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Louise Erdrich 1954–
American novelist, short story writer, poet, memoirist, children's fiction writer, and juvenile fiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Erdrich's career through 1996. See also, Love Medicine Criticism.
In her fiction and poetry, Erdrich draws upon her Chippewa heritage to examine complex familial and...
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Louise Erdrich 1954–
American novelist, short story writer, poet, memoirist, children's fiction writer, and juvenile fiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Erdrich's career through 1996. See also, Love Medicine Criticism.
In her fiction and poetry, Erdrich draws upon her Chippewa heritage to examine complex familial and sexual relationships among midwestern Native Americans and their conflicts with white communities. Her eccentric characters attain mythic stature as they struggle to overcome isolation, abandonment, and exploitation. Jean Strouse has observed of Erdrich: "Her sure sense of the way people think and talk keeps it hard to remember she is making them all up, and her lithe, athletic prose makes wildly improbable events seem as natural as the weather."
Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, in 1954. Both of her parents, Ralph and Rita Erdrich, worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Erdrich received her Bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College in 1976 and her Master's degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1977. In 1981 Erdrich married Michael Dorris, with whom she had six children (one of whom, Reynold Abel, died in 1991). A writer himself, Dorris frequently worked with Erdrich in developing stories until his death in 1997, and the two cowrote a novel, The Crown of Columbus (1991). Erdrich has taught poetry with the North Dakota State Arts Council and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and has been a visiting fellow at Dartmouth College. Her fiction has garnered a Nelson Algren Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a Los Angeles Times Book Award.
Erdrich's first published volume, Jacklight (1984), is a collection of poems that garnered praise for infusing everyday situations with mythic qualities. Her first novel, Love Medicine (1984), for which she won the National Book Critics Circle Award, gathers fourteen interconnected stories related by seven different members of the Kashpaw and Lamartine families of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa community in North Dakota. In The Beet Queen (1986) Erdrich continued her portrait of Turtle Mountain Chippewa but shifted her focus to the community outside the reservation. In Tracks (1988) a Chippewa elder and an abusive young female of white and Indian heritage relate the exploits of Fleur Pillager, a destructive yet magical woman who is an ancestor of several characters from Love Medicine. Characters from the first three novels recur in The Bingo Palace (1994) and Tales of Burning Love (1996), which again use multiple narrators and elements of magical realism to tell the stories of those living on and around the Turtle Mountain reservation. In 1993 Erdrich published an expanded edition of Love Medicine, adding different perspectives on the original story and dealing with different members of the families and those surrounding them. In The Crown of Columbus (1991) Erdrich and her husband Michael Dorris discuss historical inaccuracies in the story of Christopher Columbus and the impact of these inaccuracies on native peoples. In The Blue Jay's Dance (1995) Erdrich covered more personal ground, writing about the effect of motherhood on her work and her relation to the world around her.
While some critics find Erdrich's use of multiple narrators and her return to the same characters in different novels to be unnecessarily confusing and her use of mythic allusions and elements of magical realism to be contrived, most applaud her unflinching portrayal of contemporary Native American life. Many commentators note that the large number of influential Indian women in her fiction and her exploration of the disparities between institutional and indigenous history cements her as one of the most important voices in contemporary Native American literature.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 59
Imagination (textbook) 1980
Jacklight (poetry) 1984
Love Medicine (novel) 1984; expanded edition, 1993
The Beet Queen (novel) 1986
Tracks (novel) 1988
Baptism of Desire (poetry) 1989
The Crown of Columbus [with Michael Dorris] (novel) 1991
The Bingo Palace (novel) 1994
The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year (memoir) 1995
Tales of Burning Love (novel) 1996
Grandmother's Pigeon (children's fiction) 1996
The Antelope Wife: A Novel (novel) 1998
The Birchbark House (juvenile fiction) 1999
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SOURCE: Review of Jacklight, in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, Winter 1984, pp. 863-64.
[In the following excerpt, Stitt examines the mythic patterns explored in Jacklight.]
In Jacklight, her first book, Louise Erdrich arrives at an understanding of the modern world by discovering patterns within the experience she studies—mythic patterns derived from her own Native American background. The poems are narrative in structure, benefiting from a strong sense of both place and character. The poem "Train," for example, expresses the sense of self which determines the speaker's progress through the world:
Tunnels that the body strikes open in air.
Bridges that shiver across
every water I come to.
And always the light
I was born with, driving everything before it.
The basic metaphor is technological, of course, and explained by the poem's title. But the underlying definition of self, the idea that calls up the metaphor in the first place, is the same notion that determines the plot of Ruth Bebe Hill's novel Hanta-Yo.
Mythic narrative, character, and setting—the building blocks of much good fiction—are of course not enough for the making of good poetry. At her best, Louise Erdrich combines these with an exciting sense of language to produce poems like "Rugaroo"—probably the best in the book. It opens with this arresting character sketch:
He was the man who drank Vitalis
and sat up all night
with the mud puppies in the woodwork,
with the lights on in every room,
with the television, with the tap running,
with the fan blowing, with the icebox
sagged open, with the secondhand vacuum cleaner
All night you could hear him in the woods
Next morning he sat across from you pouring syrup
down his jacket.
His feet were the burnt stubs of brooms.
The images are pointed, striking, revealing both of personality and plot. The poem ends mythically, with this character being absorbed at his death into the surrounding environment. Thus the "you" of the poem, the sensibility most at issue here, will never be able to escape him:
He was the man who couldn't sleep.
He went down into the cellar
And ate raw potatoes.
He blew up with gas.
And now he is the green light floating over the slough.
He is the one in the cattails at the edge of your dream.
He is the man who will not let you sleep.
In its liveliness, its way of investing the ordinary world with the magic of received mythology, the poem is typical of many in the book. Unfortunately, one whole section of the volume is given over to a sequence called "The Butcher's Wife," poems which are as literal in their declarations and imagery as they are prosaic in style. Except for this lapse, however, Jacklight is a striking and entertaining first book.
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SOURCE: "Border Country," in The Nation, Vol. 243, No. 14, November 1, 1986, pp. 460-63.
[In the following review, Banks asserts that The Beet Queen, in its best sections, rivals the novels of Charles Dickens in socially conscious storytelling.]
The Beet Queen is a Dickensian story, an angry comedy about abandonment and survival, pluck and luck (ambition and coincidence), common sense and pretension, and wise children and foolish adults. The book is structured in an almost classical manner. It opens with a sudden, unpredictable disaster that tosses an ordered world into terrible disarray. It then follows the paths of the half-dozen affected lives through three generations of small triumphs and reversals, long digressions and quick returns, until at last, in a ceremonial event that reunites and reorders the scattered elements of the tale into symmetrical, benign relations, it circles back to where it began, with everything the same only different—which in classical comedy, as in Dickens, is almost always the point. It's a form that in the hands of lesser artists than Louise Erdrich often affirms the status quo and lends itself to sentimentality. When, however, the story is played against a view of history in which decent folks are victimized not by their dopey and amusing gullibility but by economic and social forces too powerful to overcome with wile or guile, then the story has a divine rage, and one sees the radical power of the old form renewed.
The story of The Beet Queen is the story of the entwined fates of three generations of women whose men orbit around them like distant planets, necessary to the system as a whole but taking all their heat and most of their momentum from the women at the center. The book is divided into sixteen chapters narrated by the main characters and covering four decades in the lives of Mary Adare, one of the most memorable women in recent American fiction; her beleaguered mother, Adelaide; her narcissistic cousin, Sita Kozka; her lifelong friend, the half-Chippewa Celestine James; and Celestine's daughter, Dot. There are three men of note—Mary's older brother Karl, who fathers Dot; Dot's godfather, Wallace Pfef; and Celestine's half brother Russell Kashpaw, a shattered war hero. There is also Omar, a barnstorming stunt pilot, who, in the opening chapter, flies off with Adelaide, permitting her to abandon her three children on the fairgrounds below. This is the desperate, sad act that initiates the tangled actions of the book.
Several minor characters from the author's first novel, Love Medicine, pop up in The Beet Queen, and the setting is essentially the same as in that book—the flat, sparsely populated farm country where eastern North Dakota turns into western Minnesota, the literal and figurative border country where Chippewa tribal lands and lives grind against the land and lives of small-time white farmers, who in turn are swallowed by agribusiness. Erdrich sets her fiction squarely in the tense zone where races, cultures, languages, technologies and classes clash and overlap. Like most good fiction writers, she lives year-round in border country.
The Beet Queen is the second of a projected quartet of books dealing with the same cluster of families and events. Love Medicine, widely praised for its energy, inventiveness and compassion, was focused more directly on the lives of the Indians, and might for that reason seem more explicitly political than its successor. Yet it's evident from The Beet Queen that Erdrich has quite as much compassion for the white inhabitants of the small town of Argus, North Dakota, and environs as for the Chippewas. Employing exquisite irony, she dramatizes the empty inner life of a small-town booster by letting him speak for himself:
I'm Wallace Pfef. Chamber of commerce, Sugar Beet Promoters, Optimists, Knights of Columbus, park board, and other organizations too numerous to mention. In addition to supporting the B# Piano Club and managing the town swimming pool, I am the one who is bringing beets to the valley, beets that have yet to fail as a cash crop anywhere, beets that will make refined white sugar every bit as American as corn on the cob.
There has been resistance to my proposition, and why not? Agronomists value cyclical regularities. They are suspicious of innovation, and my business is courting change. To woo them, I've become the friend to agricultural co-ops and visited each area farmer individually. I've drunk sloe gin and schnapps and nameless basement brews. In town I've joined up with a vengeance, for I know that within the fraternal order lies power. Eagles, Moose, Kiwanis, Elk. I need to belong. I've gained a hundred ears, pumped hands, exchanged secret passwords with my brothers. I've told them how beets are much more than a simple crop. They are the perfect marriage between nature and technology. Like crude oil, the beet needs refining, and that means Refinery. That spells local industry. Everyone benefits.
There is a Bruegel-like realism to The Beet Queen—crisply articulated details on the surface of figures and landscapes arranged as deliberately as a bowl of fruit—that affirms the presence of moral intent and suggests the immanence of moral truth. One attends to the story the way one attends to a Gothic fairy tale, full of sudden, unexpected turns and gory surprises. Indeed, there are a few too many allusions to fairy tales in the book, making one a little more conscious of the act of reading than one needs to be. This is not a self-reflexive tale and we ought not be distracted from the business at hand.
Briefly, the story begins when the respectable, married, bourgeois lover of the poor but beautiful, and pregnant, Adelaide Adare dies, abandoning her and their two children, Karl and Mary, to abject poverty (it's 1932, the worst of the Depression). Fleeing Argus for Minneapolis, where things only get worse, Adelaide takes her children to the fairgrounds one day and, as if on impulse, flies off with a barnstormer in his plane. Eleven-year-old Mary says, "Our longing buried us. We sank down on her bed and cried, wrapped in her quilt, clutching each other. When that was done, however, I acquired a brain of ice." It's her brain of ice that saves her and gets her back to Argus, where she is taken in by her aunt and uncle and gradually, after much suffering, makes a life for herself. Her brother Karl, a more fragile soul than she, ends up as a traveling salesman forever on the move. When he takes stock of his life he sounds like one of Sam Shepard's alienated Westerners:
I sat there drinkless and coatless, my hat on, my keys dangling off a ring, until the sky turned orange and one by one the neon signs around the place flashed in bows and zippers. They were just moving figures. Nothing around me spoke. And as I sat there and the shadows gathered and the lizards scraped along the tiles, I made less and less sense, too, until I made none at all. I was part of the senseless landscape. A pulse, a strip, of light.
I give nothing, take nothing, mean nothing, hold nothing.
Years pass quickly in this book. The chapters are alternately narrated by each of the main characters in a voice that belongs simultaneously to the character and to an impersonal, overseeing consciousness, so that the voices seem to blend, as in a chorus, without ever losing their remarkable individuality. Erdrich has been able to give each of her characters their own tone, diction, pitch and rhythm, without letting go of her own. The effect is to deprive the book of a single hero, one character against whom all the others are defined, and to replace it with something like a community. Although this was also true of Love Medicine, it is more successful in The Beet Queen, where the multiple voices are orchestrated more elegantly and the structure of the narrative is more rigorously formal. A number of recent books with similar ambitions come to mind—Carolyn Chute's The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Joan Chase's During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, John Edgar Wideman's Damballah, for instance. It's as if these authors have chosen to eschew, on principle, a single central consciousness—an individualized sympathetic norm that, like the reader's consciousness, has found itself set in the center of a world gone wacky—and have instead attempted to make a family or a village or tribe, that is, a people, into the protagonist. They seem to be struggling to discover, or perhaps rediscover, a narrative form equal to a social and political vision radically different from the one we inherited from the modernists. Such books are proposing profound changes in the way we read fiction and, as a consequence, in how we see the world.
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SOURCE: "Whatever Is Really Yours," in Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, Sun Tracks and the University of Arizona Press, 1987, pp. 73-86.
[In the following interview, Erdrich discusses her process of writing and storytelling and emphasizes the importance of her heritage in her work.]
It was a sunny day in New Hampshire when Louise Erdrich and her younger sister, Heidi Erdrich, a student in Creative Writing at Dartmouth, met me at the airport. We drove to the house her sister was subletting from Cleopatra Mathis, a poet and teacher at Dartmouth. Louise and I sat out on the back deck above a field where apple trees were swelling toward blossom, two horses moved lazily about their corral, and we could see the hills stretching off to the east. Louise is a striking woman, slender with long brown hair. She is surprisingly modest—even a bit shy—for one whose early accomplishments are so impressive: a powerful first book of poetry from a major publisher, a first novel which won critical acclaim, a National Book Critics Circle Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1985. But as we spoke, her voice was clear and her convictions as strong as those of any of the complex white, Indian, and mixed-blood characters who populate her work and her memories.
[Joseph Bruchac:] That poem ["Indian Boarding School: The Runaways"] is among the ones I like best of yours. It does two things I see as characteristic of your work—juxtaposes the two worlds and also hints at a natural unity which is broken yet hovering somewhere in the background. Why did you choose to read that particular poem?
[Louise Erdrich:] It might be something as simple as that the rhythm is something I like. Probably I chose it because I've been thinking about it on the way over here because it's the one I knew by heart and it started me back on remembering when it was written and the place where I grew up.
I like the rhythm, but the subject matter, too, has a special meaning.
It does, even though I never ran away. I was too chicken, too docile as a kid, but lots of other kids did. This, though, is a particular type of running away. It's running home; it's not running away from home. The kids who are talking in this poem are children who've been removed from their homes, their cultures, by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or by any sort of residential school or church school. Many kinds of schools were set up to take Indian children away from their culture and parents and loved ones and re-acculturate them. So, it is about the hopelessness of a child in that kind of situation. There is no escape. The sheriff is always waiting at midrun to take you back. It's a refrain and it's certainly the way things were for a long time. I guess now that the boarding schools have finally started serving a positive purpose, the current Administration wants to cut them. They're finally schools that can take in children who have nowhere else to go. They do serve some purpose, but naturally they are threatened. It's just a damn shame.
It seems to me, too, to be a metaphor for the things that are happening with American Indian writing and culture in general. People have been dragged into the twentieth century, European/American culture and frame of mind and running away from that means running not away, but back.
Yes, running home. That's true. I have a very mixed background and my culture is certainly one that includes German and French and Chippewa. When I look back, running home might be going back to the butcher shop. I really don't control the subject matter, it just takes me. I believe that a poet or a fiction writer is something like a medium at a seance who lets the voices speak. Of course, a person has to study and develop technical expertise. But a writer can't control subject and background. If he or she is true to what's happening, the story will take over. It was, in fact, hard for me to do that when stories started being written that had to do with the Chippewa side of the family because I just didn't feel comfortable with it for a long time. I didn't know what to make of it being so strong. It took a while to be comfortable and just say, "I'm not going to fight it." "Runaways" is one of the first poems that came out of letting go and just letting my own background or dreams surface on the page.
In my own case, being of mixed ancestry, I'm sometimes surprised how strongly those voices speak from that small percentage of my ancestry which is American Indian. That seems to be true of many other mixed-blood writers of your age and my age, that for some reason that's the strongest and most insistent voice.
I think that's because that is the part of you that is culturally different. When you live in the mainstream and you know that you're not quite, not really there, you listen for a voice to direct you. I think, besides that, you also are a member of another nation. It gives you a strange feeling, this dual citizenship. So, in a way it isn't surprising that's so strong. As a kid I grew up not thinking twice about it, everybody knowing you were a mixed-blood in town. You would go to the reservation to visit sometimes and sometimes you'd go to your other family. It really was the kind of thing you just took for granted.
One reason I like Jacklight so much is that it does deal with both sides of your family—the sections in the butcher shop are very real. They're no less strong than the sections which take place on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. When did you first begin to write, to write poetry or to write anything?
Well, my Dad used to pay me. Ever so often he'd pay me a nickel for a story. So I started a long time ago. Both my Mom and Dad were encouraging, incredibly encouraging. I had that kind of childhood where I didn't feel art was something strange. I felt that it was good for you to do it. I kept it up little by little until I got out of college and decided, this great romantic urge, that I was going to be a writer no matter what it cost. I told myself I would sacrifice all to be a writer. I really didn't sacrifice a lot, though. (laughs) I took a lot of weird jobs which were good for the writing. I worked at anything I could get and just tried to keep going until I could support myself through writing or get some kind of grant. Just live off this or that as you go along. I think I turned out to be tremendously lucky. Once I married Michael, we began to work together on fiction. Then it began to be a full-time job. It's a great thing, a miracle for a writer to be able to just write.
That's something seldom talked about, those persons who enable you to be a writer. It's very hard when you're on your own to devote yourself completely to writing, even part-time.
Michael and I are truly collaborators in all aspects of writing and life. It's very hard to separate the writing and the family life and Michael and I as people. He's also a novelist and has just finished his first novel. It's called A Yellow Raft in Blue Water and it's in the voices of three women; a young girl, her mother, and the grandmother speak. Very beautiful—and unusual, intriguing, interesting for a man to write in women's voices. I think it is because he was raised only by women.
The male voices in Love Medicine are very strong and legitimate. The book ends with a male voice.
Yes. I don't know why that is, but they just seem to be. You don't choose this. It just comes and grabs and you have to follow it.
In one of your poems, "Turtle Mountain Reservation," I notice how strong your grandfather is, how strong his voice is. A storytelling voice, a voice connected to the past in such ways that some people may think him a little crazy—in the poem Ira thinks he is nuts. I wonder if that voice of your grandfather's has made you appreciate more and relate more to the voices of your male characters?
He's kind of a legend in our family. He is funny, he's charming, he's interesting. He, for many years, was a very strong figure in my life. I guess I idolized him. A very intelligent man. He was a Wobbly and worked up and down the wheat fields in North Dakota and Kansas. He saw a lot of the world. He did a lot of things in his life and was always very outspoken. Politically he was kind of a right-winger sometimes, people might say. I think he gave Tricia Nixon an Anishinabe name, for publicity. I always loved him and when you love someone you try to listen to them. Their voice then comes through.
His voice is a combination of voices, too. He can both be in the Bingo Parlor and then speaking old Chippewa words that no one but he remembers.
I think this is true of a lot of our older people. People who aren't familiar with Indians go out to visit and they can't believe that there's somebody sitting in a lawn chair who's an Indian. It's kind of incomprehensible that there's this ability to take in non-Indian culture and be comfortable in both worlds. I recently came from Manitoulin Island, a beautiful place. People are quite traditional and keep a lot of the old, particularly the very old crafts. There is a great quill-work revival. I don't know if you're familiar with the kind of quill-working done up in Ontario, but this is really the center for it. But people live, even there, incorporating any sort of non-Indian thing into their lives to live comfortably. That's one of the strengths of Indian culture, that you pick and choose and keep and discard. But it is sometimes hard because you want some of the security of the way things were. It's not as easy to find the old as it is to find the new.
In the poem "Whooping Cranes," legend-time and modern times come together, when an abandoned boy turns into a whooping crane. There's a sort of cross-fertilization of past and present in legend.
And natural history. The cranes cross over the Turtle Mountains on their way down to Aransas, Texas. We always used to hear how they'd see the cranes pass over. No more, though. I don't know if they still fly that way or not.
In some of Leslie Silko's work you see that mixing of times. Someone may go out in a pickup truck and meet a figure out of myth.
Don't you, when you go on Indian land, feel that there's more possibility, that there is a whole other world besides the one you can see and that you're very close to it?
Very definitely. Crossing the border of a reservation is always entering another world, an older and more complicated world. How do you feel when you go back to Turtle Mountain?
I feel so comfortable. I really do. I even feel that way being in North Dakota. I really like that openness. But there's a kind of feeling at Turtle Mountain—I guess just comfortable is the word to describe it. There are also places there which are very mysterious to me. I don't know why. I feel they must have some significance. Turtle Mountain is an interesting place. It hasn't been continuously inhabited by the Turtle Mountain Band. It was one of those nice grassy, game-rich places that everybody wanted. So it was Sioux, it was Mitchiff, it was Chippewa. They are a soft, rolling group of hills, not very high, little hills—not like these (gestures toward mountains)—and there were parts that my grandfather would point out. The shapes were called this or that because they resembled a beaver or whatever kind of animal. He even incorporated the highways into the shapes because some of them got their tails cut off. (laughs) Even that people can deal with. Not always, though. There are many places that are certainly of religious significance that can never be restored or replaced, so I don't want to make light of it.
As in the Four Corners area.
Yes, I was thinking of Black Mesa. In the case of those hills at Turtle Mountain, there was that resilience because they were places which had a name, but not places—such as Black Mesa—much more vital to a culture and a religion. Catholicism is very important up there at Turtle Mountain. When you go up there, you go to Church! My grandfather has had a real mixture of old time and church religion—which is another way of incorporating. He would do pipe ceremonies for ordinations and things like that. He just had a grasp on both realities, in both religions.
I see that very much in your work. A lake may have a mythological being in it which still affects people's lives while the Catholic Church up on the hill is affecting them in a totally different way. Or you may have someone worrying about being drafted into the army at the same time he's trying to figure out how to make up love medicine—in a time when old ways of doing things have been forgotten. It seems similar, in a way, to Leslie Silko's Ceremony, where there is a need to make up new ceremonies because the old ones aren't working for the new problems, incorporating all kinds of things like phone books from different cities.
You may be right. I never thought about the similarity. This "love medicine" is all through the book, but it backfires on the boy who tries it out because he's kind of inept. It's funny what happens until it becomes tragic. But, if there is any ceremony which goes across the board and is practiced by lots and lots of tribal people, it is having a sense of humor about things and laughing. But that's not really what you're saying.
Who knows? (laughs) Anyway, I don't deal much with religion except Catholicism. Although Ojibway traditional religion is flourishing, I don't feel comfortable discussing it. I guess I have my beefs about Catholicism. Although you never change once you're raised a Catholic—you've got that. You've got that symbolism, that guilt, you've got the whole works and you can't really change that. That's easy to talk about because you have to exorcise it somehow. That's why there's a lot of Catholicism in both books.
The second poem in Jacklight is called "A Love Medicine."
I was sort of making that poem up as a love medicine, as a sort of healing love poem. So, I suppose there are all kinds of love and ways to use poetry and that was what I tried to do with it.
There are several things I see in Jacklight. One is an urge toward healing, a desire to ameliorate the pain, create something more balanced, even if it means facing difficult realities. Was that a conscious theme?
I don't think any of it was very conscious. Poetry is a different process for me than writing fiction. Very little of what happens in poetry is conscious, it's a great surprise. I don't write poetry anymore. I've in some ways lost that ability. I've made my unconscious so conscious through repeated writing of stories that I don't seem to have this urge to let certain feelings build until they turn into a poem.
Another theme I see strongly in Jacklight, and in all of your writing, is the theme of strong women who become more than what they seem to be. Transformations take place—in some cases, mythic transformations.
That is true of women I have known. We are taught to present a demure face to the world and yet there is a kind of wild energy behind it in many women that is transformational energy, and not only transforming to them but to other people. When, in some of the poems, it takes the form of becoming an animal, that I feel is a symbolic transformation, the moment when a woman allows herself to act out of her own power. The one I'm thinking of is the bear poem.
That's a really wonderful four-part poem.
Oh, I'm so glad! But, you know, she's realizing her power. She's realizing she can say "No," which is something women are not taught to do, and that she can hit the sky like a truck if she wants. Yes, it's transformational. It goes through all of the work I've been doing lately. Part of it is having three daughters, I think, and having sisters. I have an urgent reason for thinking about women attuned to their power and their honest nature, not the socialized nature and the embarrassed nature and the nature that says, "I can't possibly accomplish this." Whatever happens to many young girls. It happens to boys, too. It happens to men, no question. In the book there are men—maybe not so much in the poetry, but in the fiction—like Lipsha, who begin to realize that they are truly strong and touch into their own strength. I think it's a process of knowing who you are. There's quest for one's own background in a lot of this work. It's hard not to realize what you're doing. And you say, "Funny thing, I have so many characters who are trying to search out their true background. What can this mean?" One of the characteristics of being a mixed-blood is searching. You look back and say, "Who am I from?" You must question. You must make certain choices. You're able to. And it's a blessing and it's a curse. All of our searches involve trying to discover where we are from.
It makes me think of Jim Welch's wonderful scene in Winter in the Blood when that old man turns out to be his true grandfather.
Oh yes, yes, Certainly.
In that same light, there's a similarity there with Leslie Silko, though I don't mean to imply that you've copied anything of hers.
No, no, that didn't even enter my head. She's working out of a whole different tribal background. She was a discovery for me in a particular way I don't think any other writer will ever be. I'm very attached to her work.
You don't write poetry now because you feel the conscious effort of writing prose makes it less available?
It sands away the unconscious. (laughs) You know, there's really not much down there. But what really sands away the unconscious is getting up in the middle of the night to rock your baby to sleep. When you live in isolation—I notice this whenever I leave—I dream poems. But when you get up at all hours feeding babies, you just don't have that kind of experience, you're just not able to let your unconscious work for you. However, I don't miss it. I'd rather have the kids than the tortured unconscious. Also, I have a very practical way of working. I just sit down and Michael works in one room and I work in the other and we just sit there as long as we can. I really have got more and more mundane about my work habits. There are times when I'm up at 4:30 and I feel like something extremely strange is about to happen—whether it's writing or not. Maybe I'm just crazy. But I sit down and, if something is there, it will be written. Usually, though, after the kids are taken care of, I try to write and very few poems come that way. Almost none. I maybe have three now since Jacklight, which I don't think I'll ever publish. Those poems now seem so personal. I just don't know if I can put them in a book again! (laughs)
I think you're tapping, though, the same sources for your prose that you've tapped for your poetry, even though the method may be different. I think the depth of experience, the types of metaphor, and the direction it goes are all on the same road.
I'm connected to the poems because you feel so protective toward your first outpourings. You want them to have some kind of continuity in their life. I think that is probably true. You can see the themes that were being worked with in Jacklight go on into the writing in other ways. The poem you mentioned, "Family Reunion," turns into part of "Crown of Thorns" once it goes into the fiction. A lot of them do that. The next book, which is The Beet Queen, takes place in that sort of butcher shop world and incorporates people who are and are not in those poems. It's a very different book but also one which I think flows naturally out of both Jacklight and Love Medicine.
What years did you write the poems in Jacklight?
All through '77 and '78. Then, once it was accepted to be published I wrote a few extra ones. I was so thrilled to be finally published. The manuscript went everywhere and I thought it would never be published. Then it was, and I was given this great boost. So I wrote some of the ones I really like, like the one about the bear and about living with Michael and the children, because I was so happy. I guess it was surprising. I thought I would live my whole life without being published and I wouldn't care, but as it turned out I was really happy.
When did you begin writing with Michael?
Once we were married. In '81. We began by just talking about the work, back and forth, reading it. He always—right at first before I got to know him—was the person I would go to with problems. I'd say, "Michael, should I get into teaching, should I quit writing? What should I do?" And he said to me, "Look, there's only one thing to do. Throw yourself into your work. Don't take any more jobs." And I did it. I just tried what he said. (laughs) At times I found myself in some unpleasant monetary predicaments. But I've been lucky. I think it is because we started working together. He had ideas for the whole structure of Love Medicine that became the book. We worked on it very intensely and closely, and I do the same with his work. We exchange this role of being the … there isn't even a word for it. We're collaborators, but we're also individual writers. One person sits down and writes the drafts. I sit down and write it by myself or he does, but there's so much more that bears on the crucial moment of writing. You know it, you've talked the plot over, you've discussed the characters. You've really come to some kind of an understanding that you wouldn't have done alone. I really think neither of us would write what we do unless we were together.
Didn't the genesis of Love Medicine, "The World's Greatest Fisherman," come about that way. Michael saw the announcement of the Chicago Prize …
Yes. Michael was flat on his back, sick, and he said, "Look, you've got to enter this! Get in there, write it!" And I did, brought it in and out to him, changed it around, together we finished it.
You have such a strong narrative line in all your work and stories seem so important to you, stories told by your characters in the poems, the stories of the poems themselves and then the structure of story in Love Medicine, which is, in fact, many stories linked together. What is story to you?
Everybody in my whole family is a storyteller, whether a liar or a storyteller (laughs)—whatever. When I think what's a story, I can hear somebody in my family, my Dad or my Mom or my Grandma, telling it. There's something particularly strong about a told story. You know your listener's right there, you've got to keep him hooked—or her. So, you use all those little lures: "And then …," "So the next day …," etc. There are some very nuts-and-bolts things about storytelling. It also is something you can't really put your finger on.
Why do you follow it? I know if there is a story. Then I just can't wait to get back to it and write it. Sometimes there isn't one, and I just don't want to sit down and force it. You must find that, too, because you tell a lot of stories.
Yes, there's something about a story that tells itself.
The story starts to take over if it is good. You begin telling, you get a bunch of situation characters, everything together, but if it's good, you let the story tell itself. You don't control the story.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608
SOURCE: "Revenge of the Chippewa Witch," in Commonweal, Vol. CXV, No. 19, November 4, 1988, pp. 596-98.
[In the following review, Vecsey dispels possible criticism of Tracks as stereotypical and improbable, instead positing that the novel's mythic elements bring American Indian history to life.]
Tracks is Louise Erdrich's third novel of rural North Dakota. Love Medicine (1984) delineated a frayed line of Chippewa Indian lives in contemporary America. The Beet Queen (1986) portrayed a braid of their struggling, non-Indian neighbors of a generation or two ago. Both books were hung together by lyrical threads that highlighted and augmented the bleak and painful stuff of the stories wherein the lives of these peoples were intertwined. Both were masterworks.
Tracks brings the reader back to the early years of this century, 1912–1924, and it ties a knot of narrative around the previous novels. The style maintains the densely spiritual quality of her earlier work, resembling in some ways the "magical realism" of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and reveals some important history of the characters who people this rural world Ms. Erdrich is creating, or unraveling, before our eyes.
The narrative technique reveals the structure of the plot that in itself means to set forward the oppositional strands of twentieth-century Chippewa existence. Old Nanapush narrates half the chapters. Old Nanapush, named for the trickster-transformer of aboriginal Chippewa myth, upholder of the ancient, living traditions: the medicines, the hunting and trapping acumen, the land-related ethos, the familiar world view. Some might call him a liar like his namesake, but his lies and truths are tied and committed to ways that have served and survived the centuries' generations.
Pauline's chapters alternate with those of Nanapush. She is a half-breed. She lives for a time in the grubby Anglo town of Argus, away from the reservation. She returns, engages in lovemaking and love magic, receives or imagines a vision of the Virgin, gives birth, joins the convent, skins off her Indian ancestry, practices intense self-abnegation, and wages warfare against the Indian pagans who were formerly her associates, allies, and protectors. She, too, is called a liar; her lies and truths are tied and committed to a baroque and austere mission-house Catholicism.
Nanapush and Pauline engage in alternating narrative combat—his lies, her lies—as the white world inserts its roads into Indian lands, sinks its sawteeth into Indian timber, smothers Indian homes with layers of paper, and poisons Indian souls with printing ink. At the crux of this cultural biformity stands the Chippewa witch, Fleur, the mother of an auditor to whom Nanapush tells his version of the truth. Fleur stands against both worlds, Indian and white, cursing them each in turn, and working fabulous revenge when her times come. She gets no chance at narration, but her vision—as reported by the narrators (and the author)—disallows any romanticizing of either side.
A jaded reader might view the novel as yet another bipolarization of the age-old fight between whites and Indians, a dividing up of the North Dakota landscape into predictable factions. A reviewer might find some of the prose over-wrought, and the two narrative voices indistinguishable in their cadences. A materialist might find the flights of Ms. Erdrich's fable too fantastic for suspension of disbelief. Yet readers will appreciate and applaud the vigor and inventiveness of the author in accurately displaying the passions and obsessions of these two opposing views of the world: Indian and white. Louise Erdrich is a Chippewa-German-American, and the world she is describing does more than resemble or evoke the environment and people in and around Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, where she grew up; it embodies it and brings it to life.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4426
SOURCE: "Love Medicine: A Female Moby Dick," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 478-91.
[In the following essay, Matchie outlines parallels between Love Medicine and Herman Melville's Moby Dick.]
Published in 1984, Love Medicine is about a tribe of Indians living in North Dakota. Its author, Louise Erdrich, is part Chippewa and in the book returns to her prairie roots for her literary materials. Recently, Erdrich published another work entitled Beet Queen, also about the Red River Valley, and some of the same characters appear in both novels. Love Medicine is different from so much of Native American literature in that it is not polemic—there is no ax to grind, no major indictment of white society. It is simply a story about Indian life—its politics, humor, emptiness, and occasional triumphs. If Erdrich has a gift, it is the ability to capture the inner life and language of her people.
Since its publication, Love Medicine has won several national awards. Still, critics see in it a serious lack of unity—it was originally published as a series of short stories or vignettes. Also, some think it has little connection to authentic Indian values; students at the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota identified more with Giants in the Earth, Rolvaag's epic novel about white immigrants on the Dakota prairie. My contention is just the opposite, that the book does function as a whole, though this may not be immediately evident, and that the author is highly aware of Indian history and tradition, which emerge in subtle ways, helping us to understand the mystery of existence, whatever our color or ethnic origin.
While reading the novel it may help, strangely enough, to keep in mind another novel, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. These two works may seem far apart, one about the sea—"in landlessness alone lies the highest truth"—and the other about the Dakota prairie, the geographic center of North America. But one of Erdrich's characters, Nector Kashpah, sees himself as Ishmael—"call me Ishmael," he says, after escaping a particularly difficult situation. If one looks further into the matter, it becomes evident that there are many ways these two books are alike. First, they have similar episodic or disjointed structures. Then, the major characters in one story seem to draw upon those in the other. And through it all, the same motifs (e.g., water and fishing, wildness—particularly among the males, preoccupation with power as well as the importance of the heart, the alternating realities of life and death, concern with colors, especially white and red) appear again and again. Indeed, it may be that the truest unity and deepest values of Love Medicine come clear when juxtaposed with Melville's classic novel of the sea.
In regard to structure, Love Medicine begins with a short account, told in third person, of the death of June Kashpah in 1981 in the boomtown of Williston, North Dakota. Then the novel proceeds with many short, seemingly unrelated episodes—some descriptive/narrative, some dramatic—told from multiple perspectives, but all about life on and off the reservation over a period of fifty years (1934–1984). Each vignette centers on shattered family life and the alienation of individuals. The parts may indeed seem dissimilar, unless one views them in an organic way, much as Moby Dick in 1850 represented a departure from the classic or three-part structure so common at that time. Moby-Dick, of course, is about the disintegration of a ship, not only physically, but spiritually, for the purpose of the voyage and the unity of the crew collapse, all because of Ahab's preoccupation with one white whale. It begins with Ishmael's narrative, but then switches to everything from descriptions of the whaling industry, to poetic monologues, to dramatic episodes both comic and tragic. The parts, though different, are interposed erratically and often unexpectedly, but in the end they work together toward the whole. And that is how one must view Love Medicine.
In both cases the circle, so indigenous to Indian life, governs all, though in the case of the structure of Love Medicine, it takes fifty years to see it. Moby Dick starts with Ishmael's leaving New Bedford, contemplating many kinds of images of death (e.g., in the chapel, through Fr. Maple's sermon, in the Sprouter-Inn, in the prophecies of Elijah). Then, after the wreck of the Pequod (named after an extinct tribe of Indians), he surfaces in a circular vortex as he rises out of the chaos before coming home. In Erdrich's novel the action starts with June's death and then, after going back in time through a series of chaotic scenes dealing with Indian family life, circles back to the beginning when June's lost son Lipsha surfaces—rises psychologically and spiritually, not only to discover his real mother and family, but in his words to "cross the water, and bring her home."
Undoubtedly, Erdrich did not set out to write a book like Moby-Dick, but like Melville she writes about what she knows best—Indian life in this century—and like him she seeks through her characters the answers to some profound questions about human existence. It is in this context that she parallels in broad and general ways Melville's pattern of development, themes, characterizations, and motifs to create a virtual allegory of his work. In many ways her novel mirrors his, for her Dakota prairie can be as wild as his ocean typhoons, just as his sea can be as calm and dreamy as the Midwestern prairie. Indeed, as we shall see, the motif of wildness runs through the novel, but the character most directly exhibiting this quality is Nector Kashpah, who sees himself as reliving Moby Dick. Nector literally connects the various Indian families on the reservation; himself a Kashpah, he marries Marie Lazarre Morrissey, but never loses his passion for Lulu Lamartine, a promiscuous mother of a girl and at least nineteen boys, one of whom is Nector's.
Midway in the book Nector, a type of figure not uncommon in Melville because he is both comic and tragic, says:
I kept thinking about the one book I read in high school … Moby Dick, the story of the great white whale. I knew that book inside and out. I'd even stolen a copy from school and taken it home in my suitcase….
"You're always reading that book," my mother said once. "What is it?"
"The story of the great white whale."
She could not believe it. After a while, she said, "What do they got to wail about, those whites?"
I told her the whale was a fish as big as the church. She did not believe this either. Who would?
"Call me Ismael," I said sometimes, only to myself. For he survived the great white monster like I got out of the rich lady's picture [he'd been paid by a rich lady to disrobe for a painting she called "Plunge of the Brave"]. He let the water bounce his coffin to the top. In my life so far, I'd gone easy and come out on top, like him. But the river wasn't done with me yet. I floated through the calm sweet spots, but somewhere the river branched.
Here is where he falls headlong again for Lulu.
One of the ironies of the novel is that Nector is not really Ishmael at all, but more like Ahab, in that he is an irrational figure who thinks he can control all worlds—the Kashpahs and the Lamartines, his wife's and his lover's. A member of a most respected family and the chairman of the tribe, Nector becomes the victim of his sexual passions, falling for Marie as she escapes from the Sacred Heart Convent, but equally possessed with the beautiful and lascivious Lulu, into whose waters he continually sails to satisfy his fantasies. He finally concludes:
I try to think of anything but Lulu or Marie or my children. I think back to the mad captain in Moby Dick and how his leg was bit off. Perhaps I was wrong, about Ismael I mean, for now I see signs of the captain in myself.
In trying to burn a letter he's written to Lulu saying he is leaving Marie, he actually sets fire to Lulu's house—an event reminiscent of Ahab's burning masts in Moby Dick—before returning sheepishly to Marie. In the end he dies a pathetic old man, one who has literally lost his mind and has "to have his candy." He chokes to death on turkey hearts, the ironic symbol of his erotic needs and manipulative ways.
The Ishmael who discovers the real "love medicine" is Lipsha Morrissey, the bastard son of June Kashpah—the one who brings Nector the hearts. Like Melville's narrator, he is a wanderer who has to discover in painful ways the meaning of his universe and how he fits. He has to find that his true mother is June, who dies on her way home crossing the prairie. He has to find that his brother is King, his boyhood tormentor, disrupted by the Vietnam War and as wild and torn as Nector. King is the real son of June and Gordie Kashpah. Gordie, the youngest child of Nector and Marie, is another wild character. Drunk, he goes berserk after the death of June; in a magnificent episode, he kills a deer (a wild animal akin in Erdrich's world to the whale), thinking it is June, and then returns to the convent to confess his deed, before ending in an open field "howling" as if he were "drowned."
But most of all Lipsha has to find that his father is the perennial criminal Gerry Nanapush, one of the older sons of Lulu Lamartine. His is another wild tale (narrated by Lipsha's counterpart Albertine Johnson) entitled "Scales," wherein he escapes from jail to visit in the tiny unit where they weigh trucks, Dot Adare, the woman who bears his child, before returning to his own (physical as well as mental) imprisonment. With this discovery late in the novel, Lipsha combines in his own person the larger symbolic family of the Chippewas. He does all this as a kind of innocent observer, like Ishmael, who only occasionally takes part in the action. But out of the death and destruction of his people he, unlike Nector-Ahab and his male counterparts, accepts the responsibility for his life and worth as he rises to the surface in the end. He is the one who truly "connects" all, for he completes the cycle begun by his mother whose spirit he now brings home.
If there is a parallel to Moby Dick in Love Medicine, it is June Kashpah. She dies early in the novel, but like the great white whale, her presence pervades the entire story and gives it depth. She is not there and yet there. Sometimes she even "comes alive," as when Gordie thinks the deer in his back seat, stunned and yet moving, is June herself. Initially having run away from Gordie, June is hungry and picked up in Williston by a stranger, whom she thinks is "different," but after falling from his truck, perishes walking across the cold white prairie as she "came home." In this early vignette, Erdrich captures the bleakness and boredom at the center of so much Indian life in this century. It is that dark side of life, the side which preoccupies Ahab in Moby Dick, something he equates through the while whale with a "inscrutable malice" behind the universe—a mask he wants to penetrate. Erdrich does not philosophize as much as Melville, but this concept of evil is a legitimate way of viewing the source of so many of the destructive aspects of Indian life depicted in Love Medicine. It is interesting that when June's inlaws—Gordie and Zelda and Aurelia—recall her life, one of the dominant incidents they remember is their trying to hang her, and her egging them on, like some kind of evil mind. Love Medicine, like Moby Dick, is a type of journey to penetrate the enticing but illusive mask that conceals the mystery of evil.
As the story unfolds, however, we discover a beautiful side to June, much as Ishmael sees a mystifying and uplifting aspect to the white whale to counter Ahab's view. June has been raised by Eli, Nector's brother, the moral center of the novel, who lives in the woods and represents the old Indian past. At one point in the novel the irascible King insists that Eli have his hat, on which are the words the "World's Greatest Fisherman," for all agree Eli deserves it most. June is inevitably associated with Eli, with water, with fishing, with the good in the Kashpah history. All the Kashpah women admire June, as do her husband Gordie and son King, to whom she leaves money for a car. Like so many of the males, however, King's destructive wildness keeps him from being the responsible human being his mother wanted; this is left for Lipsha to achieve. June, then, is a driving force behind the Chippewa world, but the reader must pick between the beautiful and humanizing aspects of such a presence, and what Ishmael calls when reflecting upon the whiteness of the whale, "the all-color of atheism"—the possibility that behind the Indians' life patterns (which are now white patterns) is not much of anything at all.
There are, no doubt, significant differences even within the general likenesses of Love Medicine and Moby Dick, if only because Erdrich is a woman returning to the land and her people, rather than a man going to sea with a male crew. If Lipsha, for instance, is Ishmael, he only appears at the end to complete the circle. In the beginning his mentor and female counterpart, Albertine Johnson (perhaps the author's surrogate), returns to the reservation after and because of June's death. Albertine introduces us to the chief characters of the drama, much as Ishmael does when he boards the Pequod, telling us of the Knights and Squires, the chief mates and harpooners. But Albertine returns, not to the captain's quarters, but to the kitchen where her mother Zelda and aunt Aurelia, the daughters of Nector and Marie, are discussing June. Here we are first acquainted with the "familiness" of the Chippewas, and begin to know the characters—the Kashpahs, the Morrisseys, the Lamartines—whose stories stretch from 1934 to 1984, much as the characters on the Pequod evolve on the voyage to capture Moby Dick.
Good human relationships are important to both authors, and if Ishmael crosses cultures in making friends with the pagan harpooner Queequeg (who like Eli in Love Medicine is a kind of noble savage), Albertine is herself a half-breed, red and white, the daughter of Zelda and the "Swede." She suffers because of her double-nature, but her return, like Ishmael's setting out, comes from her uneasiness and is an effort to escape loneliness and build human bridges. Curiously enough, Albertine has her own chaotic history, and just as Ishmael may be an innocent observer, but is taken in by Ahab's powerful dark influence, so is Albertine taken in. As Erdrich's story circles back in time we find that Albertine in 1973 at fifteen tries to run away from the reservation. She goes to Fargo, only to end up sleeping with Henry Lamartine Jr., one of Lulu's sons, on N. P. Avenue in the cheap Round Up Hotel. After making love, Albertine feels empty and wants to separate herself from him, whereupon he senses that she has "crossed a deep river and disappeared." In short, he needs her, and her horror pales beside his nightmare explosion. Like King, he has been damaged by the Vietnam War, and when he touches her the next day "weeping," she is now touched emotionally by the depth of their mutual loneliness.
In the beginning of the novel, however, Albertine returns to the reservation. Like Ishmael, she is not pure, but she has more distance than the others, having lived in a white woman's basement for some time away from home. Through her we meet Zelda and Aurelia. On the Pequod the chief mates, like Stubb and Flask, are skillful whalers, but not thinkers, and soon become extensions of Ahab's mind. The women of the reservation are also servants, but they are more free and happy people—like the harpooners in Moby Dick who dine in an atmosphere of merriment following their humorless captain's meal. These women don't fight the system, run by the males, but they are basic to its existence—giving birth to the children, planting and growing the food, cooking and baking for the men—like Gordie and King and Lipsha, who unconsciously quarrel over and destroy the newly baked pies. Among the Nanapushes, Gerry leaves prison temporarily to impregnate Dot, who is then left to raise and feed the child. These women may be treated like dogs, as Ahab treats Stubb, but they keep the whole operation afloat. They maintain the land, encourage their men, survive catastrophe. The Pequod is a commercial enterprise where under contract the mates and harpooners follow their mad leader without question. The women in Love Medicine are not paid, but they keep the family itself intact, in spite of the alcohol, the violence, the abuse and misuse of one another.
Albertine identifies with these women—their fun, their hopes, but also their fears and worry about the men. In one of the most powerful scenes in Moby Dick, Ishmael almost loses control of the ship as he gazes into the Try-Works (the red-hot pots of sperm oil), contemplating how intertwined are both the magnificent as well as the most hellish moments of life, even as the Catskill eagle flies high and yet at times swoops very low. Albertine-Ishmael, amid all the fighting and confusion, is worried about Lipsha and takes him for a walk in the fields, and gazing at the northern lights, she muses:
I thought of June. She would be dancing if there was a dance hall in space. She would be dancing a two-step for wandering souls [like Lipsha]. Her long legs lifting and falling. Her laugh an ace. Her sweet perfume the way all grown-up women were supposed to smell. Her amusement at both the bad and the good. Her defeat. Her reckless victory. Her sons.
So June, amid the high moments and the low, the bad and the good, gives substance to the Indians' quest for meaning. Lipsha will find himself in the end, but it is too early to know that now, and Albertine, his alter ego, can only hold his hand, and like Ishmael, try to keep the ship on course.
But the two female giants of Love Medicine are Marie Kashpah and Lulu Lamartine, and they take center stage as Albertine fades, just as Ismael gives way to more dramatic scores in Moby Dick. These two women are the Starbucks of the novel, for they buck the system—the government, church, or family—to keep their souls alive. Starbuck, of course, is Ahab's first mate who objects to Ahab's decision to take revenge on the white whale, but still decides "to obey, rebelling." Ahab fears Starbuck, but in a strange way respects him, comes to trust him with his life, and even confides in him shortly before his death. In Erdrich's work Marie will not be crushed. As a girl in the convent she outsmarts the grotesque Sister Leopolda, who tries to break her spirit, but to save face Leopolda must treat the stabbed hands of her underling as stigmata, and Marie emerges as Saint Marie, "Star of the Sea."
Escaping that world, she uses Nector Kashpah's advances to snare him into marriage, and then keeps him sober so he can run the tribe. She is close to Nector, as Starbuck is to Ahab, though she knows he plans to leave home for the amorous Lulu. But even here Marie uses his guilty feelings and fears to keep him in the house. Like the other women, Marie is a homemaker and protector; early in June's life she takes in the child, though Marie lets her follow her own desire to live with Eli in the woods. Overall, she resembles Starbuck. A wise realist, she is able to compromise without losing her identify in impossible situations which any moment may, like the sea, sweep one under.
Lulu, on the other hand, is the object of many men's desires. By Old Man Pillager, for instance, she has Gerry Nanapush, and she returns the advances of her suitor from St. Paul, Beverly Lamartine, who like Nector-Ahab pursues her for her body. These men are important to Lulu, for they fulfill her physical needs, but they never get the best of her. Though Nector is her favorite, she never lets him think that she is inferior to Marie. When as tribal chairman Nector informs her the government is taking her house, she stays put, even when it burns, till they furnish her with a new dwelling. Like Marie she has spunk and keeps her "starbuck" identity in spite of overwhelming odds. Like the other women, she is a good housekeeper, for her place is always neat and orderly. In the end Marie and Lulu come to know and respect each other at the Senior Citizens' home, where Nector's mind fades and he finally chokes to death. Here the two rivals come to feel for each other as women in a touching way—in Lulu's words "reflecting on the human heart." These two women, like Ahab and Starbuck, trust one another; in an awesome gesture Marie, removing the bandages from Lulu's eyes, enables her to cry again—something she has not done since childhood. Here the author employs water in another way as a kind of "love medicine" to generate new life. Together the two mourn Nector much as one might feel for Ahab, a proud but pathetic figure, as he continues (like most of Erdrich's men) his wild unrelenting pursuit until the end.
There are other major incidents in Love Medicine that pick up key threads in Moby Dick, like the close relationship between madness and wisdom. Both King Jr. and Henry Jr. are affected mentally by the Vietnam War to the point they become violent souls. Henry Jr., after a long drive with his brother Lyman, who cannot save him, drowns himself in his red convertible. In Melville's story, the castaway Pip loses his mind when Stubb will not save him from the sea, but he returns in his madness to offer sharp, bitter wisdom to Captain Ahab, and from him the captain accepts it. In Erdrich's world where one generation fails, the next seems to succeed, as when King Howard Kashpah Jr. (King and Lynette's young son), after all his father's rage, learns to write his name, Howard Kashpah, in school on a red paper heart. The marker label says "PERMANENT," and the teacher tells him "that means forever." So Howard in his Pip-like childish wisdom undercuts the adult world around him to establish his own identity as a human being. In this way Howard parallels the growth in Lipsha Morrisey, the other son of June.
Colors, especially red and white, are also crucial in both novels, for they are a part of the very texture. White and red seem to go back and forth in Moby Dick, as the red heat of the tri-pots lights up the Pequod, just as do the tapering white candles or mastheads struck by lightning. In one case Ishmael philosophizes on life, while in the other Ahab commits himself to death. In Love Medicine the Indian is, of course, the redman living in a white world. June in the beginning has on a red nylon vest when the stranger in a white jacket "plunged down against her" with a "great wide mouth," as though she were entering the whale itself. Then there is the red convertible in which Henry Jr. drowns; the mark of white society, this is the machine that spells freedom, but it cannot solve basic human problems where so many are held psychologically captive.
Finally, there is the red of the heart itself—a powerful symbol in both novels. On the Pequod Ahab, just before the fatal chase, talks to Starbuck about the importance of the heart, family, love. His words are touching, coming from a man bent on destruction: "I … do what in my own … natural heart, I durst not … dare," he says. In Love Medicine both Lipsha and Howard come to know the meaning of the heart—Lipsha through the turkey hearts which kill his Ahab-like grandfather, and Howard through the paper heart on which he writes his name. Lipsha says that love means forgiveness, that it is not magic, but a "true feeling." Later, when he discovers in a card game his true father and sees himself as part of the larger family, he says, "The jack of hearts is me." These awakenings give a kind of tragic joy to a story pervaded by so many deaths.
Love Medicine, then, is a book about the prairie that examines the wild, chaotic lives of several Indian families whose lives on the reservation have immersed them in a dark and often violent existence, one that the author seems to equate with Ahab. It is a world created by a white—shall we say malicious—intelligence, except that behind the scenes hovers an amazing human being, June Kashpah, whose life and recent death still give meaning and hope to its members. Albertine-Ishmael goes back to that world to experience again the rage dramatized by her grandfather Nector-Ahab, as well as other violent males. But she also discovers the values sustained by women like her mother, Zelda, and Aurelia and Dot Adare, but especially by Marie and Lulu, who in spite of the men and the systems and the power, give dignity and spirit to an otherwise hollow and violent world.
Out of the chaos emerges, through Howard and Lipsha, possible new worlds, just as June would have wished. Indeed, Lipsha-Ishmael begins to see the importance of love within all the families and in this way "brings June home" as he (to use Nector's words) lets "the water bounce his coffin to the top" in the end. Love Medicine is a novel about the land, but one which has so many parallels to Moby Dick that it draws tremendous power when placed beside Melville's classic novel about the sea.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712
SOURCE: "Poets of Our Time," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 5, No. 4, Summer, 1990, pp. 30-31.
[In the following excerpt, Finch praises most of Baptism of Desire but expresses reservations about the final section of the book, objecting to the comparative "ordinariness" of the poems there.]
These three books of poetry [Baptism of Desire by Erdrich, Green Age by Alicia Suskin Ostriker, and Toluca Street by Maxine Scates], written by three women coming from very different places as poets at the beginning of the end of our century, make a revealing cross-section. Louise Erdrich, a successful novelist who has written only one other book of poems, presumably uses poetry to write in ways not possible with the novel form. Alicia Suskin Ostriker, well-established as a poet, uses this volume to continue ideas developed in six other books of poems and three books of poetry criticism. Maxine Scates is new to the poetry scene; this first book of poems is published as the winner of an annual national poetry competition.
In the context of the wider poetry scene that these books reflect, Erdrich's Baptism of Desire is probably the most unusual and original of the three books. "Hydra" is typical, a poem full of private imagery and eclectic allusions, as in the following passage:
Hour of the talk-show hostess.
Hour of the wolf, of the tree service,
of the worship of the god whose name adds
to a single year. Abraxas, the perfect word.
It is not necessary for a reader to struggle through every bit of difficult meaning to find these poems rewarding. They are lush in imagery, fascinating in their suggestiveness, refreshing, often, in their very privacy. At times passages emerge from the obscure background with a startling clear immediacy that is all the more valuable by contrast. The final passage of the poem just quoted is such an instance:
… Snake of hard hours, you are my poetry.
According to God, your place is low,
under Adam's heel, but as for me,
a woman shaped from a secondary bone,
who cares if you wrap my shoulders?
Who cares if you whisper? Who cares
if the fruit is luscious? Your place
is at my ear.
This vivid invocation can speak intimately to almost every woman raised in a Judeo-Christian culture; the fact that Erdrich has arrived at this place through a sometimes tortuous path of private meanings makes it, in some ways, that much more marvelously universal. In some of the shorter poems, the difficulty can set a strange image in the mind like salt setting dye. "The Kitchen Mandarins" describes figures on china coming alive in the kitchen at night. It is a queer, disturbing poem that never quite settles down. It ends:
Now they vanish among the branches in the teacups,
the whips and rings.
I know there will be no rest for me.
No thimbleful of peace.
What are the whips and rings? Why a thimbleful? Nothing in the poem has indicated why there should be no rest for the speaker. But none of this matters; I am glad for these problems, which turn a potentially sentimental thought into a poem you can hold in your mind like a koan and never have to get the better of.
In the last section of the book, however, Erdrich sacrifices much of this strange power for the sake of more common effects. These poems, almost all rooted in a daily experience—a family going to sleep, a child in a basement—tend to rely on the images and stories themselves to create poignancy. The naturalistic language and free verse structure do little to charge or defamiliarize the described world. After the first four sections of the book, I found passages such as "The father pours the milk from his glass / into the cup of the child" (from "The Glass and the Bowl") comparatively unmemorable.
Erdrich's unique strengths as a poet seem to be her gift for powerful incantatory rhythms and her ability to let strangenesses simply be. She can reach such singular places in her poetry that it is almost a shame to see her settling down, at the end of her book, to ordinariness—however well earned. But the reader, at least, has all the rest of the book with which to dream….
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5877
SOURCE: "Mediation and Multiple Narrative in Love Medicine," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 4, Fall, 1991, pp. 229-41.
[In the following essay, Ruppert explains the ways in which Erdrich allows readers of Love Medicine, both Native and non-Native American, to experience the Native perspective in the text.]
Love Medicine is a dazzling, personal, intense novel of survivors who struggle to define their own identities and fates in a world of mystery and human frailty. In her writing, Louise Erdrich both protects and celebrates this world. To assume effectively the roles of protector and celebrant, Erdrich must mediate between two conceptual frameworks, white and Native. But as a contemporary Native American writer, she appreciates and utilizes both epistemological codes. Erdrich has at her disposal both Native American and white codes at any moment in the creation of the text. This dual vision allows her either to use one code to illuminate another, or to ignore one code and stay within another if she wishes. She can create value and meaning through a Native worldview or through a contemporary American worldview or both at the same time. Thus, her standpoint as a mediator is more complex and more open to a wide set of possibilities than authors positioned in only one culture or even authors perceived as merely standing between two cultures. She is capable of satisfying two audiences at once, commenting on two cultural systems from a position of deep understanding and knowledge. And perhaps more importantly, she can manipulate each audience so that it will experience the novel through the paths of understanding unique to each culture, thus assuring protection and continuance of a newly appreciated and experienced Native American epistemological reality.
Celebrating and protecting the stories of survivors can imply the creation of meaning in characters under the pressure of competing senses of identity. The cultural concepts of identity differ in Native American and white cultures. As Erdrich layers these identities in the text, the sets of cultural identities become visible through merging of epistemological codes which are used to create these identities. She harmoniously evokes the various story realities: each narrative grouping of the novel has the potential of being read as a psychological story and a social story (using the most common white senses of identity) or as a communal story and a mythical story (using Native American senses of identity) depending on the code and positioning of the perspective that Erdrich employs. Thus any section of the novel reveals multiple narratives embedded in the text. The mediational actions of the author serve to protect and celebrate culture by a continuing recreation of the multiple facets of identity through multiple narrative.
Mediation, as the central generative organizational principle, downplays mechanically plotted novel structure while encouraging multiple narratives. In this process the voices and ideas of a variety of culturally linked positions, a variety of identities, compete for readers' ears and thus their allegiance. This "struggle going on within discourse," as Bakhtin calls it, characterizes mediational texts, emphasizing their essential dialogic nature. For Erdrich, plot is far less important than the voices of her characters. She sets the oral tribal language against the half-breed language and the contemporary American language. Bakhtin, in his discussion of narrative discourse, clarifies the relationship of plot to languages when he writes:
In a word, the novelistic plot serves to represent speaking persons and their ideological worlds. What is realized in the novel is the process of coming to know one's own language, coming to know one's own belief system in someone else's system. There takes place within the novel an ideological translation of another's language, and an overcoming of its otherness—an otherness that is only contingent, external and illusory.
The otherness is illusory in the successful mediational novel because the plot organizes the exposure of social languages and ideologies in such a way as to allow the reader into a new way of seeing and speaking about the world. For Erdrich, this new perspective is a dynamic one where the reader can understand a variety of perspectives on a Native and non-Native cultural spectrum. Love Medicine then becomes for the reader, what Bakhtin envisions, "The experience of a discourse, a world view, and an ideologically based act." Erdrich's goals include nothing less than ideological and epistemological transposition.
To illustrate her mediational positioning, consider the mode of Erdrich's discourse. She attempts to present an oral discourse in a written format. The importance of the oral tradition to Native American cultures is well known, and Erdrich's first-person narrators talk directly to the reader as if he or she were chatting over a kitchen table. They speculate, remember, complain, come to conclusions, and describe their actions; indeed, almost all the information, the meaning, the significance of the novel is developed through this homage to the most personal and least codified elements of a vital oral tradition. Oral tradition in this book defines the nature of all knowledge; for characters like Lipsha what they hear defines who they are.
Yet Erdrich's effort is structured by a set of highly Western novelistic conventions with contemporary parallels in experimental novels, semiotic poetry, and cinema verité. Erdrich never seems to be totally content with letting the characters speak solely for themselves. The author's presence is often felt both in the omniscient point of view and in the highly structured images which organize each section, especially those images which close each section. Robert Silberman has suggested that Native American writers, and especially Erdrich, in their attempts to move writing toward storytelling have been developing the "conventions of the oral," conventions every bit as necessary for generation of the text as the conventions of realism or naturalism. He identifies the use of a dramatic present tense and the occasional reference to the second-person pronoun, "you." But an examination of oral tradition would quickly add many more elements to the list. Erdrich's constant switching from past to present tense, her shifts from omniscient to first-person narration, her episodic structure, her use of dialect, and her use of foreshadowing and of flashbacks give an evocative rendition of a traditional storyteller's art. However, considering this expanded sense of the written conventions of the oral, it is clear that what we have is a novel, a Western structure, set with the task of recreating something of a Native oral tradition, a task it can never completely accomplish. Erdrich is using a very Western mode to arrive at a Native perspective and illuminating the conventions, significations, assumptions, and strengths of both as she does so. Obviously her goal is not to be a traditional storyteller, nor is it merely to add a sense of immediacy to her novel, but only by positioning the audience to accept a discourse with oral codes can she mediate and thus prepare both audiences for valuing Native ways of meaning and thereby Native cultures, which are the ultimate source of value in the novel.
Humorous examples of the stylistic and formal aspect of Erdrich's mediation in Love Medicine are found in Lipsha's malapropisms. Lipsha, who has taken some college classes, alternates, as Albertine tells us, between using "words I had to ask him the meaning of," and not making "the simplest sense." Lipsha's malapropisms, such as referring to "mental condensation" when he means concentration, or saying he was in a "laundry" when he means quandry, represent his oral appreciation of the learned diction more appropriate to writing. Yet Lipsha can also turn around and take a common current activity from the dominant culture to create a metaphor for an internal illumination at a moment when death surrounds him. Lipsha likens his revelations about himself and the world to a video game:
You play those games never knowing what you see. When I fell into the dream alongside both of them I saw that the dominions I had defended myself from anciently was but delusions of the screen. Blips of light. And I was scot-free now, whistling through space.
His mediational style of expression reveals Erdrich's concern with every level of epistemological double-code embedding.
If one considers the larger goals of this mediational process, much of the richness of the text emerges. Central to a Chippewa worldview, and those of much of Native America, is a sense of the reciprocal nature of the relationships between man and the spiritual powers which activate the world. Man's actions in the natural world have spiritual repercussions. An Eskimo elder, worried about the actions of his people and the response of the spirit world, was quoted as saying, "No bears have come because there is no ice, and there is no ice because there is no wind, and there is no wind because we have offended the powers." The reciprocal relationship between man and nature and between man and the spirit world is also portrayed in Love Medicine, but in the novel it is manifest in the most immediate and personal manner; that is, in the gossip, the problems, and the survival of individuals as they interact with the universe in which they participate. Much Native American thought assumes that mental and physical phenomena are inseparable, and that thought and speech can deeply influence a world where no circumstance is accidental or free from personalized intent. As Paula Allen writes:
It is reasonable that all literary forms should be interrelated, given the basic idea of the unity and relatedness of all the phenomena of life. Separation of parts into this or that category is not agreeable to American Indians, and the attempt to separate essentially unified phenomena results in distortion…. The purpose of a ceremony is to integrate: to fuse the individual with his or her fellows, the community of people with that of the other kingdoms, and this larger communal group with the worlds beyond this one.
As a ceremonial philosophy, Native American thought unifies various levels of meaning which Western thought would separate. This unity of experience is what Joseph Epes Brown refers to as "A polysynthetic metaphysic of nature." Erdrich merges this Native sense of multiple levels of meaning for each physical act with a powerful belief in the mystery of events as they make manifest the sacred processes of the world, and this meaning informs all of Love Medicine (think of Nector and Marie on the path, or Bev and Lulu at the grave). Understanding slowly builds in the novel as people tell us more of their stories. Events take on spiritual, mythic, cultural, personal, and religious meanings for phenomena in which Western thought often would see only physical effects. Reciprocity between the various levels of existence ties the meanings together and helps Erdrich express a Chippewa worldview which appreciates a dynamic process of signification, or as Paula Allen so poetically puts it, a worldview which sees the "self as a moving event within a moving universe," a universe where "everything moves in dynamic equilibrium."
On the other hand, another clear goal of Erdrich is to present a complementary vision of individual will and history which is more psychologically based than communally oriented. The results of Nector's actions on those around him, the exploration of Marie through her relationship to the nun, Sister Leopolda, and King's vision of his life all suggest a psychological dimension which uses dominant-culture conceptual categories. Moreover, the novel itself clearly has a sociological agenda as illustrated by its treatment of economic development on the reservation, the influence of the white society, especially Christian religion, and the changes on the contemporary reservation such as old people living in an institution rather than with families. This use of both belief systems to illuminate each other supports Bakhtin's understanding of the novel's task, "coming to know one's own belief system in someone else's system."
As an illustration of the way these two cultural frameworks merge in the text, consider Henry Lamartine. From a white set of epistemological codes, he is clearly an example of the displaced soldier returning home; whatever meaning he holds for the text and the dominant culture could be seen in the commonplace insight that the experience of combat often destroys the soldier's sense of reality, making it difficult if not impossible to reintegrate himself into society. We know this by looking at the chronological series of events in his life, drawing a set of inferences based on causal reasoning. When he dies, we are not surprised since we have drawn a straight line from a shattering experience through his life to inevitable death. We've seen enough stories like this; it is a convention of the subject. Insights mount when the reader also considers that Henry's war was the Vietnam war with its political turmoil and disproportionately high number of minorities. White social and psychological codes give meaning to the events of his life, and the reader has an easy-to-read, satisfying text, complete with closure. When Lyman drives the red convertible into the river after Henry has drowned, the psychologically oriented reader sees suicide and a brother's desire to make a suicide look like an accident to save Henry's reputation.
Conversely, Henry's inability to resume normal life at home and his subsequent death can be seen as the result of actions out of harmony with the Chippewa sense of war, death, honor, and right thinking. As a draftee, Henry had no choice in his actions. He has not gone off to war with a vision which will give him power, nor has he danced the warrior's dance. The souls of his dead enemies will not rest. In the one military action we learn about, Henry is ordered to interrogate a dying woman who claims the bond of relationship with him. He is not prepared ritually for his departure for war, he breaks the bonds of relationship, and he is not purified of the spirits of dead enemies when he returns because his mother is afraid to take him to the old medicine man. At the end of the chapter, Henry's renewal of interest in his brother and the wild dance seem to undercut the possibility of psychologically motivated suicide. His one comment as he stands in the water, "My boots are filling up," does not have the purposeful ring of a suicide note. Perhaps his drowning performed in his unpurified state can be understood as a reciprocal response by the spiritual forces of the world around us to Henry's improper behavior, a water spirit's revenge. As the balance is set right again, Lyman's driving of the car into the river carries the weight of the custom of burying private personal possessions with the dead person. Each of the two perspectives I have mentioned has a certain level of completeness, yet the narrative's richness is revealed when each story, each narrative viewpoint on the meaning of the character Henry is seen in contrast to the other, and each complements and clarifies a different template of experience.
This use of one cultural code to illuminate the other is best shown in Erdrich's use of ghosts in Love Medicine. While ghosts are a very real part of the Chippewa worldview, when dealt with properly they do not often trouble the living. Anthropologist Ruth Landes observes: "The passage from life was considered tricky, beset with personified evils intent on murdering the wandering soul." But the proper instructions and recommendations delivered over a grave would assure the soul passage to the village of shadows. Conventional Western thought posits no existence to ghosts. While we allow them entrance into our world through literature, especially children's tales, ghosts are generally considered to be storytelling convention with no substance. So when Gordie sees June's ghost, Western epistemology is ready to posit no reality to the encounter, and we are encouraged to see this as a delusion brought on by alcohol and grief. That in his drunken frenzy Gordie should hit a deer and mistake it for June has no meaning other than the revelation of his psychological state of mind; we are not surprised that at the end of the encounter with Sister Mary Martin, he should end up running mad in the woods. However, in the traditional Chippewa worldview, the spirit world is the source of special insight and power. A dead wife returning to visit the husband who abused her is not unusual, especially if she is not buried in the appropriate manner; June's journey home at the time of her death is completed by her visit to Gordie. She visits Gordie because he has called her name and thus violated one of the most important prohibitions designed to keep the spirits of the dead on the trail to the spirit world. It is understandable that June would use a deer to aid her visit, as the spirits of animals are much closer to the world of the spirit than humans are. When Gordie clubs the deer with the tire iron, it is an action reminiscent of the times he hit June, and so his confession to the nun that he has killed June carries a ring of ironic truth and becomes more than the baseless ravings of a crazed drunk.
The psychological interpretation underlies and enriches the cultural one. Both stories' realities present valid worldviews and can stand alone to explain the meaning of the actions, yet each level of the text forces us to question exactly what we as readers believe. Can both be right? Can one be right and the other wrong? It seems clear that each reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the other code. An understanding of the psychological level clarifies the cultural framework; the cultural illuminates the psychological.
The return of Nector Kashpaw's ghost is even more mediational. Nector's sudden death leaves him without a chance to say good-bye to the two women he loves. Lipsha and Marie know that when ghosts return they have a "certain uneasy reason to come back." He visits Lulu, Lipsha, and Marie until he is admonished back to the spirit world by Lipsha. Nector's visit cannot be explained away as a drunken hallucination. Psychologically we can explain the presence of the ghost as being a figment of an imagination under the stress of grief. However, even by Western epistemological standards three independent visits observed by three independent observers come dangerously close to constituting corroborated reality. Yet the reality they tend to corroborate is one in which Western tradition places no credence. Lipsha comments on this philosophical and empirical paradox:
Whether or not he had been there is not the point. She had seen him, and that meant anyone else could see him, too. Not only that but, as is usually the case with these here ghosts, he had a certain uneasy reason to come back. And of course Grandma Kashpaw had scanned it out.
This text perfectly conveys both attitudes toward the reality of ghosts and thus the validation of each worldview and epistemological framework. It can be read as saying that it doesn't matter if the ghost was real since it was real to Grandma in her altered psychological state. But Lipsha says that the point is if she saw him, others could see him. His comment also about the ghost's motivation shows that his belief in the existence of the spirit world and of ghosts is undisturbed. There is no question he was there because, of course, his spirit is still around, but the problem is that he can be seen, that he refuses to let go of this world. The ghost needs to be instructed as to what to do, and Lipsha's admonition parallels recorded Midewiwin orations to the dead. The thrust of all this is to take a Western issue of non-truth (non-reality) and treat it with the assumptions of Chippewa reality while layering psychological motivation and cultural act. Each code is used and illuminates the other. The end result of Erdrich's technique is that we are forced to look at the multiple meanings of an event.
Clearly, the two sets of cultural codes produce a doubling of narrative textures as distinct as the two audiences Erdrich tries to reach. Each audience is satisfied in many ways, but primarily by the developing sense of identity as the readers animate the emerging characters. The contemporary survivors which Erdrich creates are people for whom growth, becoming, and identity are vitally important ways to protect and celebrate individual and cultural values. Of course, inside of any cultural code one can search for identity with an inward looking eye or an outward looking eye, and as Bakhtin has concluded, every text has two voices, the personal and the social. Thus the reader can expect to find a social and a psychological story of identity in Love Medicine. Yet as we have seen, Western codes are but half of the narrative layers Erdrich has to work with in the creation of the development of any character. When considering Native American codes, one also finds two levels of identity, but these are different from Western codes of signification. Native cultures are often observed to avoid emphasis on psychological motivation, even in a form so personal as the autobiography. Instead, Erdrich uses Native American codes to develop characters with an inward looking sense of identity, one based on family and community where kinship defines who one is, and with an outward looking sense of narrative identity that places a person in the framework of the sacred processes of the universe where the distant past and the present merge in a continuing experience on a mythic plane. Consequently Erdrich and other contemporary Native American writers have available four distinct narrative layers in which to create a sense of identify: Psychological, social, communal, and mythic. For them, part of the ideological translation of which Bakhtin wrote is to let both audiences experience the variety of culturally framed definitions of identity. While not all layers need be present in the development of any text, these possibilities define the bounds through which mediation can be realized in the text—one's own belief system in someone else's. There takes place within the novel an ideological translation of another's language.
Think back again for a moment to Henry Lamartine. How does a reader define Lamartine's identity? Surely his identity can be defined socially when he is seen as a shell-shocked veteran unable to adjust to the world back home, but as I have suggested, the reader can also see him as a warrior haunted by the ghosts of his dead enemies which he can not ritualistically exorcise. In this perspective, Henry is given a communal role, an identity based on his relation to the community and family as a young warrior and dutiful son. Each sense of identity satisfies its appropriate audience, but also because the reader holds both senses of identity as satisfactory, and the text validates both perspectives.
More central to the novel and more interesting are the stories which define Nector's identity. Nector comes from a family that is "respected as the last hereditary leaders of this tribe." His communal identity is set from the beginning, and much of his life is an attempt to live up to that identity, to understand it and grow into it. The Kashpaw sense of worth and Chippewa tradition constitute the essence of what Nector sees himself as. Socially he is the tribal chairman. While the dominant culture would assume that places him as the leader of his tribe, tribal custom does not give him that role unless he can live up to the traditional function of the leader, but Nector's psychological sense of identity undermines his social definition as leader in much the same way that his communal role as a Kashpaw supports it. As he says, "Chippewa politics was thorns in my jeans."
Psychologically, Nector sees himself as floating down a river complete with calm spots, rapids, and unexpected branchings. His sense of himself is that of a person being carried along by events, and he struggles to maintain control of the events of his life. Nector's retreat to apparent senility becomes a way that he can finally completely define himself in the midst of the river flow of emotions and the demands of politics. As Lulu says of him, "People said Nector Kashpaw had changed, but the truth was he'd just become more like himself than ever." Various layers of his identity created by the narrative are embedded in the text and held simultaneously by the reader. But while the communal, social, and psychological story is developed here, the mythic story is not.
Marie Lazarre has an identity defined by the community as one of those "dirty Lazarres." Despite her attempts to recreate her communal identity, the community has defined her role and position in its complex structure. This communal identity is contrasted to her psychological identity as molder of Nector, as defeater of Sister Leopolda, as woman defined by her kitchen and children. These two senses of identity complement each other while the social level remains mostly latent. As wife of the tribal chairman, her social position should be one of respect and leadership, but her communal identity as "a dirty Lazarre" is in contrast to it. As the wife left at home during a continuing extramarital relationship, her sense of a social identity is again undercut. As the woman who takes in lost children, she performs a social function which helps her clarify her sense of self on the psychological and communal level, but she is unable to allow this to help her develop a clearly defined social identity. Again the mythic story is not developed with this character.
Lulu Lamartine plays the communal role of the libertine. As a woman with eight boys and one girl by a variety of lovers, she is hated by the wives in the community and loved by their husbands. Though a disrupter of families, her family is vitally important to her. Her identity as libertine is contrasted by her psychological identity as consummate lover of beauty. After a grisly look at death in her early childhood, she comes to define herself as someone "in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms." What is viewed from the communal realm as irresponsible action is for Lulu an honest attempt to drink in the beauty and let it fill her up if only for a moment. Each sense of identity enriches the reader's understanding of the other and encourages the audiences to clarify their codes. Again, Erdrich has chosen not to develop the mythic or social story of this character.
In the character of Gerry Nanapush, Erdrich displays all four levels of narrative identity or story. On a social level Nanapush is the convict Indian turned political hero. As a member of the American Indian Movement, he is seen and sees himself as a social symbol to both the white and the Indian world, but he is also an individual who sees himself as a believer in justice, not laws. Psychologically he is presented as a loving husband and father. Nanapush is motivated by personal passions and definitions of self, yet on a larger plane, his actions recall the daring and rebellion of the trickster, Nanabosho, of Chippewa cultural identity while they add to his own idea of himself. Nanapush consciously takes on a mythic role and becomes a living embodiment of a trickster. His communal identity hinges on relationships as son of old man Pillager and Lulu Lamartine, lover of June Morrissey, and father to Lipsha Morrissey. As warrior against the social institutions of modern America, Nanapush presents the community an image through which it can project itself as successful and evasive, an unwilling warrior who is not destroyed by the spirit of dead enemies, however all-pervasive and overpowering they may be.
Lipsha Morrissey's character is, of course, the most obvious expression of the four stories of narrative identity. Socially, he is the outcast orphan with no clear parentage. He cares for the aged Nector and Marie out of gratitude and lethargy. His role as orphan/care-provider outlines a series of social relations which define him but against which he struggles. Psychologically his desire is to find himself a place in the family which coincides with the unique individual he senses he is. He sees himself as staying innocent and simple, but he wants to know about his roots and his background. As Lulu says, "'Well, I never thought you was odd…. Just troubled. You never knew who you were…'."
Communally, Lipsha is a healer, grandson of the powerful old shaman, Old Man Pilager. While his "touch" has been commonly acknowledged on the reservation, his identity as one of the tribe, with clear family ties and a useful function in the community, has not been. After he learns of this true parentage, he confusedly tries to join the army and become a warrior like his father, Gerry Nanapush, but it is not on the battlefields of the U.S. Army that he will fight, but on the battlefields of culture and community. He knows that he is defined by his family and communal position:
Now as you know, as I have told you, I am sometimes blessed with the talent to touch the sick and heal their individual problems without even knowing what they are. I have some powers which, now that I think of it, was likely come down from Old Man Pillager. And then there is the newfound fact of insight I inherited from Lulu, as well as the familiar teachings of Grandma Kashpaw on visioning what comes to pass within a lump of tinfoil.
With his new realizations comes a new understanding of identity in a communal field.
But ultimately Lipsha is the son of trickster Nanapush. His mythic identity is linked to the tradition of the powerful trickster/transformer whose job it is to create the form of the world, to modify its contours in keeping with Earthmaker's plans. Lipsha's medicine trick with the turkey hearts proves to be an event which has the tragedy of a trickster's actions which backfire on him. But this is an event which is also in keeping with the Earthmaker's plan for all beings. By driving Gerry to freedom, Lipsha concludes a mythic tale which will live forever in Chippewa imagination. At the bridge, Lipsha delivers the trickster Nanapush/Nanabosho physically to Canada, but the communal level of identity provides unnoticed support when it is remembered that for many Midewiwin initiates the land of the dead is also called Nehnehbush's land and the passage from the physical world to the spirit world is made over a bridge. After Lipsha delivers Gerry back to the world of myth, he takes June's wandering soul in hand and prepares to lead her to her proper resting place as he did with Nector's soul. These actions show us that his identity will be defined communally as something akin to a Midewiwin official, a healer, and mythically as a new reincarnation of Nehnehbush.
Lipsha has concluded that "Belonging was a matter of deciding to." This almost existential act unifies who he is on the psychological, social, communal, and mythic levels, and Lipsha becomes a complete human being—an experienced adult, a loving son, a healer, and a trickster/transformer. He feels all the threads of identity intertwining and blossoming:
I felt expansion, as if the world was branching out in shoots and growing faster than the eye could see. I felt smallness, how the earth divided into bits and kept dividing. I felt the stars. I felt them roosting on my shoulders with his hand.
Feeling Nanapush's touch still on his shoulder, Lipsha is transformed in a moment of splendid mythic vision. Because he is a new complete human, he thinks of June Morrissey and is strong enough to bring her home, to help her, himself, and all of them complete a journey started long ago.
This cosmic unifying vision is the ultimate goal of mediation in contemporary Native American writing. As the text embeds the multiple narrative, it forces on the reader the same perspective that Lipsha experiences, a perspective from which an individual's perception is expanded and multiple connections are revealed. When readers are placed in this perceptual position, they begin to experience something of the Native American perception. Benjamin Whorf explains this perception of the world by reference to a cognitive linguistic realm inclusive of what English calls "present" and "future" as well as "subjective":
The subjective or manifesting comprises all that we call future, BUT NOT MERELY THIS; it includes equally and indistinguishably all that we call mental—everything that appears or exists in the mind, or, as the Hopi would prefer to say, in the HEART, not only the heart of man, but the heart of animals, plants and things, and behind and within all the forms and appearances of nature in the heart of nature, and by implication and extension … in the very heart of the Cosmos itself.
From this perspective, events unfold on multiple layers of significance with multiple stories which clarify their connections. This is a worldview that Paula Allen described: the self as a moving event in a universe of dynamic equilibrium. Lipsha and the other characters of Love Medicine embrace the mystery of the world, but that mystery exists in a world and worldview where knowledge, meaning, truth, and signification already exist in a non-tangible realm which Benjamin Whorf called "manifesting" as opposed to the tangible realm where the processes of the world have already been realized as "manifested." The characters of Love Medicine perceive the world not as changing or progressing, but constantly in the process of becoming what it always was, but which we could not see; they see meaning in their lives and the world revealing itself, manifesting what has always been there much in the same way that meaning in Lipsha's life is the process of letting the forces at work in the world manifest themselves. Whorf saw the perception of a "manifesting" world as basic to the Native American worldview, a worldview where the universe is "the striving of purposeful desire, intelligent in character, toward manifestation." Robin Riddington clarifies Whorf's intentions and insights when he writes:
Whorf's observations about Hopi time could apply equally well to many of the other native cultures of North America…. Although the Hopi have their own distinctive ceremonies and traditions, these arise out of a more general Indian thought world, which recognizes a timeless, vital or mythic principle in the universe.
In Love Medicine, Erdrich shifts the epistemological perspective of the reader so as to encourage a more Native American creation of meaning and knowledge, one which values the manifesting over the manifested.
Contemporary Native American writers adopt a mediational position through the use of multiple narrative, but their ultimate achievement is to shift the paradigm of our thought, to recharge Native readers and inspire non-Native readers with an appreciation of Native American epistemology and worldview. As the text opens its mysteries to the reader, the reader's perception expands beyond the boundaries of the text, and the universe reveals itself as timeless and mythic. In Love Medicine, Erdrich successfully accomplishes what Bakhtin described as the "ideological translation of another's language, and an overcoming of its otherness."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4022
SOURCE: "The Comic Savior: The Dominance of the Trickster in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 118-29.
[In the following essay, Slack contends that Love Medicine's loose structure as a novel is held tightly together by the recurring figure of the Trickster, represented by various characters.]
One complaint occasionally directed at Love Medicine is that it is really not a novel but rather a collection of short stories bound together loosely by a common set of characters inhabiting successive stories. The arguments for its misnomer include the book's lack of either a central protagonist or a central conflict and its multi-narrational, and thus disjointed, narrative structure. However, this essay offers an argument in favor of Love Medicine's "novelism," that is, at least as far as its possession of a central protagonist is concerned. As others, like Nora Barry and Mary Prescott, have suggested, it does have one: June (Morrisey) Kashpaw, whose disembodied spirit haunts or protects the lives of all the other main characters. However, I would further submit that, in this text, June is really the preeminent Chippewa woodland trickster figure, that wily, good/evil shape- and sex-changer, and as such, she embodies anagogically most of the central characters who people Erdrich's rich narrative.
In this sense, Erdrich's narrative is actually a retelling of some of the oral myth-tales of Naanabohzo the trickster, set in the medium of late 20th-century printed fiction. In other words, many of the stories in Love Medicine are related to and are a relating of the once verbally preserved cycle of Chippewa folk tales of the trickster. This reading of the text can help also to account for the novel's multiple narration as well as the sense of disjointedness some readers experience. Moreover, this reading firmly places Erdrich's text in league with those of another Chippewa writer, Gerald Vizenor, whose three books to date, but especially Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart (1978), deal with a multiplicity of modern manifestations of the trickster figure.
Perhaps Erdrich and Vizenor, like the countless generations of Chippewa storytellers who spoke of the adventures and misadventures of their trickster figure, understand the one intrinsic value in all of them: the stories reveal that we all possess traits correlative to the trickster's. Robert F. Sayre briefly explores this human phenomenon:
Let us start by admitting that we are all Tricksters as dumb and greedy as Wakdjunkaga [her/his Winnebago name]—have been and will remain—no matter how balanced and controlled we may ordinarily try to be in our waking, rational lives. We do and will leave rotting fish in the refrigerator, try to get something for nothing, soil underwear, masturbate, lust for [men]women on the beach, cut our own fingers and arms, and get fooled by squirrels in the attic and raccoons turning over our garbage cans.
Not unlike that of the original tales, Sayre's point is that humor and self-parody are elemental to a sane outlook on life. Indeed, according to Mac Linscott Ricketts, the trickster is the ultimate comic figure for humanity. Ricketts believes that by laughing at the tricks, boasts, and buffoonery of this clown, we are laughing at ourselves. He concludes that "[T]he myths of the trickster enabled the Indians to laugh off their failures … since they saw in the trickster how foolish man is, and how useless it is to take life too seriously."
Of course, most of the qualifications cited above are considered negative aspects of the trickster's "personality" as they are revealed in the original Chippewa myth cycles. Not only does s/he play tricks and get tricked, s/he is also a semi-divine, the offspring of a fisher-woman by the Great Spirit, or manito, who is known to the Chippewa as Misshepeshu. Moreover, Trickster, or Manabozho (also Naanabozho, Nanapush, Wenebojo, etc.), is the creator and namer of all the creatures of the world. Likewise, as Ron Messer indicates, Stith Thompson long ago proved that Longfellow's hero Hiawatha is really a one-sided, cleaned-up version of the Chippewa trickster-hero, Manabozho. In short, the trickster is both laughable fool and "comic savior," i.e., the preserver of the very human, humorous side of life.
Carl Jung, correlating the abilities of the trickster, shaman, and medicine man, suggests their "approximation" to a savior figure. This approximation, according to Jung, is a "confirmation of the mythological truth that the wounded wounder is the agent of healing, and the sufferer takes away suffering." Certainly, several of the traditional stories do give this aspect of acquiescence-in-adversity to Trickster. However, in my estimation, what makes this prankster more comical as a savior, and thus more prone to culture hero status, especially as s/he is manifested in the Chippewa myth cycles, is her/his inherently laughable high jinks and low (body) humor. According to Victor Turner, every manifestation of the trickster is "raw, undomesticated body and collective power, undefinable, uncontainable, and compounded equally of polymorphous libido and aggression." For, paradoxically, this comedic savior is just as often depicted as being endowed with a devilish wit and satanic demeanor.
This paradox is at the heart of Erdrich's Love Medicine—literally so. It is the trickster in this novel who provides the medicine that can heal all the damaged hearts (though in Lipsha's case he hilariously botches it); and it is the trickster manifested as con men, liars, cheats, wife beaters, and sadistic nuns who damages those hearts in the first place. As a result of this latter manifestation, Louise Flavin views Love Medicine as a negative depiction of life on a modern reservation. Such an observation is extremely lop-sided since there is about the book much reason to be hopeful. For instance, Nora Barry and Mary Prescott think Erdrich's novel envisions a changing culture—one that "draws upon the rich tradition of folklore and vision to offer characters a promising context for growth…." The trickster, drawn from that tradition, is a survivor. And except for June, many of the young characters/tricksters in Love Medicine, like Lipsha, Gerry, Dot, Albertine, Lyman, and even Gordie, are definite survivors.
These and other characters provide the stories which make up the discoveries and mishaps that living brings and which Erdrich has utilized so that present and succeeding generations of her "listeners" can laugh at them and yet be forewarned. Perhaps, using the trickster stones as a teaching paradigm, Erdrich understands that her "love medicine" cannot always heal, but it can be a written prescription for health, both physical and spiritual. Like the trickster of the old folk tales, each of these new manifestations in Love Medicine acts heuristically but never didactically. Those who "hear" these accounts can either smile and take heed or plunge headlong into the abyss, as Nector appears to do in the painting done of him as a young brave.
The actual "accounts," if judged by chapter heads, number only fourteen; however, the first and last chapters each have four subdivisions and "The Good Tears" has two. Moreover, at least two of the other chapters have unnumbered breaks which divide them into two. Thus, by my estimation, there are as many as twenty-three possible trickster narratives in Love Medicine. The first of those accounts belongs significantly to June.
June, like the trickster that she is, is depicted as being always in flight, sensuous, erotic, and possessing a great physical hunger. In the only tale in which she acts physically, she gambles her sex for food and drink; however, unbeknownst to her, she plays her last hand with a white oil boom engineer before her planned return to the reservation. Instead, she is tricked by him, just as she is tricked by the weather, which she misjudges as an approaching, warm and mild, spring wind. As her niece Albertine observes, June was a plains Indian: "Even drunk she'd have known a storm was coming. She'd have known by the heaviness in the air, the smell of the clouds. She'd have gotten that animal sinking in her bones." June's demise, then, seems an enigma, until the cue comes (through the use of metaphor) from the narrator that this is some type of redemptive death. Erdrich seems to be implying that the trickster as savior has suffered for her people and now will be reborn in several new forms, both good and bad (and sometimes in combination), throughout the remainder of the novel.
June's two sons are perfect examples of good and bad reincarnations of the trickster. Although never actually acknowledged by her, Lipsha Morrissey is June's love child by Gerry Nanapush, the name-bearing Chippewa trickster figure in this novel. Believing himself abandoned and nearly drowned by a mother he never knew, Lipsha is raised by June's adoptive "mother" (really her aunt), Marie Kashpaw. He calls Marie "Grandma," which is significant since several versions of the traditional tales have Naanabozho raised by his grandmother, Nookoomis. Lipsha is Erdrich's most endearing example of a comic savior. His first-person accounts, including the story of the recovery of his past and his traditions which concludes the novel, are hilariously and heartwarmingly funny. However, as a savior of traditional ways, beliefs, and values, it is Lipsha who returns to the reservation (a somewhat typical modern tribal story-ending) after tricking his half-brother, King, out of his car.
King is the son of June by Gordie Kashpaw and perhaps the one truly "bad" and dislikeable manifestation of the trickster in Love Medicine; there is nothing of the culture hero in him. If Lipsha is more akin to divinity in his innocence, King is closer to the demonic in his guilt-ridden lowdown tricks. He steals the food from Lipsha's plate when they are growing up, teasing him that only real children can eat. He has also taken a potshot at his half-brother while out gopher-hunting together. King even tries to drown his own wife Lynette during a drunken binge, simply because she has fearfully taken his car keys. And in the penultimate scene between King, Lipsha, and Gerry, it is revealed that King did the truly despicable: he "sold out" a member of his own tribe.
Having been in the same prison as Gerry Nanapush, King gained Gerry's confidence and then betrayed him. In exchange for his own accelerated parole, he helped send Gerry to an Illinois maximum security prison. What makes King a trickster, however "unredeemable," is his affinity to that mythical character's unwavering ability to become entangled somehow in her/his own web of deceit. In his calculated betrayal of Gerry, according to Lipsha, King overlooked the sly capability of a true Nanapush to break out of any enclosure, including a federal prison: "No concrete shitbarn prison's built that can hold a Chippewa." Or, as Gerry's mother, Lulu, concurs when she "spills" the secret of Lipsha's paternity to him, while simultaneously revealing the hitherto unknown name of Gerry's own father, "There ain't a prison that can hold the son of Old Man Pillager, a Nanapush man. You should be proud that you're one."
One of the tales concerning Marie Kashpaw deals with a different type of enclosure: the convent located on the reservation. However, it too involves a kind of a breaking out; but what leads to Marie's breakout, the duel between two powerful tricksters, a sadistic nun and this foolishly wise fifteen-year-old, is very graphically described by Marie. However, it is important to note that, despite the graphic violence of the tale, this is a very funny story. Perhaps the humor is unsavory to some tastes because Erdrich is simultaneously taking a satirical swipe at Catholic fundamentalism. It seems to me that both these women confuse their trickster spirits with Satan. That confusion is due in part to Christianity's welding together of certain "negative" qualities of the trickster, confusion, disorder, cunning, and lustfulness, with the sin and pure evil incarnate in its Devil. Marie, an impressionable but gifted young woman, understands only that this presence is in her:
I stood out. Evil was a common thing I trusted. Before sleep sometimes he came and whispered conversation in the old language of the bush. I listened. He told me things he never told anyone but Indians. I listened to him, but I had confidence in Leopolda. She was the only one of the bunch he even noticed.
By inculcating her with tales of the devil, the school nuns have masked Marie's ability to unleash her own culture hero-tricksterhood. But by her misdirected zeal, Sister Leopolda ironically initiates Marie's cunning as a trickster. Marie plans to "steal" what the nun values most, Leopolda's eternal salvation, while winning her own place in heaven as a saint (culture hero). Leopolda, on the other hand, believes she can wrench evil from the girl, but ironically, she must employ the most drastic means to do it.
So she pours boiling hot water on Marie's back and bottom to burn out the devil. Then, in true trickster spirit, Marie tries to push the nun into an open baking oven; but the equally wily sister avoids this disaster and then stabs the girl in the hand and smashes her on the head with a poker, knocking her unconscious. These two tricksters are so cunning that the conclusion of this tale must be a draw. Marie momentarily gets her "sainthood" when she awakens: "For when I came around this was actually taking place. I was being worshiped. I had somehow gained the altar of a saint." However, the nun soon tricks Marie out of her glorification: "Leopolda had saved herself with her quick brain. She had witnessed a miracle. She had hid the fork…. And of course they believed her, because they never knew how Satan came and went…." And as witnessed by a later tale, "Flesh and Blood," these two opposing types of tricksters even continue their power struggle a quarter of a century later.
Another kind of power struggle is to be found in Nector's stories, most of them lusty, gutsy tales truly worthy of a modern retelling of the Nanapush legends. One good indication of Nector Kashpaw's imminent trickster status is his twinhood. Almost every version of the Chippewa myth makes Naanabozho's birth a multiple one, sometimes triplets or quadruplets, but most often twins. As Hare, the trickster usually kills his brother, Wolf, who then wreaks havoc in the afterworld, thus setting up a dual domain. Likewise, Nector and Eli represent a dichotomy of sorts; the former is school-taught and city-wise, while the latter is unschooled but very knowledgeable about traditions and the ways of nature. "In this way, it is a good partnership," says Nector, referring to Eli's second sense for shooting geese and Nector's for selling the goods in town.
In one tale, with a pair of those geese strapped to his arms, Nector first encounters Marie the trickster, fresh from her duel with Leopolda. Nector, who lusts after Lulu Nanapush, feels nothing for this "skinny white girl, dirty Lazarre." Yet, when he tangles with her, he is tricked by her emerging feminine wiles, and takes her sexually, in plain view of the convent's inhabitants. Thus, unable to consummate his desire for Lulu, he sublimates this passion for a number of years, but in later "tales" he does have an affair with Lulu that ends with a disastrous fire set by the "Tricked-ster," Nector himself.
The mother of Gerry Nanapush and seven other sons all by different fathers, Lulu Lamartine is the fascinating subject of one story and the hilarious narrator of another. Indeed, she is another powerful female trickster figure and a comic savior to boot. Like her rival, Marie, Lulu has a huge heart; but while Marie takes in waifs, orphans, and abandoned children, Lulu takes in lost boys who pretend to be men. She is the preserver of passions as well as old traditions, both human and trickster. It is Lulu who teaches Lipsha to cheat at cards by marking them. Lulu must have also learned some tricks from her first lover Old Man Pillager, another disembodied trickster character, since "Old Man" is one of the proper names used in the Algonkian nation for the trickster. One of the funniest trickster narratives in the book is when Lulu is about to be forced out of her home by the tribal council; she turns the trick her way by appearing before them. There, she intimidates every man in the room into silence, for fear she will expose them in their sexual follies:
Every one of them could see it in my face. They saw me clear. Before I'd move the Lamartine household I'd hit the tribe with a fistful of paternity suits that would make their heads spin.
Though her passion is more notorious than her compassion, Lulu is not amoral. When her third husband, Bev Lamartine, brother of her late husband and a minor evil incarnation of Trickster, reveals that he has "cheated" her, because he is still married to a woman in the Twin Cities, she sends him back there with her son, Gerry, to legalize their marriage by means of a divorce from Bev's first wife.
Gerry Nanapush, of course, epitomizes the most common and comical qualities of the trickster. Erdrich portrays him as elusive; in fact, he never gets a tale of his own, yet his presence, like June's, is all over the novel. Indeed, there is some innate affinity between these two tricksters; his memory of June, and not revenge, is what really motivates Gerry to seek out King at the end, according to Lipsha. But what Lipsha and all the other observers of Gerry marvel at most of all are his physical qualities. Those descriptions, while often deceptive and contradictory, make Gerry a prime example of the comic savior.
In describing his sense of humor, Albertine recalls the trial that put Gerry in jail in the first place. In a barroom brawl, the trickster had used "reservation rules" and kicked a cowboy in the balls. In court, a doctor testified "in behalf of the cowboy's testicles" stating that he is possibly infertile. Gerry retorts that such a lasting effect seems impossible, since the bar was dark, his aim was bad, and his target extremely small. That seals Gerry's verdict, and, consequently, he spends half his life in jails, breaking out of them, or running away from those who wish to place him back in them. Albertine understands that all this particular trickster wants is to settle down, but the modern world will not allow it:
So you see, it was difficult for Gerry, as an Indian, to retain the natural good humor of his ancestors in these modern circumstances. He tried though, and since he believed in justice, not laws, Gerry knew where he belonged—out of prison, in the bosom of his new family. (my emphasis)
A trickster with a family is not as uncharacteristic as it seems. According to Turner, later North American trickster myth cycles "describe the structuring of the trickster's life and activities: he marries, settles down, has children, obeys kinship, and affinal norms, etc."
Erdrich not only gives Gerry comical and familial features, but, as the storyteller, she also portrays him as a rebellious but peaceful savior, one who eventually gets culture hero status among the Chippewa. He is a great example of Ricketts' "trickster-fixer." Thinking of her renegade son, Lulu says, "… inspiring the Indian people, that was [Gerry's] life." Even more evocative is Lipsha's comments about his father's now-legendary abilities:
… Gerry Nanapush, famous politicking hero, dangerous armed criminal, judo expert, escape artist, charismatic member of the American Indian Movement, and smoker of many pipes of kinnikinnick in the most radical groups.
That was … Dad.
By connecting Gerry to radical politics, Lipsha identifies him as the persecuted promoter for drastic change; in short, he becomes a savior figure, one who must suffer for his people so that their cause may be heard. However, that does not keep Erdrich from surrounding Gerry's tales with downright good humor. In fact, the author allows Lipsha and his cousin Albertine to give her "listeners" an idea of the comically personable and extraordinarily physical qualities of this shape-changer.
Although a trickster herself, Albertine is definitely in awe of this great one. She seeks him out, knowing a bit of the legend surrounding Gerry: "… he was famous for leading a hunger strike at the state pen, as well as having been Henry Lamartine's brother and some kind of boyfriend to Aunt June…." When she finds him (easy since he is so "large"), she and he have a friendly drink before Albertine is attacked by Dot Adare, Gerry's pregnant girlfriend. In true trickster style, when on the defensive, Albertine laughs in the face of her enemy. She is saved from utter annihilation by Dot when gigantic Gerry catches his girl "in midair and carried her, yelling, out the door."
Besides his ever-growing size and weight, Albertine is impressed with Gerry's androgynous features. As I have already indicated, tricksters can not only change shape, they can also switch genders. Albertine portrays Gerry as a giant mass with paradoxically delicate properties. His little fingers curl "like a woman's at tea" when he picks up his wife. In fact, his entire hands are "delicate and artistic," and he uses them "prettily." Albertine is so affected by his delicacy that she makes this odd comparison: "So many things Gerry did might remind you of the way that a beautiful courtesan, standing naked before a mirror, would touch herself—lovingly, conscious of her attractions." Juxtaposed in Albertine's mind with this femininity of Gerry is his absolute bulk, his leonine agility, and his incredible strength. He is a "mountain," "a hot-air balloon" who makes a "godlike leap" from a third-story hospital window, like "a fat rabbit disappearing down a hole." The allusion to Hare, whatever the waist size, is another signifier of the agility and potential ability of this elusive shape-changer.
At the conclusion of the novel, Lipsha witnesses yet another narrow escape by Gerry Nanapush. Only this time Lipsha, as trickster, is able to assist in his father's final flight. The instrument for that flight is King's Firebird (a car named for a Native American mythological bird), which Lipsha and Gerry wrest from the traitor in a symbolic, trickster-swindling poker game. In one version of the traditional tales, there is a climactic scene portraying a showdown between Naanabohzo and the Great Gambler, Gichi Nita Ataaged, in which trickster wins and the gambler dies. This modern reenactment of that tale has King and Lipsha playing five-card stud using pieces of Lucky Charms cereal for chips before the arrival of Gerry. Gerry's "miraculous" appearance frightens King's family and increases his trickster-fixer status for Lipsha:
The famous Chippewa who had songs written about him, whose face was on protest buttons, whose fate was argued over in courts of law, who sent press releases to the world, sat down … with his son and his cellmate….
Of course, the game of cards is "won" with Lipsha's marked deck, which Gerry immediately recognizes as his mother-trickster's, Lulu's, special crimping system. Unlike the Great Gambler, King will not die, except symbolically in his son's eyes, who betrays his father's whereabouts when he mistakenly assumes that the police, in pursuit of Gerry, are after King.
In her first novel, Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich has managed to recount and thus recover for a "modern audience" some of the myths and traditional beliefs of the Chippewa. It seems to me that her polyglossic narrative technique is really the only way to tell anew the hilarious tales of the trickster; that is, by and through a variety of human faces and shapes who command some or all of the characteristics of this contemporary comic savior. In other words, storytellers have always had many voices, but Love Medicine reflects that multiplicity simply because a modern trickster narrative demands it. And June's presence begins and ends this narrative because, as the egg-eater, she spawns a progeny of tricksters (no matter how impossible genetically) which is constant only in its ability to be returned anew. Renewal, through laughter, is the prescription, and also the favorable prognosis, of Love Medicine.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 908
SOURCE: "Louise Erdrich Revisits the Complex World of the Chippewa," in Chicago Tribune Books, November 14, 1993, pp. 3, 11.
[In the following review, Rubenstein praises Erdrich's up-dated edition of Love Medicine.]
Louise Erdrich is not the first author to return to a previously published work of fiction to amend it. The most well-known of such revisers, Henry James, published altered versions of his stories and novels—often accompanied by eloquent prefaces explaining the revisions—years after their original publication. Presumably, writers tinker with works already in print because events continue to develop and characters continue to pursue the lives their author has invented for them.
The latter seems especially true for Erdrich, whose first novel, Love Medicine, was originally published in 1984 and honored with the National Book Critics Circle Award that year. Returning readers, unlikely to have forgotten such vivid characters as Lipsha Morrissey and Lulu Lamartine, will relish the current expanded edition as a second visit to a familiar landscape.
The book is equally a feast for readers discovering Erdrich's richly realized world for the first time: several interrelated families of Turtle Mountain Chippewa Indians living in a community in North Dakota over a period of 50 years. Five new sections have been seamlessly spliced into the original narrative; each in some way extends the collective portrait of the community.
Using seven narrators from three families, Love Medicine is a collective history of the speakers' interwoven loves and hates, tangled passions and dreams, overlapping longing and grief. Through lyrical language, vivid characterizations and freshly minted images, the narrative masterfully sustains the illusion of oral stories. Although several are told by an omniscient narrator, most unfold through the distinctive voices of the characters themselves.
We hear the yearning voice of Nector Nanapush, who for nearly 20 years has struggled to reconcile his passionate feelings for two women, as he articulates his desire to "swim against the movement of time" and "pitch whoopee" again with the Lulu Lamartine of his (and her) youth.
The medley of narrative voices resembles the medley of colors in an Indian rug pattern: Each heightens the contrast and amplifies the design as a whole. Later in the narrative we see Nector through the eyes of his grandson, Lipsha Morrissey, whose uneducated diction is studded with lively perceptions as well as humorous malaprops. Lipsha, who has "the touch" (though he comes to doubt his medicinal powers), used to think a malpractice suit was "a color clothing quack doctors had to wear so you could tell them from the good ones."
In "The Island," one of the new sections, we get a glimpse of the rebellious and passionate Lulu Nanapush Lamartine as a young woman. Deserted by her mother in childhood, she returns to the reservation after running away and moves in with her uncle Nanapush and his stern wife, Rushes Bear.
Partly to disturb her aunt, Lulu visits an eccentric Indian much older than she who lives alone on an island. Her strange encounter with Moses Pillager, whom some believe is a windigo (spirit), evolves into her sexual initiation. When she becomes pregnant, she realizes that she needs "a midwife to guide (her), a mother."
By the end of the winter on the island with Pillager, Lulu is rewarded for her odd vigil with a spirit message from her lost mother, who promises to aid her when the child—the first of Lulu's eight children by several different fathers—is born. The tangled parentage of Lulu's sons forms a central part of the texture of Love Medicine.
Two other new sections appear near the end of the narrative. One movingly depicts the pain suffered by Marie Lazarre's son, Gordie, who cannot get past the death of his wife, and kills himself by swallowing Lysol.
Marie faces the irrevocability of her firstborn son's terrible death almost as if it were his birth. She recalls how "he had lain in her body in the tender fifteenth summer of her life. Now she could sense him gliding back and forth, faster, faster, like a fox chasing its own death down a hole. Forward, back, diving. She knew when he caught the rat. She felt the walls open. He connected, went right through with a blast like heat."
Another new section traces the misfortunes of Lyman Lamartine, Lulu's youngest son, as he tries to bring progress to the reservation. His "tomahawk factory" employs Chippewas to produce stereotypical Native American tourist souvenirs.
The venture deteriorates into comic chaos when the delicate balance of power that Lyman has attempted to maintain between his mother, Lulu and his father's widow, Marie Lazarre—the women who competed for the love of Nector Kashpaw, now deceased—collapses:
After the fighting tapered off, those who were still in condition to do so, Nanapushes and Morrisseys and Lazarres alike, methodically demolished, scattered, smashed to bits, and carried off what was left of the factory. And as they did so, walking around me as if I were just another expensive and obsolete government-inspired mechanism, there was a kind of organized joy to it that I would recognize only many drinks later as the factory running backward.
In extending her characters' histories through the newly added sections, Erdrich satisfies our curiosity about the individuals she has brought to life. She convincingly conveys the complexity of their relationships as well as the tensions they feel as they ponder the meaning of poverty and despair and spiritual discovery and the sustaining strength of "love medicine."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4787
SOURCE: "The Fragmentation of a Tribal People in Louise Erdrich's Tracks," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1993, pp. 1-13.
[In the following essay, Larson discusses Erdrich's depiction in Tracks of Native Americans' loss of land and cultural identity to white colonization.]
Louise Erdrich's novel Tracks deals with the years between 1912 and 1919, when the North Dakota Chippewa, or Anishinabe, as they call themselves, were coping with the effects of the General Allotment Act of 1887, the purpose of which was to divide tribally allotted lands among individual Indians so that these Indians could leave their nomadic, communal cultures behind and become settled as farmers. After the Indian Allotment Act of 1904, each enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa born before 1909 received one quarter section of land, with single members of the tribe receiving various lesser amounts depending on their age. This was part of the transformation of Indian land into Euro-American property; more significantly, as Mary Jane Schneider has noted in her book North Dakota Indians, allotment had the immediate effect of reducing the total acres of Indian land by 65 percent. Tracks is in part an autopsy of this process, whereby place becomes property, and an analysis of how the process affects innocent bystanders.
Mixed-blood Indian people occupy a marginal position in an already marginalized culture. In the case of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, mixed blood has its origins in the historical influence of French and English fur traders on the tribe during the mid-eighteenth century. These traders obtained furs from the Chippewa, who received trade goods in return. This contact was more than economic, however, and resulted in intermarriage between French men and Chippewa women. Contact was encouraged by the fur companies as a means of keeping their men content, although most Frenchmen returned to Canada when the fur business declined. The children of these unions were called bois brulés, half-breeds, mixed-bloods, or Métis.
Another large influence on Indian people was the coming of European religions in the early 1800s. Julie Maristuen-Rodakowski, in her article "The Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota," has pointed out that European religion came to the Chippewa in 1817, "when residents of the Red River Colony (Winnipeg) wrote to the Bishop of Quebec asking him to send religious leaders to minister to the Indians." Apparently, this resulted from negative aspects of the fur trade relationship, which brought abuse of alcohol by Indians and French and the abandonment of Indian women and mixed-blood children by Frenchmen. French Catholics responded by establishing schools and convents, accomplished at Turtle Mountain by Father Belcourt in 1885.
Erdrich points out serious problems associated with the coming of Catholicism. For example, in Love Medicine, Marie leaves a Catholic convent because of physical abuse. Maristuen-Rodakowski states, "Marie later hears that the Sacred Heart Convent is a place for nuns that didn't get along anywhere else, and she finds some solace in that. So much for the ministering of the Roman Catholics, if this is true."
Louise Erdrich's assertion of abuse may seem controversial, but additional evidence of problems associated with Indian-Catholic relations exists in the writing of other Indian authors. An example is James Welch's Winter in the Blood, where the priest from Harlem, Montana, refuses to bury the narrator's grandmother in the family graveyard. The narrator says, "He never buried Indians in their family graveyards; instead, he made them come to him, to his church, his saints and holy water, his feuding eyes." Welch's passage in Winter in the Blood is similar to Louise Erdrich's reflection of negative aspects of Catholicism in Tracks. James Welch and I are cousins, and we both spent considerable time at our grandparents' ranch on the Fort Belknap Reservation. The perceptions of both Erdrich and Welch are authenticated for me by stories I remember our grandmother telling of drinking and sexual abuse of Gros Ventre females by priests at the St. Paul Mission at Hays, Montana, located at Fort Belknap.
The process by which European religion came to northern tribes such as the Anishinabe and Gros Ventre can be further explained by a passage from Sister M. Clare Hartmann's The Significance of the Pipe to the Gros Ventres of Montana:
In 1840 Father De Smet was the first missionary to travel through the country in which the Gros Ventres and Assiniboines lived. Father Point (1846–47) and Father Giorda (1862), both Jesuits, visited them periodically. However, President Grant divided the missionary work with the Indians among various sects. Fort Belknap Reservation, the home of the Gros Ventres, was confined to the Methodists. As none of them ever came to take up their work, the Indians were befriended and taken over by the various Jesuit Fathers. In 1883 Father Eberschweiler came to Helena, Montana. On one of his visits to the Gros Ventres they asked for a resident missionary. In 1885 President Cleveland granted permission for the erection of a mission on the Fort Belknap Agency. Father Eberschweiler took up his abode at the agency.
The zeal with which various religious factions must have set about their work is reflected in President Grant's divvying up Indian Territory for them. The fact that the Gros Ventre's assigned ministers never showed up characterizes Gros Ventre luck at the time.
What makes this process so reminiscent of Tracks is the fact that the Gros Ventre asked for a resident missionary. They did this because they wished to escape the negative influence of soldiers stationed at Fort Assiniboine near present-day Havre, Montana. This is very similar to the Chippewa of Tracks, who are willing to embrace a new religion in return for help in escaping abuses brought to them by the fur traders.
Among the problems associated with Catholicism for Indian people were the ambivalence and tension that resulted when Indian people tried to live with both Native American and Roman Catholic religious beliefs. Knowledge of both was in some ways an advantage, but at other times it had a paralyzing effect resulting from contradictory systems. In "Reading between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich," Catherine Rainwater states,
In Tracks, Erdrich's two narrators likewise struggle with liminality in their efforts to leave behind early lives in favor of others they have chosen. Nanapush grows up Christian in a Jesuit school, but later chooses life in the woods and Chippewa tradition; the other narrator, Pauline, is a mixed-blood raised in the Native American tradition, but she wishes to be white and eventually becomes a fanatical nun, constantly at war with the "pagans" who had once been her relatives.
The fragmentation of Indian tribes can be seen as having been accomplished in a number of ways. The introduction of European diseases weakened the tribes sufficiently to make them vulnerable; after that happened, however, the influence of the English and French fur traders, the application of European religions, and political exploitation of mixed-blood people were considerable factors as well.
Intermarriage with fur traders, although generative in certain situations, was also very divisive in at least two powerful ways. Although Indian people were quite accepting of outsiders on some levels, especially as a way of making alliances they saw as advantageous, they still retained a homogeneity at the core of their kinship systems.
An example is research on mixed-bloods done by George Devereux in his book Mohave Ethnopsychiatry. Devereux points out that the Mojave have had a cultural fear of aliens, dictating avoidance of all close contact with other tribes and, even more, of intimate connections with alien races. The white race is considered the most dangerous because of its "acquisitiveness." Devereux goes on to say that "the three most intensive forms of physiological interactions—eating, cohabitation, and killing—and the most significant form of psychological interaction—discussing the knowledge acquired in a dream—expose the Mojave to the dangers of foreign contamination."
Within this context, mixed-bloods are considered racially alien and therefore capable of causing full-blood Mojave Indians to contract "the foreign illness," or Ahwe, which the Mojave believe can cause death. As a result, mixed-blood infants were sometimes killed, or, if they were permitted to survive, their fate was harsh: They were rejected by their maternal kin and shunned by the rest of the tribe. Although this is perhaps more dramatic than examples of mixed-blood treatment found in Tracks, it does suggest foundations of Native American thought that are responsible for tribal organizations being quite strict with regard to identity.
Another example is the fact that mixed-bloods were considered peripheral to tribal government by traditional members. These traditional members were consistently opposed to giving up tribal land and to the process of assimilation into white culture. As a result, European administrators often turned to the mixed-blood population as a means of gaining enough support to obtain concessions; by proclaiming that mixed-bloods were to have a say in decision-making, white agents were often able to get their way.
In Mixed Bloods and Tribal Dissolution: Charles Curtis and the Quest for Indian Identity, William Unrau documents how Charles Curtis, a mixed-blood Kaw, supported assimilationist policies and allotment. Curtis, an attorney and politician, actually authored the 1898 Curtis Act, a precursor to the Allotment Act. Although Curtis envisioned the act as a great progressive measure, its ultimate result was tribal destruction for his people.
One of the ways this tribal destruction was accomplished was to give mixed-blood Kaws voting rights, which they subsequently exercised to overcome traditional views and facilitate allotment of Kaw lands. This exploitation of alienated mixed-bloods represents a primary tension in Tracks; it is part of the backdrop against which the characters live their chaotic and confused lives.
The book begins with Nanapush's reflections on the state of affairs among the Chippewa of 1912. In his winter count, he notes that the survivors of displacement and smallpox fought their way west to exile "in a storm of government papers," only to be stricken again, this time by tuberculosis. He considers the belief of some Anishinabe that the trouble is the result of dissatisfied spirits of the dead, then comes to his own conclusion: "Our trouble came from living, from liquor and the dollar bill. We stumbled toward the government bait, never looking down, never noticing how the land was snatched from under us at every step."
Although Nanapush aims toward present reality with his statement, it is not because he is unaware of the influence of the past. He tells how Anishinabe dead can come to coax the living to go with them and how he and Fleur Pillager, a child he has rescued from the tuberculosis epidemic, nearly succumb to their urging. The dead feel it would be better to move on than to live amid the ruin of Indian culture, regarding the living as fools to do so. Nanapush replies.
And we were. Starvation makes fools of anyone. In the past, some had sold their allotment land for one hundred poundweight of flour. Others, who were desperate to hold on, now urged that we get together and buy back our land, or at least pay a tax and refuse the lumbering money that would sweep the marks of our boundaries off the map like a pattern of straws. Many were determined not to allow the hired surveyors, or even our own people, to enter the deepest bush. They spoke of the guides Hat and Many Women, now dead, who had taken the government pay.
With this, Erdrich begins to make a more realistic statement about the seeming passivity of Indian people by personalizing their loss of land. Earlier, I said that what was significant about allotment was that it reduced Indian landholdings by 65 percent. What is even more significant, what goes-without-saying too many times, is that, when the Indian people were coerced into giving up their land, it was at a time when they were literally at the point of starving to death in an environment that provided few alternative means of survival to the hunting culture that was destroyed.
The "bait" that Indian people stumbled toward was meager rations that would enable them to stay alive. Also implicit in the statement, however, is resistance, a determination by some to hold on to the land by the white way of paying money; others took action by calling on the ancient power once possessed by the Pillager Clan, "who knew the secret ways to cure or kill, until their art deserted them." Although some maneuver successfully to retain their land, they are forced to do so as individuals operating largely outside the tribal kinship system; the overall effect is one of further diminishment. What seems more empowering in the long run, though less profitable in the short term, is Nanapush's and Fleur's adherence to traditional ways.
Although Indian people were promised time and again that each land concession would be the last, whites continued to find means for further dispossession. In Tracks, although the Anishinabe have been given individual parcels of land by allotment, those parcels are still being taken away for failure to pay taxes. Nanapush complains about this, saying, "As you know, I was taught by the Jesuits…. I know about law. I know that 'trust' means they can't tax our parcels." What this means within the context of Tracks is that in spite of the fact that the land was held in trust for Indians by the federal government, the states and others could step in and claim it under certain circumstances.
More specifically, Indian tribes are vulnerable to arguments based on legal doctrines such as statutes of limitation and adverse possession, doctrines that amount to a requirement of "use it or lose it" in various circumstances. During the twilight years from the 1880s to the 1960s, when they were virtually paralyzed by adversity, tribes often failed to exercise rights they would have had commensurate with federal recognition as separate but equal entities. These patterns of "nonuser," in legal parlance, or non-use by Indians, created powerful equities for governments and private landowners who ruled on or occupied lands more or less by default. It appears that the seizure of land for failure to pay property taxes referred to in Tracks stems from this, a practice finally struck down by the Supreme Court in the 1976 Minnesota case Bryan v. Itasca County (426 U. S. 373 ).
In conjunction with this practice, land was apparently resold at auction after being seized. Nector Kashpaw, in a moment of realization, reiterates,
If we don't pay they'll auction us off! Damien nodded, went on, ignoring Margaret's shocked poke at her knowledgeable son. Edgar Pukwan Jr. and the Agent control the choosing of the board who will decide who may bid on what foreclosed parcels and where.
Erdrich sets up the Morisseys as an example of those who have profited by buying allotments others have lost to taxes: "They were well-off people, mixed-bloods who profited from acquiring allotments that many old Chippewa did not know how to keep." Excluded from certain aspects of tribal society as they were, mixed-blood people clearly felt that some losses suffered by traditional people represented opportunities for them. In addition, consistent with the strong matriarchal strain in northern tribes, Bernadette Morrissey is the leader of the Morrisseys, and, as long as she is in charge, they prosper. Again, this is similar to James Welch's Winter in the Blood, where the narrator remarks, "We passed Emily Short's fields, which were the best in the valley. They had been leveled by a reclamation crew from the agency. Emily was on the tribal council." In Tracks, when Bernadette is faced with adversity, she reacts immediately: "In a week, with her cleanliness, her methodical handwriting, and her way with sums, she had found a way to save her land. In spite of the first consumptive signs in her lungs, Bernadette kept house for the Agent, reorganized his property records, and mailed debt announcements to every Indian in arrears." Bernadette is obviously a very capable individual; it is also clear, however, that her success is gained in large part at the expense of other Indian people.
Bernadette's success is limited in other ways as well. Like Teresa in Winter in the Blood, although she has won the battle to prosper individually, she is losing the war, in the sense that her family is in disarray. Her children, Clarence and Sophie, both marry no-account Lazarres and descend on her like a swarm of locusts, whereupon she leaves them on the farm and moves to town.
The significance of family for Indian people has been articulated by Janine Windy Boy-Pease in the 1985 Rattlesnake Productions film Country Warriors: A Story of the Crow Tribe: "But you know Crows measure wealth a little differently than non-Indians…. Wealth is measured by one's relatedness, one's family, and one's clan. To be alone, that would be abject poverty to a Crow." By isolating herself, Bernadette has allowed herself to become a shadow of property; as a consequence, she contributes to the colonization of the tribe and then, in turn, is colonized by her own children, who, without her guidance, fall into decadence.
On the other hand, Nanapush, representing the traditional Anishinabe, seeks to remain aligned with tribal tradition as much as possible. Although he is made to bend, he does not break, remaining perhaps the most empowered figure throughout the book:
The Captain and then the lumber president, the Agent and at last many of our own, spoke long and hard about a cash agreement. But nothing changed my mind. I've seen too much go by—unturned grass below my feet, and overhead, the great white cranes flung south forever. I know this. Land is the only thing that lasts life to life. Money burns like tinder, flows off like water. And as for government promises, the wind is steadier. I am a holdout, like the Pillagers, although I told the Captain and the Agent what I thought of their papers in good English. I could have written my name, and much more too, in script. I had a Jesuit education in the halls of Saint John before I ran back to the woods and forgot all my prayers.
In fact, much of Nanapush's power derives from language. His entire narrative in Tracks is told in the form of a story to Lulu, his adopted daughter. This device is particularly striking to me, because it reminds me of my grandmother talking incessantly at me when I was very young. She made it a point to tell me in detail things one might think would be lost on a youngster. In order to get me to sit still for this, she resorted to things like making my grandfather saddle up a sawhorse in the kitchen so I would listen while she cooked and talked. I did not think much about it at the time, but I know the value of the stories now. Like Nanapush with Lulu, someone took the time to tell me who I am, and why, and that is valuable.
Nanapush emphasizes the value of storytelling throughout the book. He tells how he saved his own life during the smallpox epidemic by starting a story: "I fainted, lost breath, so that I could hardly keep moving my lips. But I did continue and recovered. I got well by talking. Death could not get a word in edgewise, grew discouraged, and traveled on." After he rescues Fleur and the spirits of the Pillagers come for them, it is talking that revives him again: "My voice rasped at first when I tried to speak, but then, oiled by strong tea, lard and bread, I was off and talking … I began to creak and roll. I gathered speed. I talked both languages in streams that ran alongside each other, over every rock, around every obstacle. The sound of my own voice convinced me I was alive."
Nanapush's verbal ability works on other levels as well. He sees himself as a talker and a hunter and as someone who can wound with jokes. This gives him a powerful tool to deal with things as they happen. He is a ladies' man who casts a verbal spell on Margaret Kashpaw after she comes to his cabin to upbraid him for giving her son love medicine to use on Fleur. He suggests to Margaret at one point that he finally may have lost his virility, and she replies, "As long as your voice works, the other will." There is a recognition of power in Margaret's statement as well as a wonderful evocation of what it can mean to be a person of age, knowledge, and experience.
This verbal power is shown to have negative possibilities as well. In "Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich." Catherine Rainwater observes that Erdrich presents two distinct worldviews in Tracks. This is most vividly illustrated through the character of Pauline, who is a Puyat: "[T]he Puyats were known as a quiet family, with little to say. We were mixed-bloods, skinners in the clan for which the name was lost." This is the classic dilemma of the mixed-blood, people living between cultures and relegated to the lowly position of skinners, drudge work in the hierarchy of hunting society, so unimportant that the clan name has been forgotten.
Nanapush makes his feelings toward Pauline known early on:
But I could not cast the Puyat from my mind. You might not remember what people I'm talking about, the skinners, of whom Pauline was the only trace of those who died and scattered. She was different from the Puyats I remembered, who were always an uncertain people, shy, never leaders in our dances and cures. She was, to my mind, an unknown mixture of ingredients, like pale bannock that sagged or hardened. We never knew what to call her, or where she fit or how to think when she was around. So we tried to ignore her, and that worked as long as she was quiet. But she was different once her mouth opened and she started to wag her tongue. She was worse than a Nanapush, in fact. For while I was careful with my known facts, she was given to improving truth.
Pauline is indeed a handful, representing all the pain, rage, and frustration of a person forced to live in two different cultures while being rejected to a large degree by both. Early in the book, she pesters her father into sending her to Argus, where she intends to live as a white. Her past reappears almost immediately, however, in the form of Fleur Pillager, who shows up in Argus, is raped, then causes Argus to be leveled by a tornado. During the tornado, Pauline and her cousin Russell seek safety in an icehouse but are denied entrance by a group of white men already inside. Enraged, Pauline locks the men in from the outside, where all but one perish. Overwhelmed by guilt added to her existing identity crisis, Pauline becomes more and more aberrant.
In her confusion, Pauline wanders between white and Indian worlds. Initially, she assumes a role of keeper of the dead, then increasingly turns to religion. At the same time, she attempts to maintain contact on the reservation. Faced with the distance she has created between herself and the Indian people, however, she grows frustrated and destructive, becoming a caricature of the marginal person. Catherine Rainwater again observes,
Despite her scorn for her Native American upbringing, Pauline (later to become Sister Leopolda) cannot quite escape her old way of construing experience…. She recounts the sufferings of St. John of the Cross, St. Catherine, St. Cecelia, and St. Blaise, and says with pride: "Predictable shapes, these martyrdoms. Mine took a different form."
This passage helps illuminate what can happen when cultural codes conflict. Pauline's interpretation of experience is presented as dual and irreconcilable; she is not allowed to privilege one religious code or to synthesize the two as a form of resolution. Instead, Pauline is placed in a permanent state of irresolution—she is crazy. The manifestations of her craziness, fueled by Catholicism, are clearly destructive, as Pauline gradually becomes more fanatic and embattled. In return for a crumb of recognition by Margaret, Pauline tells the story of what happened in Argus, information that Margaret solicits to use against her son's interest in Fleur Pillager. Warming to Eli and Fleur's sexual relationship, she tries to use Sophie Morrissey to get Eli for herself. When Nanapush tries to cure Fleur's waning powers in a sweat lodge ceremony, Pauline tries her best to interrupt by preaching Christianity.
Although Pauline's portrayal is not as attractive as others that speak to the positive effects of mixed blood on the evolution of tribes, it is very effective in its detailed presentation of the tragic aspects of such a mixed-blood figure. And, indeed, it is true that for every admirable "cultural broker" created by forced acculturation, there are thousands of confused and broken Paulines thrown on the cultural scrap heap; it is important that their loss is not forgotten.
Nanapush has resisted assimilation to white culture to an amazing degree through words. He cajoles, teases, scolds, croons, and prays in ways to make a weasel think twice. In addition, he has followed another tribal tradition: He has taken three young people under his wing and taught them traditional ways. Eli has become a hunter able to survive in the woods, although he succumbs to capitalism and tries to find his way by getting a job. Fleur, also a competent hunter, embraces Nanapush's spirituality more fully, although she, too, is eventually beaten down by the loss of her child and the Pillager land at Matchimanito:
She had failed too many times, both to rescue us and save her youngest child, who now slept in the branches of bitter oaks. Her dreams lied, her vision was obscured, her helper slept deep in the lake, and all her Argus money was long spent. Though she traveled through the bush with gunnysacks and her skinning knife, though she worked past her strength, tireless, and the rough shreds piled to our ankles and spilled across the floor, Fleur was a different person than the young woman I had known. She was hesitant in speaking, false in her gestures, anxious to cover her fear.
Although Fleur is finally beaten down, she becomes so only after having a powerful influence on all those around her. She demonstrates that there are different ways to live than liquor and the dollar bill and that there is dignity and even power in the way she has chosen. Even the fact of her demise is deeply moving: She hitches herself to a cart and leaves rather than stoop to live in a way she does not believe.
Eli and certainly Fleur are nothing to be ashamed of, but it is Lulu who proves to be Nanapush's ultimate triumph. With many of his traditional methods of resistance frustrated. Nanapush moves to Kashpaw land and takes up a position of leadership in the tribal council. From this position, he plays his remaining cards and is able to retrieve Lulu from boarding school.
Beset as Nanapush is from within and without, he unerringly turns to kinship ways to work his method of preservation, focusing on Lulu:
You were the last to emerge. You stepped gravely down, round-faced and alert, so tall we hardly knew to pick you out from the others. Your grin was ready and your look was sharp. You tossed your head like a pony, gathering scent. Your braids were cut, your hair in a thick ragged bowl, and your dress was a shabby and smoldering orange, a shameful color like a half-doused flame, visible for miles, that any child who tried to run away from the boarding school was forced to wear. The dress was tight, too small, straining across your shoulders. Your knees were scabbed from the punishment of scrubbing long sidewalks, and knobbed from kneeling hours on broomsticks. But your grin was bold as your mother's white with anger that vanished when you saw us waiting….
With the return of Lulu, it is clear the saga of the Turtle Mountain Anishinabe is far from over. Nanapush's teaching has taken root, and, through this boisterous girl, tribal ways will not be forgotten. In Tracks, we are allowed to ponder lake monsters and ways of existence other than those of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant; we are allowed to glimpse a part of the beginnings of a new people, the Métis; and we are told more about the dispossession of Indian people. In Tracks, however, the central image of earth, or loss of earth, proves to be only a vehicle for Erdrich's larger discussion of self, family, community, and place, a discussion that widens considerably in Love Medicine.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5846
SOURCE: "Women's Community and Survival in the Novels of Louise Erdrich," in Communication and Women's Friendships: Parallels and Intersections in Literature and Life, edited by Janet Doubler Ward and JoAnna Stephens Mink, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993, pp. 165-80.
[In the following essay, Tharp discusses the destruction of Indian women's power and identity through Anglo colonization and demonstrates how Erdrich's explores this phenomenon in her fiction.]
… The old women sit patiently in a circle, not speaking. Each set of eyes stares sharply into the air or the fire. Occasionally, a sigh is let loose from an open mouth. A Grandmother has a twitch in the corner of her eye. She rubs her nose, then smooths her hair.
The coffee is ready. Cups are brought from a wooden cupboard. Each woman is given the steaming brew. They blow on the swirling liquid, then slurp the drink into hungry mouths. It tastes good. Hot, dark, strong. A little bitter, but that is all to the good.
The women begin talking among themselves. They are together to perform a ceremony. Rituals of old women take time. There is no hurry.
This excerpt from Beth Brant's Mohawk Trail sheds light on the traditional women's community of her Native origins. Within the old traditions of the Longhouse, Brant finds a spirituality grounded within the Grandmothers' gathering to honor life, to honor one another as sources of life and healing. The women speak very little, but smile, laugh and sing, kiss and hug one another during the ritual. They need few words because the significance of their gathering is understood. She ends "Native Origin" with this: "The Grandmothers gather inside the Longhouse. They tend the fire." Female community signifies the life of the people, their survival in spirit as well as in body.
In Mohawk Trail this kind of community seems almost wholly a way of the past; Brant offers only one notable example of contemporary women's friendship, within a lesbian bar in Detroit, Michigan. The women there cling to one another as family because of legal and social difficulties in creating or maintaining other kinds of families. And, indeed, throughout Native American women's literature, the lack of women's gatherings like that depicted in Brant's "Native Origin" is conspicuous. Within the novels of Louise Erdrich, friendships between women are rare, much less formalized or ritualized. In Love Medicine the two powerful grandmothers, Lulu Nanapush Lamartine and Marie Lazarre Kashpaw, are intense rivals throughout most of the novel. In Tracks Pauline and Fleur are divided by their contrasting loyalties to assimilation and tradition. The Beet Queen, alternatively, narrates the friendship between Mary Adare and Celestine James, a friendship that can, however, only exist because of the women's particular circumstances. As Erdrich carefully points out in all of her novels, the circumstances that made life felicitous for her ancestors have been disrupted and distorted in contemporary Native culture. There are clear historical reasons for the shift from the powerful women's groups depicted in Brant's story to the isolated women in Erdrich's novels.
Paula Gunn Allen connects the dispersal and dissolution of women's communal power to the waning of Native power, saying:
… the shift from gynecentric-egalitarian and ritual-based systems to phallocentric, hierarchical systems is not accomplished in only one dimension. As LeJeune understood, the assault on the system of woman power requires the replacing of a peaceful, nonpunitive, nonauthoritarian social system wherein women wield power by making social life easy and gentle with one based on child terrorization, male dominance, and submission of women to male authority.
Allen locates four sites of change in the historical acculturation efforts of the federal government and of early missionaries: a change in religion that replaces female deities like White Buffalo Woman and Grandmother Spider with a male creator; a movement from egalitarian tribal government to hierarchical, male centered government; economic conversion from self-sufficiency to government dependency; and a shift from the clan system to the nuclear family system. The first change alters inner identity, cutting the individual loose from spiritual grounding within a matrifocal system and replacing that with the abstract notions of patriarchal dominance; individuals cease to recognize the "Grandmother powers that uphold and energize the universe." The movement from tribal to hierarchical government discredits women's political alliances in favor of one representative who needs to be male to interact with the federal government. The spiritual basis for tribal government is erased.
Converting from familial self-sufficiency to wage labor further increases the perceived power of the men, since they frequently earn the money to support the family, while women remain at home with the children. This movement intersects with the breakup of clan units (often matrilocal) and the subsequent isolation within nuclear families which Nancy Bonvillain argues "results in the isolation of women within small households, exacerbated by their husbands' absence from home. Work which previously had been shared between spouses today falls exclusively to women," and, Allen would add, to lone women rather than to groups of women laboring together. Marie Kashpaw, Lulu Lamartine and Zelda Kashpaw, for instance, all from Love Medicine, are depicted almost exclusively in their homes, often in their kitchens, husbands absent. Both the nuclear family household and wage labor isolate women from one another.
Acculturation to Anglo-American gender typing seems inevitable within these shifts. Citing both Patricia Albers and Paula Gunn Allen, Rebecca Tsosie argues that traditional Native gender roles were flexible and adaptive: "the ideal relationship between male and female [was] complementary and based on principles of individual autonomy and voluntary sharing. Because of this ethic, Albers claims that the concept of male 'dominance' was meaningless for the traditional Sioux." Molding the man into patriarch, however, and further dividing chores more strictly between men and women, replicates Anglo notions of gender as differential and hierarchical, notions that have, further, bred institutionalized control of women. Allen notes that battered wives and "women who have been raped by Indian men" are no longer rare. Bonvillain's research concurs in this assessment and Erdrich illustrates it in The Beet Queen when Isabel Pillager marries a Sioux and moves to South Dakota:
We hear she has died of beating, or in a car wreck, some way that's violent. But nothing else. We hear nothing from her husband, and if she had any children we never hear from them. Russell goes down there that weekend, but the funeral is long past. He comes home, telling me it's like she fell off the earth. There is no trace of her, no word.
Although Isabel is a powerful woman, niece of Fleur Pillager and foster mother to her siblings after the death of their mother, she too can be swallowed up by domestic violence and utterly forgotten within a culture that once honored strong women. King Kashpaw of Love Medicine beats his wife with astounding regularity, emulating mainstream Anglo notions of male gender, as Nora Barry and Mary Prescott point out in their article on Native American gender identity.
Because of reservation land allotments, women have been and often are geographically distant from one another. Rather than living in closely knit villages with an interdependent network of kin and friends, people live miles apart and gather occasionally. The very struggle to keep land often tore families and friends apart. Erdrich dramatizes this in Tracks when Margaret and Nector Kashpaw use all of the money saved to pay for Fleur Pillager's land allotment to instead pay for their own. Once close friends, Margaret and Fleur are wedged apart over the struggle for newly limited resources.
Within all three of Erdrich's novels heterosexuality either threatens to or does divide women. Pauline's sexual jealousy of Fleur keeps the women wary of one another and creates a vindictive streak within Pauline. Marie and Lulu cannot speak to one another as long as Nector lives. In The Beet Queen Erdrich deconstructs the heterosexual unions that disrupt female community. Neither Mary Adare nor Celestine James fits the stereotypical gender notions formulated within American popular culture and they, therefore, have a difficult time attracting men (not that they seem to care much). Mary at one point considers a relationship with Russell Kashpaw. She invites him to dinner with less than lustrous results:
He looked at me for the first time that night. I'd drawn my eyebrows on for the evening in brown pencil. I'd carefully pinned my braids up and worn a black chiffon scarf to set off my one remarkable feature, yellow cat eyes, which did their best to coax him. But I don't know coaxing from a box lunch.
When Russell lets her know that he would be interested in Sita Kozka (blond, thin and pretty), if anyone, and then later makes a joke of her touching him, Mary concludes: "I was cured, as though a fever had burned off. One thought was clear. I would never go out of my way for romance again. Romance would have to go out of its way for me." Because the experience is humiliating, from that point on Mary concentrates instead on her relationship with Celestine, one which affirms her "as is."
Celestine more obviously deconstructs the romantic ideology that influences both women when Karl Adare seduces her. It is quite possibly Celestine's non-stereotypical female beauty that attracts the bisexual Karl to her in the first place. She is taller than he and stronger; her face is "not pretty." Celestine evaluates the encounter through reference to the romance magazines she has read. (She "never had a mother to tell [her] what came next.") When Karl gives her a knife demonstration after their love-making, she ponders her expectations: "So, I think, this is what happens after the burning kiss, when the music roars. Imagine. The lovers are trapped together in a deserted mansion. His lips descend. She touches his magnificent thews. 'Cut anything,' he says…." In a capitalist society the lover is ultimately a vendor looking for a quick sale. Karl does leave quickly, but he returns and this time Celestine asks him to leave: "In the love magazines when passion holds sway, men don't fall down and roll on the floor and lay there like dead. But Karl does that." Rather than boldly declaring his love and ravishing Celestine in the true fashion of the male hero, Karl passes out. Celestine's worldly assessment reveals both self-irony for having read the "love magazines" and a cynicism about popular culture versions of reality.
Months later she thinks, "Something in this all has made me realize that Karl has read as many books as I, and that his fantasies have always stopped before the woman came home worn out from cutting beef into steaks with an electric saw." Clearly the reason his fantasies and hers stopped short is because this reality defies the conventions of gender roles and romance. No heroine should be working as a butcher, and no hero should lie around the house all day. Celestine finds that heterosexual love does not live up to its reputation. It makes her feel like a "big, stupid heifer." It is further made unattractive to her because it comes between her and Mary, who "talks around [her], delivers messages through others. I even hear through one of the men that she says I've turned against her." Almost immediately after getting rid of Karl, Celestine calls to tell Mary.
When both women repudiate the expectations of romance and its attendant gender roles, they return with perhaps greater loyalty to their friendship and ultimately to themselves. In an interview with Joseph Bruchac, Erdrich speaks of writing for her daughters and sisters: "I have an urgent reason for thinking about women attuned to their power and their honest nature, not the socialized nature and the embarrassed nature and the nature that says, 'I can't possibly accomplish this'." Neither obstinate, eccentric Mary nor fierce Celestine could be said to give up one ounce of their own power, except in their catering to Dot.
When Celestine gives birth to Dot, the two women find a mutual fixation. Mary continually tries to insinuate herself as a co-parent, although Celestine guards the right to herself. In the baby, Celestine finds a passion "even stronger than with Karl. She stole time to be with Dot as if they were lovers." For Mary, Dot is a small version of herself. The two women quarrel over parenting issues, even behave as jealous rivals, but ultimately act as co-parents to the child. They create a family. Toward the end of the novel when they are both aging, they behave like an old married couple, sleeping together at Sita's house, conspiring together, griping at each other and even reading each other's thoughts.
The two women can also be close to one another because of their economic self-sufficiency. Mary owns and runs the "House of Meats" and Celestine works there, enabling them to set their own timetables and living arrangements. They need not depend on men for money. Instead they hire men. They also work very hard, however, perhaps resembling Celestine's grandmothers in their butchering of animals and preparation of foods. The infant Dot is propped in a shopping cart instead of a cradleboard. Their work literally feeds the community.
Their kinship network, while geographically apart, is interdependent—Sita Kozka, Russell Kashpaw, Wallace Pfeff, Karl Adare, Mary, Celestine and Dot all comprise a clan of sorts that is notable in its tenuous connection to larger communities like the town of Argus or Turtle Mountain Reservation. Karl—a drifter—has no family whatsoever beyond this group. Sita would like to claim the beau monde of the Midwest (if that's not oxymoronic), as her community, but even a Minneapolis department store clerk snubs her. Wallace, entrepreneurial spirit of Argus, is marginalized by his sexuality. His bogus deceased fiancee is a secret that forever thwarts genuine interaction with the other townspeople. Russell, though canonized by the local museum for his war exploits, would not be welcome within one of the local families. He only returns to the reservation permanently as an invalid. These characters cannot or will not conform to community expectations of gender, ethnicity or sexuality. Within this marginalized group, the two female parents and their child form a core, a familial center from which to grow. Their dual mothering is attractive to the many characters who lack a mother themselves. The lone child of the many adults is their "dot" of hope for the future.
Erdrich, in the interview with Bruchac, poses a question shortly after her comment about women's power that provides a useful entry into this dilemma and that has everything to do with women's community within her three novels. She says, "There's a quest for one's own background in a lot of this work … All of our searches involve trying to discover where we are from." Although Erdrich does not specify here, background almost inevitably signifies "mother" for her characters. While many characters of Love Medicine and Tracks have lost their mothers through hardship or acculturation (I will say more on this later), the mothers of The Beet Queen are denied or renounced.
Both Karl and Mary renounce their mother for having left them stranded at the fairgrounds. Mary goes so far as to send word to her mother that her children starved to death. For Mary this solution seems plausible since she so readily plants herself within the new home in Argus. Karl, however, becomes completely unbalanced, helplessly relying upon any woman who will mother him as Fleur does when she finds him on the side of the railroad track and as Celestine does when she takes him in. He has no roots, only the branch he tears off the tree in Argus. Sita too renounces her own mother, identifying instead with her elusive aunt.
Mary and Celestine in fact first cement their friendship around their lack of parents. Asked about her mother and father, Mary responds, "They're dead," and Celestine answers, "Mine are dead too." Sita observes that suddenly the two girls seemed very much alike, with "a common sort of fierceness." The fierceness would seem to arise out of their motherless status. Forced to rely upon themselves, they develop an aggressive edge. In a sense, the two are grounded in their lack of a mother, perhaps the only coping strategy available to them and certainly better than Karl's strategy. Nonetheless, the ruling element of the novel is air, suggesting just how disconnected these characters are. Paula Gunn Allen develops the concept of grounding:
Among the Keres, "context" and "matrix" are equivalent terms, and both refer to approximately the same thing as knowing your derivation and place. Failure to know your mother, that is, your position and its attendant traditions, history, and place in the scheme of things, is failure to remember your significance, your reality, your right relationship to earth and society. It is the same as being lost … not confined to Keres Indians; all American Indian Nations place great value on traditionalism.
Failure to know one's actual mother within Erdrich's novels is a metaphor for failure to grasp one's own significance within tribal traditions, within history. For women in particular, who lose all status within Anglo patriarchal traditions, it is a failure to embrace your own power. Celestine and Mary do not simply deny their mothers, however; they also create themselves in their own images of mother. Because Celestine did not know her mother well enough to carry on her traditions, and actually finds that her mother's heterosexual lifestyle does not suit her in any event, she becomes the mother she wanted. Mary rejects her distant self-centered mother and becomes an overprotective, indulgent mother. Both women are creating, from scratch, a family that can survive the harshness and sterility of Argus, North Dakota. Nevertheless, their lack of a women's tradition, of clan wisdom, leads to many mistakes in their mothering as Wallace Pfeff points out and as Celestine surmises.
In an article entitled "Adoptive Mothers and Thrown-Away Children in the Novels of Louise Erdrich," Hertha D. Wong describes in great detail the manner in which Erdrich develops complex mother/child relationships to dramatize the destruction of traditional family identities and the present need for maternal nurturance. That nurturance would not have been provided only by women in the past but rather by the entire tribe. Wong concludes that:
Erdrich's novels, then, transcend easy categories of gender and ethnicity, reflect both Native American and Euroamerican influences, and extend Western notions of mothering. Mothering can indeed be a painful process of separation; it might be the necessarily insufficient dispensation of grace. But mothering can also be a communal responsibility for creating and maintaining personal identity.
Whatever Celestine and Mary's faults, they maintain Dot's identity, try to mother Sita and create a familial context for the men in their kinship network, men who are otherwise isolated. They take on the responsibility of mothering that the other characters either ignored or lost. Without each other, however, it is doubtful if the two women could even sustain that.
As Wong points out, Nanapush, in Tracks, is a nurturing figure in the tribal tradition of communal parenting, but his nurturing is put to harsh tests when he loses his entire family one by one, his land and ultimately his way of life. Although both lyrical novels, Tracks and Love Medicine are firmly situated within historical events. Julie Maristuen-Rodakowski confirms the historical accuracy of Erdrich's depiction of the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota and their rapid assimilation to American culture. Maristuen-Rodakowski notes in particular the strong bicultural nature of this reservation, bred as it is from both Ojibwa and French trapper/traders. She also maps out a genealogical chart of the characters, illustrating how central family is within these works, that the reader should even be capable of drawing a detailed chart, and suggesting that such a chart is necessary for comprehension of the families' complex interrelationships (Wong's article contains a less detailed genealogical chart). The almost obsessive concern with family origins within Love Medicine and Tracks seems in part to arise from the characterization and status accorded to each family—largely the Kashpaws, Nanapushes and Pillagers on the clearly Chippewa side and the Lamartines, Lazarres and Morrisseys on the more French, mixed blood side, the latter holding far less worth in most characters' eyes.
Another factor in this obsession is the mystery surrounding the parentage of many characters. Pauline, for example, hides her identity as Marie's mother after her liaisons with Napoleon Morissey result in the child's birth. Fleur is raped by three men, so literally does not know which man fathered Lulu. The destruction of Fleur's family leaves her orphaned; the removal of Lulu to a government boarding school divides her from her mother; because of Pauline's entrance into the Catholic order she leaves Marie with Sophie Lazarre. In The Beet Queen Adelaide Adare hides her children's father's identity until his death. For her, sexual license is not so much a choice made out of desire but rather one made out of economic necessity; her economic desperation leads to her abandonment of the children. Throughout all three novels families are both created and torn apart by economic, spiritual and social upheaval. Those same changes separate the women, who, together, could and eventually do resist their force.
The mothers of the two families most extensively portrayed within Love Medicine both obscure origin in their own ways, I would argue, because their own origins are problematic for them. Marie Lazarre Kashpaw raises, in addition to her own children, many stray and orphaned babies on the reservation, June Morrissey and Lipsha Morrissey to name two; to Lipsha she says only that his mother would have "drowned him in the slough" if she had not taken him in, a patent falsehood, as he learns later in the novel. Lulu Nanapush gives birth to eight sons and one daughter, all of different fathers and none fathered by the man she was married to the longest and whose name several bear. Both women redefine notions of the nuclear family. Marie's elastic household forms a kind of clan unit. In Lulu's many partners lies a deconstruction of the patriarchal family and Christian monogamy.
Nora Barry and Mary Prescott, in discussing the holistic vision of gender in Love Medicine, imply that Marie and Lulu act as facilitators to that holistic vision, Marie because she is "a blending of two complementary gender based traditions. Her life includes risk, transformation, householding, and medicine, as well as an integration of past and present." Speaking of Lulu, they write that she is "a worthy adversary because she is as effective at complementarity as Marie is. The two characters mirror one another in their role as mother, in their ability to take risks, in their way of blending past and present, and in their wielding of power in old age." Clearly it is because they resist gender bifurcation and emulate gender complementarity that they can become powerful in their old age, speaking as Grandmothers of their clans. Still, while separate, they are unable to create an empowering matrix for these children.
In the role of Grandmother they are able to mediate various Anglo institutions. Marie rejects the "deadliness of the convent" in favor of life and Lulu remains mindful of the "conflict between old values and the influences of the white standard of economic success." One mother serves as a mediator between her people and white religious ideology, answering a call to the convent and just as quickly rejecting it when she confronts the violence of Sister Leopolda. The other mother mediates commodity culture, calling the "tomahawk" factory proposed to be built on the site of her house "dreamstuff."
Marie and Lulu also unite the two family groupings—Chippewa and French—the historical discord between which has eased Anglo appropriation of land. Marie seeks to deny the French/Catholic side and embrace traditional Native culture. Even so, her healing powers are associated with Catholicism. She is truly a sister of mercy in caring for orphaned children and in attending to Lulu. Even though that power is not exclusive of Native identity by any means, here it carries Catholic overtones. Lulu seeks to deny her Native/traditionalist mother and ignore her Nanapush/father's teachings and marries the French Lamartine. Ironically she is only a good Catholic in her fecundity. The fact that her boys all have different fathers reveals her innate attachment to her rebellious mother.
These two women, however, who have so much in common and could become powerful allies, can only come together after Nector dies, suggesting that heterosexuality as it has been influenced by Anglo culture takes priority over women's community and therefore divides women and dissipates tribal strength. Once the women have become fast friends Lipsha reports to Gerry Nanapush that Lulu had "started running things along with Grandma Kashpaw. I told him how she'd even testified for Chippewa claims and that people were starting to talk, now, about her knowledge as an old-time traditional." Women's friendship here signifies tradition and resistance to acculturation, but Lulu and Marie's friendship also reunites the characters with their own pasts, with their mothers, ultimately with their tribal past.
Tracks takes up the subject of displaced origins from early in the novel when Fleur conceives Lulu. The complexity is well expressed in Nanapush's decision to give Fleur Pillager's daughter his and his deceased daughter's names, not knowing what to tell Father Damien since the father was unknown:
There were so many tales, so many possibilities, so many lies. The waters were so muddy I thought I'd give them another stir. "Nanapush," I said. "And her name is Lulu."
The muddy waters originate with speculation, particularly about Fleur's relationship to the water monster in Lake Matchimanito. Like her mother, Lulu is stigmatized for her unconventional sexuality, but they both see through the hypocrisy of others. When the townspeople jeer Lulu at a town meeting, she offers to enlighten everyone as to the fathers of her children, an offer the people decline.
Lulu's "wild and secret ways" are an obvious legacy from her mother Fleur Pillager, one of the last two surviving Pillagers, a wild and powerful family living far back in the bush. The Pillagers know the ways to "cure and kill." Lulu rejects her mother—Nanapush's narrative is in part his attempt to explain Fleur's actions to Lulu—but in fact Lulu greatly resembles her mother in her ability to stand up to the current notions of "progress" and in her steadfast defense of erotic integrity in the face of community opposition. That Lulu should come to be in her old age a bearer of the old traditions marks at least a symbolic reconciliation with her mother.
The young mixed-blood Pauline Puyat, who seeks to punish her body in any way imaginable in the effort to drive out the devil, also seeks sexual experience before becoming a nun. Her rendezvous with Napoleon Morrissey results in an unwanted pregnancy. Pauline's efforts to keep the child from being born in order to kill both her and the infant force the midwife, Bernadette, to tie Pauline down and remove the baby with iron spoons used as forceps. The dual surprise of the novel is that Pauline becomes, at the end of the novel, Sister Leopolda; and the girl she gives birth to and names Marie is eventually raised by the soft-witted Sophie Lazarre. Rather than the offspring of a "drunken woman" and a "dirty Lazarre," Marie is the child of Pauline and Napoleon Morrissey. Marie obviously has no clue to Sister Leopolda's identity in Love Medicine, but Leopolda recognizes Marie at least up to the end of Tracks. Marie and Sister Leopolda's mutual obsession, which leads to Leopolda's sponsoring Marie at the convent, is ostensibly religious and caring. That Leopolda should lock Marie in closets, scald her with hot water, brain her with an iron pole and skewer her hand with a meat fork suggests that, like Lulu, Marie has a difficult relationship with her mother. In retaliation for the scalding, Marie attempts to push Leopolda into a huge oven. Nonetheless, from her experience with Sister Leopolda, Marie learns pity, a gift that enables her to help her husband back to her side and that leads her to reconcile with Lulu. (Marie's compulsion to visit the dying nun many years later ironically leads to a battle over the iron spoon that Leopolda habitually bangs on her metal bedstead.)
Lulu's mother is deeply harmed in obviously material ways by Anglo encroachment—her parents and siblings are decimated by disease, her land is lost and her forest leveled, she and her family are starved, killing her second child. Still Fleur Pillager maintains her will to fight, crushing the wagons of the loggers when they come to throw her off her land. To keep Lulu safe from these circumstances Fleur has sent her to a boarding school, an act for which Lulu cannot forgive Fleur. Pauline/Leopolda is deeply harmed in more obviously psychological ways. An odd person from the outset, Pauline desires to move with the times, assimilating rather than "living in the old ways" as Fleur does. One critic describes Pauline as a trickster figure, but Nanapush, himself a trickster, confesses to being completely baffled by the girl. In several places Erdrich seems to suggest that it is Pauline's unattractiveness that drives her outside of the community. She cannot marry and so must find an occupation. In a community that has accepted Anglo definitions of use, value and gender roles, a woman like Pauline can find no recourse.
Marie and Lulu's friendship closes the circle as the daughters of Pauline—who rejects mothering from a distorted allegiance to Anglo culture—and Fleur—who gives up mothering the child upon whom she dotes in order to fight for Native culture—come together in the effort to nurture one another. In putting "the tears in [Lulu's] eyes," Marie helps Lulu to finally feel pity for her mother. Together the women have reconciled their own and their mothers' dilemmas, Marie by taking the good from Leopolda's venom and Lulu by claiming her mother's protective spirit. In that relationship lies the potential for community transformation that Lipsha notes. Wong writes, "It remains for those left behind, the adoptive mothers and thrown-away youngsters, to reweave the broken strands of family, totem, and community into a harmonious wholeness."
The reconciliation takes place when Marie volunteers to help Lulu recover from cataract surgery. In the scene there is little dialogue and long periods in which the two women simply drink coffee and listen to music on the radio. Lulu thinks that "Too much might start the floodgates flowing and our moment would be lost. It was enough just to sit there without words." The women understand that with a gulf as wide as the one they must cross, words will only divide them further. The benign music on the radio, the "music" of Marie's voice, and the soft touch of her hand provide the healing communication necessary to their alliance.
For Lulu this meeting provides a revelation: "For the first time I saw exactly how another woman felt, and it gave me deep comfort, surprising. It gave me the knowledge that whatever had happened the night before, and in the past, would finally be over once my bandages came off." Marie indeed helps Lulu to "get [her] vision" as Lipsha testifies in the next chapter: "Insight. It was as though Lulu knew by looking at you what was the true barebones elements of your life. It wasn't like that before she had the operation on her eyes, but once the bandages came off she saw. She saw too clear for comfort." Having seen "how another woman felt" Lulu is now capable of seeing into everyone; she is given a "near-divine" power of vision. Through imagery, however, Erdrich reveals that this connection is not simply one of friendship. Lulu imagines Marie, caring for her eyes, swaying "down like a dim mountain, huge and blurred, the way a mother must look to her just born child."
In its coffee, contemplation and vision-seeking, this scene resembles the old women's ritual described at the outset and also depicted within Linda Hogan's short story "Meeting" about a contemporary women's ceremony:
Mom was boiling coffee on the fire and serving it up. The women sipped it and warmed their palms over the fire. They were quiet but the lines of their faces spoke in the firelight, telling about stars that fell at night, the horses that died in the drought of 1930, and the pure and holy terror of gunshots fired into our houses…. Exhaustion had covered up all the mystery and beauty the women held inside…. I met myself that night and I walked in myself. I heard my own blood. I learned all secrets lie beneath even the straggliest of hair, and that in the long run of things dry skin and stiff backs don't mean as much as we give them credit for.
In the meeting between Marie and Lulu rest the seeds for a return to powerful female political alliances, for necessary friendship that will signify not just caring, but survival, and not just survival, but prosperity. Significantly, it is in the nursing home, a communal dwelling place that ends the women's previous geographical isolation, that Marie and Lulu come together. Neither is their friendship strained, however, by familial or spousal demands.
Clearly the community can never again be what it was previous to the events of Tracks, but its very survival is at stake with the outside forces of capitalism and Anglo-American social, governmental and religious systems tearing at its fabric. That survival cannot take place without some kind of cohesive resistance. Since the traditionalist male figures—Old Man Pillager and Eli Kashpaw—have retreated into the bush and silence, it is left to the women in the novels to somehow save the children. Even though for some of those children the mothers may only be a shadowy presence, Lulu's sons idolize her and Marie's clan quickly materializes en masse for family gatherings. The two women's mutual grandson, Lipsha, as an old people's child and a caregiver to the old ones on the reservation, holds forth promise for a more powerful male presence. Although the desperation of some Turtle Mountain Reservation characters depicted in Tracks and Love Medicine may seem greater than of those characters living in Argus, the reservation also offers a portal to empowering traditions. Argus counts communal and personal strength only in dollar amounts.
Allen writes that in response to the "inhuman changes" wrought by Anglo colonization Indian women are trying to "reclaim their lives. Their power, their sense of direction and of self will soon be visible. It is the force of women who speak and work and write, and it is formidable." Female friendship enables the women in Erdrich's novels to recreate an empowering matrix that was frequently lost or disrupted through colonization and acculturation. In turn the women are strengthened in their capacity to act as leaders for ensuing generations.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1072
SOURCE: "Gambling with Their Heritage," in New York Times Book Review, January 16, 1994, p. 7.
[In the following review, Thornton offers a positive appraisal of The Bingo Palace but expresses reservations about the novel's elements of magical realism.]
One of the dominant motifs in the fiction of American Indian writers is the vision quest, whose goal is the integration of inner and outer being through knowledge gleaned from nature. Louise Erdrich has explored this territory in Love Medicine, The Beet Queen and Tracks, and she revisits it in her moving new novel, The Bingo Palace. Set, like the others, on the North Dakota plains, this latest book shows us a place where love, fate and chance are woven together like a braid, a world where daily life is enriched by a powerful spiritual presence.
Her story comes to us in the alternating voices of the inhabitants of the Chippewa reservation—the novel's chorus—and of Lipsha Morrissey, the central character, who is sometimes laconic, frequently passionate and, through painful experience, increasingly insightful. Presented in a counterpoint that is by turns colloquial and lyric, all these voices reveal how inescapably Lipsha's fate is inscribed within his heritage. To emphasize this connection, Ms. Erdrich begins and ends The Bingo Palace with the chorus, thus bracketing both Lipsha's good luck and his misadventures within a broader view of the world that binds the past to the present while looking uncertainly toward the future.
As the novel's title implies, gambling is a major force on the reservation; but while this may initially suggest that life there has been reduced to a game of chance, it soon becomes clear that luck, which means nothing in the world of contingency, is actually design in the realm of the spirits. Lipsha begins to learn this almost as soon as he returns to his people, quitting his job in a Fargo sugar beet factory where he has accumulated a covering of sweetness on his skin and clothes, a symbolic "seal of corrosion," separating him from his past. He has been frittering away his off hours in bars, "the tougher spots, the dealer hangouts and areas beneath the bridges where so much beyond the law gets passed hand to mouth." But when his grandmother Lulu Lamartine mails him a picture of his now-imprisoned father, Gerry Nanapush, copied from a post-office wanted poster, all this changes. Aware that the picture could foretell his own future, Lipsha goes home in search of an authentic life.
The community is "disgusted with the son of that wanted poster." Going back and forth to the city has, the chorus declares, "weakened and confused him and now he flails in a circle with his own tail in his teeth." But even though Lipsha has trouble written all over him, his uncle Lyman Lamartine offers him a job in his bingo parlor.
On his first night home, Lipsha attends the winter powwow, where he is undone by a beautiful dancer, Shawnee Ray Toose. An ambitious and kindhearted young woman intent upon winning prize money to pay for a college education, she has designed her own ceremonial "jingle dress," resplendent with beadwork and shining clackers. Struck by the elegance of her dancing, Lipsha is fascinated; his eyes "somehow stay hooked to Shawnee Ray."
The problem is that Shawnee Ray has had a child by Lyman; Lipsha's aunt Zelda Kashpaw has maneuvered them into an unofficial engagement and hopes that marriage will follow. What develops instead is a romantic rivalry between Lipsha and his uncle, which is complicated by the fact that Lyman soon becomes Lipsha's mentor, both in the world of business and that of the spirit. Even as he encourages Lipsha to invest his savings in a scheme to build a larger bingo palace on the shore of a sacred lake, Lyman takes his nephew to a healer who begins the process by which Lipsha will learn that the "bingo life" is an attraction that "has no staying power, no weight, no heart."
Ms. Erdrich's story of three decent people looking for love on a windblown prairie expands to accommodate supernatural events. The first occurs when Lipsha, wandering through the bingo parlor after hours, runs into the spirit of his dead mother, June Kashpaw, who is angry because his blue Firebird was paid for with her insurance money. In exchange for the car, June gives him a booklet of bingo tickets that will change his life.
Lipsha's magic tickets allow him to accumulate modest wealth, but he is still sick with desire. In search of love medicine to counter Lyman's hold on Shawnee Ray, he visits his great-grandmother Fleur Pillager. Their sweetly mysterious encounter loosens Lipsha's memories of his heritage and starts him on a journey toward the past. Helped by Lyman, he sets out on a spirit quest with the double motive of "getting the real old-time traditional religion" and impressing Shawnee Ray Toose.
This is a crucial turning point for Lipsha, who has misconstrued the effects of money and success. In its aftermath, he comes to understand that Lyman's scheme for the new bingo palace is leading everyone in the wrong direction: "Our reservation is not real estate, luck fades when sold."
Unfortunately, Ms. Erdrich's resolution of the conflict among Lipsha, Lyman and Shawnee Ray is subordinated to events that skew the novel's focus by turning Lipsha's quest into a wildly improbable madcap chase. For while June's appearance in the bingo parlor is a fine example of reality gracefully expanding to include the realm of the spirits, some of the novel's later ventures into magic realism seem contrived, merely artificial means of tying up strands of an overly complicated plot. Moreover, the delayed appearance of Lipsha's father, who has been little more than a mysterious presence from the opening chapter, only raises questions about this role rather than offering a satisfying resolution to an important strand in the narrative.
The Bingo Palace does, however, eventually return to its strengths, ending with a beautiful evocation of the spirit world. Part eulogy, part coda, the last few pages bind together the living and the dead in an elegiac choral voice. Here, as in most of the book, Ms. Erdrich's sympathy for her characters shines as luminously as Shawnee Ray's jingle dress. We leave this brightness aware of the complex pattern that links Lipsha, Fleur, Shawnee Ray and all the rest of the characters to both their community and their land.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4350
SOURCE: "Race and Gender in Louise Erdrich's The Beet Queen," in Ariel, Vol. 25, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. 45-57.
[In the following essay, Meisenhelder argues that Erdrich addresses problems of race and gender in her portrayals of white women and men of color in The Beet Queen.]
To a number of reviewers and critics, Louise Erdrich's novel The Beet Queen is unusual in Native American literature because of its apparent silence on the issue of race. As Louis Owens has argued, the "excruciating quest for an Indian identity in late twentieth century American that haunts other fiction and poetry by Indian writers is simply not here." Certainly the most strident expression of this idea has been a review of the novel written by another Native American writer, Leslie Marmon Silko. Although she praises Erdrich's style, Silko attacks the novel for its failure to treat the social and political dimension of Native American concerns; the book, she argues, reduces society's problems to individual ones: "In this pristine world all misery, suffering, and loss are self-generated, just as conservative Republicans have been telling us for years." My purpose in this paper is to show that The Beet Queen does in fact speak to questions of Native American identity in important ways. Far from being silent on sociopolitical concerns, Erdrich sustains an examination of the relationship between two crucial issues, race and gender, throughout the novel.
At first glance, gender seems the more sharply foregrounded theme in The Beet Queen, for Erdrich details through a number of characters the price both women and men pay for defying society's gender expectations. Mary, for instance, with her "blunt ways" and her smell "like white pepper from the sausage table" where she works as town butcher, throughout the novel remains loveless and childless, without a consort to match her fantasies. A woman of almost mythic spiritual proportions, she finds in modern American society no channel for her supernatural powers other than tarot cards and yarrow sticks. Similarly, Wallace (in many ways, the most maternal character in the book), comfortable in the traditional female role of midwife and host extraordinaire of children's birthday parties, must as a gay man in an intolerant society submerge his sexuality by masquerading as the grief-stricken lover of an unknown woman whose picture he displays.
While Erdrich chronicles the toll that defiance of gender norms takes on these characters, she reserves the direst fate for two characters in the book who come closest to fulfilling social definitions of ideal male and female. In her treatment of the white woman, Sita, who bases her identity on physical beauty and marriage, and Russell, the Native American male who strives for success through football and military exploits, Erdrich both critiques white America's ideals of masculinity and femininity and suggests underlying similarities between racial and gender oppression in American society. By juxtaposing chapters focusing on Sita and Russell and thus highlighting symbolic parallels between their situations, she shows that, despite the racial gulf that separates the two, they are similarly dehumanized, reduced to objects serving the interests of a society dominated by white males.
With marriage as her "dream," Sita, as a young woman, plans to move to Fargo and become a model in a department store:
She imagined that she would also work behind the men's hat counter. There she would meet a young rising professional. They would marry. He would buy her a house near the county courthouse, on the street of railroad mansions not far from Island Park. Every winter she would walk down the hill to skate. She would wear powder blue tights and a short dress with puffs of rabbit fur at the sleeves, collar, and all around a flared hem that would lift as she twirled.
Unable to imagine an independent identity for herself and weary of the "determination" it takes to keep her twenty-two and a half-inch waist as she approaches thirty, she is convinced that the "only thing that would save [her], now, was to find the ideal husband." However, marriage and the traditional conception of femaleness she brings to it, in fact, destroy her. The threat to selfhood that marriage poses for Sita is foreshadowed even before her first wedding: although she is irritated that Jimmy calls her the names of his favourite desserts, she fails to see his increasing weight as evidence that she is being consumed. As the skating image of herself in her fantasy foreshadows, she remains a child (she likes to be called "girl" even as an older woman) in her relationship with both her husbands.
While Sita's story in isolation highlights gender oppression, Erdrich goes further to draw parallels between her fate and Russell's. Similarities between white treatment of women and Native Americans are starkly drawn in the description of Sita's first marriage. In Erdrich's telling revision of a theme from white folklore—the white woman's kidnapping and ravishment by "savage Indians," Sita is "kidnap[ped]" by the groom's male relatives as a joke. As this fact and Sita's stricken look of "surrender" imply, marriage represents, for Sita, not self-fulfilment but loss of autonomy. Erdrich further illustrates how marriage echoes the treatment of Native Americans when the men, uncertain where to leave her, finally, with a stroke of "genius," decide to dump her on the reservation, a grimly appropriate place to symbolize her fate. Like Russell, who is present in the bar where Sita takes refuge, and who later returns to the reservation after his usefulness as football star and war hero is exhausted, Sita is, as a woman, as imprisoned in the institution of marriage as he is, because of his race, on the reservation. Sita's degradation is unmistakable beneath the humor in the kidnapping scene—when wind turns her dress inside out and blows her through the door, she enters the bar not as a human being but as "a sudden explosion of white net, a rolling ball of it." As happens often, she loses her voice, reduced to "muffled and inhuman croaking."
For Russell, too, the success society offers involves self-destruction. Although with his picture in the papers as football star and his war medals in the state museum, he achieves masculine "success" beyond what he could expect as an Indian, Celestine, early in the novel, grimly forecasts the emptiness of that apparent achievement: "People say he is one Indian who won't go downhill in life but have success, and he does, later, depending on how you look at it." Ironically, for both Sita and Russell, the symbols of their status as ideal male and female—Sita's garnet necklace and Russell's war medals, which both wear with pride throughout the novel—are, in fact, stark emblems of their enslavement.
For both characters, the attempt to emulate the gender ideals of white culture results in profound dehumanization; in different ways (Sita as sex object and Russell as cannon fodder), both have social value only as bodies and receive approval only through physical sacrifice. The scene of Sita as a young girl bearing her new breasts in hopes of receiving affection and affirmation is reenacted throughout her life, first as she works as a model and later as she struggles to preserve her fragile physical beauty. This pivotal scene in Sita's life (she remembers it years later as she prepares to commit suicide) takes place, significantly, in a cemetery. Dancing on the graves after Celestine rejects her, Sita simultaneously enters the world of female sexuality and spiritual death. Russell's physical sacrifice is even more graphic: "getting shot apart is what [Russell] live[s] for all his life." Behind the accolade accorded him as "North Dakota's most-decorated hero" is, as his sister recognizes, a drama of objectification: "Now he must wait until some statehouse official scores the other veterans, counting up their wounds on a paper tablet, and figures out who gave away the most flesh".
Physical mutilation mirrors the psychic and emotional fragmentation both characters experience. After fighting in war after war, Russell becomes covered with "scars and stripes," Erdrich's satirical comment on his misplaced patriotism. "Mapp[ed]" like the land of his ancestors, he is exploited as a natural resource, his wounds "ridged like a gullied field," his body "plowed like a tractor gone haywire." Despite "heroic" efforts, like Russell, Sita becomes a physical wreck in seeking the perfect body; she "ends up looking stuffed and preserved." Both ultimately appear scarcely human. Just as Russell's face, which looks "all sewn together," seems freakish with its "claw marks, angry and long, even running past his temples and parting his hair crooked," Sita's face becomes "cavernous" and "wrinkled," distorted "into a Halloween mask, witchlike and gruesome."
The physical destruction and dehumanization both characters suffer is also paralleled in mental deterioration. The debilitating "nervous" disorders both endure—Sita's drug dependency and mental breakdown, Russell's alcoholism and stroke—reflect the spiritual deaths preceding their literal ones at the end of the novel (both are, in fact, described as "stiffs" and associated with death imagery throughout the novel). Further, both become paralyzed (Sita first emotionally and then later when injured). As both characters become increasingly debilitated, they lose their powers of self-expression: when they break out of the silence that often characterizes them, no one understands Sita's "jammed-up sentences" or Russell's "shattered vowels." Voiceless "puppets" and "robots," both characters remain dependent for their identities on external sources. Not surprisingly, Erdrich describes both as rootless—Sita is like a blossom on a tree, "the same frail kind of beauty that could be broken off a tree by any passing boy and discarded, cast away when the fragrance died" and Russell "like a tree half uprooted in a wind."
As creations of American society, both Sita and Russell symbolically inhabit a white male world with little space for females and Native Americans. Just as Russell winds up on the reservation created by whites, Sita spends her last days in the basement recreation room of her house, a distinctly male preserve filled with memorabilia signifying the personalities of her husbands—Jimmy's stereo equipment and beer lamps (one "a silhouette of a stagecoach pulled by horses and around a lit screen of mountains and desert cacti," another "of a canoe endlessly revolving in a blue lake") and Louis's short wave radio sets. In this room, a "monument to both of [her husbands] and to neither one," Sita sleeps on the pool table, a kind of centrepiece in this masculine world. As always, Sita misunderstands her position as a female in a male-dominated world. Having moved her possessions in, she has the illusion of ownership—"It is mine now"—and power, imagining "all that [she] could do by remote control":
From here, I can turn on the television if I want. The face of the Morning Hostess might be flipping in a blur, but I can stabilize her with one twist. Headphones are at my elbow. I can push on the stereo power, the radio. I can listen to 8-track tapes, or, in silence, watch the brightly lit dials and barometers slide and flicker. I can operate the light control to dim or illuminate the imitation Tiffany overhead. I can turn on all of the beer lamps and watch them.
Sita is, despite her fantasies, merely another object in this world, more like a ruined piece of electronics equipment, with the "nerve connections" in her brain "short[ed] out," than an empowered human being. Just as she has mistaken marriage as the route to identity, she here confuses residence in a male world with meaningful power in it. Rather than becoming more alive in the home of her dreams, Sita resides in a house of death, a home with a lawn of grass like that in cemeteries in a town built on Indian burial grounds. Sita is spiritually buried there, "swathed in covers that have absorbed an earthen smell from the basement air." In more ways than one, Sita's death follows the shape of her life. Celestine and Mary find her dead outside her house, her body snagged on a broken branch and held up by her garnet necklace. She dies as frustrated as she has lived, her lips "set in exasperation, as if she had just been about to say something and found out her voice was snatched in death."
Parallels between Russell and Sita culminate in the parade, the piece of Americana that concludes the novel. Through a bizarre set of circumstances (Sita mistakenly enters the parade as a corpse), both Russell and she, icons of American masculinity and femininity, ride in the parade with the Beet Queen and her court. Significantly, both appear in the symbols of their gender aspirations—Sita in a white dress and her garnet necklace, with a "white leatherette purse in her lap"; Russell in his uniform with medals pinned in a "bright pattern over his heart" and a rifle in his lap. Both parade before the crowd as mindless, passive bodies, the dead Sita propped in Mary's truck (emblazoned with its name, House of Meats), and the paraplegic Russell propped up and strapped into a wheelchair. Just as Sita is buried in a male world, Russell ends up in a symbolically white one. Seemingly the centrepiece in this tribute to American military exploits, he is (as his physical condition starkly betrays) actually one of its victims. Like Sita, he is also buried on foreign turf, set on the float amidst a "field of graves … plastic grass and read poppies[,] [a] plain white cross … planted at his feet."
Although they are the ostensible objects of the town's admiration, it is bitterly ironic that no one notices Sita's death or Russell's near-deadly stroke during the procession. In fact, both characters—mute and completely immobilized—receive unqualified approval. The townspeople, for instance, assume Sita was "someone important, an alderwoman or the governor's wife," and her long-lost cousin thinks she looks better than ever. While Russell is amused that "the town he'd lived in and the members of the American Legion were solemnly saluting a dead Indian," Erdrich's message is much more serious. Just as Nector's experience with the movies in Love Medicine proves to him the white man's belief that "The only good Indian is a dead Indian," Russell's presence in the parade starkly demonstrates the dependency and spiritual death American society offers as success to Native Americans. In this episode, Erdrich develops this idea about racial oppression further to suggest that in white American culture, the only "good woman" is also lifeless.
At a time when the interrelations between race and gender concern many American women writers of colour, Erdrich, as a Native American herself, offers an interesting perspective on racial and gender oppression in The Beet Queen by uncovering similarities between the fates of white women and men of colour. Even though Sita consistently makes "fun of [Russell] for being an Indian, and he is always glad to see her taken down a notch," Erdrich suggests not only their unacknowledged affinities, but also their profound mistake in seeing one another as the enemy. Erdrich's novel is, however, not only the story of self-destruction for white women and Native American men. In the two female characters of Native American descent focussed on in the novel, Celestine and Dot, she offers a more positive alternative to the fates of Russell and Sita. Although Celestine and Dot are offered the same female roles that strangle Adelaide and Sita, both are able to forge more independent and powerful identities of their own.
Celestine, who could be Russell's twin "but for his scars," physically does not seem a candidate for Sita's fate. A big "six-footer," who is "not pretty" but "handsome like a man," she nevertheless has been imbued with the same myths about women's fulfillment. As she watches Sita play the coquette with a man, she wonders:
Will I ever smile, flush, offer a tidbit of food? Are these things that Sita feels, these pleasures I have read about in books, the sort of feelings I might experience? It has never happened yet, although I've known men. Perhaps, I think, I'm too much like them, too strong or imposing when I square my shoulders, too eager to take control.
Although Celestine intuitively senses that female strength and traditional love relationships may be incompatible, she feels the lure of romance and, in her relationship with Karl, faces the same temptation to passivity and self-annihilation that Sita experiences in her marriages. While Erdrich injects substantial humour into her descriptions of the love affair between Karl and Celestine—their first passionate encounter takes place on the floor of the butcher shop, for instance—she finally depicts that relationship as a dangerous trap for Celestine.
At first, Celestine tries hard to play the female lover role as she has learned it should be played. Karl's initial sexual overtures make her think of "Sita testing vegetables. Now it seems as though something is happening to me. I turn around to look at Karl. His eyes are burning holes and he tries to look right through me if he can. This is, indeed, the way men behave in the world of romance." The fact that he is "slightly smaller than [Celestine], and also Mary's brother" are simply the first clues that the reality of sex and the myth of seduction do not match. Not only does Karl make his first moves before "the glances, the adoration, the many conversations [that Sita thinks] must happen" first, but the physical experience itself fails to match her expectations: "He steps in front of me and hugs me to himself, draws my face down to his face. I am supposed to taste a burning sweetness on his lips, but his mouth is hard as metal." Karl's unusual behaviour brings to light more discrepancies between reality and fantasy. When he turns abruptly from making love to displaying his knifewares, Celestine becomes increasingly aware of the absurdity of the myth: "So, I think, this is what happens after the burning kiss, when the music roars. Imagine. The lovers are trapped together in a deserted mansion. His lips descend. She touches his magnificent thews." As Karl keeps cutting pennies into perfect spirals, Celestine "decide[s] that I have now seen what love is about." She learns more about the banality of love when she returns to Karl late one night after work: "It is time, now, for Karl to break down with his confession that I am a slow-burning fuse in his loins. A hair trigger, I am a name he cannot silence. A dream that never burst." The conversation that follows is hardly so romantic:
"Oh well …" he says.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I ask.
It is not just Karl's inadequacy as a lover that troubles Celestine (although she notes that "In the love magazines, when passion holds sway, men don't fall down and roll on the floor and lay there like dead"). From the beginning she senses that female passivity is part of experience as scripted: "He is fighting me for the upper hand, straining down with all his might, but I am more than equal to his weight-lifting arms and thrashing legs. I could throw him to the side." Celestine knows her own strength but she "grow[s] curious" and initially suppresses her power. Although she stays for awhile to satisfy her curiosity, the relationship quickly "get[s] too predictable" for Celestine's taste. She gradually comes to see Karl's presence as an invasion: "I am tired of coming home to Karl's heavy breathing and even his touch has begun to oppress me." As she realizes, the problem is not Karl as an individual, but the spiritual drain involved in the kind of relationship they share:
"It's not you," I tell him. "I don't want to get married. With you around I get no sleep. I'm tired all the time. All day I'm giving the wrong change and I don't have any dreams. I'm the kind of person that likes having dreams. Now I have to see you every morning when I wake up and I forget if I dreamed anything or even slept at all, because right away you're on me with your hot breath."
Aware that the relationship is dehumanizing—she feels like "some kind of animal … [a] big stupid heifer," Celestine rejects Karl's marriage proposal. Having arrived at a view similar to that of Mary who "look[s] on the married girls the way a wild dog might look through the window at tame ones, envying the regularity of their lives but also despising the low pleasure they get from the master's touch," Celestine refuses to become a slave for some measure of security. Thus, unlike Sita and Russell, who both remain rootless, Celestine emerges from the novel whole, "more solid than the tree Karl had embraced before he vanished."
Like her mother, Dot seems an unlikely character to follow in the footsteps of Adelaide or Sita. Even as a baby, prompt to use her voice in protest, she is not stereotypically feminine or passive:
In her shopping-cart stroller she exercised to exhaustion, bouncing for hours to develop her leg muscles. She hated lying on her back and when put that way immediately flipped over to assume a wrestler's crouch. Sleep, which she resisted, did not come upon her gently but felled her in odd positions. Draped over the side of the cart or packed in its corner, she seemed to have fallen in battle. But it was only a momentary surrender. She woke, demanding food, and when set free exploded in an astonishing fast creep that took her across a room in seconds.
Appropriately cast in the school play as Joseph rather than Mary, Dot is a tough and fearless child. As she grows older and the pressures to conform grow stronger, she still remains far from the ideal middle-class female, her face "vivid in its rouge and orange cake," her hair "cut in a long shag that looked like a flattened mane," her feminine image destroyed by her "powerful" neck. Her dreams reflect her confusion about her identity. She alternatively imagines that
She would live by the ocean like a movie star, or disappear like her Aunt Mary, who told Dot she'd hitched a boxcar. Dot would own a fried-chicken chain. She would drive trucks, bull-dozers, fly off forever like her grandmother Adelaide. She would travel the world and seek knowledge, or live up north on the reservation with her uncles Russell and Eli. She'd put the shot in the state track, from there to the Olympics.
As a young woman, Dot is at a crossroads in developing her sense of self. The role offered her at the end of the novel—that of Beet Queen—is, of course, a traditional female one involving objectification and circumscription of female strengths. Accepting that role would ally Dot with the other defeated females in the novel, Adelaide and Sita, a fact Celestine vaguely recognizes when she thinks of Dot on the stage as another of the "frothy confections … like magazine models or mannequins in store windows." However, like her mother, Dot breaks out of the constricting definition of female presented to her. Even dressed in her absurdly confining and immobilizing costume, Dot is "electric, tense with life"; she walks "bold with purpose," "her head lowered like a bull's." She frees herself by repeating—but with important differences—Adelaide's flight. Unlike Adelaide who wants to escape reality by flying into a romantic fantasy of female dependency on a man, Dot, "vault[ing] in [to the plane] without a hand up, or permission," embarks not on an unproductive escape but on a journey of independent self-definition. Writing her name, "Queen Wallacette" rather than "The Beet Queen" or even "Dot," she seeds the clouds with her new female identity. Her triumph is ultimately not simply a personal one or even a singularly female one, for it brings the rain that ends the symbolic social drought devastating the whole community. Further, the promise of renewal and fertility contained in this act has a specifically Native American referent. Native American spiritual revival is symbolically suggested in the descriptions of Russell, associated with the desiccated land throughout the novel and with thirst at its end (Dot is the only person to notice Russell's need for water during the parade). Dot's act not only offers a female rebirth but an Indian one as well; the rain she brings will symbolically revive Russell, the "lines in his face, deep and brown, jagged, running sideways … like the dry earth."
In important ways, Dot ends the novel not as an American beauty queen, but as a female power allied with traditional Native American ones. Erdrich has suggested this aspect of Dot's heritage much earlier in the novel, in a hauntingly beautiful image Erdrich has described as "the real heart of the book." As Celestine feeds the infant Dot late one night, she notices in the fine moonlit floss of her baby's hair, a tiny white spider making its nest.
It was a delicate thing, close to transparent, with long sheer legs. It moved so quickly that it seemed to vibrate, throwing out invisible strings and catching them, weaving its own tensile strand. Celestine watched as it began to happen. A web was forming, a complicated house, that Celestine could not bring herself to destroy.
As Owens has suggested, Erdrich here offers a "fleeting suggestion of Spiderwoman's web of creation and connection" to suggest Dot's power. In The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, Paula Gunn Allen stresses the importance of this "quintessential spirit" who "weaves us together in a fabric of interconnection": "To her we owe our lives, and from her comes our ability to endure, regardless of the concerted assaults on our, on Her, being, for the past five hundred years of colonization." By rejecting white America's myths of femininity and tapping into more powerful Native American ones, Dot, like Erdrich, points the way toward more fruitful, independent gender and racial identities than those the society offers either Sita or Russell.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5769
SOURCE: "History, Postmodernism, and Louise Erdrich's Tracks," in PMLA, Vol. 109, No. 5, October, 1994, pp. 982-94.
[In the following essay, Peterson presents a poststructuralist interpretation of Tracks, noting in particular the novel's treatment of history as potentially fictive and relative.]
In a 1986 review of Louise Erdrich's second novel, The Beet Queen, Leslie Marmon Silko argues that Erdrich is more interested in the dazzling language and self-referentiality associated with postmodernism than in representing Native American oral traditions, communal experiences, or history. In Silko's view, the "self-referential writing" that Erdrich practices "has an ethereal clarity and shimmering beauty because no history or politics intrudes to muddy the well of pure necessity contained within language itself." Whether or not one agrees with Silko's characterization of postmodernism, with her criticism of The Beet Queen as apolitical and ahistorical, or with the implicit agenda that she proposes for Erdrich, it is true that reviewers of Love Medicine and The Beet Queen, the first two novels of Erdrich's recently completed tetralogy, tend to praise Erdrich's lyrical prose style and to applaud her subtle treatment of Native American issues. Erdrich's novel Tracks, published in 1988, almost seems to answer Silko's criticisms of The Beet Queen by overtly engaging political and historical issues. But writing such a novel did not come easily to Erdrich: she put the original 400-page manuscript for Tracks aside for ten years, and only after she had worked backward in time from Love Medicine to The Beet Queen did she take it up again and begin to link it to her already completed novels about contemporary generations of Chippewa and immigrant settlers in North Dakota. Erdrich's difficulty in fleshing out this historical saga is symptomatic of a crisis: the impossibility of writing traditional history in a postmodern, postrepresentational era. It seems epistemologically naive today to believe in the existence of a past to which a historian or novelist has unmediated access. Radicalized in the poststructuralist movement, language and linguistics have not only led to skepticism concerning access to the past but also instigated a debate about whether historical narratives can be objective representations or are (merely) subjective constructions of a researcher's and a culture's ideologies. Following Lacan, Saussure, and Althusser, prominent poststructuralists have without regret or nostalgia asserted the textuality of history—that there is no direct access to the past, only recourse to texts about the past. Even the facts of history are constructed in language, as Barthes observes: "It turns out that the only feature which distinguishes historical discourse from other kinds is a paradox: the 'fact' can only exist linguistically, as a term in a discourse, yet we behave as if it were a simple reproduction of something on another plane of existence altogether, some extra-structural 'reality'." Similarly deconstructing the linkage of history and the real, Derrida demonstrates in Of Grammatology the degree to which historicity is linked to writing: "Before being the object of a history—of an historical science—writing opens the field of history—of historical becoming." And elsewhere in Of Grammatology, Derrida makes the now famous pronouncement "there is nothing beyond the text," which indicates to some readers a radical ontological and epistemological skepticism that makes history pure fiction, with no referential link to events of the past. In the light of this cultural-intellectual trajectory, which radically destabilizes history, it is no wonder that Erdrich grappled with the difficulties and possibilities of telling a historical tale.
The crisis Erdrich confronts may also be viewed as an outgrowth of the Nietzschean view of history as a disease, an affliction, a burden. In The Use and Abuse of History, Nietzsche argues that historicizing is abusive when it overdetermines the present and future or when it leads to paralysis rather than action. Indeed, Erdrich's lengthy hiatus from working on Tracks might be read as a symptom of this Nietzschean paralysis; certainly Erdrich's comments about Tracks echo a Nietzschean anxiety regarding the weight of history: "I always felt this was a great burden, this novel." Extending Nietzsche's concerns about "an excess of history," Hayden White asserts in a chapter titled "The Burden of History" that "it is only by disenthralling human intelligence from the sense of history that men will be able to confront creatively the problems of the present" (emphasis added). Thus, as White suggests elsewhere, many historians and theorists have become interested in "getting out of history."
Getting out of history, however, is a strategy not available to those who have never been in it, as Diana Fuss observes. Fuss challenges White's position by arguing that "[s]ince women as historical subjects are rarely included in 'History' to begin with, the strong feminist interest in forging a new historicity that moves across and against 'his story' is not surprising." The same claim can be made on behalf of other groups that have been marginalized in traditional historical accounts—Native Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans, Latinos and Latinas, and so forth. Indeed, the burden of history is markedly different for writers from such groups since a lack of historical representations can be as burdensome as an excess. For writers such as Erdrich, a part-Chippewa woman, the history of America has often been exclusionary—a monologic narrative of male Anglo-American progress that constructs others as people without history.
Writing history (as historical novels and in other forms) has thus become one way for marginalized peoples to counter their invisibility. And yet at the very moment when they are writing their own accounts of the past, the possibility of writing history seems to have become passé.
In The Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon offers a way to rework and renegotiate these contradictions. She argues that postmodern culture does not renounce historical representation altogether but questions its status:
To say that the past is only known to us through textual traces is not … the same as saying that the past is only textual, as the semiotic idealism of some forms of poststructuralism seems to assert. This ontological reduction is not the point of postmodernism: past events existed empirically, but in epistemological terms we can only know them today through texts. Past events are given meaning, not existence, by their representation in history.
The distinction Hutcheon makes here between ontology and epistemology, between the past (event) and history (narrative), is crucial. To participate in the "ontological reduction" that Hutcheon speaks of is to question or even to deny that the Holocaust occurred—or the massacre at Wounded Knee or slavery or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and so on. To use poststructuralism to question the occurrence of these horrific events is to inflict further violence on the victims and survivors. And yet a historical position in postmodern culture necessitates the recognition that history is a text composed of competing and conflicting representations and meanings—a recognition that precludes any return to a naive belief in transparent historical representation or even in realism.
Writers like Erdrich thus face a vexing set of issues: unrepresented or misrepresented in traditional historical narratives, they write their own stories of the past only to discover that they must find a new way of making history, a way of "forging a new historicity," in Fuss's terms. Erdrich works toward a new historicity through the novel. Analyzing the need for literature to intervene in "the consequent, ongoing, as yet unresolved crisis of history" surrounding the Holocaust, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub argue that "literature becomes a witness, and perhaps the only witness, to the crisis within history which precisely cannot be articulated, witnessed in the given categories of history itself." Similarly, Erdrich's historical novel, Tracks, enables readers to think through the issues and the stakes involved in the crisis of history surrounding Native Americans.
THE PAST AS REFERENCE POINT
Tracks poignantly portrays the history of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa's struggle to keep their land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Throughout the novel, a tribal elder, Nanapush, tries to change the course of events so that the contestation over land tenure between the tribe and white settlers, which culminates in the battle over Fleur Pillager's land, will not destroy the tribe. Fleur, one of the few unassimilated full-bloods among the Anishinabeg (Chippewa), has been allotted a valuable tract of timber-filled land adjoining Matchimanito Lake. Although Nanapush does his best to retain Fleur's claim to the land, white lumber interests turn United States government policy to their advantage, and in the end, Fleur's land is lost.
Tracks opens with an elegiac description of the plight of the Chippewa at the turn of the century. Nanapush, one of the novel's first-person narrators, tells Lulu, Fleur's daughter, the history of their people. I quote and analyze the passage at length because it serves as a microcosm of Erdrich's method throughout the novel.
We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. It was surprising there were so many of us left to die. For those who survived the spotted sickness from the south, our long fight west to Nadouissioux land where we signed the treaty, and then a wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of government papers, what descended from the north in 1912 seemed impossible.
By then, we thought disaster must surely have spent its force, that disease must have claimed all of the Anishinabe that the earth could hold and bury.
But the earth is limitless and so is luck and so were our people once. Granddaughter, you are the child of the invisible, the ones who disappeared when, along with the first bitter punishments of early winter, a new sickness swept down. The consumption, it was called by young Father Damien, who came in that year to replace the priest who succumbed to the same devastation as his flock. This disease was different from the pox and fever, for it came on slow. The outcome, however, was just as certain. Whole families of your relatives lay ill and helpless in its breath. On the reservation, where we were forced close together, the clans dwindled. Our tribe unraveled like a coarse rope, frayed at either end as the old and new among us were taken. My own family was wiped out one by one, leaving only Nanapush. And after, although I had lived no more than fifty winters, I was considered an old man. I'd seen enough to be one. In the years I'd passed, I saw more change than in a hundred upon a hundred before.
My girl, I saw the passing of times you will never know.
I guided the last buffalo hunt. I saw the last bear shot. I trapped the last beaver with a pelt of more than two years' growth. I spoke aloud the words of the government treaty, and refused to sign the settlement papers that would take away our woods and lake. I axed the last birch that was older than I, and I saved the last Pillager.
Erdrich's writing lays tracks here for a revisionist history and a new historicity. Nanapush's speech is revisionist because it defamiliarizes the popular narrative of American history as progress by showing the costs of that "progress" to native peoples. His speech to Lulu presents an alternative narrative of certain past events—epidemics ("the spotted sickness," "consumption") and "government papers" (various federal treaties and legislative acts)—that led to hardship and death for members of the tribe. Indeed, academic history "documents" the "fact" that Nanapush's historical account corresponds to past events: academic accounts report that North Dakota was afflicted with outbreaks of smallpox from 1869 to 1870 and of tuberculosis from 1891 to 1901. In fact, European diseases such as smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis are said to have been more deadly to native populations across the country than Indian-white warfare was.
But Erdrich's work moves beyond documentation. Such historical "facts" do not fully acknowledge the horror of depopulation and genocide, a horror that is marked in the opening passage by the shift from "we" (the people) in the first paragraph to "I" (the only surviving witness) in the last. The problem of relating the past in the form of history is further addressed in that passage when Nanapush instructs Lulu on the limits of his own narrative: "My girl, I saw the passing of times you will never know." Without denying the referentiality or importance of his historical narrative, Nanapush acknowledges that the real (or "what really happened") is that which Lulu "will never know"—in other words, the complexity of the past exceeds his (and anyone else's) ability to re-present it fully. Nonetheless, Nanapush insists on telling this history to Lulu, for only by creating his own narrative can he empower her.
The question of power and empowerment is central: Erdrich's novel focuses not only on the limits of documentary history but also on its politics. "Documents originate among the powerful ones, the conquerors," writes Simone Weil, a French Jew exiled to London during World War II. "History, therefore, is nothing but a compilation of the depositions made by assassins with respect to their victims and themselves." Indeed, a documentary history of Native America would necessarily be based on treaties, legislative acts, and other documents written or commissioned in the name of the United States government and subsequently (ab)used to take land from indigenous peoples. The history of treaty making and treaty breaking with Native Americans demonstrates that such documents are not autonomous, objective, or transparent statements but texts open to interpretation by whoever is in power.
Since traditional written history, based on documents, is another kind of violence inflicted on oppressed peoples, Tracks features oral history. The opening of the novel uses oral storytelling markers: the narrator does not name himself, as he would not in a traditional face-to-face storytelling situation, nor is the addressee named except to designate her relationship to the narrator ("Granddaughter"); the last two paragraphs quoted above contain a rhetorical pattern typically associated with orality, repetition with variations ("I guided," "I saw," "I trapped"). Other oral markers signify Erdrich's rejection of the language of documents: Nanapush refers to "the spotted sickness," not to smallpox or measles; he uses traditional oral tribal names (Nadouissioux, Anishinabe) rather than anglicized textual ones (Sioux, Chippewa); he speaks of "a storm of government papers" instead of naming specific documents affecting the tribe. The turn to oral history in Tracks signals the need for indigenous peoples to tell their own stories and their own histories.
But the evocation of the oral in a written text implicates this counterhistory in the historical narrative that it seeks to displace. Tracks renders a history of Anishinabe dispossession that moves within and against an academic account of this history. Indeed, the need to know history as it is constructed both orally and textually is indicated by the contextual phrases that begin each chapter: first a date, including the designation of season(s) and year(s), then a phrase in Anishinabe followed by an English translation. This information establishes two competing and contradictory frames of reference: one associated with orality, a seasonal or cyclic approach to history, a precontact culture; the other linked with textuality, a linear or progressive approach to history, a postcontact culture. Erdrich creates a history of dispossession that moves between these frames, that is enmeshed in the academic narrative of dates and of causes and effects concerning the loss of land. Indeed, only by knowing this narrative can the reader attach any significance to the fact that chapter 1 begins in 1912.
The academic historical narrative that Erdrich uses and resists typically begins with the reservation period: the United States government initially disrupted tribal ways of life by establishing reservations so that the tribes were confined within strict boundaries while white settlers claimed more territory. Then the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 codified a turn in government policy, making it relatively easy to divide up land formerly held communally on reservations and to allot it to individual Indians. The point of allotment was to convert tribes such as the Chippewa from a communal hunting and gathering organization to a capitalistic, individualistic agricultural economy. The allotted tracts were to be held in trust for twenty-five years (according to the original plan), during which time the owners would be encouraged to profit from the lands (by farming, selling timber rights, and so on) but would not be required to pay property taxes. The goal was to use the trust period to assimilate the Indians into the "white man's" way of life so that they would become productive capitalists, capable of assuming the responsibilities of landholding—such as paying taxes—without further governmental intervention. But in 1906 Congress passed the Burke Act, which allowed the commissioner of Indian affairs to shorten the twenty-five-year trust period for "competent" Indians. Under this act, those deemed competent were issued a fee patent rather than a trust patent; they could therefore sell or lease—or lose—their allotments. Then in a 1917 "Declaration of Policy," Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells announced that all Indians with more than one-half white blood would be defined as competent and thus would be made United States citizens and that they would be granted fee patents for their allotments. Although the professed original intent of allotment was to maintain Indian land ownership, the policy had the opposite effect: "before allotment 139 million acres were held in trust for Indians. In 1934 when allotment was officially repealed, only 48 million acres of land were left and many Indians were without land." Some Indians lost their allotments because they could not pay the taxes after the trust period ended; others were conned into selling their allotments at prices well below the land's value; still others used their allotments as security to buy goods on credit or to get loans and then lost the land after failing to repay the debts.
By opening in 1912 and proceeding through the disastrous consequences of Sells's 1917 declaration, Tracks dramatizes the tenuousness of land tenure for Native Americans. Although Nanapush tells Father Damien, "I know about law. I know that 'trust' means they can't tax our parcels," the map Father Damien brings along—with its seemingly innocuous little squares of pink, green, yellow—shows that the agent's office is busy calculating who will be unable to pay. As Fleur, Nanapush, Eli, Nector, and Margaret work to raise money to pay their taxes, native traditions are forced into a new economic context: the Pillager-Kashpaw family gathers and sells cranberry bark, just as Turtle Mountain women sold herbs and roots to raise money, while Eli traps and sells hides, activities that Turtle Mountain men had to engage in. These efforts raise just enough money. But when Margaret and Nector go to pay the taxes, they are told that they have enough only to pay the taxes on their own tract. No doubt Fleur's land is too valuable to be left to Indian ownership; the lumber is worth too much for the encroaching capitalists to leave it unharvested. As Nanapush recognizes, the late-payment fine levied by the agent is probably illegal, yet greed and desire divide the Anishinabeg, turning some, such as Bernadette Morrissey and Edgar Pukwan Junior, into "government Indians," while prompting others—Margaret and Nector—to look out for themselves at the expense of communal values.
Erdrich's novel takes up (corresponds to) a turning point in the history of Anglo-Indian land conflicts. But the absence of names for the dates, acts, and other specifics attached to this kind of history displaces this narrative, even as it is invoked. That is, the tension and conflict at the heart of Tracks come into focus only when readers have some knowledge of the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, but the text does not refer to the act directly. The documentary history of dispossession that the novel uses and resists functions as an absent presence; the text acknowledges the way in which this historical script has impinged on the Anishinabeg but opposes allowing this history to function as the only story that can be told.
Moreover, by refusing to participate in such documentation, Erdrich's novel refocuses attention on the emotional and cultural repercussions that the loss of land entails. In one of the final events of the novel, the trees on Fleur's tract are razed. Fleur does not communicate the trauma of this event; she is not a narrator in the novel, though she is a central character (perhaps the central character). Instead, the razing of the trees accrues import through its link to two earlier episodes: Fleur's rape by the butchermen of Argus, North Dakota, after her victory at poker and Margaret's "rape" by Clarence Morrissey and Boy Lazarre, who shave her head out of vengeance. In all three incidents, a nexus of forces—capitalism, sexism, violence—causes irreparable loss. Fleur has ways to redress these wrongs: she causes the tornado in Argus that maims and kills the butchermen, she reduces Boy Lazarre's speech to babbling because of his voyeurism, and she asks the manitou of Matchimanito Lake to drown men who cross her. But her powers cannot ward off the whites and government Indians greedy for land, money, and power. The novel portrays Fleur's loss in this sociocultural war as tragic: it is because traditional Anishinabeg like Fleur and Nanapush are dispossessed and because Native American clans and tribes are consequently fragmented that the tracks of Native American history and culture are so difficult to discern. At the end of the novel Fleur is said to walk "without leaving tracks," a foreboding development since she is described by Pauline as "the hinge" between the Chippewa people and their manitous and by Nanapush as "the funnel of our history." And yet, Fleur's disappearance and tracklessness at the end of the novel function as a present absence—her absence becomes a haunting presence in the narrative, signifying the need for a reconceptualization of history, for a new historicity that both refers to the past and makes a space for what can never be known of it.
HISTORY AS STORY
Tracks dramatizes the problematic nature of historical narrative, which cannot give voice to the (precontact) past directly—a notion figured in the character of Fleur—but which mediates that past in language and narrative. The novel works toward an understanding of history not as an objective narrative but as a story constructed of personal and ideological interests. Arising from this insight is a vexing theoretical issue: If history is just a story, how is it possible (or is it possible at all) to discriminate between one account of the past and other accounts?
The postmodern novel, which Hutcheon terms "historio-graphic metafiction," characteristically foregrounds the fictionality of history. E. L. Doctorow exemplifies this position in his essay "False Documents," where he argues that there is no difference between history and fiction, that both are narratives constructing the only world that can be known. Erdrich's work resists absolute groundlessness or relativity by contrasting the two narrators who construct the story of Tracks.
The second narrator—in addition to Nanapush—is Pauline, an orphaned young woman who is trying to make sense of the beginnings of sexual desire and her alienation from both the tribe and Anglo society. She eventually resolves this psychic tension by becoming a nun, but only after becoming pregnant, trying to force a miscarriage, and then forgetting about the illegitimate baby after it is delivered. Ignoring her part-Chippewa ancestry, she declares herself to be "wholly white" in order to become a nun. Pauline's narrative voice reproduces a phenomenon Bell Hooks describes in Black Looks: "Too many red and black people live in a state of forgetfulness, embracing a colonized mind so that they can better assimilate into the white world." Indeed, Pauline embraces Catholicism to repress her sexual desire and her connection to tribal culture; but the perverseness of this repression becomes apparent when she begins masochistically punishing herself for being unworthy.
Because of different identities and allegiances, Nanapush and Pauline narrate contrasting interpretations of the historical moment that unfolds in Tracks. Nanapush's elegiac historical saga runs contrapuntally with Pauline's assimilationist version, which interprets the Anglo settling of America as progress. Whereas Nanapush sees the allotment policy and the concomitant conversion of the Anishinabeg from hunters and trappers to farmers as the cause of starvation, poverty, and land loss, Pauline suggests that "many old Chippewa did not know how to keep"—that is, to farm—their allotments and therefore deserved to lose them. In addition, while Nanapush views the destruction of Anishinabe society and culture as tragic, Pauline sees it in terms of Christian millennialism:
[A] surveyor's crew arrived at the turnoff to Matchimanito in a rattling truck, and set to measuring. Surely that was the work of Christ's hand. I see farther, anticipate more than I've heard. The land will be sold and divided. Fleur's cabin will tumble into the ground and be covered by leaves. The place will be haunted I suppose, but no one will have ears sharp enough to hear the Pillagers' low voices, or the vision clear to see their still shadows. The trembling old fools with their conjuring tricks will die off and the young, like Lulu and Nector, return from the government schools blinded and deafened.
Although part Chippewa, Pauline justifies the maneuvers of Christian and governmental authorities to dispossess the people of their land and culture. By teaching at Saint Catherine's Pauline becomes one of the agents that blind and deafen children to their native culture and language. In contrast, Nanapush rescues Lulu from boarding school and its inevitable racism. This difference in perspective is also reflected in Pauline's eagerness to be renamed and reborn as Leopolda—a name given to her by white Christian authorities—in contrast to Nanapush's refusal to reveal his name to those authorities. Pauline recognizes that indoctrination into white culture is a kind of mutilation—her students will be "blinded" and "deafened" as she herself has been—but she sees this development as inevitable. The white Christian capitalists will win the cultural-epistemological war, in Pauline's view, and she will side with the victor.
Erdrich's novel holds Nanapush's and Pauline's antithetical views in tension, showing point of view to be inherent to any historical narrative. Moreover, these conflicting stories and visions reflect a tribal vision of the world that allows for competing truths and, according to Paula Gunn Allen, for gender balance rather than gender oppression. Because historical events caused intact tribes and bands like the Turtle Mountain Chippewa to become split at the root, Nanapush's and Pauline's points of view are both necessary to provide an "indigenous" account of what happens in Tracks.
Pauline's and Nanapush's narratives also correspond to the need to comprehend both textual and oral history. Nanapush tells the story to Lulu, but Pauline addresses no one in particular and thus implicitly addresses a reader, not a listener. The lack of an immediate audience also signifies Pauline's distance from oral tribal culture. But Nanapush himself cannot maintain an exclusively oral perspective. At one level he participates in the construction of a binary opposition that measures the distance between his narrative and Pauline's: oral "tribal" values in contrast to textual "Anglo" values. In the novel, an Anglo-American worldview is figured in terms of money and writing, systems that historically have been alien to the Anishinabeg and that Nanapush believes pose a threat to the tribe:
I've seen too much go by—unturned grass below my feet, and overhead, the great white cranes flung south forever. I know this. Land is the only thing that lasts life to life. Money burns like tinder, flows off like water. And as for government promises, the wind is steadier.
Nanapush sees that money is an unstable system of value: for white capitalists, it is the measure of progress, but for his people, "[d]ollar bills cause the memory to vanish." Moreover, the white settlers prefer documents, written words, to fix their meaning, whereas the Anishinabeg rely on spoken words, oral promises, to wield power. Nanapush alone foresees that the white man's written promises are texts that are open to endless interpretation and reinterpretation:
[O]nce the bureaucrats sink their barbed pens into the lives of Indians, the paper starts flying, a blizzard of legal forms, a waste of ink by the gallon, a correspondence to which there is no end or reason. That's when I began to see what we were becoming, and the years have borne me out: a tribe of file cabinets and triplicates, a tribe of single-space documents, directives, policy. A tribe of pressed trees. A tribe of chicken-scratch that can be scattered by a wind, diminished to ashes by one struck match.
Nanapush deconstructs the West's reverence for the written word as the stabilizer of meaning and tradition.
And yet Erdrich's novel points out that conserving Anishinabe history and worldview is not by itself a successful political strategy for withstanding the threat of colonialism. Nanapush recognizes that paper must be fought with paper, in contrast to Fleur, who trusts in tradition to prevent her land from being taken—"She said the paper had no bearing or sense, as no one would be reckless enough to try collecting for land where Pillagers were buried." Paradoxically, Nanapush's ability to adapt to these new conditions comes in part from his traditional namesake: the Chippewa trickster Naanabozho. In fact, episodes in the story of Naanabozho parallel episodes in Nanapush's story. Both share the ability to come back to life after death or near death; both are noted for their keen ability to track people; both avenge wrongs committed on family members; both are powerful storytellers.
Most significant, perhaps, is that both Nanapush and Naanabozho are tricksters who are sometimes tricked by others. Once duped, however, both adopt the techniques of the oppressor to even the score and to balance the distribution of power. For instance, when under-water spirits (manitous) kill his nephew, Naanabozho finds and wounds them, but they escape. He tracks them, however, and tricks the old woman who is doctoring them into divulging not only where the manitous are but also how to get past the guards and kill the manitous. He then kills the woman and skins her; putting on her skin, he disguises himself as the oppressor. His tactics succeed, and he avenges his nephew's death. Like Naanabozho, Nanapush assumes the guise of the oppressor to defuse the oppressor's power. For example, Nanapush allows Father Damien to write a letter recommending Nanapush as a tribal leader. In making this concession, Nanapush does not leave behind his earlier (traditional) skepticism concerning the written word; rather, he increasingly realizes that it is politically necessary for him not to stay outside the system of written discourse but to use the technology against itself. In fact, he becomes a bureaucrat and uses the "authority" of the written word to save Lulu from exile at boarding school. Producing the birth certificate filed by Father Damien, which names Nanapush as Lulu's father, Nanapush gains the power to call Lulu home. Ironically, Lulu's birth certificate—recognized as an authentic document by white authorities—is a lie, for Nanapush is not her biological father. And yet in a tribal view Nanapush is certainly Lulu's spiritual father, the one who mentors her and teachers her the old ways. Thus, the piece of paper—both fiction and fact—becomes a clever tool for saving Lulu from assimilation.
The final paragraph of Tracks, describing Lulu's return from school, thus strikes a note of cautions optimism. As Lulu emerges from "the rattling green [government] vehicle," she bears the marks of her encounter with Anglo-American authority: hair shorn, knees scarred from attempts to make her docile, attired in the shameful "smouldering orange" of a runaway, Lulu at first seems alien to Nanapush and Margaret. As they watch, however, Lulu's prim, school-taught walk becomes a leap, and her face is electrified with Fleur's bold grin and white-hot anger. Marked by her encounter with the shapers of mainstream American history, Lulu is only "half-doused" and will carry forward a trace of Anishinabe history and myth.
Nanapush's negotiation between the old ways and the exigencies of the present is the significant legacy he leaves to Lulu. He recognizes that it is no longer possible to rely solely on the oral tradition to pass down narratives of the past. To do so would be to end up like Fleur, the funnel of oral history silenced by white encroachment and by writing itself. As pure Indian, Fleur is a near-mythic figure—a source of inspiration for Lulu, but one that seems beyond emulation. (And this is perhaps why Fleur does not have a direct voice in the narrative.) Pauline, Fleur's opposite, does not offer Lulu a model either, for Pauline's assimilation into the dominant culture results in a voice that echoes hegemonic history. Moreover, by forgetting the past and radically rewriting her own identity and experience, Pauline signifies history as pure fiction with no referential value whatsoever—a position that Erdrich's work ultimately rejects. By contrast, the link between Lulu and Nanapush, which the novel affirms, signifies a kind of history writing and history telling that neither relinquishes nor oversimplifies its referential debt to the past, that is grounded in tradition and ready to adapt to (post)modern conditions.
Both Nanapush's and Pauline's narratives suggest that history is not objective and impartial, as traditional documentary historians assert. It is always constructed in the interests of a particular party or ideology. In his critique of documentary history, Dominick LaCapra asks historians to acknowledge that they are in "dialogic interchange with the past," that is, that they rewrite the past in part out of presentist interests. What interests, then, resonate in Erdrich's late-twentieth-century reconstruction of Native American history? In part, Erdrich's work seems to be a reaction to the excesses of poststructuralism and postmodernism, which attempt to reject the referential function of language and narrative. Thomas M. Kavanagh suggests in The Limits of Theory that the unrecognized need for theory to "master" its object means that "the real itself" has become "at best irrelevant"—because of its complexity and unpredictability. Similarly, Susan Stanford Friedman argues for a complex reactivation of certain terms poststructuralism has rendered "taboo," such as the author, agency, identity, and reference. Erdrich participates in this revisionary project by renegotiating the postmodern crisis of history. The new historicity that Tracks inscribes is neither a simple return to historical realism nor a passive acceptance of postmodern historical fictionality. Tracks takes up the crucial issue of the referentiality of historical narrative in a postmodern epoch and creates the possibility for a new historicity by and for Native Americans to emerge.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 838
SOURCE: "Mother's Day," in New York Time Book Review, April 16, 1995, p. 14.
[In the following review, Halpern praises The Blue Jay's Dance for its realistic portrayal of early motherhood.]
I recently saw an ad for an instructional CD-ROM on "parenting, prenatal to preschool" whose contents I could only imagine: sage advice from professionals and video clips of children whose exemplary behavior—so different from one's own child's—sells the sequel. Louise Erdrich's first book of nonfiction, The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year, which is about being a parent, is nothing like that. Aside from a few recipes (lemon meringue pie, fennel and chicory salad, anise apples) and bits of painfully gained wisdom (when dealing with a screaming, colicky baby, "I use my most soothing tone of voice to call her names. The tone helps her, the words help me"), the book is delightfully impractical. It is a narrative, not a manual.
Ms. Erdrich is not only a successful novelist; she is a successful novelist who is also the mother of young children. In the past she shielded her family life from public scrutiny—allowing the press to interview her only away from her New Hampshire home, for instance, and purposefully declining to talk about her life there. Her marriage to the writer Michael Dorris was well known, and so was the fact that Ms. Erdrich and Mr. Dorris had six children, three of them adopted. The oldest of these, Abel, who died in 1991 after being hit by a car, was the subject of Mr. Dorris's harrowing book about fetal alcohol syndrome, The Broken Cord.
Ms. Erdrich's reticence to invite the news media into her kitchen was so unusual that it fanned a small mystery about her. "How does she do it with all those kids?" people—especially women, especially women with babies—asked one another as the novels Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, Tracks, The Bingo Palace and The Crown of Columbus (co-written with Mr. Dorris) were published to critical acclaim.
The Blue Jay's Dance might be expected to answer that question. "I finished this book for our daughters because I hope these pages will claim for them and for others, too, what it is to be a parent—an experience shattering, ridiculous, earthbound, deeply warm, rich, profound," she writes in the introduction. That said, she then steps back. "The baby described is a combination of our three babies whom I nursed and cared for in a series of writing offices. I do not name our children, and if I refer to them obliquely sometimes, I hope that readers will forgive. After all, these words will one day add to our daughters' memories, which are really theirs alone."
It is a hard task, writing a book that attempts to be public and private at the same time, to tell all in essence and not in fact; the writer's ambivalence is always apparent. In this case, though, Ms. Erdrich's ambivalence inspires trust. After all, she is protecting her children not only from our prurience but from her own, and this alone suggests that she is the kind of mother whose story should be told. But then she doesn't tell it, not directly. Instead she tells what her story has taught her, and what she was thinking about, seeing and feeling, while it was unfolding.
Ms. Erdrich writes lovingly of the woods around her house and the child she carries with her on her walks, and about the blue jays and ducks and woodchucks they encounter there. The book is a ramble, and sometimes the reader is tempted to stray from Ms. Erdrich—when she celebrates her husband's thick hair, for instance, or when she chronicles all the adventures of the neighborhood cats. But no matter where she is roaming, and what she is writing about, she is observant, tender and honest. And she is not afraid to write about the mind-numbing 3 A.M. despair of new motherhood, just as she is not given to forgetting that her beloved cats have claws. Of one's offspring, she says: "We cannot choose who our children are, or what they will be—by nature they inspire a helpless love, wholly delicious, also capable of delivering startling pain."
This is not an original insight, but then having babies and raising them is not exactly new, either. What makes The Blue Jay's Dance worth reading is that it quietly places a mother's love and nurturance amid her love for the natural world and suggests, passage by passage, how right that placement is. When the birth year is over, and Ms. Erdrich hands her young daughter over to a baby sitter in order to be able to continue doing her other creative work, we glimpse the mechanics of her writing life. But it is in the months before that, as Ms. Erdrich sits in her office stroking her baby with one hand and holding a pen with the other, that we begin to understand how connected, and how necessary, the left hand is to the right.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1091
SOURCE: "A Gathering of Widows," in New York Times, May 12, 1996, p. 10.
[In the following review, Childress praises Erdrich's storytelling and characterization in Tales of Burning Love.]
Louise Erdrich is attracted by the miraculous possibilities of love. Romantic love, religious ecstasy, the strange mixture of devotion and misunderstanding that runs through families—all are steeped together. The result is a rich and fragrant infusion.
Tales of Burning Love is her sixth novel (including The Crown of Columbus, written with her husband, Michael Dorris). The publisher says this book "extends the boundaries of her literary vision," but any reader familiar with Love Medicine and The Beet Queen will recognize the characters and settings. Once again we are firmly placed in the bleakly beautiful landscape surrounding Argus, N.D. Once again many of the characters are Native Americans with a fading connection to the reservation, confused Roman Catholics on the lookout for miracles, lonely women searching for that thing called love.
In this case, the male component of that thing is Jack Mauser, a lapsed Chippewa who marries five times in 13 years—four times for love and once as a result of booze, painkillers and a horrible toothache. The story opens in 1981 with that toothache, which has put Jack into such a state that he takes up with the first woman he sees in the Rigger Bar. The attending clergyman is on the next bar stool. The wedding rings are the pop-tops from two cans of beer.
When his new bride wanders out drunkenly into a blizzard, Jack—who can't quite remember her name—lets her go. After the blizzard has lifted, she is found frozen against a fence post, "her hair loaded with melting stars. No one had touched her yet. Her face was complex in its expectations. A fist of air punched Jack to earth and he knelt before her with his hands outstretched."
The guilt of that moment will haunt Jack through each of his subsequent liaisons. He's an impulse marrier, operating on the "if at first you don't succeed" principle, trying and failing, then trying again. Unlike Elizabeth Taylor, though, Jack seems to get luckier as his marital career goes along.
Wife No. 2 is Eleanor, a writer and teacher, a quivering bundle of erotic emotion and neurotic opinion. The third is Candice, a blond and beautiful dentist: "With her stiff pink-white mask covering the lower half of her face, she was a mysterious priestess." Fourth in the line is Marlis, a blunt-spoken, dreamy-eyed vixen in the Ally Sheedy, mature-beyond-her-years mode. Jack's last wife is solid, responsible Dot, an accountant at his failing construction company, as brusque and unfancy as her name.
Jack Mauser is the thread binding these women's stories. Each of them has loved him in a different way, and each of their marriages to him has failed for its own reasons. At first, the structure of Tales of Burning Love seems as shaggy and chaotic as something from Chaucer. The stories pop up seemingly at random, overlapping, circling back and forth through time and crossing one another in ways that are often ingenious and only occasionally confusing.
Soon enough, though, Ms. Erdrich skillfully gathers up all these threads. Jack touches bottom. His half-completed subdivision is a failure. Drunk and alone in his unpaid-for dream house, he allows a small fire to blaze out of control when he realizes that his death—or, at least, the appearance of his death—could be a major problem solver. "Things were falling into place," he realizes, "great things, huge problems over which he had had no control now were being solved precisely because he had relinquished control and God had smiled a big hot smile on him."
God plays a major offstage role in this plot. The four Mauser widows come together the night of Jack's funeral, which also happens to be the night of another ferocious blizzard. The women become trapped in Jack's red Explorer in the middle of a snow-blasted nowhere. Shivering, munching stale candy, they spend the whole night in the car, sharing the stories of how they fell in love with Jack and why they broke up with him. The aptly named Explorer becomes "a confessional."
"Rule one," Dot proposes. "No shutting up until dawn. Rule two. Tell a true story. Rule three. The story has to be about you. Something that you've never told another soul, a story that would scorch paper, heat up the air!"
This sequence is the comic centerpiece of the novel. By the time they're all together, we know these women well, and their stories bump together to strike real comic sparks. One wife is in a post-Jack spin, having lost her job after an embarrassing sexual misadventure and gone to live in a convent, where she is studying a nun she suspects of sainthood. Two of the wives have fallen in love with each other and are caring for Jack's infant son. The remaining wife is just plain disgusted with Jack, suspecting that he married her so she couldn't be forced to testify against him.
What these women discover is that loving Jack Mauser has changed their lives in very particular ways. "It isn't entirely farfetched to say that we each married a different man," Eleanor observes. "No one of us has a quarrel with any woman in this car. No more so than if we'd all had different husbands."
They discover that one of them loved Jack more than the others—still loves him, in fact—and although it would spoil the surprise to give her away, this discovery infuses the latter parts of the novel with great poignance and charm. Miracles and possibilities come together here to produce a kind of earthly magic that is more potent than magic realism. No one emerges from the Explorer unchanged. Ms. Erdrich's saints are nearly as lively as her sinners, and that's a real achievement.
If I have a quibble with this story, it's with the man at the heart of it. Jack's wives are vivid and fully realized, and Jack is too—as long as he's at center stage. Whenever he's out of sight, though, he doesn't seem as interesting as the women who loved him. I wanted them to stop trying to explain their attraction to him and tell us more about themselves. Most of all, I wanted to hear more of Louise Erdrich's constantly inventive prose, as when she describes the surprised sound made by a gut-shot deer: "A wild laugh like a little girl on a Halloween street, running."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5667
SOURCE: "Blurs, Blends, Berdaches: Gender Mixing in the Novels of Louise Erdrich," in Studies in American Indian Literatures, Vol. 8, No. 3, Fall 1996, pp. 49-62.
[In the following essay, Barak discusses Erdrich's use of gender mixing in the Indian tradition of the figures of the berdache and the trickster.]
We have come to the edge of the woods,
out of brown grass where we slept, unseen,
out of leaves creaked shut, out of our hiding.
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 knowing
how deep the woods are and lightless,
How deep the woods are.
In an interview with Jan George shortly after the publication of her first book of poems, Jacklight, Louise Erdrich comments on the title poem, explaining that "Jacklighting and hunting are both strong metaphors for me of sexual and love relations between men and women. In the male tradition, men are the hunters and women are their prey, but in the poem 'Jacklight,' I am trying to say something like this: If our relationships are going to be human,… men have to follow women into the woods and women likewise. There must be an exchange, a transformation, a power shared between them." "Living in empty country," she says, "the woods to me have always been a place of mystery, shelter. That's where we have to go to find each other."
Erdrich and her husband and collaborator, Michael Dorris, have apparently found each other in that woods. Their many publishing successes in recent years are proof of the strength of their writing relationship, anyway. Both of them describe that writing relationship as a sensual/sexual union. Erdrich explains to Kay Bonetti in a 1988 interview how she and Dorris collaborate: "Michael and I plunge into each other's work with very little ceremony. We plot together, we dream up our characters together, we do everything together, except write the actual drafts, although even the writing is subject to one another's deepest desires." Erdrich describes their joint efforts as "co-conceiving" and says that she feels "more and more that we're seeing out of the same set of eyes … we think each other's thoughts, truly, so it is very much like having one vision." Dorris experiences their relationship in much the same way, noting that "when writing about both male and female characters it is a distinct advantage to have an absolutely trusted and equitable input from someone of the other gender who shares the same vision, almost as an opposite-gender version of yourself."
At one point, early in their collaborating lives, Erdrich and Dorris did join together to publish under a pseudonym, Milou North. The name and their collaborative efforts under it were an experiment, they explain in a 1987 interview with Hertha D. Wong, one that they enjoyed for "the romance of it." They thought it established a sense of mystery for their readers—"You really think that's probably a female, but you don't know." Through their play with authorial gender and the gender blending of their authorial selves in their shared labor they create the exchange and transformation Erdrich sees as necessary in gendered relationships.
Just as they played with their readers' expectations of authorial gender in the creation of that pseudonym, in their collaborative plotting they play with their characters' genders in the discovery stages of their novels. Dorris tells Wong how the character of Rayona in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water evolved during a long car trip he and Erdrich took together:
When we left New Hampshire the book was about a young boy who was coping with his mother's death, and by the time we reached Minnesota it was about a young girl whose mother lives. Since then it has expanded into three parts. One of which is in the mother's voice, and the next in her mother's voice. All of that really evolved out of changing the main character from a male to a female. Louise, I think, proposed that originally. It was hard to think of. It's like sending somebody to Sweden for a sex change operation, but it just worked better.
Erdrich and Dorris play with gender roles and boundaries in other ways, too. Where Rayona's gender is, finally, decided and firm, even though they experimented with it in the early stages of the novel, several characters in their work, especially those in the tetralogy published under Erdrich's name—Love Medicine, Tracks, The Beet Queen, and The Bingo Palace—are "gender-mixed" characters who are described either as exhibiting or in some way acting out opposite sex role mannerisms or behaviors. In developing this line of thought in what follows I will focus almost entirely on the tetralogy and cite these works as Erdrich's. The importance of Dorris's contributions should not be slighted or forgotten, however.
Erdrich develops a fluidity of gender identities in her characters by recreating a gender role available to her through her Native American background—that of the berdache, a powerful figure in many precontact aboriginal societies in North America. In "The North American Berdache" Charles Callender and Lee M. Kochems define the berdache as a "person, usually [but not exclusively] male, who was anatomically normal but assumed the dress, occupations and behavior of the other sex to effect a change in their gender status. This shift was not complete; rather, it was a movement toward a somewhat intermediate status that combined social attributes of males and females."
It is important to note that because many berdaches participated in cross-dressing it was often assumed that berdaches were all homosexual. However, Callender and Kochems believe that this "frequent equation with homosexuality distorts the sexual aspects of berdachehood," and they have found that though berdaches and their spouses or partners were the most consistent participants in homosexual behavior, "their orientations could be bisexual or heterosexual." Several other scholars support Callender and Kochems in this conclusion. Harriet Whitehead, in "The Bow and the Burden Strap: A New Look at Institutionalized Homosexuality in Native North America," asserts that "there is no evidence that homosexual behavior as such was used as a reason for promoting reclassification of an individual to the gender-crossed status. In contradistinction to occupational and clothing choice, cross-sex erotic choice is never mentioned as one of the indicators of the budding berdache." Of female berdaches, or manly-hearted women, Midnight Sun, in "Sex/Gender Systems in Native North America," writes that the role was "only associated with gender status and not cross-dressing or lesbianism."
Many North American tribes attributed a special status to berdaches and recognized them as especially valuable members of the community. Economically, berdaches were a boon to the community because they performed so many tasks so well. Callender and Kochems note that "[m]ale berdaches are consistently described as exceptionally skilled in women's work, while female berdaches showed a similar pattern of excelling in male activities, with hunting most often cited." The berdaches' ability to perform both roles, however, is what made them special to the community. A significant element in the prosperity of a household inhabited by a berdache "rested on the intermediate nature of their gender status, allowing them to combine activities proper to men and to women and maximize their economic opportunities."
Along with their economic success, berdaches were thought to possess many other talents or assets. James Thayer Steel, in "The Berdache of the Northern Plains: A Socioreligious Perspective," details the most common of these. They were often called upon to give children names in naming ceremonies and they were thought to have a special talent in educating children that accompanied a reputation for intelligence. They were seen as match-makers or "love-talkers" because of their ability to move easily between men and women. Moreover, they were reputed to have extremely active sex lives. Many berdaches had reputations as healers, especially good with love medicines, but also with childbirth, insanity, and wounds. Berdaches often oversaw funeral rites. They were thought to be blessed with both a lucky and a long life.
The female berdache is more commonly referred to by anthropologists as a manly-hearted woman. Oscar Lewis, in "Manly-Hearted Women Among the North Piegan," details the qualities that distinguish manly-hearted women from their sisters, noting that aggressiveness, independence, ambition, boldness, and a pronounced sexuality, as well as wealth and maturity, are among her common characteristics. Like the male berdaches, manly-hearted women excel in both men's and women's work. They also often practice medicine. Lewis notes that in contrast to the quiet demeanor of other women, manly-hearted women "do not hesitate to make speeches in crowds, they joke and tease and express opinions and disagreements, just as though they were men. They are often avoided because of their sharp tongues and readiness to defend themselves from criticism by exposing others to ridicule and humiliation." Moreover, manly-hearted women are reputed to be "ikitaki,—passionate women, and their sexual unconventionalities are the subject of much gossip." A woman becomes known as manly-hearted when she "can equal men in their own skills, in personal wealth, in the manipulation of property, in sexual prowess, and in religious participation, [and] break away from the verbalized restrictions applied to [her] sex."
Thayer points out that berdaches were both respected and ridiculed among their people, noting that the berdache "tended to be a marginal figure among the tribal groups of the Plains, but at the same time had a clearly recognized status and clearly defined talents." Because they received the call to become a berdache in a vision they were thought of as holy or special. "However," continues Thayer, "there was also a profound ambivalence towards this figure. On the one hand, his ritual and ceremonial power were highly regarded and his womanly talents highly praised, but because of his awesome vision and exotic life, the berdache also had a feared and avoided place in social relations." Because of their "in-between" status, berdaches in many tribes were treated, not just for a ceremonial moment but for all of their lives, like initiands in rites of passage ceremonies; they were freed from the restrictions of the usual, feared and respected for the powers granted them by their difference.
Many of Erdrich's characters fit, partially or completely, the definition of the berdache detailed above. Some do not, however, and these exceptions are telling in their own ways. A prime example of the disaster of mono-genderedness is Russell Kashpaw in The Beet Queen. Russell is a man—through and through. He was a high school football player, a volunteer for service in and a decorated veteran of three wars, who fell in love with the most stereotypically feminine of all of Erdrich's women, Sita Kozka. He suffers from a series of strokes and heart attacks which leave him completely paralyzed. When he is "displayed" in his uniform with all his medals in the Argus Beet Queen parade, many of the spectators believe that he's "stuffed." Suffering in the same way that Russell does are King, Henry Jr., and Gordie of Love Medicine whom Nora Barry and Mary Prescott describe in "The Triumph of the Brave: Love Medicine's Holistic Vision" as "doomed, but only because they are fixed upon their inabilities to measure up to the demands of traditional masculine ritual, and because they are unable to imagine anything else for themselves."
Some of her male characters are gender-mixed but unable to accept that mix gracefully; they struggle to find a way to live comfortably within it. This was common to many berdaches. They received their call to berdachehood in a vision, but they could refuse to pay heed to that vision, choosing instead to walk a safer, more conventional line. Ignoring a vision, however, often creates difficulties. Wallace Pfef, for example, in The Beet Queen, is aware of his homosexuality, but denies it to his community. Instead, he buys a picture of a pretty young girl at a farm auction and displays it in a prominent place in his living room. He creates a story for the townspeople about their love and her tragic death so that he won't be expected to court or marry any of the women in the community. Like the berdache, Wallace is good at making money. He is also good at both men's and women's tasks. Along with being a prominent citizen in Argus and a sharp businessman, he decorates his new home tastefully and cooks delicious meals, for both his adopted niece, Dot, and for his sometime lover, Karl Adare. He is present at Dot's birth, helping Celestine Jones in any way he can, and in this way is responsible for her naming: Dot's legal name is Wallacette.
Wallace's lover, Karl Adare, is another good example of a gender-mixed character who is uncomfortable with his vision. He is bisexual; he has affairs with both Wallace and Celestine Jones. Descriptions of him in the novel hover between the masculine and the feminine. He, too, has good luck with jobs and money, though he never amasses as much wealth as Wallace. Karl is a wanderer, never settling down long enough to create a niche for himself in any community. He's scared of love—searching constantly for the love his mother took away from him when she flew off into the afternoon sky with Omar the stunt pilot. Hans Bak observes that Karl "harbor[s] both masculine and feminine elements … [and] hovers uneasily in-between, unable to reconcile both sides into a balanced whole, incapable of finding rest or rootedness in either homosexual or heterosexual love, but always vulnerable to the danger of plunging into an underlying void."
Several other male characters in the novels are more comfortably gender-mixed and take on feminine tasks in the tradition of the berdache. Eli Kashpaw, for example, an expert hunter in Love Medicine, adopts June and cares for her. Barry and Prescott point out that "besides sharing with her his knowledge of the woods, he mothers her in a way she can trust." They continue: "Eli's behavior is unorthodox and encourages gossip because in his relationship with June he demonstrates complementary male and female ritual." He also acts as a healer later, in The Beet Queen, when he takes in and cares for his half-brother Russell after his strokes paralyze him.
Old man Nanapush, in Tracks, the "prequel" to Love Medicine, like many berdaches is a healer. His care saves Fleur from death when consumption is raging on the reservation. When Lulu's feet are frozen, he thaws them for her. As he sings a "cure song" to calm her as the blood pours back into her feet, he thinks,
Many times in my life, as my children were born, I wondered what it was like to be a woman, able to invent a human from the extra materials of her own body. In the terrible times, the evils I do not speak of, when the earth swallowed back all it had given me to love, I gave birth in loss. I was like a woman in my suffering, but my children were all delivered into death. It was contrary, backward, but now I had a chance to put things into a proper order.
When Fleur leaves the reservation after losing her land, Nanapush becomes Lulu's guardian, raising her as his own. He is also adept at love medicines, as berdaches often are, providing Eli with the medicine he needs to win Fleur. And, like many berdaches, he is sexually attractive and active, even into his eighties when he takes up with Margaret Kashpaw.
Many of Erdrich's female characters are berdaches or manly-hearted women too, though there are, as with the male characters, exceptions. The tragicomic life of Sita Kozka in The Beet Queen, like Russell Kashpaw's in that same novel, serves as an example of the perils of mono-genderedness. June, in Love Medicine, functions much like Karl Adare and Wallace Pfef do in The Beet Queen. She is called to be and trained in berdache ways, but is unable to accept her intermediate or mixed-gendered status. She has been taught to hunt by Eli; in many ways she is his "son," even dressing like Eli when she is younger. But she refuses this role in life and seeks out feminine, traditional women's roles. Through the course of her life she fails as a beautician, a secretary, and a waitress. She also fails at motherhood, abandoning two sons. Like Wallace and Karl she resists the call of her vision and is tortured by her refusal to answer it. June is one of those who can't be comfortable in accepting a gender mix inside herself.
Pauline in Tracks is, perhaps, another. As is common to many berdache, one of her occupations is overseeing funeral rites. Physically, she is described in both male and female terms. William Gleason, in "'Her Laugh an Ace:' The Function of Humor in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine," says that Pauline's passion is the "repressed rage of latent lesbianism," citing Leopolda's vicious scolding of Marie followed by her sensuous rubbing of liniment in "slow wide circle[s] into Marie's naked back," to support his assertion. Julie Tharp, in "Women's Community and Survival in the Novels of Louise Erdrich," claims, on the contrary, that Pauline's heterosexuality, her jealousy of Fleur's relationship with Eli, "keeps the women wary of one another and creates a vindictive streak within Pauline." Whatever her sexual preference, however, Pauline is definitely a tortured soul in terms of her sexuality, who finally chooses the chastity of the nunnery over sexual relationships with either men or women.
Mary Adare and Celestine James in The Beet Queen are both manly-hearted women. Both of them are economically independent, choosing to remain single and to support themselves, rather than marry. Marie Kashpaw, in Love Medicine, is a manly-hearted woman, too. She has raised herself up economically and socially by marrying Nector Kashpaw and she has, as many manly-hearted women do, made him into the man he is in the community. Lulu Nanapush is another. Lulu is well-known for her sexual promiscuity. She is bold about her sexual history, though, and like the manly-hearted woman she is unafraid to boast about her exploits. In Love Medicine, she hears people whispering "bitch" and "All those Lamartine sons by different fathers" behind her back during a tribal meeting. As a manly-hearted woman, she speaks up. "'I'll name all of them,' I offered in a very soft voice. 'The fathers … I'll point them out for you right here'."
However, Fleur is the quintessential berdache or manly-hearted woman. She is a good hunter, better than most men on the reservation. She is big and strong, capable of lifting sides of beef and pork by herself and of hauling her cart of odds and ends for sale throughout the community. She has great luck in cards, winning enough in her stay in Argus to pay taxes on her land for two or three years and, years later, winning her land back in a game of cards with Jewett Parker Tatro, the former Indian agent who had acquired her land in her absence. She lives alone, until Eli falls in love with her and comes to join her. Then their sexual exploits give the reservation plenty to talk about. She is also a healer, collecting medicines and distributing them. She saves Marie's life in childbirth. Lipsha goes to Fleur for love medicine in The Bingo Palace. Like many berdaches she is both feared and respected for her powers in her community.
I've detailed descriptions of only a few of the berdache characters in Erdrich's work. Lyman Lamartine, Gerry Nanapush, and Lipsha Morrisey also possess berdache characteristics. Shawnee Ray and her sisters, Mary Fred and Tammy, Zelda Kashpaw, Dot Adare, and Rushes Bear are among the women characters whom one could consider to be manly-hearted. Erdrich's reasons for blurring and blending gender borders in so many of her characters can, perhaps, be understood by comparing it to the other transformational or border-crossing characters in Native American myth.
In "Why Bears are Good to Think and Theory Doesn't Have to Be Murder: Transformation and Oral Tradition in Louise Erdrich's Tracks," Joni Adamson Clarke discusses the bear's importance to Chippewa myth. Bears were considered "quasi-human in anatomy, erect carriage, a cradling of young with the forearms, enjoyment of sweets and liquors, manner of drinking liquid, shows of intelligence, and inclination to moderate behavior despite great physical strength…. Moreover, a bear's life cycle, moving from hibernation in winter to reemergence in the spring, made him seem at once a symbol of both life and death." Clarke claims that "by thinking or 'playing' with the bear's human-like qualities and seasonal cycle, formerly sharp borders—like those between animal and human, life and death—fade and 'novelty emerges from unprecedented combinations of familiar elements'." Mixed-gender characters in Erdrich's fiction are "good to think" in this same way because, "as Judith Butler points out in her discussion of the subversion of gendered identity, 'perpetual displacement constitutes a fluidity of identities that suggests an openness to resignification and recontextualization'."
Erdrich's texts promote an openness to "resignification and recontextualization" not only by blurring gender boundaries but also by blurring other boundaries. Many of her characters are, for example, ethnically mixed and their genealogies and family relationships are hard to trace. Moreover, Erdrich blurs narrative lines in her fiction, fracturing her story line by employing many different narrative voices. Other critics have observed how Erdrich's work crosses genre boundaries and have attributed her power as a story teller to that aspect of her writing. Ann Rayson, in "Shifting Identity in the Work of Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris," cites a review of their jointly-authored novel, The Crown of Columbus, in which the reviewer claims it is "a very mixed bag" that "tries on too many costumes—domestic comedy, paperback thriller, novel of character, love story—and finally decides that, unable to make up its mind, it will simply wear them all at once." Rayson believes that "[i]n this artistic synthesis lies the power of Louis Erdrich and Michael Dorris and the challenge to critics who would seek a clear female or ethnic voice to legitimize theories of feminist and Native American literature."
Geoffrey Galt Harpham, in On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature, observes that "genre, genus, and genitals are linked in language as in our subconscious." Erdrich's blurring of all three in her fiction creates a grotesque art that "threatens the notion of a center by implying coherencies just out of reach, metaphors or analogies just beyond our grasp…. Looking at ourselves looking at the grotesque, we can observe our own projections, catching ourselves, as it were, in the act of perception." Erdrich's play along the boundary lines of genre, genus, and genitals acts in exactly this way in her novels. In her play with gender borders, in particular, she is attempting to break down her reader's notions of traditional gender roles by creating, over and over again, characters who cross over and through traditional gender definitions, who cannot be classified, who refuse to fit the traditional mold.
There is a connection, obviously, between the berdache figure and the figure of the trickster. Many critics have decoded Erdrich's characters as tricksters. The name of one of the main characters in Tracks is Nanapush, one of the linguistic variants of the name of the Chippewa trickster. This name is shared by two other characters in the text: Lulu Nanapush, his adopted daughter, and her son Gerry Nanapush. Several other characters in the novel inherit trickster traits from her or her son, most notably another of her sons, Lyman Lamartine, and Gerry's son, Lipsha Morrisey. Gerry's sometime lover, June Morrisey, as well as Mary Adare and her brother Karl, from The Beet Queen, have also been identified convincingly as trickster figures in recent criticism. The question to deal with here is not whether these characters are tricksters (there is certainly no lack of evidence to support that assertion) but rather how the blurred gender traits of so many of Erdrich's characters fit into the trickster motif.
In "A Tolerated Margin of Mess: The Trickster and His Tales Reconsidered," Barbara Babcock-Abrahams discusses the ambivalence of the trickster's character, labeling such characters "dialogic phenomena." She believes that "the ambivalence and the contradictions with which Trickster's tales abound are not proof, as Radin and others imply, of an incapacity to differentiate true from false, good from evil, beneficence from malevolence. Rather, they express the generative situation of ambivalence and contradictions that are the very basis of culture" (italics mine). Furthermore, she asserts that "the mediating figure of Trickster does not represent a regression to a primal, undifferentiated unity but is created in response to a present and constant perception of opposition" (italics mine). The plethora of mixed-gendered tricksters in Erdrich is her literary response to the present and constant perception of opposition in her life and in the lives of her characters. The fact that so many of her characters are mixed-gendered tricksters leads to the conclusion that one of the most threatening aspects of contemporary life in America is its insistence on strictly bifurcated gendered behavior.
Like so many of Erdrich's characters the trickster figure often crosses over gender borders. In one story in the Winnebago trickster cycle, for example, the trickster decides to find a home for himself one cold winter by disguising himself as a woman using an elk's liver and kidneys to create a false vulva. He presents himself to the chief of a nearby village, is accepted into the family, marries the chief's son and bears three sons. Later, while being teased by his mother-in-law, he loses his false vulva; his identity is discovered and he is forced to flee. Trickster's gender switching in this story functions in quite the same way that bears function in Ojibway/Anishinabe myth; trickster's crossing over encourages an openness to a fluidity of identities that can lead to resignification and recontextualization of traditional binary relationships.
Many definitions of trickster label him or her as a liminal figure, living on the edges of the worlds of animal and human, physical and spiritual, male and female. Like trickster, many of Erdrich's characters live in-between worlds—and not just gender worlds. Fleur, for example, is often thought of by others and depicted in their stories as a bear-woman, a fish-woman, a spirit-woman. We are told very emphatically several times in Nanapush's story that he lives at a crossroads in the town. He is also one of the only survivors from "before the white people," crossing the borders between the old and the new ways. Gerry Nanapush is both a hero and a villain. Lipsha's return to the reservation after a long absence is described in all sorts of "in-between" ways: "He slid through the crowd during the middle of an Intertribal song. We saw him edge against the wall to watch the whirling dancers, and immediately we had to notice that there was no place the boy could fit" (Bingo Palace, italics mine).
Victor Turner points out in "Betwixt and Between: Liminal Period" that "in liminal situations, neophytes are sometimes treated or symbolically represented as being neither male nor female. Alternatively, they may be symbolically assigned characteristics of both sexes, irrespective of their biological sex." Turner believes that the grotesqueness and the monstrosity that such gender negation or blurring imply are not
aimed so much at terrorizing or bemusing neophytes into submission or out of their wits as at making them vividly and rapidly aware of what may be called the "factors" of their culture…. Elements are withdrawn from their usual setting and combined with one another in a totally unique configuration, startling neophytes [and I believe other participants, too, observers or readers for example] into thinking about objects, persons, relationships and features of their environment they have hitherto taken for granted.
As liminal figures, berdaches and tricksters serve this same purpose in Erdrich's fiction, working between worlds to raise questions about accepted patterns of thought and action.
When Lipsha returns to the reservation at the beginning of The Bingo Palace, people are confused, not only about where he fits in but also about what sort of person he is. The description of who he is not emphasizes his mixed genderedness and his status as a liminal figure.
He was not a tribal council honcho, not a powwow organizer, not a medic in the cop's car in the parking lot, no one we would trust with our life. He was not a member of the drum group, not a singer, not a candy-bar seller. Not a little old Cree lady with a scarf tied under her chin, a thin pocketbook in her lap, and a wax cup of coke, not one of us. He was not a fancy dancer with a mirror on his head and bobbing porcupine-hair roach, not a traditional, not a shawl girl whose parents beaded her from head to foot. He was not our grandfather, either, with the face like clean old-time chewed leather, who prayed over the microphone, head bowed. He was not even one of those gathered at the soda machines outside the doors, the ones who wouldn't go into the warm and grassy air because of being drunk or too much in love or just bashful. He was not the Chippewa with rings pierced in her nose or the old aunt with water dripping through her fingers or the announcer with a ragged face and a drift of plumes on his indoor hat.
He is not male or female, not old or young, not in or out of the tribe. "He was none of these, only Lipsha, come home."
What Lipsha's reappearance and his antics do for the community is to help them revise their thinking about themselves as individuals and their goals as a community; his actions are a catalyst in the community's re-visioning experience. He is a "combination" character, a berdache figure, whose strength comes from his special role in the community and from the ways he is "mixed." Turner believes that "during the liminal period, neophytes are alternately forced and encouraged to think about their society, their cosmos, and the powers that generate and sustain them. Liminality may be partly described as a stage of reflection." It creates an unsettled situation in which "there is a promiscuous intermingling and juxtaposing of the categories of event, experience, and knowledge, with a pedagogic intention." Lipsha certainly learns his lesson in The Bingo Palace, and there is great hope at the end of the novel that, as the person in whom much of the community is joined, he will be able to share it with them.
Robert Pelton believes that "the trickster is not an archetypal idea, but a symbolic pattern that includes a wide range of individual figures." He calls trickster "a sort of inspired handyman, tacking together the bits and pieces of experience until they become what they are—a web of many-layered meaning." According to Pelton, the trickster represents the human race "individually and communally seizing the fragments of his experience and discovering in them an order sacred by its very wholeness." Hence, "the trickster discloses the radically human character of the whole cosmos," while at the same time "he shows the holiness of ordinary life." In many ways, Erdrich entreats her readers to join the carnival of her text in this role of "inspired handyman," to join together the pieces of her narrative strategies, genre crossings, and gender blurrings to create their own quilt of a text. The reader becomes the trickster, responsible for making the pieces fit for herself and for those for whom she interprets the text.
In Love Medicine, Lipsha begins "to see how instantly the ground can shift you thought was solid. You see how all the everyday things you counted on was just a dream you had been having by which you run your whole life." This is the message that readers of Erdrich's fiction begin to see, too. Her narrative strategies impress the reader with the idea that neither individual nor collective points of view are reliable or consistent. Her play with the berdache role nudges the reader toward seeing that this is also true of hegemonic gender expectations. Every kind of firm belief, in fact, becomes suspect. Everything is a puzzle, there is no one "true" way to solve it, the pieces never fit together in only one way. Nothing can be assumed, everything has gestaltic possibilities, the facts keep rotating gyroscopically, offering ever-changing possibilities. Just as Shawnee Ray puts together a ribbon shirt for Lipsha at the end of The Bingo Palace from "brown, calico, blue, cream, salmon trim—fitting the collar to the shoulders, figuring out the way she would join the ribbons at the yoke … [piecing in] scraps of other projects—turquoise, black and yellow satin," so the reader must put together a new view of gender roles and possibilities and of other generally held truths.
In the last chapter of The Bingo Palace, Fleur packs her sled with her ancestors' bones and takes them with her on her journey into death, trading her life for the life of her great-grandson, Lipsha. She doesn't leave them for good, however. Bear and berdache, she keeps them asking essential questions about themselves and their lives. Often in the night they hear her "bear laugh" as she watches them through the panes of window glass:
yet, no matter how we strain to decipher the sound it never quite makes sense, never relieves our certainty or our suspicion that there is more to be told, more than we know, more than can be caught in the sieve of our thinking … and all night our lesser hearts beat to the sound of the spirit's drum, through those anxious hours when we call our lives to question.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4676
SOURCE: "Louise Erdrich's 'Scarlet Letter': Literary Continuity in Tales of Burning Love," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 4, Fall, 1996, pp. 113-23.
[In the following essay, Matchie discusses similarities between Tales of Burning Love and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.]
In an address on National Public Radio, Amy Tan said she would rather be recognized as an American author than classified among multi-cultural writers as Chinese American. Perhaps for some the same might be said of Louise Erdrich, "the foremost practitioner of Native American fiction." She is most often represented as a mixed-blood, and much of the critical analysis of her fiction centers around her use of Chippewa mythology as a key to illusive meaning in her novels. It is also true, however, that Erdrich is an ardent student of American literary history and culture. One has only to look for references to Melville's Moby-Dick in Love Medicine (1984), Flannery O'Connor's notion of the Christian grotesque permeating Tracks (1988), or Lipsha's language and naiveté resembling those of Huckleberry Finn in The Bingo Palace (1994). And I would like to suggest that her latest novel, Tales of Burning Love (1996), is her contemporary answer—or parallel—to the classic American romantic love novel, The Scarlet Letter.
Those familiar with Hawthorne's plot know that Hester Prynne goes through many stages, manifesting in different contexts various "selves." There is the past self with her husband, Roger Chillingworth, a physician for whom she feels "no love" and leaves behind in Europe. Next, there is her past secret self with the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, including a sexual act she later claims had "a consecration of its own." Ironically, though some would brand her with a "hot iron" for her "sin," she emerges as a kind of saint, an image of "sinless motherhood." A third tragic self is the Hester who promises Chillingworth she will keep his identity "secret," while he pursues his destructive vengeance on Dimmesdale. Still, another more assertive self surfaces in the forest with her pastor. After confessing her "deception," she throws off the scarlet letter and confronts Arthur directly with the "weight of misery" that this society has laid on him. Her honest talk of love and freedom (their leaving together for Europe) triggers in him a radical change—a "revolution" of "thought and feeling" that borders on the comical. But Hester's most pervasive self is the practical role she plays in public. In spite of either man or her own "shame," her sewing and other service causes the townspeople to "love her," and in this context she outlasts the other major characters in the novel. All things considered, there are at least five different postures (selves) that Hester takes toward reality in Hawthorne's Puritan love story.
Tales of Burning Love is a contemporary romance set in "the beautiful bleak landscape" in and near Fargo, North Dakota. It depicts not one but five "sharp portraits" of women with "fully individualized voices," all married to but one man, Jack Mauser, a mixed up, mixed-blood construction engineer. Neither religious like Dimmesdale, nor scientific as is Chillingworth, Jack is Erdrich's rendition of the modern (rather than a Puritan) male—one who has unfortunately buried "the Ojibwa part" of himself. But it is through him, or the relationships of the women to him, that Erdrich explores such Hawthorne-like themes as the mystery of love between the sexes, the inner and outer worlds through which it is manifested, the dubious connection of sexuality to religion, and how various types of personalities enter into and affect a marriage or lovers' union. In fact, if one takes these women separately, they might be seen as Hester's different selves relating to "a man," in this case, Jack, as well as to the public. Less moralistic and more humorous than Hawthorne, in Tales Erdrich may have written her "funniest, sexiest, most optimistic" novel. But she is every bit as much the romantic as Hawthorne, filling her plot with images of nature, particularly sunshine and snow, but especially fire, to accompany each of the wives' distinctive, "burning" tales of love.
Jack's first wife is June Morrissey. In Love Medicine and Bingo Palace, and now in Tales, June jumps from a truck near Williston in 1981 to get away from its drunken driver, apparently after meeting him in a bar only hours before. We now know from Tales that that man was Jack Mauser, and that he and June were united in a "one-night marriage." The episode is important, not only because June's presence permeates at least three of Erdrich's novels, but because it exemplifies a particular kind of love, one not far removed from that characterizing the marriage of Hester Prynne and Roger Chillingworth. That, too, happened in the past. Never feigning love, she fled to America apparently to escape her relationship with a cold old man; in Erdrich's novel, June had jumped from the pickup and walked away to her death. Roger pursues Hester anyway; and in Tales we learn later that Jack thinks regretfully of his botched sexual affair with June. Later, having burned down his house and faked his own death, he comes to the rescue of his mourning ex-wives caught in the snowstorm in which each has been telling her tale of love. On the way he imagines June "wearing a wedding dress" and "bringing him home." Though some see Jack as simply "a loser," Michael Lee says Jack's other marriages represent a long-time effort to "recapture the love" he had for June, one (unlike Chillingworth's) that is finally fulfilled in Eleanor.
The woman in Tales most concerned, even preoccupied, with sex is Eleanor Schlick, Jack's second wife. As with Hester, Eleanor has a curious sexual past, ironically coupled with a "saintly" present. Nobody in the Puritan community shares Hester's private life, for the object of her love remains "a riddle," and of him Hester "refuseth to speak." As time goes on, however, Hester emerges as a virtual saint, in spite of the Puritan authorities and the people's initial scorn. In her "Divine Maternity" she walks among them as the mother of Pearl and sews garments for the rich and poor as a virtual New Testament model. Stubbs says Hawthorne represents her as a "madonna of Renaissance art" that contrasts with the rigid Puritan code. Others speak of a "spiritual greatness" that transcends her own weakness, the Puritan society, and Hawthorne himself. This is not to say that Hester is a saint, any more than it is true or likely that she and Arthur will get together as lovers, for their motives—which Crews says are "inaccessible to the conscious will"—are different. It only suggests that Hester's protecting the identity of her lover—who does not share her transcendental vision—is in itself a sacrifice of self that is the stuff of saints rather than sinners.
In Tales Erdrich in turn juxtaposes Eleanor's sexual past with the present in the context of sainthood, though her method is different, often comic. A novelist whose "eye for sensual detail is impeccable," she even shares with the reader graphic aspects of Eleanor's former erotic life, including intimate thoughts she remembers from her diary:
He turns me on my back carefully and kneels, his thighs just under my hips…. He comes into me, comes again, quietly and emotionally, looking into my eyes. "You're the one," he says … and we keep going, fuck ourselves stupid….
We also know a great deal more about Eleanor's past than we do Hester's. Specifically, her mother, Anna, was rejected by her father, Lawrence Schlick, a noted funeral director in Fargo, over a past sexual affair between Anna and Jack Mauser. Strangely enough, Eleanor herself then had an affair with Jack and faked being pregnant as a way of getting her parents back together. She even dressed like a kind of "passive martyr," or "Holy Mary"—a virtual parody of Hawthorne's representation of Hester. After leaving Jack, Eleanor went into teaching, but that didn't allay her "sexual need." Fired for seducing a student, she is now nourishing her spiritual life at a convent retreat house in Argus, north of Fargo, while doing research on the first potential mixed-blood saint, Sister Leopolda—whose own story appears in Tracks and Love Medicine. It is in this context that the spiritual dimension of Eleanor's love life comes into play.
While walking in the convent garden with the saintly nun, whose own prayer is ironically "a tale of burning love," Eleanor has a "miraculous" experience connected to her past sexual life. Jack, an engineer, catapults over the convent wall in a backhoe bucket at midnight to visit his ex-wife. In a hilarious episode, including "lightning" and thunder, Eleanor and Sister Leopolda (quite ignorant of what is really happening) end up "worshipping" Jack wrapped in a cloak standing on a pedestal being prepared for a statue of the Virgin Mary. If the whole affair seems like another comic version of something sacred, it also mirrors in a mythic way the union of all great lovers—from the Greek Leda (the name Jack and Eleanor hoped to give their baby) to Hawthorne's own Hester and Dimmesdale. In each case a dubious sexual union, symbolically if not really, seems to have the blessing of the gods.
After Leopolda expires, Eleanor and Jack meet inside the convent where they continue to discuss their love, often realized in secret, but which they have never been able to make work in marriage, any more than have Hester and Dimmesdale. In Jack and Eleanor's case, though they truly loved each other, "fury burned through" their love; "we fought over how we couldn't fight," she says, so she left him—went home to mother, entered college, even flew overseas. In speaking of Hester and Dimmesdale, Hawthorne himself claims that love and hate are often very close; and the same might be said of Eleanor and Jack. Unlike Hawthorne's lovers, however, these two eventually do get together. Late in the novel, after the snowstorm in which she walked away from the Ford Explorer stuck on the airport road in Fargo, Eleanor imagines that the saintly Leopolda appeared and "saved her life"—a life which eventually involves her return to the arms of Jack. Dave Wood notes that the novel, the author's "most sensual," ends with sex on a religiously symbolic staircase, testifying once again to the close relationship in Erdrich (as in Hawthorne) of sexuality and religion.
Jack's third wife is Candice Pantamounty, D.D.S., a dentist, "A professional!" Blonde, beautiful, and "brisk," she is interested in her own career and dependent on nobody. Free, but self-absorbed, her only companion is her dog, Pepperboy. Candy represents that part of Hester that relates to Roger Chillingworth after he comes to America. Hester, too, is free, for no individual or system—not Roger or the Puritan hierarchy—can touch her being. But then something happens. Chillingworth, who has no "household fire" in his heart, commits Hester to secrecy about his identity, whereupon he becomes Arthur's "medical advisor," a role he uses to undercut the man he suspects to be Hester's lover. His approach, motivated by revenge, and done with scientific precision, hits at the "heart's entire substance." In this way Chillingworth destroys Dimmesdale's chance at a full human relationship with Hester, and likewise Hester's with Dimmesdale.
In Tales, a similar pattern occurs. After a hysterectomy, Candy (a scientific type herself) enjoys frequent sexual episodes with men, for there is no risk of pregnancy. An old classmate of Jack's, she meets him again through a dental appointment, has sex with him, and goes hunting with him along with her dog; then they are married. What kills the marriage is Jack's abuse of Pepperboy. After being bitten, he hits and eventually kills the dog, not realizing what that does to Candy. He thinks it is accidental, "a goddamn freak occurrence," but she loses respect for one who misuses "helpless things." Hester's tragic flaw is that, in effect, she permits Chillingworth to tantalize her loved one, Dimmesdale, and only realizes it too late. It is that self of Hester's that Candy represents in Tales—the part that allows another's abuse of someone or something one loves, and indirectly undercuts a burning love of one's own. Candy is more conscious than Hester of what is going on; in Tales it is Jack who doesn't make the connection, but in either case the abuse drives the woman closer to her real lover—in Hester's case Dimmesdale, in Candy's another wife of Jack's, Marlis, who is pregnant with the child Candy would love, but can never have.
Marlis Cook is Jack's fourth wife. She has no Native blood (like June or Dot—Jack's fifth wife), no intellectual/spiritual bent (like Eleanor), no professional expertise (like Candy). She is simply a black-jack dealer at the B & B Bar—a pastime familiar to Erdrich—who meets Jack by accident. Quickly she gets "a thing" for him, and becomes pregnant—the only one of the wives to do so. His reaction, however, is to abuse her—"twisted my arm…. Shoved me. Hit me," she says. What distinguishes Marlis, however, is the direct way she responds. She treats Jack like none of the others; she not only tells but also shows him what he is like. Marlis is that side of Hester who, when the opportunity comes, speaks directly to Dimmesdale about their relationship. It happens midway in the book when they go into the forest together. Here, in letting down her hair and throwing off the letter A, she shows him what it would take to transcend his Puritan rules, to be free, to share her spirit. Sandeen calls this show of passion the "most moving" part of the book—a time when love itself transcends sin, guilt, shame, hypocrisy. And Hawthorne accompanies the event with a "burst of sunshine" in the sky. For Fogel the sun is a natural symbol, "real and indispensable," that is connected with love and never controlled by human law.
In Marlis' tale, she meets Jack quite by accident. She is knocked out after touching an electrical cable and Jack revives her. Later, he again "Dutch-rubs" her paralyzed face, giving her new (physical) life. Grateful, she marries him. "I love you so deep," she says. "Love me back." But he doesn't. In fact, he doesn't stop manhandling her, psychologically or physically—criticizing her makeup as well as twisting, hitting, and shoving her when he learns about the baby. In one way "childlike," but in another "mature-beyond-her-years," Marlis finally concludes: "What the hell do you know about being a woman?" She is much like Hester who through her language and gestures gives Dimmesdale a lesson in being a human being, not a product of a religious system.
Marlis' method, however, is unique. She and Jack are in a motel where she wraps him in duct tape while he is sleeping. When he is powerless, she pierces his ears, plucks his eyebrows, waxes and shaves his legs, and forces him to put on high heels in order to demonstrate what a woman has to go through. Her tactic is a bit different from Hester's with Dimmesdale—external rather than internal—but as with Hester it works, at least temporarily. In the woods Dimmesdale is elated and dances back to town, a new man, determined to become "wholly the lover and flee from all his obligations to the community." In Tales Jack is furious with Marlis, but he gets the point. Later, when Marlis wants to make love, he sees that her action was not a personal vendetta. "I'm using you," she says, and now he responds differently to the "taste" of her hair. Late in the novel, Jack, amid "snow" and "sun," comes to understand and accept many people he had heretofore neglected. He develops a new fire for John, Jr.—"a baby's indignant spoiling squawl of hunger," as well as "a piercing love" for a statue that looked like his mother, June, Eleanor, "All the women he'd ever loved." Though all this may be the result of a religious experience, much of the credit goes to Marlis. Like Hester, she is a good teacher because she is honest, personal, and direct, though in a modern, violent way that is as shocking as Hawthorne's more subtle psychological approach a century and a half ago.
When Tales of Burning Love opens, Jack is married to his fifth wife, Dot—the young arrogant girl in Beet Queen married in Love Medicine to Gerry Nanapush, now in and out of prison. Like Candice, an old high school acquaintance of Jack's, Dot is still impulsive, marrying Jack on a dare. If Hester's needle makes her a valuable part of the community, Dot's "accounting skills" save Jack's business, making her more a "business associate" than his wife; they even "make love with efficiency." Like Hester, Dot is "loyal" to her mate, and if people love Hester because she makes garments for everybody from Pearl to the Governor, Dot (who also knits) is the most practical among the wives. After Jack's mock funeral—he burns his house as a way of avoiding bankruptcy—Dot insists on seeing and handling Jack's ashes (which don't really exist), pays the funeral bills because she is Jack's latest wife, and drives the others to the B & B Bar in West Fargo to get Marlis' vote on what to do with what is left of Jack. In Hawthorne's novel, Hester is the one character, says Baym, "truly concerned with society and human relations"; Dot performs a similar mission in Tales. Less passionate than the other wives, she is the self who functions best in public.
Though the community "cannot do without Hester," says Sandeen, she still feels like a "pariah." In Erdrich's novel, Dot is also the loner in the group; June is dead, Eleanor is the object of Jack's passion; Candy and Marlis have each other—Candy having helped deliver Marlis' baby in the absence of Jack, and the two are together as lovers in the back seat of the Explorer during the storm. Never really divorced, Dot's "first love" is Gerry, but he is gone, or appears only periodically; in Tales he is the hitchhiker who joins the four women in the red Explorer where, "alive in the wrecked cold" after surviving a plane crash, he appears and "sealed her mouth with his."
But such moments are rare for Dot. More significant is that she capitalizes on her distance from Jack. In her alienated state, Hester cultivates a special knowledge of "the hidden sins" in others, the "unsunned snow" that contrasts with her own "burning shame." Dot does something equivalent. Unlike the intuitive Hester, she is aggressive, inquisitive, and brash, but this is her way of exposing others. Initially, she gets Jack to admit that she is "the goddamn fifth" of his wives, and almost stabs him with her knitting needle. "I don't know you from shit," she says, while exposing his secret past with Eleanor. Often the mouthpiece of Erdrich's "pungent and smart" dialogue, Dot abhors superficial talk. At the funeral when Eleanor says Candice looks happy, Dot (a former classmate of Candy's) replies, "Scum floats." Finally, it is Dot who sets the rules for each wife to tell her tale while marooned in the north Fargo blizzard. The least romantic of the wives, Dot is the firebird who sets ablaze the others' secret lives.
Though fond of Jack, Dot finally sees him as her "burnt hope," which is Hester's ultimate view of Dimmesdale. Recovering in the hospital after the storm, it is Dot's mother Celestine, not Jack, who comes to her side. Erdrich seems to use Dot to assert, not sex or romance, but the extended family so important to Native Americans. "Solid, responsible … brusque," Dot reserves her most genuine affection for Gerry, and a big priority in her life is to raise Shawn, whom she views as simply "my part of the deal." Real life, after the romance is over, is Dot Nanapush's role, much as it finally becomes Hester Prynne's, who continues to mother Pearl while serving others after her lover is gone.
So that is Erdrich's story—the five faces of Hester, so to speak, as reflected in the five wives of Jack Mauser. If Hester has a past marriage that has failed, causing her to flee across the sea, that is June Morrissey setting out in the snow near Williston in 1981. If Hester has had a secret life, where the passionate and sexual are intertwined with the spiritual and the saintly, that is Eleanor as she works out her relation to Jack in the convent garden in Argus in 1996, and later (after a vision of Leopolda) in the passionate scene on the stairs with Jack which ends the book. If Hester errs by allowing her estranged husband, now in America, to torture her new lover to the point of death, that is Candice, who is not able to sustain her relationship with Jack because he physically abuses her Pepperboy. If Hester needs to speak directly to her beloved and so takes him to the woods, where her words temporarily free the man from his rigidities, that is Marlis who ties up Jack and literally shows him what it feels like to be a woman. And if Hester must still maintain a public face, in spite of all her inner worlds, that is Dot, the "live-in accountant" of Jack Mauser, for whom personal love is not so important as the daily companionship of a man, the love of her family, and the knowledge that she can makes things work.
There is an irony in Tales that may also be a modern comment on The Scarlet Letter, as Erdrich like Hawthorne focuses on her favorite themes, "the salvation of love" through "the power of narrative." In Tales, two of the women, Candy and Marlis, struggle with each other. Candy, who would like a child, fawns on Marlis' baby—the baby she cannot have. If Jack has a problem with the pregnancy, Candy calls it "a treasure," and it is she, not Jack, who helps in the delivery room. Though at first Marlis resists Candy's concern and affection, eventually their struggle—an important factor in both Hawthorne and Erdrich—brings them together where their "first kiss tells everything." Finally, in the back of the Explorer in the snowstorm, they make love, having come to understand and accept each other as women—something Jack cannot seem to accomplish. For the author it is "an intimacy that rivals any lover's union." This love affair serves as a foil for Hawthorne's portrayal of the relationship of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale—a story of revenge, hatred, and manipulation that destroys both men. It involves a different type of dispute, but the implication is that men have to control, whereas women's struggles lead to self-sacrifice and love. It is another kind of tale of burning love—sinful and scandalous, perhaps, in the eyes of many, but also respectful and caring, much like that between Hester and Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter.
The Scarlet Letter is a romantic novel that represents a landmark in the history of psychological love. Though deprecated by Hawthorne's critics at the time, the novel made a much deeper impression than his other works. One of the reasons, says Cotton, is that "the symbolic" is different from "the real." Hester may have violated the Sixth Commandment, but she emerges as a free spirit who has integrated her sexual life into her being and now, Dimmesdale notwithstanding, lives a rather Christ-like life in public. She has faults, however, as does he, and because of them, the story is tragic—a conflict between religious repression and sexuality. What lives on in the reader, however, is a less-than-rigid notion of sexual love and its relation to holiness. Baym says that society's coming to love Hester shows its willingness to "make room for the human heart and its private needs." And Sandeen claims that in her public life she "bears the burden of man's affective nature, including outlawed passion," which the Puritan society tries to suppress "but cannot do without." For these critics, The Scarlet Letter is, above all, a love story wherein the heroine transcends her culture.
In Tales of Burning Love, Louise Erdrich uses The Scarlet Letter mythologically to paint a rather complex picture of love in a post-Christian era. Jack Mauser may be a flawed human being; toward the end he is still dealing with Lyman Lemartine, the money-driven entrepreneur "planning for a casino" whose devious ways are developed in The Bingo Palace. But Jack is convincing as a modern male, a "satisfying multi-dimensional character." A less-than-successful engineer, he is greedy, he drinks too much, he is egocentric, but he likes and needs women in many ways. June is a fellow mixed-blood Chippewa with whom, even in her fragmented life, he momentarily identifies and ever after pursues her spirit. Dot, too, is connected to the reservation, a steady companion more than a lover, but still there, a crucial part of his work-a-day life. Jack's abusive side surfaces in his relationship with Candy, and it takes Marlis to teach him something about feeling with a woman. It may be in response to her that he ultimately comes to appreciate other human beings—their son, his own mother, all his wives.
In the end, however, Eleanor is his real Hester Prynne, the one for whom his love smolders throughout Tales and finally bursts into flame. Lee says she represents "the passionate reversal" of his "sexual failure" with June. In contrast to Hawthorne, Erdrich makes sexuality, religion, and nature work together, so the ending is not tragic. Early on, Eleanor says:
Her love for Jack was still alive, disguised as everything. It ached pulled from the ground, it drew the air for her chest, sat of her head like bricks, closed across her lips like the wings of a moth.
Later, in contrast to The Scarlet Letter in which Hester departs for the forest after her lover's death, Erdrich in Tales actually brings "the forest" to bear on Eleanor and Jack; they consummate their love at the top of a stairs while outside "spears of grass rustled in their sheaths." If Erdrich is a "master of the heightened intimate moment," that skill comes through such lyrical passages.
One of those coincidences in the novel that perhaps "stretch credulity" is a miracle that sets up the finale—a phenomenon, says Max, Erdrich is "not afraid of involving" in her plots. Having survived the falling statue of a "stone woman"—a mysterious event testifying to the sainthood of Eleanor's idol, Sister Leopolda—we are told he "felt an unbearable heat of emotion, a jet of fear and joy." So both Jack and Eleanor experience epiphanies that change their lives and bring them together sexually, with the stairs adding spiritual significance to their passion. Moreover, says Lee, the images surrounding the encounter suggest a Chippewa-like identification with the earth that Jack had suppressed.
That may be, but the seasons, too, are ever changing and unpredictable. Jack is still a modern male, a businessman, "charming, preening," and "self-destructive." None of these women satisfy him completely, nor does he them. Eleanor says at one time that maybe "we each married a different man," as though it is Jack who has the different selves. Sister Leopolda tells Eleanor in her vision, "You and your sisters are blind women touching the vast body of the elephant, each describing the oddness beneath the surface of your hands." If that is so, then it may be that any one woman, given her needs, must go through five individuals to find one good man. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester's love remains tragically unfulfilled, though symbolically she transcends her loss. Erdrich's love story ends with Eleanor's passionate fulfillment. But it borders on tragedy that her counterparts must find other ways to keep the fire of love burning in a contemporary world, less Puritan but more complex than Hawthorne had ever imagined.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3262
SOURCE: "Women Aging into Power: Fictional Representations of Power and Authority in Louise Erdrich's Female Characters," in Studies in American Indian Literatures, Vol. 8, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 13-20.
[In the following essay, Castillo examines issues of women and power in Erdrich's novels.]
Some years ago, when I was casting around for a topic for my Ph.D. thesis, I was struck, as I read so-called canonical authors, by the number of female protagonists in American literature who come to unsavory or untimely ends. Heroines, particularly those who challenge prevailing social and cultural norms, are all too prone to every sort of disaster: they are either condemned to social ostracism (as is the case with Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter or Sister Carrie in the novel by the same name by Theodore Dreiser) or die in ways which are more or less aesthetically appealing (as is the case with Hawthorne's Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance, Henry James's heroine Daisy Miller, Kate Chopin's Edna Pontellier, and so very many others).
In our own century, however, it is curious that female protagonists who actually manage not only to survive but actually to prevail and even prosper can be found in significant numbers in popular fiction and in fiction by so-called "ethnic" or minority writers. Perhaps for this reason, I have found novels by Native American women particularly attractive. When I began to read Leslie Silko's Ceremony, for example, I was fascinated by the roles attributed to women. The narrative is focused through a female deity, Ts'its'tsi'nako, Spider Woman, weaver of ideas and source of discursive authority. The women in the novel own land and work magic, and it is they who are largely responsible for the cure of Tayo, the male protagonist. In novels by other Native American women writers, we can encounter similar portrayals of Indian women as figures of strength and power. Some of the most fascinating examples of this phenomenon can be found in the texts of Chippewa writer Louise Erdrich.
The subject of women and the exercise of power has been, as one might expect, the source of intense polemic. In the anthology Women, Culture and Society, anthropologist Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo has come to some insights which I feel can be useful not only for the field of anthropology but also for the analysis of representations of gender roles. Rosaldo, drawing on the work of Max Weber and M. G. Smith, distinguishes between the concepts of power and authority. In this perspective, power is "the ability to act effectively on persons or things to make or secure favorable decisions which are not of right allocated to the individuals or their roles." Authority, on the other hand, is socially validated and implies a hierarchical chain of command and control. In this view, women have always exercised considerable power (particularly in the domestic realm), while men have retained authority, which is a culturally legitimated phenomenon. Among many Native American groups, women in traditional narratives are accorded both power and authority. However, in contemporary America, when Native American women are marginalized by traditional patriarchal structures not only because they are women but also because they are Native American, it is often the case that the texts they produce will portray women of power, though not necessarily of authority. It should also be noted, nonetheless, that in recent years increasing numbers of female characters who exercise both power and authority have begun to emerge in Native American fictional narratives.
Within the corpus of Louise Erdrich's fiction, two female characters have always held a particular fascination for me: Marie Lazarre and Zelda Kashpaw. Like most of Erdrich's characters, both Marie and Zelda are complex, often maddening, full of contradictions, and above all eminently real.
Marie's childhood is the antithesis of a Norman Rockwell-style Anglo-American idyll. She is the illegitimate daughter of Pauline Puyat, who appears in Erdrich's novel Tracks as a member of a family of "mixed bloods, skinners in the clan for which the name was lost." Pauline is an immensely powerful (though not authoritative) figure, though she uses her power toward negative and often self-destructive ends as she struggles to become assimilated into so-called mainstream America. She becomes pregnant by Napoleon Morrissey, described as belonging to a family of mixed-bloods who had profited from acquiring allotments that more traditional Chippewas had not known how to hold on to. Marie, the product of their union (if such it can be called), is delivered with spoons instead of forceps. After her birth, Pauline leaves her to be raised by her grandmother Bernardette Morissey and then enters a convent as Sister Leopolda. Marie ends up living in the woods with her Lazarre relatives, who have a reputation for being dishonest, dirty, and indolent.
Marie, however, is anything but a typical Lazarre. She is a bewildering mixture of toughness and compassion, of tenderness and astringent candor. Perhaps inevitably, she enters her mother's convent. There Pauline/Leopolda, who is totally deranged but nonetheless radiates a certain dark power, terrorizes the unsuspecting Marie by claiming that the devil is within her and, finally, by pouring boiling water into her ear in an effort to exorcize evil. Marie, despite her apparent docility, is no weakling either and retaliates by attempting to push Leopolda into a bread oven in an episode that reminds one of Hansel and Gretel, who end up cooking the Wicked Witch. Leopolda's wrath is terrible to behold, but Marie is not cowed:
She was fearfully silent. She whirled. Her veil had cutting edges. She had the poker in one hand. In the other she held that long sharp fork she used to tap the delicate crusts of loaves. Her face turned upside down on her shoulders. Her face turned blue. But saints are used to miracles. I felt no trace of fear.
If I was going to be lost, let the diamonds cut! Let her eat ground glass!
"Bitch of Jesus Christ!" I shouted. "Kneel and beg! Lick the floor!"
That was when she stabbed me through the hand with the fork, then look the poker up alongside my head, and knocked me out.
Needless to say, this is hardly an idyllic vision of the mother-daughter relationship. The surreal imagery of Pauline with blue inverted face, holding aloft the fork and poker as she whirls like a demented dervish, is one of immense tragicomic impact. Erdrich describes her as an adolescent made of "angles and sharp edges, a girl of bent tin," and the description still holds true of her as an adult. But Marie is her mother's child in many ways, and she has inherited Pauline's courage as well as her power, though fortunately not her insanity. This enables her to stand up to what would often seem a mad or profoundly unjust reality. Though "mainstream" society would dismiss both Pauline and Marie as persons without authority, as merely an addled nun and an insignificant half-breed girl, both are powerful and disturbing characters who stay vivid in the reader's mind.
As one might expect, Marie ends up fleeing from the convent. In doing so, she literally crashes into Nector Kashpaw. Nector, who describes her as "the youngest daughter of a family of horse-thieving drunks," is convinced she has robbed a pillowcase from the convent, and thus stops her in order to recover the stolen goods. Marie, after calling him "you damn Indian" and telling him "You stink to hell!," kicks him as hard as she can. But after this most unpromising beginning, she and Nector marry. Nector is an amiable weakling, a man who is clever and charming (all too charming, as things turn out, especially to the sexy widow Lulu Nanapush). He plaintively expresses his feelings for Marie (and indeed for Lulu) in the following terms: "Her taste was bitter. I craved the difference after all those years of easy sweetness. But I still had a taste for candy. I could never have enough of both…." He is prone to indolence and to a certain tendency to drink more than is good for him. Marie decides to use her power, however, to propel Nector into a position of authority:
I had plans, and there was no use him trying to get out of them. I'd known from the beginning I had married a man with brains. But the brains wouldn't matter unless I kept him from the bottle. He would pour them down the drain, where his liquor went, unless I stopped the holes, wore him out, dragged him back each time he drank, and tied him to the bed with strong ropes.
I had decided I was going to make him into something big on the reservation.
Indeed she does: Nector ends up as tribal chairman. Significantly, though Marie is by far the stronger figure of the two, she does not aspire to a position of authority on her own behalf.
Marie's daughter Zelda, when she appears in the novel Love Medicine, is similar to her mother and grandmother Leopolda in that she is fascinated by the all-female world of the convent, a realm in which women exercise both power and authority. In one unforgettable scene, Marie takes Zelda up to the convent to meet Sister Leopolda. Marie flaunts her respectability and social clout on the reservation before Leopolda. Regarding Nector's position as tribal chairman, she states baldly, "He is what he is because I made him." We can paraphrase the words "because I made him" in two ways: because she has literally forced him to achieve the chairmanship, and also because he is very much her creation. Leopolda reacts by diving under the bed for an iron spoon (as we recall, Marie had been delivered by two iron spoons) and then making a fearful racket on the iron bars of her bed. Marie wants desperately to wrest the spoon, the emblem of power, from her:
I wanted that spoon because it was a hell-claw welded smooth…. It had power. It was like her soul boiled down and poured in a mold and hardened…. Every time I held the spoon handle I'd know that she was nothing but a ghost, a black wind…. I would get that spoon. (emphasis added)
In the end, though she struggles with Leopolda for the spoon, Marie is overcome by the force of her own compassion. She has perceived that Leopolda's power is the power of death, of negativity.
When they return home, Zelda finds a note on the kitchen table which reveals her father's plans to leave Marie for the seductive Lulu Nanapush. Marie is stunned. She reacts by stripping the wax from the kitchen floor. Symbolically, she has been brought to her knees by love for Nector and by her own insecurities. But suddenly Marie seems to realize that she is a person in her own right. Power, after all, lies within us, while authority is conferred by others, and Marie does not need the reflected authority of Nector's position to exercise her own power:
But I was not going under, even if he left me…. I would not care if Lulu Lamartine ended up the wife of the chairman of the Chippewa Tribe. I'd still be Marie. Marie. Star of the Sea! I'd shine when they stripped off the wax.
Zelda, rather than entering the convent as she had wished to earlier, ends up getting pregnant by a man called Swede Johnson from the nearby boot camp, who promptly goes AWOL for good. Her only comment in later years is to state drily, "Learnt my lesson…. Never marry a Swedish is my rule." Later, her daughter Albertine tells us, she remarries. Her second (Swedish?) husband's name is Bjornson, and she lives with him in an aqua-and-silver trailer on the reservation. Albertine mentions her "rough gray face." Zelda and Albertine get on each other's nerves: Zelda asks her daughter about possible Catholic boyfriends and is horrified that Albertine might wish to be what she calls, in terms which remind one of Fifties films about secretaries with long painted fingernails, a Career Girl. Albertine is furious at her mother for not telling her about her Aunt June's death, but she eventually goes home to visit, saying, "I wasn't crazy about the thought of seeing her, but our relationship was like a file we sharpened on, and necessary in that way."
In Erdrich's next novel, The Bingo Palace, Zelda reappears. Lipsha Morrissey describes her in the following terms:
Zelda is the author of grit-jawed charity on the reservation, the instigator of good works that always get chalked up to her credit…. Zelda was once called raven-haired and never forgot, so on special occasions her hair, which truly is an amazing natural feature, still sweeps its fierce wing down the middle of her back. She wears her grandmother Rushes Bear's skinning knife at her strong hip, and she touches the beaded sheath now, as if to invoke her ancestor.
Clearly, Zelda is not a woman to be trifled with. Despite her criticism of Albertine, she has developed a career of her own, working in the Tribal Office. There she uses her authority to enroll her grandson Redford as a full-blood member of the tribe and manages to obtain WIC food to feed him. In her middle age, her passive/aggressive tendencies are even more accentuated, and she attempts to control others through her relentless goodness. Lipsha Morrissey, who has been raised to consider her his aunt, describes her as a medium stout woman in a heavy black velvet, beaded dress and adds, "When women age into their power, no wind can upset them, no hand turn aside their knowledge; no fact can deflect their point of view."
Lipsha has reasons to fear his aunt's intervention: he is vying with his slick cousin Lyman Lamartine (the son of Nector and Lulu Nanapush and father of Redford) for the affections of Shawnee Ray Toose, the daughter of Zelda's old flame Xavier. Thus, in the convoluted web of relationships on the reservation, Zelda is what Lipsha calls Lyman's "under-the-table half sister," and Zelda does what she can to further Lyman's courtship of Shawnee Ray. Lipsha is aware that he is up against a formidable adversary, and when Zelda comes to visit the bingo palace owned by Lyman where Lipsha is a waiter, he decides to get her drunk by spiking her tonic water with increasing amounts of gin. His purpose in doing so is ostensibly to mellow her up a bit. But this, predictably, backfires:
My motive is good—to make Shawnee Ray's life a little easier, for once the slight amounts of alcohol start having their effect, Zelda's basic niceness is free to shine forth. Right and left, she always forgives the multitude…. No matter how bad things get, on those nights when Zelda stays long enough, there is eventually the flooding appeasement of her smile. It is like having a household saint.
But you have to light a candle, make a sacrifice.
I like my aunt, even though I find it difficult to keep from getting run over by her unseen intentions.
Eighteen-wheeler trucks. Semis, fully loaded, with a belly dump. You never know what is coming at you when Zelda takes the road.
Here in one brief sequence Zelda is compared to a queen nodding right and left to an adoring crowd, to a martyred saint, and—perhaps most accurately—to an eighteen-wheeler truck, in metaphors that convey a volatile mix of regal self-possession, relentless virtue, and power which will flatten you if you get in its way, as Lipsha soon finds out. She begins by telling her nephew "a tale of burning love," a phrase redolent of Presleyian thwarted romance and Fifties 45 rpm records. It is the story of her rejection of her boyfriend Xavier Toose because of her wish to marry a white man who would carry her away to a Doris Day life in the city Xavier stood outside in the snow waiting for her to say that she loved him and ended up nearly freezing to death. As a result, he lost his fingers to frostbite. Zelda then reveals to Lipsha that June, his mother, had tried to kill him as a baby by throwing him into a creek in a gunnysack weighted down with stones.
Zelda, curiously enough, has some characteristics in common with her nephew: both are persons of immense power but not a great deal of socially validated authority. Also, throughout her life Zelda shows a certain coldness of the heart, a fear of love and vulnerability; she literally freezes Xavier out. Lipsha, an androgynous character who is often feminine (though not effeminate) in his behavior, is also cold at heart. Though he is obsessed by his love for Shawnee Ray, he thinks only of himself, causing her to cry out, "You got the medicine, Lipsha. But you don't got the love." As Shawnee Ray knows intuitively, power (in Lipsha's case, the power to work magic) only succeeds if it is not used for selfish ends, while mere authority (as exemplified by Lyman) is contingent upon the vagaries of individual destinies and the twists and turns of history.
In the dramatic final scenes of the novel, both Lipsha and his aunt manage to overcome the cold they have felt all their lives. Zelda finally swallows her pride and summons up the courage to go to her old lover Xavier Toose. As she approaches, she literally thaws out: "Zelda's face bloomed toward his as though his features gave out warmth." Paradoxically, her new-found vulnerability is not weakening but empowering: "Light dashed itself upon Zelda, but she wasn't shaken. Her hands floated off the steering wheel and gestured, but she wasn't helpless."
Lipsha, in a parallel process, seems to experience the same discovery of the power of gentleness. At the end of the novel, as he lies trapped in a stolen car with a small baby during a blizzard, he recalls his parents:
I think about my father and my mother, about how they have already taught me about the cold so I don't have to be afraid of it. And yet, this baby doesn't know. Cold sinks in, there to stay. And people, they'll leave you, sure….
My father taught me his last lesson in those hours, in that night. He and my mother, June, have always been inside of me, dark and shining, their absence about the size of a coin, something I have touched against and slipped. And when that happens, I call out in my bewilderment—"What is this?"—and the thing I never knew until now it was a piece of thin ice they had put there.
But Lipsha, though he could attempt to escape on his own, refuses to abandon the baby to freeze to death. At the novel's end, it is unclear whether Lipsha has survived the blizzard or not. It is more than possible, however, that he and Zelda will surface once again in further novels by Erdrich, perhaps to exemplify the enormous force that is derived from the blurring of gender stereotypes and from the emergence of new concepts regarding the exercise of power and authority by men and women alike.