(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Tracks deals with the devastation of the Anishinabe (also known as Chippewa or Objiway) people between the winter of 1912 and the spring of 1924 in Matchimanito, North Dakota. The novel focuses on the life of Fleur Pillager and those with whom she comes into contact, dramatizing their struggle for survival as well as their many-faceted conflicts. In alternating chapters, the story is narrated by Nanapush, a tribal elder, and Pauline Puyat, a fanatic nun of mixed heritage. The two narrators complement but at times also contradict and undermine each other.

At the age of seventeen, Fleur is rescued by Nanapush during a severe winter when inhabitants of Matchimanito are found dead from consumption and starvation. After recovery, she goes to Argus to work at a butcher shop. There, she meets a younger girl, Pauline, who has known her as a survivor of two drownings and hence is convinced that Fleur is the chosen one of Misshepeshu, the lake monster. Pauline reports how Fleur, having aroused the desires of three male workers and beaten them at the card table, is sexually assaulted. Russell, Pauline’s nephew, tries to stop it but to no avail. Later, a tornado strikes the town, and the three men take refuge inside a meat locker, refusing to let Pauline and Russell in. Russell shuts them in from the outside, freezing two of them to death. After the incident, Pauline returns to the reservation, where she learns that Fleur is pregnant. It is uncertain how Fleur becomes pregnant, but according to Nanapush, through personal insights and love medicines, he has helped Eli Kashpaw, a hunter, win her passionate love. Fleur’s childbirth proves to be so difficult that she almost dies. The baby, given the name of Lulu Nanapush, is in fact the person Nanapush addresses throughout his narrative.

Meanwhile, Pauline becomes a helper in Argus at a farm...

(The entire section is 762 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Tracks is arguably Erdrich’s most concentrated, intense, and mystical novel before the appearance of The Antelope Wife (1998). Her shortest novel, it covers the briefest period of time, twelve years. It alternates between only two first-person narrators compared with seven and six in the preceding novels. This compression serves the story well, for the human stakes are high. At first, and periodically throughout the novel, the Chippewa characters fear for their very survival, as smallpox, tuberculosis, severe winters, starvation, and feuds with mixed-blood families bring them close to extinction. Later in the novel, government taxes and political chicanery threaten the Chippewas’ ownership of their family homesteads. In response, Erdrich’s Chippewa characters use all the powers at their command, including the traditional mystical powers of the old ways, to try to survive and maintain their control over the land.

Nanapush, one of the novel’s two narrators, is an old Chippewa whom Erdrich names after the trickster rabbit in tribal mythology that repeatedly delivers the Chippewas from threatening monsters. In Tracks, Erdrich’s Nanapush often does credit to his mythological model by wielding the trickster rabbit’s powers of deliverance, wiliness, and humor. First, he saves Fleur Pillager, a starving seventeen-year-old girl and the sole survivor of a Chippewa clan that others fear for their legendary dark magic. Then he twice delivers young Eli Kashpaw from the sufferings of love by advising him how to win Fleur’s heart. Nanapush is also instrumental in saving the extended family that forms around Fleur, Eli, and himself. This family grows to five when Fleur gives birth to a daughter, Lulu, and Eli’s mother, Margaret Kashpaw, becomes Nanapush’s bedmate.

As these five come close to starvation in the winter of 1918, Nanapush sends Eli out to hunt an elk, and in one of the most extraordinary passages of the novel,...

(The entire section is 808 words.)