Tracks

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

This novel is the third in a projected four-novel cycle by the author. Erdrich’s two earlier works, Love Medicine (1984) and The Beet Queen (1986), share a North Dakota setting and certain characters with Tracks, but this third novel takes place earlier than the two previous books. Tracks seeks to examine the struggle of Native Americans during the first two decades of the twentieth century. It is an era marked by natural obstacles, including plague and famine, and by encroaching “progress,” the white man’s euphemism for a dwindling Indian share of land and for political and economic servitude for all but the craftiest and strongest of Native Americans.

The facts of the era portrayed in the novel take on a highly personal feel through the voices of Erdrich’s dual narrators. The events unfold through the alternating perspectives of Nanapush and Pauline Puyat. Nanapush is about fifty when the story begins; he has survived three wives and is considered a wise elder statesman. Pauline, on the other hand, is only twelve when the story begins.

The conflict between their points of view is clear from the very beginning. Nanapush wants to save his way of life; Pauline wishes to escape hers. They represent different generations, different faiths, different goals, yet each is drawn into the web of events that surround Fleur Pillager, the mythic woman who fuels both of their stories.

The winter of 1912 brings a tuberculosis epidemic to the reservation in North Dakota where Nanapush and Pauline both live. Nanapush, working with a companion from the tribal police, rescues Fleur, then an adolescent, from her family’s cabin near Matchimanito Lake. The rest of the Pillagers are dead, so Nanapush credits himself with saving the last of the clan. The listener for his portion of the story is Lulu, child of Fleur and Eli Kashpaw. Nanapush considers Lulu his grand-daughter. In fact, because of difficulties between Fleur and Eli, he is listed on her birth certificate as her father. His goal for telling his portion of the story is to persuade Lulu to recognize and accept Fleur as her mother.

Rescuing Fleur is an act of some courage on Nanapush’s part. His companion wants nothing to do with Fleur or the corpses of her family because of their reputation for supernatural powers. Fleur has already drowned twice when Nanapush rescues her from the icy cabin in which she is slowly starving to death. When she was a child, two fishermen pulled her from the waters of the lake, only to lose their lives as a result, or so the common belief holds. In the words of Pauline, “By saving Fleur Pillager, those two had lost themselves.”

The second drowning occurs when Fleur is fifteen. This time no one rescues her, but a passerby, George Many Women, bends down to observe that her chest is moving when she washes up on the lake’s shore. For his interference, he suffers Fleur’s challenge, “You take my place.” A careful man, George Many Women thereafter avoids water, only to drown in the new bathtub brought to his home by his own sons.

Thus, the community reasons, Fleur has been chosen by Misshepeshu, the water man, a monster, for his own. The water monster is believed to have a hunger for young girls, especially those, such as Fleur, who are known to be strong and daring. Drowning is a death most feared by the Chippewas, so Fleur’s victory over it is all the more impressive, as is Nanapush’s willingness to save and shelter the monster’s chosen one.

The paths of Pauline and Fleur cross early, when they both wind up living and working in a butcher shop in the city of Argus. Fleur is the object of the fantasies of the men at the shop, and Pauline plays the part of voyeur, watching the men watch Fleur. Erdrich uses vivid details of the slaughtering of animals and the preparation of meats and sausages to capture the brutal physicality of this environment, and she brings the situation in Argus to a terrifying climax when the three men who work at the shop turn against Fleur, who beats them at cards and does not respond to their fantasies.

Natural disaster in the form of a tornado strikes Argus, and Fleur and Pauline both return to the reservation, Fleur to take up residence at her old family home on Matchimanito and Pauline to drift closer and closer to insanity in the guise of religious fervor. Fleur becomes a wife and mother; Pauline seeks to become a nun, in fact, a saint.

Fleur is not a realistic character. Erdrich is writing, in this novel, about forces that extend beyond...

(The entire section is 1882 words.)