Louise Erdrich

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In her fiction and poetry, Erdrich draws upon her Chippewa heritage to examine complex familial and sexual relationships among midwestern Native Americans, along with their conflicts with white communities.


Erdrich was born June 7, 1954, in Little Falls, Minnesota, and grew up near the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota, the setting for her first novel Love Medicine (1984). Both her parents—her father was German-born and her mother French Ojibwe—worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Erdrich often visited her maternal grandparents on the Chippewa Reservation, where her grandfather was the tribal chairman.

In 1972, while attending Dartmouth College, Erdrich met her future husband and literary collaborator, anthropologist Michael Dorris, who is also part Indian and who heads the Native American studies program at Dartmouth. After graduation in 1976, Erdrich returned to North Dakota and held a variety of jobs. She soon returned to school to study creative writing, earning her master's degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1979. She went on to become a writer-in-residence at Dartmouth, and married Dorris in 1981. Dorris had three children from a previous relationship, and he and Erdrich have since had three children of their own. The couple collaborated on many of their works. They separated in 1995, and Dorris committed suicide in 1997. Erdrich lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she owns a bookstore.


Erdrich's first published volume, Jacklight (1984), is a collection of poetry that garnered praise for infusing ordinary American westerners and everyday situations with mythic qualities. Her first novel Love Medicine (1984), for which Erdrich won the National Book Critics Circle Award, gathers fourteen interconnected stories that are related by seven different members of the Kashpaw and Lamartine families of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa community.

In The Beet Queen (1986) Erdrich continued her portrait of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa but shifted her focus to the community outside the reservation. In this novel a woman orphaned in childhood settles into middle-age in the small fictional town of Argus, North Dakota, while her brother, a traveling salesman, repeats the familial pattern of manipulation and abandonment before fathering Dot, a character in Love Medicine.

In Erdrich's third novel, Tracks (1988), a Chippewa elder and an abusive young woman 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. The Bingo Palace (1994) is set in a reservation bingo hall and again concerns the conflicted identities of women on the reservation. The Antelope Wife (1998), published shortly after Michael Dorris's suicide, features a mysterious woman known as the Antelope Wife. Set in contemporary Minneapolis, the novel is deeply mythic yet maintains its roots in real, everyday life. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001) tells the story of Father Damien Modeste, a priest who has served the people of the remote reservation Little No Horse for fifty years and who is, in fact, a woman.

The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003) again includes characters from Erdrich's earlier novels, but primarily concerns Fidelis Waldvogel, a German soldier who returns from World War I to marry his best friend's pregnant widow, Eva. The couple move to Argus, North Dakota to set up a butcher shop. The locals they befriend there become the center of the story, including Delphine Watzka and her traveling vaudeville act.

In addition to her novels and poetry, Erdrich has published, among other works, The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year (1995), a nonfiction account of the birth and first year of one of her children; and two novels for children, The Birchbark House (1999) and The Range Eternal (2002).


Erdrich's evocation of a particular American region through multiple narrative voices and striking imagery has prompted comparison to William Faulkner's creation of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. While her work is sometimes faulted for seeming contrived, most critics find her storytelling compelling and her narration lyrical. Of particular interest to feminist studies is Erdrich's use of Native American mythology in creating her female characters, who are seen as complex and mysterious yet believable.

Annette Van Dyke (Essay Date 1999)

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SOURCE: Van Dyke, Annette. “Of Vision Quests and Spirit Guardians: Female Power in the Novels of Louise Erdrich.” In The Chippewa Landscape of Louise Erdrich, edited by Allan Chavkin, pp. 130-43. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.

In the following essay, Van Dyke assesses female power in Erdrich’s novels, specifically in terms of Chippewa tradition.

When Native American women are thought of at all, and in the annals of American history that is seldom, two images come to mind: that of the exotic princess, guide and benefactor of white men—a good Indian—and that of squaw—a kind of savage beast of burden, subject to the whims of her mate, the befeathered Indian chief—a bad Indian. In both of these stereotypes Native American women are defined by their relationship to men and are not seen as powerful in their own right. However, as Paula Gunn Allen demonstrates in Sacred Hoop, and as early chronicles from American history show, Native American women were seen by their own people as “powerful, socially, physically, and metaphysically” (48), nothing like the common idea of the weaker sex applied to upper-class white women. Allen says of Native American women today: “Most Indian women I know are in the same bicultural bind: we vacillate between being dependent and strong, self-reliant and powerless, strongly motivated and hopelessly insecure,” trying to deal “with two hopelessly opposed cultural definitions of women” (49).

As a Native American writer, Louise Erdrich is concerned with countering these stereotypical images and the cultural bifurcation of Native American women. By virtue of being female, her independent and feisty women characters exemplify a kind of power central to life on the reservation—what Erdrich calls “transformational power.” In contrast, the males must seek to find their power and place. For example, in Tracks, Nanapush toys with the idea of representing his tribe to the United States government, but it is Fleur on whom the hopes of the tribe are pinned to transform or arrest the encroaching white civilization. In Love Medicine and in Bingo Palace, Marie and Lulu become the real power on the reservation, despite the outward show of control by the tribal government official, Lyman Lamartine. In Bingo Palace, Marie’s daughter, Zelda, has also become a powerful force on the reservation. This essay explores the power of women as seen in two sets of mothers and daughters, Fleur/Lulu and Marie/Zelda—power which comes from the Chippewa vision quest and spirit guardian and which often takes on a peculiarly sexual form for Chippewa women.

In an interview, Erdrich makes clear that the bifurcation of Native American women’s roles and status is of major importance to her. She says: “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 a transformational energy, and not only transforming to them but to other people” (Bruchac 82). Because of her three daughters and sisters, she has “an urgent reason for thinking about women attuned to their power and their honest nature, not the socialized nature and their embarrassed nature and the nature that says, ’I can’t possibly accomplish this’” (Bruchac 82).

In the encounters between Erdrich’s male and female characters, this transformational power is often sexual. In discussing her poem “Jacklight, ” Erdrich notes that “[j]acklighting 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”1 (George 243). However, Erdrich believes that instead “[t]here must be an exchange, a transformation, a power shared between them…. [I]t is this transformation where we arrive at a different stage of power” (George 243). Further, some of Erdrich’s characters use their “sexuality in the same way that the men in the poems are using the jacklight, to attract in an animal way, to paralyze and fascinate. The difference is that [they are] … defiant because … men are still in control” (George 244). This defiant use of sexuality is illustrated in the poem, “The Lady in the Pink Mustang, ” in which the lady, “whose bare lap is floodlit from under the dash,” lures truckers into her power: “She owns them, not one will admit what they cannot / come close to must own them. She takes them along …” (Jacklight 17).

Explaining the transformational power, Erdrich also says: “When, in some of the poems, it takes the form of becoming an animal, that I feel is a symbolic transformation, the moment a woman allows herself to act out of her own power” (Bruchac 82). An example of this appears in the poem, “The Strange People, ” in which an antelope woman defies the hunter who thinks he has killed her, and yet she still waits for one with whom she could share the transformational power:

Safely shut in the garage,
when he sharpens his knife
and thinks to have me, like that,
I come toward him,
a lean gray witch,
through the bullets that enter and dissolve.

I sit in his house
drinking coffee till dawn,
and leave as frost reddens on hubcaps,
crawling back into my shadowy body.
All day, asleep in clean grasses,
I dream of the one who could really wound me.”

(Jacklight 68-69)

In her novels, Erdrich has used the concept of the transformational power in developing the characters of Fleur, Lulu, Marie, and Zelda, among others. Traditionally, the Chippewa went on vision quests and had spirit guardians whose animal characteristics the recipient often took on.2Consequently, the transformational power also has a particularly Chippewa spiritual character which lessens as it is affected by Euro-American culture. Throughout the novels Tracks, Love Medicine, and Bingo Palace, the water spirit man, Misshepeshu, plays a prominent role lending his animal characteristics to Fleur, her daughter Lulu, Moses, and Lipsha—all in the Pillager line.3 He is also featured on Nector’s pipe bag handed down to Lipsha and Zelda.

In Tracks Fleur is described as having a good deal of transformational power illustrated in her animal characteristics which she takes on from her spirit guardian, Misshepeshu. She is described as having: “shoulders … broad and curved as a yoke, her hips fishlike, slippery, narrow. An old green dress clung to her waist, worn then where she sat. Her glossy braids were like the tails of animals, and swung against her when she moved, deliberately, slowly in her work, held in and half-tamed” (T 18). She also has “sly, brown eyes and … teeth, strong, sharp and very white” (T 18) which seem to be wolf-like Pillager characteristics.

Fleur exudes sexual power. She is always the hunter and never the prey, although some of the male characters attempt to be the aggressor. Eli follows the trail of a wounded deer he has shot to Fleur at her cabin near the lake and tries to claim the deer she is skinning. She denies his claim to it, and finally, he helps her skin it and gives the meat to her. After that he is obsessed with her and goes to the elder Nanapush for instruction. Nanapush tries to warn him away because Fleur is dangerous. She is “so impossible and yet available at the same time, that even the dried-out and bent ones around the store could see enough to light a slow fuse in their dreams” (T 55). She is “a woman gone wild, striking down whatever got into her path” (T 45). When Eli leaves to return to Fleur, Nana-push likens her to a bear: “It’s like you’re a log in a stream. Along comes this bear. She jumps on. Don’t let her dig in her claws” (T 46).

Erdrich presents Fleur as firmly in control of the relationship between her and Eli. After Eli has a relationship with Sophie, Fleur uses her sexual power to punish him by ignoring him. According to Nanapush,

After three days of Fleur’s avoidance, he longed for her with the vigor of their first encounters, when … those two had coupled outdoors, against trees, down on pine-needle couches or out in the bare yard. After a week, he needed her with twice the force of their first meetings, and after two he was in desperate pain. His blood pounded at the rustle of her skirts. If she brushed him by accident his skin felt scorched. The fire spread. He even strained for her like a flame toward air.

(T 106-7)

The descriptions of Fleur in Tracks are almost always animal-like; she is Erdrich’s character who acts the most out of her own transformational power or who, we might say, is most herself. For instance, Eli believes that Fleur is mating with her spirit guardian Misshepeshu in the frozen lake at night. Eli describes her as moving, “[s]tealthly, smooth as an otter sliding from a log” (T 106). She stays under the frozen crust of the lake longer than a human could stand. When he wakes in the night, her hair is “a damp braid tossed against [him] … and once, from along her neck, [he] … picked a curl of black weed from the bottom of the lake” (T 107).

Fleur’s powers are formidable and in Bingo Palace, the reader sees her win back her land once again using her gambling skills—this time from the Indian Agent. She returns to the reservation from the Twin Cities with a innocent-looking boy and a white Pierce-Arrow as her bait. Her hair hangs in long braids down her back, “bound together with a red strip of cloth” like the old-time warriors used to wear their hair “to meet an enemy” (BP 139). She is the woman acting out of her own power: “[S]he’d always acted as though she owned everything and nothing: sky, earth, those who crossed her path, road, and Pillager land. It was because she owned herself” (BP 140).

However, times change, and in Love Medicine the female characters are less themselves, having lost knowledge of the old ways and having been affected by Euro-American culture and Catholicism, forcing them to take on the bicultural split between strength and weakness. In spite of this, Lulu, Fleur’s daughter, acts as a bridge character. Although she was sent to boarding school, which had the effect for most of erasing the Native culture, Lulu has a potent legacy from her mother. It is almost as if Lulu cannot help but be her-self—be in her power. Erdrich’s addition of the section “The Island” to the “new and expanded version” of Love Medicine illustrates this. This section shows Lulu’s vision quest; before its addition, the reader did not see her seeking and coming into her transformatory power. Lulu has inherited her mother’s sexual powers. She has become “a Pillager kind of woman with a sudden body, fierce outright wishes, a surprising heart” (LMN 71), but she has no guidance for her power since her mother is not around.

Like her mother, she sees herself in control of any relationships with men. Nector Kashpaw has indicated his interest in her, and she has returned that interest. However, when Nector is suddenly caught by Marie (to be discussed later), she says Nector would have been hers if she’d “jumped” for him, but since she doesn’t “jump for men,” he was apparently lost. She had thought of “maybe stepping high” for him when she discovered his attachment to Marie. She had wanted to meet Nector halfway, neither being the pursued nor pursuer—to share power.

However, in her anger at the situation and to irritate Nector’s mother, Margaret Rushes Bear Kashpaw, she decides to seek out her very strange cousin, Moses Pillager, who survived the illness that killed the rest of her mother’s relatives. Moses lives on an island in the middle of the lake with his cats, becoming cat-like himself and following his spirit guardian, Misshepeshu, who is alternately described as the big cat and as the horned lynx who lives in the lake.

Lulu is at puberty, the traditional age for a vision quest. She practices for Moses by kissing her arm. She notices “how the eyes of grown men stuck to” her at the store (LMN 75). Seeking she knows not what, Lulu goes to the island to charm Moses and to test her powers. The trip to the island is her vision quest, and Moses is no ordinary man:

He was surprising, so beautiful to look at that I couldn’t tell his age. His heavy hair coursed all the way down his back, looped around his belt. His face was closely fit, the angles measured and almost too perfect. My mother’s face was like that too—too handsome to be real, constructed by the Manitous.

(LMN 77)

Lulu uses her sexual powers to ensnare Moses, who is really old enough to be her father but who has remained animal-like and innocent. “I had dusted him, chilled him in the shape of my shadow when I stood against the sun. I had loosened the air, stolen the strings from his hands and legs, bent him like a stem of grass marking my trail” (LMN 80). He tries to leave, but she holds him and pulls him to her: “My black eyes opened wide, my windigo stare caught him, and I let him see the sharp flash of my teeth. He followed both of his hands as they flew forward and stroked me” (LMN 80). But something happens and Lulu loses control; she doesn’t know if she is “acting from [her] … own intentions” or not. He comes to her cat-like—licking her and exploring her curiously until they share transforming power: “Suddenly his breath went deep and ragged in my ear. There was no more light from the fire, and I couldn’t feel where he ended or began. He was made of darkness—weightless, fragile, lifting and falling around me with each breath” (LMN 81).

Moses is brought back from the invisible state in which he hid from the spirits in the time of disease. He gains his voice; he says his name “which harbored his life” (LMN 82) and which had not been said in fear of death. He becomes more human.

Lulu’s quest fills her with the desire for more of the transformational union. It is as if she can never get enough, and how often can one expect such mystical transport? She says:

To this day, I still hurt. I must have rolled in the beds of wild rose, for the tiny thorns—small, yellow—pierced my skin. Their poison is desire and it dissolved in my blood. The cats made me one of them—sleek and without mercy, avid, falling hungry upon the defenseless body. I want to grind men’s bones to drink in my night tea. I want to enter them the way their hot shadows fold into their bodies in full sunlight. I want to be their food, their harmful drink, to taste men like stilled jam at the back of my tongue.

(LMN 82)

Lulu’s vision quest has other results. She finds her mother in her understanding of the power she has been given, and she again hears her mother’s voice keeping her from harm. As a result of her liaison with Moses, she gives birth to Gerry Nanapush, the magical trickster whom no jail can hold. Through her exuberant animal-like sexuality she has eight children, all by different fathers, some of them married to her and some not. She feels no remorse and says she is “in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms.” She would “open … and let everything inside” (LMN 276) so that after a while she “would be full” (LMN 277). She continues to be known for her catlike characteristics: “loving no one, only purring to get what she wants” (LMN 276).

As a respected elder, Lulu causes plenty of trouble. In another new chapter in Love Medicine, she allies herself with her rival Marie, and together they change the plans for the tomahawk factory into making “‘museum-quality’ artifacts” (LMN 303). Later, they quarrel and the whole factory is destroyed. The factory manager, Lyman says of his aging mother, Lulu, that “[s]he has no fear, and that’s what’s wrong with her” (LMN 302)— Lulu is always herself.

Lulu also uses her Pillager power to delay the hunt for her escaped-convict son Gerry Nanapush. She dresses herself perfectly as if for a powwow and leads her questioners on for hours. Then when they take her off to jail, she “dances the old-lady traditional, a simple step, but complex in its quiet balance, striking. She dances with a tucked-in wildness, exactly like an old-time Pillager” and before they can take her away in the federal car, she gives “the old-lady trill, the victory yell that runs up our necks” (BP 265) before the news cameras. The reservation joins her, “[d]rawing deep breaths, hearts shaking” (BP 265), and she has created a unifying act.

Of course, if one wished, the character of Lulu could be used to reinforce the stereotype of Native American women being promiscuous. However, with the addition of “The Island” section that appears more difficult, for it puts her sexuality into the realm of the spiritual if the reader is paying attention at all. The new material may be, in fact, a reaction to the propensity that some reviewers have for seeing novels as anthropological documents and in reading the characters as racial stereotypes as happened in several reviews of Love Medicine. 4 One reviewer saw only stereotypes in Erdrich’s female characters: “Meanwhile the women, with the exception of the stalwart Marie, are likely to take up with any man who comes along” (Towers 36).

Another reviewer also using sexual and racial stereotypes saw the scene in the “Wild Geese” section between Nector and Marie as a rape (Portales 6). However, perhaps to counter such interpretation, Erdrich has rewritten this scene so that even the most recalcitrant reader has to deal with Marie’s sexual power. Marie is a mixed-blood girl of fourteen, the right age for a vision quest. She is from a marginal reservation family when she enters the convent. She wants to become a saint to rectify her position. There she meets Sister Leopolda, whom she does not know is her biological mother. Partly a result of Leopolda’s physical mistreatment of her, she has a vision in which she takes on the characteristics of the water spirit man who “casts a shell necklace at your feet, weeps gleaming chips that harden into mica on your breasts…. He’s made of gold” (T 11). Marie is “rippling gold.” Her “nipples flashed and winked. Diamonds tipped them” (LMN 54).

When Marie descends from the convent, she has come into her power. She seizes her chance to improve herself by ensnaring Nector Kashpaw, who is from a well-thought-of family on the reservation. Nector thinks she is “a skinny white girl” (LMN 64) making off with the nuns’ valuables, perhaps with a chalice hidden under her skirt. What he finds is the “chalice” of her sexual power:

Her breasts graze my chest, soft and pointed. I cannot help but lower myself the slightest bit to feel them better. And then I am caught. I give way. I cannot help myself, because, to my everlasting wonder, Marie is all tight plush acceptance, graceful movements, little jabs that lead me underneath her skirt where she is slick, warm, silk. I touch her with one hand and in that one touch I lose myself…. [S]omehow I have been beaten at what I started on this hill.

(LMN 65)

After their physical encounter, Marie says, “I’ve had better.” However, Nector thinks, “I know that isn’t true because we haven’t done anything yet. She doesn’t know what comes next” (LMN 65). This time Erdrich has not left to chance that the reader will misunderstand that Marie is exerting her transformational power. Erdrich reinforces her intention that Marie is in control of her sexual power by deleting a line in the chapter “Flesh and Blood ” in which Marie and her daughter, Zelda, go up the hill to see the dying Sister Leopolda. In the original version, when she points out to Zelda as they walk the place where she met Nector, Marie thinks: “For all I knew it was the place we made Gordon as well, but I never exactly said that” (LM 114). This line is deleted in the revised version.

In the scene in which Marie encounters Nector, she is also described in both animal and nature terms, another clue that she is acting “out of her own power” (Bruchac 82). She has “brown eyes” that “glaze over like a wounded mink’s, hurt but still fighting vicious” (LMN ). She is “rail-tough and pale as birch … the kind of tree that doubles back and springs up, whips, singing” (LMN 6364). She has eyes, “tense and wild, animal eyes” that send “chills” up his neck. She “makes an odd rapsfile noise, cawing like a crow” (LMN 64).

Nector’s response to Marie finally is as if she is a wounded animal, but still she does not release him from her power. Sometimes he

find[s] a wounded animal that hasn’t died well, or, worse it’s still living, so that I have to put it out of its misery…. I touch the suffering bodies like they were killed saints I should handle with a gentle reverence…. This is how I hold her wounded hand in my hand…. Her hand grows thick and fevered, heavy in my own, and I don’t want her, but I want her, and I cannot let go.

(LMN 66-67)

Marie turns her considerable powers to making her husband Nector one of the most respected men on the reservation—the tribal chairman— and to keeping his drinking under control. She mothers her own children and those discarded by others such as June and Lipsha. As a respected elder on the reservation, she returns to “the old language, falling back through time to the words that Lazarres had used among themselves, shucking off the Kashpaw pride, yet holding to the old strengths Rushes Bear had taught her” (LMN 263). Her mother-in-law Margaret Rushes Bear Kashpaw had given Marie and subsequently, Zelda, the strength to be attuned to their own powers as women and to reject the Euro-American image of women as weak and helpless and herself as marginal—a dirty Lazarre.

She is not able to extend that transformational power to all, however. Despite her mothering of June, June’s childhood is so horrendous—being raped by her mother’s boyfriend—that she never comes fully into her own power and she eventually chooses death by walking into a blizzard. June’s considerable sexual power traps Marie’s son Gordie, but it is the power of the jacklight, used to hunt and kill in defiance for what has been done to her and not shared power. Gordie’s life is devastated by his marriage to June, and Marie must deal with her son’s decline. In another new chapter added to Love Medicine, Marie gathers her strength and refuses to allow Gordie to leave the cabin again in search of alcohol. She thinks: “There was no question in her mind that if she let him go he would get himself killed. She would almost rather have killed him herself” (LMN 275). Gordie dies after drinking Lysol with Marie sitting at the cabin door with her axe.

June’s harm extends to her own son, Lipsha, who she tries to drown as an infant. Lipsha is saved by the water spirit man, and therefore given his gift of touch and connected firmly to the Pillagers, Fleur, and Moses, who also have the water man as a spirit guardian. Lipsha remembers it as:

Darkened and drenched, coming toward me from the other side of drowning—it presses its mouth on mine and holds me with its fins and horns and rocks me with its long and shining plant arms. Its face is lion-jawed, a thing of beach foam, resembling the jack of clubs. Its face has the shock of the unburied goodness, the saving tones…. I am rocked and saved and cradled.

(BP 218)

When Lipsha seeks out his great grandmother Fleur for some love medicine, their connection is reaffirmed. Later Fleur performs her last transforming act—she trades her life for Lipsha’s: “Outdoors, into a deep cold brilliance that often succeeds a long disruptive blizzard, she went thinking of the boy out there. Annoyed, she took his place” (BP 272).

For Marie’s daughter, Zelda, the vision quest, which sets an adolescent on her adult path, comes late. At sixteen she “did not know what she wanted yet” (LMN 148). Like her mother and her biological grandmother Pauline (Sister Leopolda), she thinks of going up the hill to join the nuns in the convent, but she has not chosen any particular path. It is after she and her mother visit the dying Sister Leopolda that the incident which shapes her life occurs. Zelda’s vision takes the form of her father’s infidelity with Lulu Lamartine. She finds his farewell letter to her mother and goes to bring him back. Her father, Nector, sees her as a vision of Marie and instead of animal characteristics, common to women coming into their own power, she has the characteristics of an avenging angel:

I see Marie standing in the bush. She is fourteen and slim again. I can do nothing but stare, rooted to the ground. She stands tall, straight and stern as an angel. She watches me. Red flames from the burning house glare and flicker in her eyes. Her skin sheds light. We are face to face, and then she begins to lift on waves of heat. Her breast is a glowing shield. Her arm is a white-hot spear. When she raises it the bush behind her spreads, blazing open like wings.

(LMN 145)

In acting for her mother, Zelda aborts her natural self. She decides that she wants a white man who “would take … [her] away from the reservation to the Twin Cities, where … [she’d] planned her life all out from catalogs and magazines” (BP 46). Unlike her father, Nector, she would never be subject to love; she would never share her transformational power with a man. Instead she uses her sexual power to thwart the love of Xavier Toose:

She was capable of hovering in a blanket, in a room where her own breath rose and fell, a plume of longing, all night. She could exist in the dark cell of her body. She was capable of denying herself everything tender, unspoken, sweet, generous, and desperate. She could do it because she willed it. She could live in the shell of her quilt as the cold night lengthened, and she could let a man’s fires flash and burn, flash and burn, until they disappeared.

(BP 244)

Nevertheless, despite Zelda’s refusal of Xavier, she uses her power to control events on the reservation. As Lipsha says of her,

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…. My aunt knows all there is to know. She has a deep instinct for running things. She should have more children or at least a small nation to control. Instead, forced narrow, her talents run to getting people to do things they don’t want to do for other people they don’t like. Zelda is the author of grit-jawed charity on the reservation, the instigator of good works that always get chalked up to her credit.

(BP 13-14)

Zelda has raven-like hair “which still sweeps its fierce wing down the middle of her back,” and she wears the legacy from her paternal grandmother, Margaret Rushes Bear Kashpaw, a skinning knife in a beaded sheath “at her strong hip” (BP 15). Despite her marriage to her white man, the “morose” Swede (BP 23), she named her daughter “Albertine” after her first love, Xavier Albert Toose, her denial of his love affecting her all of her life. Zelda is visited with a vision which accompanies the return of her father’s ceremonial pipe—the pipe which was “Earth and heaven, connecting, the fire between that burned in everything alive” (BP 245). The pipe also had a “horned man radiating wavering lines of power … beaded into the other end” (LMN 259). In a series of painful visions connected to heart attacks, she sees that she has denied her own nature, her love for Xavier Toose. When she thinks of him, her heart “yawned open like a greedy young bird, ready to be fed” (BP 246). Finally, she stands before him, “new as if naked, but she had no shame” (BP 247). So, even though Zelda has denied her own nature and only accepted it as a mature woman, still she is not weak; she is transformed. She meets Xavier half way: “Light dashed itself upon Zelda, but she wasn’t shaken. Her hands floated off the steering wheel and gestured, but she wasn’t helpless” (BP 247).

Fleur, Lulu, Marie, and Zelda all exemplify Er-drich’s transformational sexual power when women are most themselves. Erdrich counters the stereotypes of Native American women as weak by using the traditional Chippewa concepts of the vision quest and the spirit guardian, most often the water spirit man. Her characters are shown as taking on the animal characteristics of their spirit guardians and acting out of their own power. With the revisions in Love Medicine, and through The Bingo Palace, Erdrich brings these concepts firmly onto the contemporary reservation—offering images of strong, self-reliant, powerful Chippewa women.


1. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd edition, defines jacklight as: “a portable cresset, or oil-burning lantern, or electric light used as a lure in hunting or fishing at night.”

2. See Vecsey 121-43 for discussions of puberty and the vision quest.

3. See Van Dyke for a discussion of the role of the water spirit man in Erdrich’s work.

4. See McKenzie 53-55 for a discussion of stereotypes in reviews of Love Medicine.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Bruchac, Joseph, ed. “Whatever Is Really Yours: An Interview with Louise Erdrich.” Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1987. 73-86.

Erdrich, Louise. Jacklight. New York: Holt, 1984.

George, Jan. “Interview with Louise Erdrich.” North Dakota Quarterly 53 (1985): 240-46.

McKenzie, James. “Lipsha’s Good Road Home: The Revival of Chippewa Culture in Love Medicine.American Indian Culture and Research Journal 10.3 (1986): 53-63.

Portales, Marco. “People with Holes in Their Lives.” Rev. of Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich. New York Times Book Review 23 December 1984: 6.

Towers, Robert. “Uprooted.” Rev. of Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich. New York Review of Books 11 April 1985: 36.

Van Dyke, Annette. “Questions of the Spirit: Bloodlines in Louise Erdrich’s Chippewa Landscape.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 4.1 (1992): 15-27.

Vecsey, Christopher. Traditional Ojibwa Religion and Its Historical Changes. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1983.

Principal Works

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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 Falcon: A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner (nonfiction) 1994

The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year (memoir) 1995

Grandmother's Pigeon (children's book) 1996

Tales of Burning Love (novel) 1996

The Antelope Wife (novel) 1998

The Birchbark House (juvenile novel) 1999

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (novel) 2001

The Range Eternal (juvenile novel) 2002

The Master Butchers Singing Club (novel) 2003

Four Souls (novel) 2004

Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Erdrich, Louise. “Women’s Work.” In The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year, pp. 42-7. New York: Harper Perennial, 1995.

In the following essay, originally published in Harper’s magazine, Erdrich describes the experience of labor and birth.

Rocking, breathing, groaning, mouthing circles of distress, laughing, whistling, pounding, wavering, digging, pulling, pushing—labor is the most involuntary work we do. My body gallops to these rhythms. I’m along for the ride, at times in some control and at others dragged along as if foot-caught in a stirrup. I don’t have much to do at first but breathe, accept ice chips, make jokes—in fear and pain my family makes jokes, that’s how we deal with what we can’t change, how we show our courage.

Even though I am a writer and have practiced my craft for years, and have experienced two natural childbirths and an epidural-assisted childbirth, I find women’s labor extremely difficult to describe. In the first place, there are all sorts of labor and no “correct” way to do it. I bow to the power and grandeur of those who insist on natural childbirth, but I find the pieties that often attend the process irritating. I am all for pain relief or caesareans when women want and need these procedures. Enduring pain in itself doesn’t make one a better person, though if your mind is prepared, pain of this sort—a meaningful and determined pain based on ardor and potential joy—can be deeply instructive, can change your life.

Perhaps there is no adequate description for something that happens with such full-on physical force, but the problem inherent to birth narratives is also historical—women haven’t had a voice or education, or have been overwhelmed, unconscious, stifled, just plain worn out or worse, ill to the death. Although every birth is a story, there are only so many outcomes possible. Birth is dictated to the consciousness by the conscious body. There are certain frustrations in approaching such an event, a drama in which the body stars and not the fiction-making mind. In a certain way, I’m jealous. I want to control the tale. I can’t—therein lies the conflict that drives this plot in the first place. I have to trust this body—a thing inherently bound to betray me, an unreliable conveyance, a passion-driven cab that tries its best to let me off in bad neighborhoods, an adolescent that rebels against my better self, that eats erratically and sleeps too much, that grows another human with my grudging admiration, a sensation grabber, unpenitent, remorseless, amoral.

Birth is intensely spiritual and physical all at once. The contractions do not stop. There is no giving up this physical prayer. The person who experiences birth with the closest degree of awareness is the mother—but not only am I physically programmed to forget the experience to some degree (our brains “extinct” fear, we are all programmed to forget pain over time, and hormones seem to assist), I am overwhelmed by what is happening to me. I certainly can’t take notes, jot down my sensations, or even have them with any perspective after a while. And then, once our baby is actually born, the experience of labor, even at its most intense, is eclipsed by the presence of an infant.

The problem of narrative involves, too, more than just embarrassment about a physical process. We’re taught to suppress its importance over time, to devalue and belittle an experience in which we are bound up in the circular drama of human fate, in a state of heightened awareness and receptivity, at a crux where we intuit connections and, for a moment, unlock time’s hold like a brace, even step from our bodies. Labor often becomes both paradigm and parable. The story of the body becomes a touchstone, a predictor. A mother or a father, in describing their labor, relates the personality of the child to some piece of the event, makes the story into a frame, an introduction, a prelude to the child’s life, molds the labor into the story that is no longer a woman’s story or a man’s story, but the story of a child.

The first part of labor feels, to me anyway, like dance exercises—slow stretches that become only slightly painful as a muscle is pulled to its limit. After each contraction, the feeling subsides. The contractions move in longer waves, one after another, closer and closer together until a sea of physical sensation washes and then crashes over. In the beginning I breathe in concentration, watching Michael’s eyes. I feel myself slip beneath the waves as they roar over, cresting just above my head. I duck every time the contraction peaks. As the hours pass and one wave builds on another there are times the undertow grabs me. I struggle, slammed to the bottom, unable to gather the force of nerve for the next. Thrown down, I rely on animal fierceness, swim back, surface, breathe, and try to stay open, willing. Staying open and willing is difficult. Very often in labor one must fight the instinct to resist pain and instead embrace it, move toward it, work with what hurts the most.

The waves come faster. Charlotte asks me to keep breathing yes, yes. To say yes instead of shuddering in refusal. Whether I am standing on the earth or not, whether I am moored to the dock, whether I remember who I am, whether I am mentally prepared, whether I am going to float beneath or ride above, the waves pound in. At shorter intervals, crazy now, electric, in storms, they wash. Sometimes I’m gone. I’ve poured myself into some deeper fissure below the sea only to be dragged forth, hair streaming. During transition, as the baby is ready to be pushed out into life, the waves are no longer made of water, but neons so brilliant I gasp in shock and flourish my arms, letting the colors explode from my fingertips in banners, in ribbons, in iridescent trails—of pain, it is true, unendurable sometimes, and yet we do endure.

Every birth is profoundly original and yet plotted a billion times, too many times. We move into the narrative with medical advice and technological assistance and frail human hopes, and yet we often find ourselves inadequately shaped by culture, by family, by each other for the scope of the work. The task requires mystical tools and helpers. For religions to make sense to women, there should be a birth ritual that flexes and exercises the most powerful aspects of the personality in preparation. Organized Christian religion is more often about denying the body when what we profoundly need are rituals that take into regard the blood, the shock, the heat, the shit, the anguish, the irritation, the glory, the earnestness of the female body.

Some push once, some don’t push at all, some push in pleasure, some not and some, like me, for hours. We wreak havoc, make animal faces, ugly bare-toothed faces, go red, go darker, whiter, stranger, turn to bears. We choke spouses, beat nurses, beg them, beg doctors, weep and focus. It is our work, our body’s work that is involved in its own goodness. For, even though it wants at times to lie down and quit, the body is an honest hardworking marvel that gives everything to this one task.

Title Commentary

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SOURCE: Tanner, Laura E. “‘Known in the Brain and Known in the Flesh’: Gender, Race, and the Vulnerable Body in Tracks.” In Intimate Violence: Reading Rape and Torture in Twentieth-Century Fiction, pp. 115-41. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

In the following essay, Tanner discusses the double implications of gender and race in Erdrich’s portrayal of rape in her novelTracks.

Rape begins, like many other forms of violence, with the painful confrontation of two bodies; more importantly, however, its dynamics originate out of two opposing experiences of embodiment. For the male violator, embodiment emerges as a source of strength rather than vulnerability. Often imaged as solid, fixed, powerful, the body of the rapist is capable not only of asserting his presence but of appropriating, reshaping, and violating the female body so that it conforms to the dictates of his pleasures. The male body, then, functions as a tool that extends the power of subjectivity out into a larger universe that the violator can remake within the configurations of his own desire.

For the rape victim, on the other hand, embodiment is a source of vulnerability rather than power. Fixed within her body, the woman is unable to shield herself from the force of the violator as he pins her within the confines of a form over which he assumes control. Beneath the violator’s hand, the rape victim’s body becomes a text on which his will is inscribed, a form that bears the mark of his subjectivity even as she cannot divorce it from her own. Within such a scenario, the entanglement of subject and body allows the violator to assume control of both and the victim to assert power over neither. The image of bodily penetration is thus bound up with an assault on subjectivity in which the victim is annihilated from both inside and outside; the woman’s body continues to allow the violator access to her subjectivity even as the power of agency is stripped away from her, imprisoning her in a material form over which she as subject has no control.

The dynamics of rape are further complicated when the victim of sexual violence is a woman of color for whom the experience of embodiment cannot be separated from the experience of oppression. In such a case, the rapist’s physical appropriation of the female body as the object of his desire may exaggerate a sense of powerlessness that the victim experiences daily within a hegemonic culture that defines her body as the source of her Otherness. The increased statistical vulnerability of women of color to the violence of rape is a daily and constant threat to personal autonomy that intensifies an already difficult struggle to claim the power of subjectivity. In the literature of African American, Hispanic, and Native American women, then, the dynamics of rape often become intertwined with the dynamics of oppression.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou describes her own childhood experience of rape by observing, “The act of rape on an eight year old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot” (65). In such a case, the victim’s body becomes the imprint on which the rapist’s identity is forcibly inscribed, her own being the mark of his desperate claim to power. In raping, the violator not only assaults his victim but turns her presence into an absence that she may be unable to reclaim. The destructive power of such an assault is heightened when its victim already experiences her claim to her own body and subjectivity as tenuous. The twelve-year-old rape victim in Cherrie Moraga’s Giving Up the Ghost describes the rapist’s attempt to penetrate her young body as a literal and figurative process of transforming her into a hole: “there was no hole / he had to make it / ’n’ I see myself down there like a face / with no opening / a face with no features…. HE MADE ME A HOLE!” (42-43). In Moraga’s representation, the subjectivity of the young victim is effaced by a rapist who not only violates her physically but makes her see herselfas a featureless absence, a hole. The apparent intimacy of physical closeness and the absolute denial of the victim’s subjectivity converge to lend the rapist an awful power that the torturer/protagonist of Maria Irene Fornes’s The Conduct of Life describes by saying, “It is a desire to destroy and to see things destroyed and to see the inside of them” (Plays,82).

That assault from the inside defines not only the anatomy of the rape experience but the invisible operation of a hegemonic culture that constructs the woman of color, like the rape victim, as a featureless absence. In “Poem about My Rights,” June Jordan links the experience of rape with the self-destructive act of internalizing the values of a dominant culture: “I am the wrong / sex the wrong age the wrong skin…. / I am the history of rape / I am the history of the rejection of who I am / I am the history of the terrorized incarceration of / my self …” (Passion,86, 88). As an act in which physical and emotional violation converge, in which the external force of the violator is necessarily contained within the most intimate space of the victim, rape is an assault often imaged as self-destruction, an experience defined by the literal violation of the boundaries of anatomy and autonomy. Such an experience of fragmentation, as Jordan observes here, is also the fundamental experience of a woman attempting to claim an identity in a culture that defines her as the weakness against which to measure its own strength or the absence that serves only to mark its presence.

The attempt to unveil the oppressive mechanisms of a dominant culture that governs through sign and metaphor leads many women writers of color not merely to metaphorize rape but to trace the way in which its material dynamics are experienced, interpreted, or appropriated by both victim and violator. In this chapter, I will explore the vulnerable body as it emerges within the dynamics of rape and oppression in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks. Tracks not only investigates the psychological effects of rape as an act that can “terrorize and incarcerate” women within their own bodies; it also explores the way in which that experience of vulnerable embodiment is exaggerated by the victim’s internalization of essentialist assumptions about race and gender.

Although the rape that takes place early in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks is perpetrated against Fleur Pillager, the “strong and daring” Native American heroine of the novel, the reader’s access to that rape is mediated through the perspective of Pauline, the young mixed-blood Native American woman who both witnesses and narrates the crime.1 The psychological consequences of Fleur’s rape—either for the victim or the violators—are never fully addressed in the novel; Fleur’s rapists die shortly after they attack her, while Fleur herself never articulates her pain or acknowledges that the rape took place. It is, then, only in Pauline’s imagination that the act of violation remains present in the novel.2 Its impact on her character surfaces not only in her recounting (or, according to other characters in the novel, fabrication) of the incident but in the images of sexual violation that permeate the psychological landscapes through which Pauline moves both as character and as narrator. Although critics of Erdrich’s novel have largely ignored the rape, it is impossible to disentangle Pauline’s understanding of race, gender, and power from her response to Fleur’s violation.

The intersection of issues of race and gender complicates any discussion of the sexual violence represented within Erdrich’s novel. In exploring the ideological function of criticism that takes gender as its starting point, recent feminist critics have pointed to the danger of using feminist theory to reinforce the values of a dominant race and class system.3 Reading rape in the context of Erdrich’s text makes visible dynamics that often operate invisibly in texts by white authors. The body, as Tracks reveals, is marked not only by sex but by race, and the dynamics of intimate violence may be written within narratives highlighting both. In the case of Erdrich’s novel, however, critics have focused almost exclusively on the issue of race.4 Because it is structured as a series of chapters narrated alternately by Nanapush and Pauline— the elder tribesman and the young mixed-blood woman aspiring to whiteness—Erdrich’s novel is often read as a struggle between traditional Native American life and the dangerous lure of white acculturation. The tensions that emerge in Tracks, however, stem from differences of gender and race, as the prominent place of Fleur’s rape early in the novel demonstrates. The challenge that Erdrich’s novel poses to the critic is the challenge to avoid privileging one category of difference over another. In order to claim herself as subject, Pauline must negotiate her identities as both woman and mixed-blood Native American; the division of those identities can be effected only artificially, in intellectual rather than practical terms. My discussion of Erdrich’s novel, insofar as it makes use of categories of race and gender, tends to separate in theory what cannot be divorced in practice, to isolate in the very act of articulating connection. My attempt, nonetheless, is to gesture toward the points of intersection that cannot properly be named by exploring in dialogic rather than dualistic terms the rape that constitutes one center of Erdrich’s novel.

In the figure of Pauline, Erdrich offers us a character suffering from both racial and gender disempowerment. As a woman whose body is not marked by the conventions of femininity and a “half-breed” caught between her white and Native American backgrounds, Pauline is trapped in the margins of cultural definition. Tracks traces her attempt to reclaim a subjectivity that has been appropriated by others by turning against a body that she defines as the source of her Otherness. Pauline images her own vulnerability—as a woman and a Native American—with a vocabulary of violation that grows out of her experience of listening, against her will, as Fleur is raped. A discussion of the dynamics of rape in the novel begins to unveil the way in which Pauline’s understanding of herself as subject is caught up in essentialist notions of the body that lead, ultimately, to her literal and figurative self-destruction.

The issue of how Pauline’s body is read by others surfaces immediately in the novel as she travels to Argus to live with her aunt and work in the butcher shop there. Because the men who surround her in the shop fail to read the conventional signs of “femaleness” on her skinny teenaged form, Pauline’s body seems to disappear before their gaze:

I was fifteen, alone, and so poor-looking I was invisible to most customers and to the men in the shop. Until they needed me, I blended into the stained brown walls, a skinny big-nosed girl with staring eyes…. Because I could fade into a corner or squeeze beneath a shelf I knew everything: how much cash there was in the till, what the men joked about when no one was around, and what they did to Fleur.


Gendered neither male nor female, Pauline’s body ceases to exist in the men’s world; unmarked by the signs of gender difference, it “blends” and “fades” into a landscape controlled and interpreted by men. Her subjectivity also remains unacknowledged as, caught in the space between the cultural labels of male and female, Pauline becomes “no one.” In a patriarchal society, as Mary Ann Doane observes, “to desexualize the female body is ultimately to deny its very existence” (79). Seemingly bodiless, Pauline does not interact with the men around her but becomes instead the observer, the witness, the watcher.

In racial as well as gender terms, Pauline’s subjectivity is consistently denied. She responds to the powerlessness of her position as a Native American in a white world not by questioning the values of the dominant culture but by internalizing those values to see herself through the mediation of the white gaze. “I wanted to be like my mother, who showed her half-white … ,” she remarks early in the novel. “I saw through the eyes of the world outside us. I would not speak our language” (14). As the words of Pauline’s disavowal reveal, her claim to white identity is effected only at the cost of self-alienation. The split implied in separating her white being from her Native American self is revealed as she simultaneously claims and disavows her native language: “I would not speak ourlanguage.” Similarly, her decision to appropriate “the eyes of the world outside us” implies the internalization of a vision that necessarily redefines usas Other.In Pauline’s case, to see herself through the eyes of the world, to define herself through the images of a dominant culture, is a form of self-violation that perpetuates the white culture’s negation and destruction of the Native American Other. Her own assumptions of a fundamental Otherness bind her to a destructive vision of herself as not-white that parallels and exaggerates the powerlessness of her presence beneath a male gaze that defines her as “no one.”

Fleur’s rape unsettles the dominance of a patriarchal, white gaze in the text by challenging the notion of Pauline’s bodily invisibility and exposing the dynamics of self-violation that underlie her disavowal of the racial self. Until the point at which Fleur is raped, Pauline’s occupation of the space between female and male, Native American and white, seems to lend her a perverse kind of power; the looker but never the seen, her gaze does not seem to originate out of a body that circumscribes perspective. Unattached to any single form or subject position, Pauline seems to possess a kind of liberating fluidity emphasized by descriptions of her body. The novel’s early representations emphasize the insubstantiality of Pauline’s “skinny” form; as she describes herself as a “moving shadow” (22), only her “staring eyes” locate her in the novel’s early scenes (16).

Not surprisingly, then, Pauline’s response to Fleur’s rape is to close her eyes to the act she witnesses, almost as if the loss of vision will bring about the complete erasure of a body already imaged as invisible. As the men whom Fleur has humiliated at cards corner her inside the smokehouse and rape her in punishment, Pauline is paralyzed by the recognition of a vulnerability she shares with Fleur, and responds by attempting to escape from her own body:

The men saw, yelled, and chased [Fleur] at a dead run to the smokehouse…. That is when I should have gone to Fleur, saved her, thrown myself on Dutch the way Russell did…. He stuck to his stepfather’s leg as if he’d been flung there. Dutch dragged him for a few steps, his leg a branch, then cuffed Russell off and left him shouting and bawling in the sticky weeds. I closed my eyes and put my hands on my ears, so there is nothing more to describe but what I couldn’t block out: those yells from Russell, Fleur’s hoarse breath, so loud it filled me, her cry in the old language and our names repeated over and over among the words.


Despite Pauline’s decision not to speak the language in which Fleur cries out, Fleur’s articulation of pain remains intelligible to her; Pauline’s disavowal of her Native American identity cannot undo her connection to the “old language.” Similarly, Pauline’s attempt to move outside the body that not only makes her vulnerable to rape but links her in sensory terms to Fleur’s painful experience proves ineffectual as well. Pauline’s futile efforts to block out awareness of Fleur’s violation only call attention to her physical presence as witness; as Fleur’s body disappears from this representation of rape, the image of Pauline closing her eyes and putting her hands over her ears directs the reader’s focus toward the very body that Pauline would erase.

The reader’s attempt to access the details of Fleur’s rape, then, is frustrated not only by the mediating force of Pauline’s narration but by its emphasis on Pauline’s experience of her body during the rape rather than Fleur’s. When the reader finally “witnesses” Fleur’s violation many pages later, the materiality of violence is once again obscured as Pauline recalls not the rape itself but her dreams about it. Erdrich’s interpolation of such dreams into the plot of her novel in part reflects her appropriation of Native American traditions based on a mythic or symbolic epistemology. 5 As a character caught between Native American and white religions, experiences, and conventions, Pauline authors a narrative that foregrounds questions of interpretation as it moves between “imaginary” and “real” events; that narrative, as Catherine Rainwater argues, “vexes the reader’s effort to decide upon an unambiguous, epistemologically consistent interpretive framework” (407). Although Rainwater does not address Pauline’s narrative of the rape, it most clearly exposes the implications of the reader’s suspension between opposing interpretive frameworks:

I relived the whole thing over and over, that moment so clear before the storm. Every night when my arms lowered the beam, it was my will that bore the weight, let it drop into place-not Russell’s and not Fleur’s. For that reason, at the Judgment, it would be my soul sacrificed, my poor body turned on the devil’s wheel. And yet, despite that future, I was condemned to suffer in this life also. Every night I was witness when the men slapped Fleur’s mouth, beat her, entered and rode her. I felt all. My shrieks poured from her mouth and my blood from her wounds.


Despite Pauline’s apparent revelation of the details of the rape—“the men slapped Fleur’s mouth, beat her, entered and rode her”—the reader remains dislocated in a scene of violence that offers him or her few points of material reference. The origin of these images in Pauline’s dreams exaggerates the already blurred line between the experiential and the imagined, just as Pauline’s rendering effaces the boundaries between her body and Fleur’s. The reader’s attempt to assign cause and effect or to place the location of victim, violator, or observer is frustrated by Pauline’s confusion of material and immaterial categories. Despite Pauline’s physical distance from the rape, for example, she renders its impact on her in material terms as she describes her shrieks and her blood pouring from Fleur’s body. Although Pauline covers her “staring eyes” during the rape, she cannot escape from the scene in either body or mind, and her obsessive reenactments of the crime force her into the position of a voyeur who witnesses the violation of a body that dissolves into her own form.

The reader’s attempt to access the materiality of violence in this representation is thus frustrated by a narrative that moves the reader away from the empirical dynamics of violation into a semiotic universe in which it is impossible to disentangle mind from body, imagination from materiality. As these categories become blurred within the text, the narrative propels the reader away from the immediacy of the rape which it represents and discourages the reader from connecting Fleur’s violation to the empirical dynamics of rape. As I have argued in my introduction, the act of reading a representation of violation is defined by the reader’s suspension between the semiotic and the real, between a representation and the material dynamics of violence which it evokes, reflects, or transforms. “Semiotics,” as Teresa de Lauretis observes, “specifies the mutual overdetermination of meaning, perception, and experience, a complex nexus of reciprocally constitutive effects between the subject and social reality, which, in the subject, entail a continual modification of consciousness; that consciousness in turn being the condition of social change” (Alice Doesn’t,184). Representations of violence locate the readerly subject at the “nexus of reciprocally constitutive effects” that may ultimately result in a transformation of attitudes about empirical as well as textual reality. Because the language of fiction is by definition never simply referential, however, fictional representations of violence that disorient the reader by manipulating experiential conventions may obscure any connection to empirical violence.

Such readerly disorientation may account for the glaring absence of a discussion of Fleur’s rape in the criticism of Erdrich’s novel. Even the most current analysis of Tracks, which focuses on gender issues as they affect the construction of Pauline’s subjectivity, lacks a single reference to the incident of sexual violence with which Pauline’s narrative begins.6 Such an omission can be explained only by exploring the way in which both Pauline and the reader of Tracks interpret the presence of the vulnerable body. As Pauline conflates the materiality of her body with the hegemonic culture’s semiotic construction of it, the reader engages with a series of representations that obscure the materiality of the body in favor of its semiotic construction. Both Pauline and the reader, then, negotiate between empirical and semiotic realities; as Pauline reduces the semiotic to its material counterpart, the reader is pushed toward enacting the opposite process.

As Pauline’s narrative dissolves the representational boundaries between body and mind, it magnifies the immaterial dynamics of the reading process to heighten the reader’s experience of the text and the violence represented within it as imaginative constructs. The reader, whose access to the materiality of violence is always problematized by the operation of representation, encounters an absence of referentiality even at the level of plot. Even as Pauline struggles to deal with an act of violence that remains urgently present in her mind, the events of the rape are continually displaced for the reader by Pauline’s reflections about them. In her initial description of Russell’s attempt to lock the rapists into the meat lockers, for example, Pauline states, “He strained and shoved…. Sometimes, thinking back, I see my arms lift, my hands grasp, see myself dropping the beam into the metal grip. At other times, that moment is erased” (27). Even this simple bodily act becomes an issue of interpretation as the reader comes to access Pauline’s experience only through the mediating force of an imagination capable of creating and erasing realities.

Pauline’s vexed relationship with her body thus intrudes upon the reader’s experience of the text through the force of a narrative that represents without transition empirical and imaginary events. In Pauline’s dream recollection of the rape quoted above, Russell is able to respond to the horror of the rape physically while Pauline “bears the weight” of the beam on the freezer door imaginatively; it is her “will” that drops the latch and not her body. The confusion of mind/body categories evident in Pauline’s narrative thus operates not only to deny the reader material reference but to mark Pauline’s double vulnerability; Pauline experiences not only the pain of a rape that she resists imaginatively but the guilt of complicity in a crime in which she appears not to intervene physically. As the boundary between body and imagination dissolves, Pauline suffers the consequences of a seeming disembodiment that implicates her as passive witness to Fleur’s suffering but does not protect her from imaginative vulnerability to Fleur’s pain.

After the rape, Pauline’s reflections on the gaze reveal her attempt to renegotiate the position of powerlessness into which the rape forces her. If her own body enforces her reluctant perception of Fleur’s violation yet offers no physical medium through which to resist the rape, Pauline envisions an alternative body that resists rather than invites vulnerability:

Power travels in the bloodlines, handed out before birth. It comes down through the hands, which in the Pillagers are strong and knotted, big, spidery and rough, with sensitive fingertips good at dealing cards. It comes through the eyes, too, belligerent, darkest brown, the eyes of those in the bear clan, impolite as they gaze directly at a person.

In my dreams, I look straight back at Fleur, at the men. I am no longer the watcher on the dark sill, the skinny girl.


Pauline’s focus on the physical texture of these powerful hands, which are “strong and knotted, big, spidery and rough, with sensitive fingertips,” renders the body that she ascribes collectively to the Pillager family surprisingly tactile and immediate in contrast to the vague abstraction of Pauline’s individual form. As the “watcher” whose skinny body blends into darkness and the mixed-blood Native American who sees herself only as notwhite, Pauline lacks the substantiality of the Pillagers. Even her gaze is seemingly sourceless, its trajectory indirect; originating out of no concrete form, it is capable of “looking straight back” at the other only in Pauline’s dreams. Unlike Pauline, who sees “through the eyes of the world outside us,” the Pillagers possess a “direct” and unmediated gaze imaged in part by the physical presence of eyes that assert their owners’ embodiment andsubjectivity. Both “darkest brown” and “belligerent,” these eyes provide an anchor for the penetrating gaze that issues from them; their claim to materiality is also a claim to subjectivity that Pauline implicitly contrasts with her own inability to affirm her presence in either category.

The interpenetration of body and subject in Pauline’s imaging of the gaze reflects in part her own struggle with the notion of biological determinism and racial identity. The power implicit in the Pillager form travels, in Pauline’s analysis, “in the bloodlines, handed out before birth”; the body, in such a view, carries the mark of identity and determines not only the physical configuration of an individual but the power and variety of subject positions available to him or her. If their pure “bloodlines” lend power and solidity to the Pillager gaze, Pauline’s own family status as a mixed-blood Native American seems to deny her access to that power, as her description of the Puyats reveals:

During the time I stayed with them, I hardly saw Dutch or Regina look each other in the eye or talk. Perhaps it was because … the 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.


Located biologically in the space between Native American and white, defined by the mixing of two racial bloodlines, the Puyats lack a stable base from which to affirm their presence. The quiet demeanor of Pauline’s relatives and their inability to “look each other in the eye” contrasts sharply with the strong hands and belligerent gazes of the Pillagers. The fear of Pauline’s father that she will change if sent to the white town— “‘You’ll fade out there,’ he said, reminding me that I was lighter than my sisters. ‘You won’t be an Indian once you return.’” (14)—is imaged in bodily terms, as the white world’s assault on an Indian identity marked so weakly on Pauline’s body that she is in danger of dissolving into the whiteness that her father defines as nothingness.

In racial as well as gender terms, then, Pauline’s body threatens to fade into invisibility. Because the novel constructs Pauline’s marginality within a framework that is self-consciously racial, criticism has tended to focus exclusively on her role as a half-breed whose perspective has been coopted by the dominant white culture. As Trinh T. Minh-ha theorizes, however, any such isolationist reading can be said to reinscribe the very Euro- American dynamics that critics of Tracks attempt to unveil. Minh-ha states, “The idea of two illusorily separated identities, one ethnic, the other woman (or more precisely female), again, partakes in the Euro-American system of dualistic reasoning and its age-old divide-and-conquer tactics” (104). Only by restoring the link between Pauline’s racial and gender identities is it possible to explore the full implications of the rape scene with which Pauline’s narrative begins and to which it continually alludes.

Within the deterministic frame that Pauline posits, Fleur’s status as a Pillager dictates that her hands be marked by strength and her gaze defined by its penetrating stare. As the rape makes clear, however, Fleur’s body is not merely a racial text, the strength of her Native American name not the only signifier of her power or powerlessness. Fleur’s cultural heritage is imaged throughout the novel as a source of a mystical strength; more than once, she survives her own drowning, manipulates the lives and deaths of others, and moves into and out of different physical forms. Fleur’s inability to escape the female form that makes her vulnerable to rape is thus all the more shocking. Within the context of sexual violence, Fleur’s strength is overwhelmed by males and her body transformed from the source of the penetrating gaze to the object of penetration. Although Pauline frames the rape with references to Fleur’s mystical powers, culminating in the tornado that eventually results in the death of the rapists, the experience to which Pauline returns again and again is the moment of violation itself, a moment in which Fleur is defined not by racial empowerment but by gender powerlessness.

Both in imaging Fleur’s rape and in reenacting it in different forms, Pauline attempts to come to terms with her own vulnerability to violation. Like her attempt to respond to racial otherness by denying her Native American identity, however, Pauline’s effort to escape the vulnerability she experiences as a woman by destroying the body that is the most visible manifestation of that vulnerability only succeeds in reinscribing the dynamics of violation that she fears. Although the novel begins with Pauline’s rejection of the Native American self that she defines as Other, the rape propels her to view the marks of her gender as signs of her powerlessness as well; after Fleur’s violation, the gaze that she comes to adopt as she sees “through the eyes of the world outside us” is not only white but male. Pauline’s attempt to appropriate the vision of the empowered only results in the continued reinscription of her identity as Other; her borrowed eyes are anchored in a body that intrudes again and again to reinforce her vision of her own insignificance: “Clarence was the one I should have tried for, I saw that, but I also saw what he saw—the pole-thin young woman others did, the hair pulled back and woven into a single braid, the small and staring eyes that did not blink …” (74). Pauline’s representation of her body reinscribes its object status even as she attributes the process of objectification to the male gaze: “I also saw what he saw.” Having internalized the gaze of the oppressor, Pauline images her own eyes as static; her wooden, motionless look defines her not as subject but as object. Even as she attempts to appropriate the power of the gaze, Pauline becomes overpowered by it; as long as she defines herself according to what she is not— white, Pillager, male—Pauline remains uncomfortable in her own body.

That discomfort is revealed again as Pauline images the power of men in the same way she imaged the power of the Pillagers: in the strength and solidity of their hands. Describing her failed encounter with a potential lover, Pauline claims, “I hadn’t liked the weight of Napoleon’s hands, their hardened palms. I hadn’t liked seeing myself naked, plucked and skinned” (74). This passage renders the female form both transparent and malleable; assigning weight and solidity to the male body, Pauline contrasts Napoleon’s “hardened palms” with her own vulnerable nakedness. Although Pauline consents to the sexual interchange that she describes here, she images the physical act that is not rape as a form of psychic violation. In “forcing” her to see herself “naked, plucked and skinned,” Napoleon metaphorically strips away the layer of protection that would allow Pauline to claim autonomy as both body and subject. Ironically, of course, it is Pauline who is the subject of her own violation as she reduces herself to the object of a gaze that originates in her consciousness rather than in Napoleon’s eyes.

Pauline’s horror at being “skinned” beneath the force of Napoleon’s gaze reflects her notion of the body as a kind of container which houses the subject within; the skin, then, becomes the boundary between body and subject, the protective layer that is the final physical barrier to a self vulnerable to intimate violence. “Naked, plucked and skinned,” the female form becomes a permeable structure invaded by a masculine body that Pauline images as hard, substantial, anchored: “With my clothes gone, I saw all the bones pushing at my flesh. I tried to shut my eyes, but couldn’t keep them closed, feeling that if I did not hold his gaze he could look at me any way he wanted” (73). Pauline’s fear of violation is not merely a fear of physical assault; it is a fear that her body itself will dissolve, her skin melt away, to unveil to the masculine eye the very bones that support her frame. The male gaze, it seems, contains the power not only to see those bones but, in isolating them, to reconstruct them into a form of its own making. Lacking a sense of herself as stable subject, Pauline collapses into a body that serves not as the shield she desires but as a passageway into the self. The subject “contained” by those bones, it becomes clear, exists only incidentally as it is created by others. In looking at her “any way he wanted,” Napoleon possesses the power to make her anything he wants, and although she seems determined to hold his gaze to keep him from doing so, Pauline’s internalization of his perspective guarantees that she will continue to construct herself as an absence in the shadow of his presence.

Pauline’s response to such vulnerability is to disavow the physical form through which others gain access to her as subject. “Plucked and skinned” beneath the male gaze, Pauline can assert her identity as desiring subject rather than victim only by abandoning her body. She succeeds in enacting her desire for her cousin Eli only by attaching herself to another body in the text, a body that she images as opaque and invulnerable:

With the dim light cloaking us together, I could almost feel what it was like to be inside Sophie’s form, not hunched in mine, not blending into the walls, but careless and fledgling, throwing the starved glances of men off like the surface of a pond, reflecting sky so you could never see the shallow bottom.


“Hunched” in her own form, Pauline sees her body as a kind of prison; its boundaries constrict her even as they remain permeable to others. Pauline’s extreme self-consciousness pushes her to attribute to the male gaze the power of penetrating her flesh to the bones. The “careless and fledgling” Sophie, on the other hand, deflects that gaze; Pauline images Sophie’s body as a barrier that refuses penetration by “throwing off” the male look.

“Cloaked together” with Sophie, Pauline gains imaginative access to a form that she associates with strength rather than vulnerability. In the scenes that follow, Pauline appears to gain pleasure without exposure; she does so by thrusting Sophie’s body between Eli’s and her own so that her own form becomes invisible: “Eli stared after her [Sophie] and saw through me, still as the iron wedge I sat on, dark in a cool place. He could not see into the shadow” (81). Using Sophie’s body to deflect attention away from her own, Pauline seems to achieve the kind of invisibility that she associates with invulnerability after Fleur’s rape. In the scenes that follow, Sophie and Eli come together in a passionate encounter that Pauline claims to have orchestrated herself.

As the encounter proceeds, however, the dynamics of rape from which Pauline attempts to escape reassert themselves:

And then, as I crouched in the cove of leaves, I turned my thoughts on the girl and entered her and made her do what she could never dream of herself. I stood her in the broken straws and she stepped over Eli, one leg on either side of his chest. Standing there, she slowly hiked her skirt…. She shivered and I dug my fingers through the tough claws of sumac, through the wood-sod, clutched bark, shrank backward into her pleasure…. He lifted her and brought her to the water. She stood rooted, dazed, not alert enough to strip off her dress…. She waited in shallow mud, then waded in, obedient…. He ran his mouth over her face, bit her shoulder through the cloth, held her head back by the pale brown strands and licked her throat. He pulled her hips against him, her skirt floating like a flower. Sophie shuddered, her eyes rolled to the whites….


Although Sophie participates in this encounter physically as she straddles Eli, hikes her skirt, and wades into the water, the absence of any sense of will or volition on her part exaggerates Eli’s violent manipulations of her pliable body; as he bites her shoulder, holds her head back by the hair and pulls her hips against him, Sophie not only fails to “throw off” his glance but loses the power of her own vision; “her eyes rolled to the whites,” Sophie’s presence in the scene is reduced to that of a mechanical puppet or a frightened animal.

Although it is Eli who physically manipulates Sophie’s body, Pauline casts herself as the orchestrator of this scene of violation. Physically distanced from the scene, Pauline emerges not only as its observer but as its author; in her representation of the event she, rather than Sophie, remains the subject of an encounter that Sophie “could never dream of herself.” The powerlessness that Pauline experiences during Fleur’s rape results in her attempt to sever the subject/body connection that makes her vulnerable to male manipulation. As her mind is “cloaked together” with Sophie’s body in this scene, however, the result is not an escape from the dynamics of rape but a reinscription of them. Detached from her own body, Pauline uses her imagination to violate Sophie—“I turned my thoughts on the girl and entered her.” Having “entered” Sophie, “stood” her on the straw, and made her behave in ways she cannot understand, Pauline strips Sophie of her presence and reduces the body that she appropriated for its strength to the form of a lifeless puppet: “They [Sophie and Eli] were not allowed to stop…. I was pitiless. They were mechanical things, toys, dolls wound past their limits” (84). By robbing Sophie of her subjectivity and making her assume the postures of another’s will, Pauline serves as the orchestrator of yet another rape. As long as she is unable to imagine sexual intercourse without violation, Pauline can achieve pleasure only by placing someone else in the position of experiencing pain. By the conclusion of this scene, Sophie’s “careless and fledgling” form becomes weakened and physically vulnerable, her body the object of Pauline’s physical as well as imaginative manipulation: “she [Sophie] sank to her knees in the sour mud, hung her mouth open and went limp so I had to drag her” (84).

In the attempt to escape from the vulnerability of her own body, Pauline not only recreates the dynamics of rape and reduces Sophie to the role of powerless victim but offers herself no lasting access to invulnerability. As long as she remains attached imaginatively to Sophie’s body, Pauline cannot sever her connection to Sophie’s pain. After Sophie returns home, Pauline relates, “I heard [Bernadette] laying into Sophie with a strap, and I felt it, too, the way I’d absorbed the pleasure at the slough, the way I felt everything that happened to Fleur” (86). Ultimately, the kind of detachment that Pauline longs for escapes her; her attempt to liberate herself from her own body by attaching herself to another form fails. As Sophie and Eli come together before her eyes, the woman who envisioned herself as “hunched” in her body remains “crouched in the cove of leaves,” the cramped posture of her body asserting its uncomfortable material presence even in the midst of a scene over which Pauline claims imaginative control.

For the reader, then, Pauline’s body emerges as the one stable presence in a scene that propels the reader toward what Catherine Rainwater describes in another context as “an hermeneutical impasse” (410). Because the reader’s access to the bodies of Eli and Sophie is only through the path of Pauline’s mind, it is impossible to disentangle the material dynamics of their encounter from her imaginative rendering of it; the reader is suspended between a natural and supernatural interpretation of the scene. If, as Pauline claims, she has a mystical control over Sophie’s mind, then an imaginative form of rape occurs: “I turned my thoughts on the girl and entered her.” If Pauline simply projects her obsessions on two lovers, as the text sometimes seems to suggest, issues of violence and consent associated with any sexual encounter between an adult and a minor still haunt the scene and are unearthed by Pauline’s portrayal. The reader of Fleur’s rape cannot know if an act of violence occurred; the reader of Sophie and Eli’s encounter cannot know whether the act that occurred was violence. As in the portrayal of Fleur’s rape, interpretive issues so encircle this portrayal that the process of representation becomes foregrounded and the material dynamics of violation obscured.

Pauline’s attempt to escape the dynamics of violation underlies not only her sexual manipulation of Sophie and Eli but her decision to reject her cultural heritage and embrace the tenets of Catholicism. In responding to a statue of the Virgin Mary, Pauline recontextualizes Christian myth by situating Mary’s experience within the paradigms of sexual violation rather than religious epiphany:

Perhaps, I thought, at first, the Virgin shed tears … because She herself had never … been touched, never known the shackling heat of flesh. Then later, after Napoleon and I met again and again, after I came to him in ignorance, after I could not resist more than a night without his body, which was hard, pitiless, but so warm slipping out of me that tears always formed in my eyes, I knew that the opposite was true.

The sympathy of Her knowledge had caused Her response. In God’s spiritual embrace She experienced a loss more ruthless than we can imagine. She wept, pinned full-weight to the earth, known in the brain and known in the flesh and planted like dirt. She did not want Him, or was thoughtless like Sophie, and young, frightened at the touch of His great hand upon Her mind.


Pauline’s appropriation of the vocabulary of sexual violation rather than religious symbolism highlights Mary’s experience as “the Virgin” and rewrites “God’s spiritual embrace” as a form of rape. Tracing the loss the Virgin experiences at the hand of God to the connection between body and subject, Pauline reveals the extent to which the physical violation of rape is inextricably tied to the violator’s assault on female subjectivity. The blurring of material and psychological categories in Pauline’s description of the Virgin’s rape reveals the double empowerment of the male violator and the consequently heightened vulnerability of his female victim. Like Napoleon, God seems to possess a physical solidity that marks his body as an extension of his power; imaged here in material as well as spiritual terms, God enacts his wishes by touching his frightened victim with “His great hand.”

The strength of materiality that the male violator displays here, however, is not attended by the consequent limitations of spatial and physical boundaries. “[F]rightened at the touch of His great hand upon Her mind,” the young Virgin is the victim of an assault that seems to acknowledge no proper division of surface or category. The male God is capable of penetrating the Virgin Mary’s mind as well as her body; it is the double-edged aspect of this rape that makes the loss she experiences “more ruthless” than can be imagined. In an inversion of the violator’s position, the victim is bound by the limitations of a materiality which controls her but over which she has no control: “She wept, pinned full-weight to the earth, known in the brain and known in the flesh and planted like dirt.” Never directly imaged, the Virgin’s body exists only as a negative presence that restricts, defines, and fixes her. “Pinned” and “planted” to her physical form, she is attached to a body over which she is denied autonomy. Her “flesh” becomes an extended surface through which the violator can access her vulnerable subjectivity, but not a means of extending her own will into space.

Napoleon’s ability to penetrate Pauline’s skin with his gaze, to dissolve what she images as the boundary between body and subject, is reenacted here as the Virgin Mary is “known in the brain and known in the flesh.” In playing on the biblical connotations of the verb “to know,” this passage forges a connection between the rapist’s assault on the body and the corresponding assault on subjectivity figured here as knowledge of the victim’s brain. Both forms of intimacy involve a penetration of boundaries that the subject uses to define herself, a cooptation of being that dissolves the autonomous self as it erases the physical space between violator and victim. As the physiological penetration of the victim’s body allows the violator literally to come inside her, rape is experienced as a form of self-destruction marked by the subject’s seeming complicity in her own violation.

Pauline’s response to her own body during and after Fleur’s rape can best be understood as a response to the dynamics of rape revealed through her representation of the Virgin Mary. Pauline’s attempt to make her body invisible during the rape results from her panicked recognition of its visibility and her resulting vulnerability. Describing herself as “hunched” in her form, Pauline reveals imagistically the tension she experiences between her body and the subject “contained” within it; the parameters of her body seem not only to constrain the presentation of herself as subject but to fix her in a hostile space and prevent her from dissolving into nonbeing. It is through her body that Pauline, like the Virgin, is “pinned full-weight to the earth,” reduced to an object that can be seen and known not only in the flesh but in the brain. Her wariness of her own body, then, results in part from the fact that it exists as a text that she never authors but through which others are free to read into her subjectivity as well as her materiality.7

As the novel continues, Pauline devises other strategies to escape her vulnerability, each of which results in an equally destructive conclusion. In her desire to avoid being defined, fixed, either as woman or as Native American, Pauline attempts to disavow the body which bears traces that others can use to construct her identity. Rather than asserting authorship of a body that has been misread and manipulated, Pauline attempts to liberate herself by destroying the physical form that others view as text. Such a desperate claim to empowerment, however, perpetuates the very dynamics that it seeks to overturn; having internalized a hegemonic system of interpretation, Pauline engages in numerous acts of self-violation that merely reinforce the dominant culture’s reading of a body over which she is unable to claim the power of signification.

Because it is not merely physical but emotional assault that she fears, not merely the violation of the body but a corresponding violation of the mind, Pauline attempts to preserve some semblance of autonomy by defining herself as the agent of her own assault. Unsuccessful in her attempt to sever the connection between herself as subject and her physical form, she attempts instead to define and control that connection. By willing the destruction of a body she is incapable of rendering invulnerable to violation, she attempts to use that body to reassert the power of a subjectivity equally threatened. In doing so, Pauline turns to the Christian ideology of self-sacrifice as rationale for embracing the role of self-violator:

At the convent my hands cracked. The knuckles were tight and scabbed…. At night, I did not allow myself to toss or turn for comfort, but only to sleep on my back, arms crossed on my breasts in the same position as the Virgin received the attentions of our Lord…. I put burrs in the armpits of my dress and screwgrass in my stockings and nettles in my neckband…. I let my toenails grow until it ached to walk….


By willingly embracing her status as victim of physical pain, Pauline attempts to reduce violation to its material origin and preempt any corresponding assault on her subjectivity. Having figured the Virgin Mary’s impregnation as a type of rape, Pauline casts herself in the Virgin’s role not mentally but physically; her literalist attempt to recreate the physical configurations of the assault— she sleeps on her back with arms crossed on her breasts “in the same position as the Virgin”— functions as a means of deflecting the real horror of a violation the physical consequences of which are but one small component. Pauline’s efforts to manipulate, mark, and assault her body represent a negative form of empowerment through which she attempts to preempt the force of a violation she sees as inevitable.

Whereas the Christian mode of sacrifice that Pauline appropriates as her model is aimed at destroying individual subjectivity to effect a greater union with God, Pauline’s self-destructive actions function as an attempt to reclaim the power of her own subjectivity from the domination of others. In choosing to suffer at her own hand, Pauline removes her body from beneath the hands of the violator, be he man or God. Embracing a physical pain that she sees as in some sense inevitable, Pauline uses suffering to affirm her presence and reconstitute herself as subject:

That night in the convent bed, I knew God had no foothold or sway in this land, or no mercy for the just, or that perhaps, for all my suffering and faith, I was still insignificant. Which seemed impossible.

I knew there never was a martyr like me.

I was hollow unless pain filled me, empty but for pain….


In the context of Pauline’s earlier fear that the male gaze would strip away her skin to reveal the hollowness within, her body continually threatened to open up into a revelation of absence. Here, she reveals the strategy by which she has seemingly reclaimed that body as a tool to affirm her presence. Pauline invokes the self-abnegating vocabulary of Christianity only to undercut it; the pain that she has embraced functions not to erase her presence as subject but to reveal the impossibility that she is “still insignificant.” If earlier in the novel she as subject was reduced to an object constructed by the male gaze, here her fundamental emptiness is filled only by the pain that she embraces.

Pauline’s fear of being “skinned” beneath the male gaze results from a sense of her own insubstantiality as subject; even the bones that “push” at her flesh are defined by motion rather than constancy, contributing to the image of Pauline’s form as malleable material unrestricted by a defining structure, be it the parameters of a subject position or the constraints of a skeleton (73). Instead of choosing to use such elasticity to construct herself as subject, however, Pauline burns away the physical flexibility that marks, in her mind, a malleability of self. Despite excruciating pain, she deliberately submerges her hands in boiling water, literally skinning herself so that others will be unable to skin her:

Later, when the binding was excruciatingly changed, I shed a skin with the dirty wrapping. Every few days I shed another, yet another, and I drank or ate whatever my Sisters brought, I fattened in bed, took on subtle heft…. New flesh grew upon my hands, smooth and pink as a baby’s, only tighter, with no give to it, a stiff and shrunken fabric, so that my fingers webbed and doubled over like a hatchling’s claws.


Unable to free herself of the skin that in her mind marks the margin between subject and body, Pauline attempts to limit others’ ability to access her through it. The “new flesh” that results from her act of self-violation is no longer flexible skin that can be made or remade into many different configurations. This skin is defining, taut, a “stiff and shrunken fabric” that cripples the movement and autonomy of the subject who wears it, but resists the manipulation of others. Pauline has remade her own body in such a way that it cannot be taken from her; in doing so, however, she sacrifices its ability to enact her will or desire. The price of her invulnerability is the loss of the nerves that link the subject with the physical world. Her hands encased in scar tissue, Pauline locks herself within her body even as she locks others out.

Only by burning away her skin is Pauline able to create for herself a body that speaks the kind of invulnerability she associates with whiteness as well as maleness. Pauline describes the members of her family as “mixed-bloods, skinners in the clan for which the name was lost” (14). The slang term “skinners” suggests both Pauline’s sense of entrapment within a skin that can be identified as half-white by Native Americans and half-Indian by whites, and her fear of being “plucked and skinned,” having the self beneath the skin revealed to the world.

Just as the models through which Pauline attempts to liberate herself from the vulnerable female body are inexorably structured around the dynamics of rape, so the models she chooses to liberate herself from the racial body are structured around and lead toward racial oppression. Having chosen the Virgin Mary and Christian mysticism as her models, Pauline is forced to embrace a hegemonic logic that leads racially to genocide just as it leads physically to self-mutilation. Directed by Christ to “fetch more” Indian souls for his heaven, Pauline states that that “is what I intended by going out among them with the net of my knowledge. He gave me the mission to name and baptize, to gather souls. Only I must give myself away in return, I must dissolve. I did so eagerly” (141). With her “net of knowledge,” Pauline intends to gather the spirits of dead Indians, pulling their souls away from their bodies to a foreign yet more powerful culture where they will be met by the figure of Christ “dressed in glowing white” (140). In gathering up the souls of her community and collecting them for a white God, Pauline “gives herself away” even as she snatches up the souls of others. Her eagerness to distance herself from the racial identity that in her own mind defines her is reflected in the verb that she chooses to describe the process of losing herself; Pauline literally wants to “dissolve,” to break down her body so thoroughly that it can be reconstituted in a form of her own making.

Having mutilated and destroyed the body that marks her as Other, however, Pauline is still unable to distance herself sufficiently from her Native American identity. In the effort to eliminate every trace of her connection, she makes one last trip to a homeland that she now describes as “the kingdom of the damned”:

I had told Superior this would be my one last visit to Matchimanito before the day of my entrance as novice, after which I would repudiate my former life. I knew I would not see Pillagers, Kashpaws, or old Nanapush again after that…. They could starve and fornicate … worship the bones of animals…. I would have none of it. I would be chosen, His own, wiped clean of Fleur’s cool even hand on my brow, purged of the slide of Napoleon’s thighs….


In her eagerness to “repudiate [her] former life,” Pauline translates the haunting attachments that she cannot escape psychologically into physical images that render them visible and manipulable. Pauline’s desire to be “wiped clean” or “purged” of Fleur’s hand and Napoleon’s thigh is really a desire to escape the sense of vulnerability that the presence of each elicits in her; once again, the body emerges as the material surface on which Pauline projects conflicts of the mind. Having inflicted violence upon her own body, she uses that “purged” form to engage in a physical battle with the Indians, a battle that serves as the culmination of her war with her own racial and gendered self.

As she leaves the convent to pilot herself into the midst of the lake with her scarred hands, Pauline for the first time defines her body by its strength rather than vulnerability: “naked in my own flesh … I tumbled forward when the boat slammed on shore, scrambled upright on the balls of my feet, ready and strong as a young man” (201). No longer experiencing her body as an object created by the male gaze, Pauline likens herself to a young man and asserts her nakedness as a strength rather than a weakness. Her probing gaze now penetrates the bodies of others to unveil their fragility and randomness; looking to the shore, she describes the bodies of the people she sees: “They were such small foolish sticks strung together with cloth that in the heat of my sudden hilarity I nearly tumbled over the side …” (197). For the first time in the novel, other bodies seem contingent to Pauline while her own appears essential; beneath her gaze, individual subjects fragment into images of “small foolish sticks” connected not of necessity or reason but “strung together” haphazardly. Although Pauline’s shrunken hands pin her within her body in much the same way that the “great hand” of God pins Mary to the earth, she experiences this self-inflicted limitation as liberation. Pauline’s response to her physical mutilation cannot be understood outside the dynamics of rape revealed in her discussion of the Virgin Mary; the inviolability she associates with masculine power is an experience of mind as well as body. “This,” she claims, “was how God felt: beyond hindrance or reach” (197-98).

Having boiled away the skin that would lend others access to the subject she sees “contained” within it, Pauline now experiences herself as invulnerable to the manipulation of others; she proclaims her own strength by asserting Fleur’s weakness: “I was important, beyond their reach, even Fleur’s though she must have been hiding in the cabin, weakened by my act, for I caught no glimpse of her” (198). Pauline’s hostility toward Fleur may be traced to her identification with her; in order to assert her own strength, Pauline must obliterate her connection to Fleur. Her attempt to do so, however, is as unsuccessful as her attempt to render herself inviolable by destroying her own body. With the newfound strength of a body she images as masculine, Pauline turns against Fleur only to emerge as the victim of her own assault:

I screamed at her, but the wind flattened out my words.

Her figure swelled into relief, as if the force of my yell enlarged her. Her hair was covered by a scarf white and brilliant as the moon rising…. But the rest of her was planted tight. Her heavy black clothes, her shawl, the way she held herself so rigid, suggested a door into blackness.

I stood before it and then she turned, so slowly I heard the hinges creak. A moment and I was inside where I could not breathe and water filled me, cold and black water of the drowned, a currentless blanket. I thought I would be shut there, but she turned again and off she walked, a black slot into the air, a passage into herself. A crushing sadness. I was glad when night approached.


In its allusions to a vocabulary of rape present throughout the text, this passage appears at first to reinforce Pauline’s notion of her own empowerment by defining her voice as the “force” that swells Fleur’s figure. As Fleur’s body appears to enlarge in response to Pauline’s words, it loses its solidity to become a flexible form shaped by the violence of Pauline’s will. Fleur’s malleability is accompanied by an entrapment within the confines of the physical; like Sophie and the Virgin Mary, Fleur too emerges as “planted,” pinned in one place by her physical form. Defined by the confines of a physicality that simultaneously restricts her motion but allows others to access her, Fleur’s body becomes both a “black slot” defined by emptiness and a “passage into herself” through which others can manipulate her subjectivity, or the emptiness that emerges in its place.

In order to appropriate the violator’s power to effect such manipulation, however, Pauline must detach herself from Fleur to claim a psychological as well as a physical distance from the victim’s subjectivity. Although Fleur’s figure seems to swell in response to the “force” of Pauline’s yell, that force turns against Pauline. Unable to overcome her identification with the victim, Pauline herself is imaged as swollen, “filled” with the “cold and black water of the drowned” in the same way that she was “filled” with Fleur’s cries of pain during the rape (26). Pauline’s self-conscious repudiation of her female body, like her rejection of her racial self, barely masks a knowledge of her own vulnerability that turns her every act of violence into a form of self-violation. Because she continues to define herself as Other even as she projects that Otherness onto an external force that she attempts to destroy, it is not only Fleur but Pauline who is “weakened by [Pauline’s] act.” Although Pauline gratefully embraces the coming of the night, then, its darkness will fail to obscure distinctions that emerge not from the visible configurations of bodies but from the constructed notions of identity that Pauline cannot escape.

The futility of Pauline’s attempt to render herself invulnerable by repositioning herself within the dynamics of violation rather than rejecting them becomes most apparent in her attack on Napoleon. Pauline’s murder of Napoleon enacts in visible terms the violence of her attempt to “repudiate” her Native American self; in her increasingly desperate effort to destroy her connection with her Native American background, she mutilates and murders the Indian “devil” who would defy her white God. The carefully mapped racial and religious symbolism of this scene may overwhelm the reader’s understanding of its gender dynamics. Pauline’s newfound confidence in her body not only leads her to image herself as male but to image her murder of Napoleon as a rape in which she is cast in the role of violator rather than victim:

There was an odd pleasure to the tiny stinging blows and in the words, which tightened me from nape to heels…. I felt his breath, a thin stream that swept along my collarbone and my throat as we crushed close. And then I seized him and forced myself upon him, grew around him like the earth around a root, held him still.

… He began to pound beneath me like a driving wind and I went dizzy with the effort of holding on, light and dry as a fistful of matches. He rose, shoved me against a scoured log, rubbed me up and down until I struck. I screamed once and then my tongue flapped loose, yelled profane curses. I stuffed the end of the blanket in his mouth, pushed him down into the sand and then fell upon him and devoured him, scattered myself in all directions, stupefied my own brain in the process so thoroughly that the only things left of intelligence were my doubled-over hands.

What I told them to do, then, they accomplished. My fingers closed like hasps of iron, locked on the strong rosary chain, wrenched and twisted the beads close about his neck until his face darkened and he lunged away. I hung on while he bucked and gagged and finally fell, his long tongue dragging down my thighs.

I kicked and kicked away the husk, drove it before me with the blows of my feet.


This act, like Pauline’s initial juxtaposition of her own strength with Fleur’s weakness, seems to reflect Pauline’s newfound empowerment. Pauline’s representation evokes the vocabulary of sexual violence to image a scene in which two bodies, “crushed close,” are described as “tightening,” “pounding,” and “driving” against one another. The rape that plagues Pauline throughout most of the novel is reenacted in this final scene. This time, however, Pauline emerges as the violator rather than the helpless observer; “I seized him,” she proclaims, “and forced myself upon him.” The assault on subjectivity that is part of rape is also recreated here; as Pauline the character forces herself upon Napoleon, Pauline the narrator delays even the acknowledgment of her victim’s identity until after she has murdered him.

In recasting her role within the rape scenario rather than rejecting the dynamics of rape, however, Pauline moves once again into the domain of self-violation. When she attacks Napoleon, the imagery of Pauline’s narrative suggests that the violation is double-edged. For most of the representation Pauline, while the aggressor, emerges not as the actor but as the individual being acted upon. Napoleon’s motions are described with direct action verbs: he pounds, shoves, and rubs her. When Pauline “strikes,” on the other hand, her action emerges only as a reaction to Napoleon’s physical manipulation: “He rose, shoved me against a scoured log, rubbed me up and down until I struck.” Pauline’s actions seem only to reinforce the solidity and stability of Napoleon’s body. When she says that she “forced [herself] upon him, grew around him like the earth around a root,” her body is the one being transformed. The word “force” does not suggest one form imprinting itself upon another, but a form molding itself to another; even as Pauline “rapes” Napoleon, she is unable to escape the malleability that defines the victim’s experience of violence. Although Pauline goes on to “devour” Napoleon, he does not dissolve; rather, Pauline herself fragments as her interior is bruised and broken outward: “I pushed him down into the sand and then fell upon him and devoured him, scattered myself in all directions, stupefied my own brain in the process.” In this representation, “devouring” emerges as a form of self-violation, just as “force” emerges as a form of weakness; Pauline’s categories of identity have become so self-destructive that her very means of expression has inverted.

Even as Pauline casts herself as rapist, then, her experience seems closer to that of the rape victim. The character who lamented Mary’s pain as she was “known in the brain and known in the flesh” becomes the agent of a similarly doubleedged assault against herself; as Pauline attacks Napoleon, she also attacks herself, not only damaging her body but “stupefying” her “own brain.” Throughout the book Pauline has sought to break the intimate connection between body and subject, hoping to achieve the violator’s status of physical power and emotional inviolability. Having envisioned the body as the physical locus of a subjectivity always vulnerable to assault, Pauline effects her liberation only by becoming the victim of a “rape” that she herself initiates. Whereas Fleur’s body serves as “a passage into herself,” Pauline’s body now appears to bear no trace of her existence as subject. Having “scattered [her]self in all directions,” Pauline can no longer be located in or through her body: “the only things left of intelligence,” she claims, “were my doubled-over hands.” Whereas before she violated her body to forestall the possibility of others’ violation, here she assaults the very connection between mind and body, “stupefying” the synapses that register physical pain and psychological violation just as she burned the nerves from her hands. Pauline’s hands—like the hands of men, of God, of the Pillagers—now appear to serve as an extension of her power rather than a sign of her vulnerability. “What I told them to do, then,” she observes, “they accomplished. My fingers closed like hasps of iron …” (202). Her body, no longer a passageway to the self, is imaged here as a tool that she controls as if from a distance.

Pauline’s newfound distance from her body allows her to finger her own wounds with a kind of detached bemusement. Having seemingly forestalled any assault on her subjectivity, she now views her body as a surface on which the marks of physical violation are inscribed in imagistic patterns: “I had committed no sin…. I could certainly prove that over doubt, for I was marked here and there, pocked as if we’d rolled through embers, stamped by his molten scales in odd reddened circles, in bruises of moons and stars” (203). Pauline’s detachment from her body culminates in her aesthetic rendering of the marks of her own violation. Citing her wounded body as evidence of Napoleon’s assault, Pauline claims the bruises and abrasions on her body as a register of the legitimacy of her violence but not a register of her own pain. Pauline’s strategic assertion of her connection to this wounded body is a tactic for further empowerment; having severed the essential link between body and subject, she appears to reclaim that bond at will even as she continues to reject the vulnerability coincident with it. For perhaps the first time, Pauline reads her body as a text the signification of which she controls.

The motion away from materiality and into textuality also defines the reader’s initial experience of Pauline’s assault on Napoleon. The mythic tone and surrealistic imagery of Pauline’s representation intensify the reader’s confusion about agency and materiality in the text. While this assault is represented, unlike Fleur’s rape, the representation invokes so many imaginative and literary conventions, so unsettles the line between mind and body and victim and violator, that the reader is distanced from its material dynamics. The physically exhausted and mentally unstable Pauline begins her assault on Misshepeshu by dropping a rock from the boat, and seeing it wake the monster “in [her] mind” (197). Encountering the monster on land she is blinded by the fire and sees “double, or not at all in the flickering glow” (202). In the representation that follows, the reader also seems to see double or not at all, never knowing quite how the bodies represented are making contact, and whether these bodies operate by material laws or by some supernatural dynamism.

Although at times the representation seems to push toward a revelation of material bodies, the reader cannot assume that physical effects will follow from physical causes. Physical wounds are not enumerated; the violence instead batters Pauline’s “self” and “brain.” Material forms are replaced by images of roots, wind, matches, and logs, and even words become “black lake pebbles.” As the categories of mind and body that separate dream from reality and words from objects are lost, the reader experiences the representation as a dynamic but primarily semiotic experience in which the empirical dynamics of violence emerge only in a murky, confusing light. Catherine Rainwater discusses the way in which the reader’s experience of Pauline’s narrative is complicated by the intersection of conflicting Christian and Native American religious codes.8 That experience, I would argue, is complicated here by the way in which the narrative unsettles epistemological and hermeneutic distinctions encoded in Western conventions of reading. As Pauline’s narrative moves freely from material to immaterial categories, the reader searches for a single interpretive frame that will reconcile a representation that is neither realistic nor fantastical.

When, at the end of the portrayal, the fantastical Misshepeshu emerges as the very real and very dead Napoleon Morrissey, however, the reader is suddenly propelled toward recognition of the material consequences of Pauline’s act:

I kicked and kicked away the husk, drove it before me with the blows of my feet. A light began to open in the sky and the thing grew a human shape, one that I recognized in gradual stages. Eventually, it took on the physical form of Napoleon Morrissey.

As the dawn broadened, as the fire shrank and smoldered, I examined each feature and confirmed it for the truth….

There was hard work to do, then. I dragged him by the suspenders down a crooked path, into the woods, and left him in high weeds.


As the “husk” that Pauline kicks before her is transformed into the heavy materiality of Napoleon’s “physical form,” the reader is forced to revise his or her perception of Pauline’s assault on Misshepeshu.9 Pauline continues to insist that Napoleon’s body may or may not be present: “How could I have known what body the devil would assume?” (203). For the reader, however, the revelation of the violated body also reveals how far toward a purely semiotic conception of violence the reader has been pushed by Pauline’s confusion of material and immaterial categories. As Pauline recognizes the need to drag Napoleon’s body into the woods, her description of that act as “hard work” exposes not only the material weightiness of Napoleon’s body but the contrast between the difficult task of hauling that body away and the apparent ease with which she almost magically murdered her victim. As the reader is propelled toward an acknowledgment of the empirical dynamics of violation, what seemed a symbolic reenactment of a possibly imaginary rape emerges as a representation of murder.

The reader’s awareness of the material, victimized body in the text thus undercuts Pauline’s subsequent, and apparently victorious, attempts to efface her own materiality by literally reconstructing her physical form:

… then I realized I was still naked, with no covering. I rolled in slough mud until my arms and breasts, every part of me was coated…. I was a poor and noble creature now, dressed in earth like Christ, in furs like Moses Pillager, draped in snow or simple air…. I rolled in dead leaves, in moss, in defecation of animals. I plastered myself with dry leaves and the feathers of a torn bird … so that by the time I came to the convent … I was nothing human, nothing victorious, nothing like myself. I was no more than a piece of the woods.


Even as it displays Pauline’s apparent liberation from the confines of her bodily form, this passage reveals her inability to escape completely from the assumptions of biological determinism. Although she seems to claim the power of resignification that allows her to make her body speak for her, Pauline is able to do so only after she obliterates all trace of her actual physical form. As she undertakes to remake herself as subject, the lengths to which she goes to obscure her body reveal her fear of its betrayal. Only when “every part of [her]” is “coated” with mud—the breasts that define her as woman, the dark skin that marks her as Indian—is Pauline able to reclaim her body as the ground from which to assert herself as subject. After rolling in slough mud, Pauline images herself not as a woman covered with grime but as a being “draped in snow or simple air.” Such rhetoric moves toward a myth of origin, a rhetoric of purity and simplicity through which Pauline recasts herself as a “poor and noble creature” freshly created. Pauline’s every effort to create herself anew as subject, however, is hampered by her need to destroy a self that she sees inscribed on her body each time she looks in a mirror or into the eyes of another.

Here, as earlier in the novel, Pauline’s claim to subjectivity is deeply entangled with her attitude toward a body that she must destroy or obscure before she can make it speak for her. Pauline’s essentialist assumptions about the body dictate that even the most self-conscious manipulations of her physical form emerge in the shadow of a body that speaks the powerlessness of race and gender. Because the body that she images as “draped in snow” will continue to bear the traces of the dominant story that she has whited out, Pauline’s every act of assertion must be accompanied by an act of erasure. As long as she continues to read the inscriptions of a hegemonic culture on her form, Pauline’s claim to the power of signification remains a purely negative one; “I was,” she asserts at the end of this scene, “nothing human, nothing victorious, nothing like myself” (204).

Pauline’s long struggle to remove herself from the disempowered, easily violated position of an embodied Native American woman in a white patriarchal culture seems to her to have succeeded. The reader is aware, however, that the mechanisms Pauline chooses to avoid violation simply victimize her again. Pauline falls prey to the fact that her subjectivity can be constructed by others, but at the same time she has imbibed the notion that the body determines the self. Rather than trying to resignify the socially constructed self, Pauline accepts these social constructions; the only way she sees to live with her body is to sever body, which bears the marks of race and gender, from self. Pauline undertakes the severing process with the only models available to her: rape of physically vulnerable women by men, Christian mortification of the flesh, and the destruction of Native American spiritual culture through white cultural imperialism. The book records the crossing and recrossing of these modes of oppression and self-violation, and the transitional points in Pauline’s life—Fleur’s rape, her vision of the Virgin Mary, her murder of Napoleon, and her final induction into the convent—all involve such nexuses.

This is not to say that in the book rape serves as a metaphor for racism, or vice versa, or even that the two are mutually reflexive symbols. Erdrich offers us a character suffering from both racial and gender disempowerment who manages to combine them into a single set of symbols, and allows us to witness how racial and gender oppression can work together in a dynamic of psychological self-violation. Rather than simply despising Pauline for the absurd lengths to which her denial of identity takes her, Erdrich asks us to understand how the fear of rape, arising out of physical embodiment, can interact with the sense of disempowerment and bodily self-consciousness promulgated by racism.

Pauline’s efforts to create a new subject, an “I,” that is “nothing like [her]self” culminate in her return to the convent and her decision to take the veil.10 Such a decision involves not only a denial of her culture and a rejection of her past but a literal veiling of her body and redefinition of her identity. For Pauline, whose deterministic assumptions about race, gender, and the body have consistently undercut her efforts to create herself anew, the Catholic church seems to offer a ready-made identity that extends even to the level of a new name. Having donned the “camphor-smelling robes” of the nun, Pauline goes forward to draw a name from the Mother Superior’s hand:

I prayed before I spread the scrap of paper in air. I asked for the grace to accept, to leave Pauline behind, to remember that my name, any name was no more than a crumbling skin.

Leopolda.I tried out the unfamiliar syllables. They fit. They cracked in my ears like a fist through ice.


In this passage, Pauline reveals her essentialist assumptions even as she attempts to deny them. While the insubstantiality of the scrap of paper and the arbitrary process of selection point to the social constructedness of identity, Pauline’s description of the ritual points the reader back toward an essential link between name and subject or body and subject. She does not ask for the grace to “leave the name ‘Pauline’ behind” but simply to “leave Pauline behind”; the signifier of her name blends in the reader’s mind with the person that it identifies, suggesting that she could not abandon the name without abandoning the person.

Even Pauline’s assertion that a name is “no more than a crumbling skin” dissolves into its opposite as the terms of Pauline’s metaphor jar uneasily with the reader’s experience of the novel. Paralleling the name with the body, Pauline asserts that neither is capable of determining identity. Her description of the body’s insubstantiality, however, is belied by the violence of her earlier efforts to destroy her physical form; the words “crumbling skin” strike a reader who has witnessed Pauline’s brutal attempts to contain, cover, and burn away her own skin as eerily passive.

Racial and gender issues meet at the nexus of violence because, Erdrich shows us, essentialist assumptions about the relationship between body and self generate violence from within and from without. The violent oppression of the Native Americans justified by the essentialism of white culture is paralleled and exaggerated by Pauline’s more subtle and intimate form of essentialist violence. Pauline’s story emerges as a perverted bildungsroman,the tale of a young woman who overcomes the disadvantages of her birth to access a position of some power in the dominant culture; given Pauline’s assumption of an essential link between body and subject as well as the pervasive racism and sexism of her society, however, such success can only come through violence perpetrated against the body to which inhere the disadvantages of birth. Pauline succeeds at overcoming her Native American identity and her female vulnerability only through a form of self-violation that ultimately reinscribes rather than reverses her powerlessness. To have done otherwise would have involved a level of self-consciousness about the social construction of identity and power not available to a young Native American woman who continues to see, in her own words, “through the eyes of the world outside us.”

The body in Tracks, then, emerges as a material presence on which Pauline projects her essentialist notions of race and gender and a narrative absence seldom acknowledged in the reader’s semiotic construction of the novel’s violence. Pauline’s narrative points to a definition of intimate violence that acknowledges its material and immaterial consequences; “known in the brain and known in the flesh,” the victim of violence is assaulted not only as body but as subject. Pauline’s attempt to preserve her subjectivity by manipulating the materiality of her body represents one response to these dynamics; because she fails to acknowledge the way in which that body’s significance is constructed by the interpretation of a hegemonic culture, however, Pauline’s material manipulations of her form fail to lend her the inviolability that she seeks. The reader ignores the materiality of the vulnerable body to focus on the way in which it is constructed in the act of representation; the reader’s concentration on Fleur’s rape as a literary or symbolic phenomenon may blind him or her to the dynamics of violation that the text naturalizes. As Pauline fails to recognize the textuality of the body, then, the reader may fail to acknowledge the materiality of the text. Critical analyses of the novel that ignore its representations of intimate violence in favor of a symbolic recasting of the material dynamics of violation accept the narrative’s semiotic invitation without recognizing its potentially radical unsettling of the very process of semiosis. Caught between the materiality of violence and its semiotic construction, the reader who charts the dangers of Pauline’s essentialist response to the violability of the body must also be wary of completely dematerializing a violence the dynamics of which return us, not only as victims but as readers, to the urgent presence of the vulnerable body.


1. Pauline’s narration, of course, represents only one of two narrative perspectives in the novel; for a discussion of the way in which Nanapush’s narrative “masters” Pauline, see Daniel Cornell, “Woman Looking.”

2. Although Fleur is the actual victim of rape, its effects are registered only through Pauline’s presence in the novel. Fleur remains seemingly intact and emerges as a kind of romance figure whose mysterious presence in the novel lends her an aura of invulnerability to the material dynamics of rape. Pauline can thus be seen as Fleur’s surrogate, the character who exposes the consequences of a rape written out of the romance world associated with Fleur in the novel. In the argument that follows, I will focus on Pauline’s function in the novel, addressing Fleur’s presence only as it relates to Pauline’s experience. (My thanks to Andy Von Hendy for his discussion of Fleur.)

3. As Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment point out, for example, psychoanalytic criticism’s emphasis on gender as “the category which structures perspective” ignores other forms of power relations which also underlie processes of identification and objectifi-cation in narrative fictions (7). See also Jane Gaines, “White Privilege and Looking Relations.”

4. See Catherine Rainwater, “Reading between Worlds”; James Flavin, “The Novel as Performance”; Victoria Walker, “A Note on Perspective in Tracks.” The most recent critical essay on Tracks is the first to focus extensively on gender as well as race; see Daniel Cornell, “Woman Looking.”

5. For a useful discussion of the symbolic imagination in Native American culture, see Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop. Allen argues that “Symbols in American Indian systems … articulate … that reality where thought and feeling are one, where objective and subjective are one, where speaker and listener are one …” (71).

6. See Daniel Cornell, “Woman Looking.” This absence is particularly interesting given the title of Cornell’s article; the rape is not only the one event that Pauline is unable to “look” at but, I would argue, the single most important event underlying her attempts to revise her subject position.

7. The comparison between Mary and Sophie with which this passage ends points to the way in which Pauline’s efforts to escape her own body have implicated her in the dynamics of violation that she here attempts to unveil. Like the Virgin Mary, who is “planted like dirt,” her mind as well as her body assaulted by a male God, Sophie is stripped of her will and planted in shallow mud through Pauline’s machinations; once there, “She stood rooted, dazed, not alert enough to strip off her dress” (83). In her attempt to disavow her vulnerability as victim, Pauline lays claim to Sophie’s brain as well as her flesh; if Sophie is “thoughtless,” as Pauline describes her here, she is so because Pauline has stripped her of autonomy, “rooted” her in a body that Pauline—and not Sophie—controls.

8. See Rainwater, “Reading between Worlds,” pp. 407-13.

9. The transformation of an insubstantial “husk” into Napoleon’s body represents a motion toward acknowledging the human consequences of violence, a motion that reverses the reader’s experience of Fleur’s rape. In the earlier scene, Lily’s attack on Fleur is prefigured by his violent encounter with the sow:

The sow screamed as his body smacked over hers. She rolled, striking out with her knifesharp hooves and Lily gathered himself upon her, took her foot-long face by the ears, and scraped her snout and cheeks against the trestles of the pen…. She reared, shrieked, and then he squeezed her … his arms swung and flailed. She sank her black fangs into his shoulders, clasping him, dancing him forward and backward through the pen.


Although this representation moves toward aestheticization by imaging the interaction between Lily and the sow as a dance, it acknowledges the painful force of the assault on the animal’s body with an immediacy that is absent in the novel’s representation of the rape that follows. The horror of Fleur’s suffering is, in a sense, deflected onto the representation of the pig’s struggle with Lily. By contrast, the assault on Fleur that occurs shortly thereafter in the novel renders the material consequences of violence almost invisible. The Napoleon scene reverses this motion by unveiling the supernatural creature or inhuman “husk” that Pauline manipulates as a human being whose body bears the consequences of her violence. (My thanks to Anne Fleche for our conversations on the function of the sow.)

10. Pauline, of course, emerges as the sadistic Leopolda of Love Medicine; her actions in that novel are rendered more intelligible in light of her experiences as Pauline in Tracks.

Further Reading


Castillo, Susan. “Women Aging into Power: Fictional Representations of Power and Authority in Louise Erdrich’s Female Characters.” Studies in American Indian Literatures8, no. 4 (winter 1996): 13-20.

Examines Erdrich’s portrayal of powerful women in her characters Marie and Zelda.

Cornell, Daniel. “Woman Looking: Revis(ion)ing Pauline’s Subject Position in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks.Studies in American Indian Literatures4, no. 1 (spring 1992): 49-64.

Understands the character Pauline’s “experience of feminine desire” to be “mastered through a discourse of insanity” in the novelTracks.

Flavin, Louise. “Gender Construction Amid Family Dissolution in Louise Erdrich’s The Beet Queen.Studies in American Indian Literatures7, no. 2 (summer 1995): 17-24.

Discusses Erdrich’s creation of a nonconventional family at the end ofThe Beet Queen.

Silberman, Robert. “Opening the Text: Love Medicineand the Return of the Native American Woman.” In Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures,edited by Gerald Vizenor, pp. 101-20. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

Examines the ways in whichLove Medicine differs from other contemporary Native American narratives due largely to its female central character.

Stookey, Lorena L. Louise Erdrich: A Critical Companion.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999, 184 p.

Discusses Erdrich’s novels fromLove Medicine toThe Antelope Wife, and includes a biography and bibliography.

Tanrisal, Meldan. “Mother and Child Relationships in the Novels of Louise Erdrich.” American Studies International35, no. 3 (October 1997): 67-79.

Discusses the effects of Erdrich’s nonchronological narratives on her portrayal of mother-child relationships.


Additional coverage of Erdrich’s life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement Vol. 4; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 10, 47; Beacham’s Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 114; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 41, 62, 118; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 39, 54, 120, 176; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Poets Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 152, 175, 206; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural, Novelists and Popular Writers; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Poetry; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Native North American Literature; Novels for Students, Vol. 5; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 52; Poetry for Students, Vol. 14; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 14; Something about the Author, Vols. 94, 141; and Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Ed. 2.

Further Reading

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Castillo, Susan. "Women Aging into Power: Fictional Representations of Power and Authority in Louise Erdrich's Female Characters." Studies in American Indian Literatures 8, no. 4 (winter 1996): 13-20.

Examines Erdrich's portrayal of powerful women in her characters Marie and Zelda.

Cornell, Daniel. "Woman Looking: Revis(ion)ing Pauline's Subject Position in Louise Erdrich's Tracks." Studies in American Indian Literatures 4, no. 1 (spring 1992): 49-64.

Understands the character Pauline's "experience of feminine desire" to be "mastered through a discourse of insanity" in the novel Tracks.

Flavin, Louise. "Gender Construction Amid Family Dissolution in Louise Erdrich's The Beet Queen." Studies in American Indian Literatures 7, no. 2 (summer 1995): 17-24.

Discusses Erdrich's creation of a nonconventional family at the end of The Beet Queen.

Silberman, Robert. "Opening the Text: Love Medicine and the Return of the Native American Woman." In Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures, edited by Gerald Vizenor, pp. 101-20. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

Examines the ways in which Love Medicine differs from other contemporary Native American narratives due largely to its female central character.

Stookey, Lorena L. Louise Erdrich: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999, 184 p.

Discusses Erdrich's novels from Love Medicine to The Antelope Wife, and includes a biography and bibliography.

Tanrisal, Meldan. "Mother and Child Relationships in the Novels of Louise Erdrich." American Studies International 35, no. 3 (October 1997): 67-79.

Discusses the effects of Erdrich's nonchronological narratives on her portrayal of mother-child relationships.


Additional coverage of Erdrich's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement Vol. 4; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 10, 47; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 114; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 41, 62, 118; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 39, 54, 120, 176; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Poets Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 152, 175, 206; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural, Novelists and Popular Writers; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Poetry; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Native North American Literature; Novels for Students, Vol. 5; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 52; Poetry for Students, Vol. 14; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 14; Something about the Author, Vols. 94, 141; and Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Ed. 2.

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Erdrich, Louise (Poetry Criticism)