Tracks is arguably Erdrich’s most concentrated, intense, and mystical novel before the appearance of The Antelope Wife (1998). Her shortest novel, it covers the briefest period of time, twelve years. It alternates between only two first-person narrators compared with seven and six in the preceding novels. This compression serves the story well, for the human stakes are high. At first, and periodically throughout the novel, the Chippewa characters fear for their very survival, as smallpox, tuberculosis, severe winters, starvation, and feuds with mixed-blood families bring them close to extinction. Later in the novel, government taxes and political chicanery threaten the Chippewas’ ownership of their family homesteads. In response, Erdrich’s Chippewa characters use all the powers at their command, including the traditional mystical powers of the old ways, to try to survive and maintain their control over the land.
Nanapush, one of the novel’s two narrators, is an old Chippewa whom Erdrich names after the trickster rabbit in tribal mythology that repeatedly delivers the Chippewas from threatening monsters. In Tracks, Erdrich’s Nanapush often does credit to his mythological model by wielding the trickster rabbit’s powers of deliverance, wiliness, and humor. First, he saves Fleur Pillager, a starving seventeen-year-old girl and the sole survivor of a Chippewa clan that others fear for their legendary dark magic. Then he twice delivers young Eli Kashpaw from the sufferings of love by advising him how to win Fleur’s heart. Nanapush is also instrumental in saving the extended family that forms around Fleur, Eli, and himself. This family grows to five when Fleur gives birth to a daughter, Lulu, and Eli’s mother, Margaret Kashpaw, becomes Nanapush’s bedmate.
As these five come close to starvation in the winter of 1918, Nanapush sends Eli out to hunt an elk, and in one of the most extraordinary passages of the novel, Nanapush summons a power vision of Eli hunting that the old man imagines is guiding Eli to the kill. Nanapush demonstrates the humor associated with his mythological model in his wry tone as a narrator, his sharp wit in conversation, and the tricks that he plays on his mixed-blood antagonists.
Foremost among these antagonists is the novel’s other narrator, Pauline Pukwan. A “skinny big-nosed girl with staring eyes,” Pauline circulates in Argus from the Kozkas’ butcher shop to the Sacred Heart Convent, and on the reservation from the Nanapush-Pillager-Kashpaw group to the Morrissey and Lazarre clans. At first attracted to Fleur by the beauty and sexual power that she herself lacks, Pauline later takes an envious revenge by concocting a love potion that seems to drive Fleur’s husband, Eli, and Sophie Morrissey to become lovers.
The word “seems” is appropriate because Pauline’s account of her perceptions, actions, and powers is sometimes so distorted that she becomes an unreliable narrator. She is so torn between desires for inclusion and revenge, between the earthy sexual and spiritual powers of the Chippewas on one hand and the self-mortifying, otherworldly religion of the Catholic nuns on the other, that at times her character and narration go over the edge into gothic dementia. Ironically, Pauline gives birth out of wedlock to a girl named Marie. At the end of her narrative Pauline enters the convent to become Sister Leopolda—Love Medicine’s cruel nun who influences her own daughter, Marie Lazarre, to grow into a similarly warped personality, torn between fanatical Catholic piety and earthy sexuality.
Although Erdrich clearly feels passionately about the sufferings visited on her Chippewa characters in Tracks , she treats this politically charged material with her usual disciplined restraint. Her dispassionate, deadpan use of first-person narrators never suggests...
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authorial commentary and matches the understated, stoic attitude that Nanapush adopts toward the numerous waves of hardship and betrayal that the Chippewas must endure. It is a measure of Erdrich’s impressive lack of sentimentality that in the struggle over Chippewa family lands that in the last quarter of the novel, it is not merely the whites and their mixed-blood accomplices who rob the Indians. In a startling act of betrayal, Margaret and Nector Kashpaw misappropriate the money that the Nanapush-Pillager-Kashpaw group had raised together. They use it to secure the Kashpaw lands while letting the hereditary Pillager lands fall prey to lumber interests.
Tracks seems to conclude with a feeling of fragmentation and defeat but strikes some notes of solidarity and survival, especially when considered in relation to Love Medicine and The Beet Queen. Fleur disappears, leaving her husband and daughter, but Nanapush’s wiliness helps him to become tribal chairman and then to retrieve Lulu from a distant boarding school. In the end, the reader is reminded that Nanapush has addressed his entire narrative to Lulu: The old man hopes that his story will convince Lulu to embrace the memory of Fleur, “the one you will not call mother.”