwhelming odds are set in motion in part 1, “The Transfiguration of Agnes.” After a disastrous flood washes her out of her home, Agnes takes the role of Father Damien Modeste, a drowned priest whose body she finds. She walks onto Ojibwe land, and the novel’s main conceit is in place.
Throughout part 2, “The Deadly Conversions,” and part 3, “Memory and Suspicion,” Erdrich continues the technique of interspersing chapters about the aged priest’s daily routine and life in his parish with chapters about the past. In these sections Father Jude, an emissary from the Vatican, interacts with Father Damien and the parishioners that he has come to know and accept over the years. As Father Jude Miller investigates Sister Leopolda’s life and the miracles reported at Little No Horse, the novel incorporates earlier episodes between Father Damien, Nanapush, and Fleur Pillager as well as revealing the history of the Payut clan and the tale of the Kapshaw wives, the drama of Mary Kapshaw in the convent kitchen and Lulu Pillager’s struggle with her mother, Fleur. Lulu’s hatred for Fleur takes root in these sections when she is sent to Indian Boarding School. To further complicate life, another priest arrives to help Father Damien, and this means sharing a living space—a huge difficulty for “Father” Damien. The two of them discover each other with a passion that cannot be contained.
Part 4, “The Passions,” gives both report and prophecy concerning Lulu Pillager, returned as a woman to the reservation. It contains Sister Leopolda’s final confession of a murder and her threat to unmask “Father” Damien to the authorities when they quarrel. Father Jude Miller begins his account of Leopolda’s passion and finds himself spending equal time thinking about Father Damien’s life as he writes. Father Damien, unwilling to be indefensible in death, plans his disappearance, and Mary Kapshaw helps him carry it out. Finally, it is the love that Father Damien shared with his Ojibwe flock that they and readers remember.
The Master Butchers Singing Club
First published: 2003
Type of work: Novel
The novel details Fidelis Waldvogel’s emigration from Germany to Argus, North Dakota, and his life as a butcher there intertwines with Delphine Watzka’s life through work and family involvement.
The Master Butchers Singing Club adds another family saga to those of the residents of Argus, North Dakota, whom Erdrich’s readers have been getting to know since the 1980’s. Fidelis Waldvogel’s return from World War I in 1918 and his emigration from Germany in 1922 begin a narrative that moves through the development of small-town culture in the upper Midwest at the twentieth century’s beginning to the Great Depression; it culminates nine years after the end of World War II.
Erdrich’s genius for metaphor is employed in her creation of chapter titles. For example, chapter three, “The Bones,” begins with Argus’s structure as a town; the framework of Fidelis’s life shifts when Eva arrives with “their” son; Fidelis opens a butcher shop which schedules his life through work; Cyprian and Delphine establish a fake marriage to mollify the townspeople; and Roy is found wallowing in filth and confusion. The chapter’s events allude to bones’ functions as support, and other chapter titles suggest metaphors for memory, time, and patterns of connection in human lives.
Early in the novel, Fidelis founds a singing club like the one he remembers in his German home, Ludwigsruhe, and the men begin weekly meetings to harmonize and socialize. Delphine struggles to negotiate the early childhood loss of her mother and the alcoholic incompetence of her father. Cyprian struggles with his homosexual desires. Confronting Cyprian after she discovers him in an encounter with a man, Delphine means to remind him of their one night of passion, but instead she asks, “How do you balance?” Delphine and Cyprian tour successfully with a vaudeville group and traveling circus until Delphine needs to return to Argus and quiet her worries about her father, Roy Watzka. Argus then becomes the backdrop for how the two couples struggle for equilibrium.
The couples’ lives mingle when Delphine begins to help out in the butcher shop. She is drawn into Eva’s kitchen for coffee the first day that she comes to the shop as a customer, and in that room, she senses the domestic tranquillity she had longed for. Eva becomes fatally stricken with cancer, and Delphine nurses her friend through a painful death. All the while she and Cyprian maintain the charade of marriage while they live nearly platonically. Erdrich introduces two eccentrics: Tante Maria Waldvogel, Fidelis’s embittered spinster sister, and Step-and-a-Half, a wandering collector of junk. Gradually the plot becomes more about how the women manage to maintain order and live than how the men prosper.
Finally, Fidelis proposes to Delphine, and she is free to accept him. She has been a surrogate mother for his sons and has achieved a respected place in Argus through her economic ways, her efficient way of meeting her responsibilities, her steady presence, and her wide reading. The novel is weighted with the vision of what it means to survive and achieve balance in the world as one finds it, not as one wishes it.
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