Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Tracks (1988) is designed, chronologically, as the first in a tetralogy about the lives of a group of Anishinabe originating from Matchimanito, a fictional locale based on the White Earth Reservation in North Dakota. The action started in Tracks is extended and expanded in The Beet Queen (1986) and Love Medicine (1984). Because the characters in the novels are intricately related through marriages and liaisons, they constitute a huge, extended family; as such, the cycle can be seen broadly as a family saga. Since the novels share in common the technique of multiple narrators who have stories of their own to tell, the polyphonic saga as a whole is an archive of a cross-section of Native Americans whose destinies intersect and diverge.

The creation of Matchimanito as a world populated by characters steeped in the myths and legends of the Anishinabe is by no means just an aesthetic diversion. Rivaling William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, in the magnitude of social significance, the world of Matchimanito is also a space for history to be rediscovered, imagined, explored, clarified, and interpreted.

Tracks is a literary text charged with such a historical mission, the focal concern of which is the dispossession of native land and its aftermath. As Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris explained in a 1988 article, “Who Owns the Land?,” by that time only 53,100 out of 830,000 acres originally promised to the Anishinabe remained in the tribe’s possession. The grim conditions on the White Earth Reservation, on which Matchimanito is based, epitomize the historical injustices imposed upon the Anishinabe and exemplify the intercultural and internal conflicts as well as the social problems created by the legal instruments of the United States government. Although Erdrich as an artist has always resisted moralizations, the collective memory by which her novel is informed leaves conspicuous tracks to be traced.