One of the most important Native American authors writing in the United States as of 2005, Louise Erdrich is famous for her unique storytelling technique that draws from her knowledge of Chippewa (or Ojibwa) life and legend. Although Erdrich is a poet and nonfiction writer as well, her most prominent work involves episodes from the lives of several Chippewa families whose roots are in the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. These richly drawn characters, whose lives intertwine across generations, have filled five novels and many short stories. In her individual style that alternates between a variety of first-person narrative voices, Erdrich captures the essence of these characters and their viewpoints as they tell the stories of their lives.
Erdrich draws much of her material from the stories of her Chippewa mother, and one of the first characters she developed out of these childhood tales was Fleur Pillager, the subject of Erdrich's 1986 short story "Fleur." In this story about sexuality and female power, a seemingly timid and insecure narrator describes the time Fleur spends in the small town of Argus, North Dakota. After Fleur is raped by the men who work with her in a butcher's shop, she is avenged by their mysterious deaths inside a frozen meat locker. Although "Fleur" was adapted and included as the second chapter of Erdrich's 1988 novel Tracks, the subject of this entry is the original short story, as published in Esquire magazine in August of 1986. As of 2005, it was available in short story collections, including Esquire's Big Book of Fiction (2002), edited by Adrienne Miller.
Born in 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota, Louise Erdrich was the eldest of seven children. Her mother, a Native American of the Chippewa tribe, was the daughter of Turtle Mountain Reservation Tribal Chairman Patrick Gourneau, and her father was of German descent. Both of her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Wahpeton, North Dakota, near the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, and in 1972 she entered the first co-educational class of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, on scholarship.
The year Erdrich began at Dartmouth, her future husband and collaborator Michael Dorris was appointed head of the Native American studies department. Erdrich began to write short stories and poems and held a variety of minimum-wage jobs, and after graduation she taught in the North Dakota Arts Council's Poetry in the Schools program. Erdrich earned a master's degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and then edited a Boston Indian Council newspaper before returning to Dartmouth as a writer-in-residence in 1981. Marrying Dorris shortly after she began to teach there, Erdrich became the mother of his three adopted children and had three more children with him. Dorris assisted Erdrich greatly in the writing and promotion of Love Medicine (1984); in fact, all of their works during the years of their marriage were collaborative efforts. After the success of her first novel, Erdrich received a Guggenheim fellowship and continued to publish short stories, including "Fleur," which originated in a long manuscript of her mother's stories that Erdrich wrote during her student days.
"Fleur" was incorporated into Erdrich's 1988 novel Tracks, the third work in her saga dealing with twentieth-century Chippewa life. Erdrich continued to publish writings throughout the 1990s, including prominent and successful novels and short stories, a nonfictional account of her experience as a mother, some children's literature, and poetry. Although she co-wrote fictional and nonfictional works with Dorris through the early 1990s, Erdrich began to have serious family problems, including a son's death, and she separated from her husband in 1995. Two years later, Dorris killed himself, an event that likely influenced Erdrich's 1999 novel The Antelope Wife. In the early 2000s, Erdrich published many works of fiction, including Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001), Range Eternal (2002, for children), The Master Butchers Singing Club (2002), The Game of Silence (2002), Four Souls (2004), and The Painted Dream (2005).
"Fleur" begins by stating that Fleur Pillager was only a girl when she drowned in Lake Turcot, which is located in Native American reservation in North Dakota. Two men dive in and save her and, not long afterward, both disappear. Fleur falls in the lake again when she is twenty, but no one is willing to touch her. One man bends towards her when she washes onshore, and Fleur curses him, telling him that he will die instead of her. He drowns shortly thereafter in a bathtub. Men stay away from Fleur, believing that she is dangerous and that the water monster Misshepeshu wants her for himself.
Because she practices what the narrator calls "evil" ways, Fleur is unpopular on the reservation, and some gather to throw her out. In the summer of 1920, she leaves on her own accord for the town of Argus. Noticing a steeple, she walks straight to the church and asks the priest for work. He sends her to a butcher shop where Fleur works with the owner's wife Fritzie, hauling packages of meat to a locker. Fleur gives the men a new topic of conversation, particularly when she begins playing cards with them.
Pulling up a chair without being invited, she asks if she can join their game of cards. Fleur borrows eight cents from the narrator Pauline and begins to win. The men unsuccessfully try to rattle her, and Tor discovers that she is unable to bluff, but Fleur continues to win. Fleur finally picks up Pauline, who is hiding in the walls, and puts her to bed. The game continues night after night, and each time Fleur wins exactly one dollar. The men are soon "lit with suspense" and ask Pete to join the game. Lily is confounded by Fleur and suspects that she may be cheating for low stakes.
In August, when Fleur has won thirty dollars, Pete and Fritzie leave for Minnesota. With Pete out of the way, Lily raises the stakes in an attempt to shake Fleur. After a long night of going up and down, Fleur wins the entire pot and then leaves the game. The men begin drinking whiskey straight from the bottle and go outside to hide in wait for Fleur. Lily attempts to grab her, but she douses him with a bucket of hog slops and runs into the yard. Lily falls into the sow's pen, and the sow attacks him. He beats its head against a post and eventually escapes to chase Fleur to the smokehouse with the other men. They catch Fleur, who cries out Pauline's name, but Pauline cannot bring herself to help.
The next morning, the weather begins to turn into a violent storm and the men take shelter in the meat locker. Pauline goes to the doors and slams down the iron bar to lock them inside. The winds pick up and send Pauline flying through the air, and Argus is thoroughly wrecked by the storm. Because everyone is occupied with digging out from the storm, days pass before the townspeople notice that three men are missing. Kozka's Meats has been nearly destroyed, although Fritzie and Pete come home to find that the back rooms where they live are undisturbed. They dig out the meat locker to discover the three men and Lily's dog frozen to death.
Pauline says as a kind of summary, from an unspecified period of time in the future, that "Power travels in bloodlines, handed out before birth," which implies that Fleur was responsible for the deaths of the men. She says that now she is about the only one who visits Fleur, who lives on Lake Turcot and may have married the water spirit Misshepeshu or taken up with white men or "windigos" (evil demons), unless she has "killed them all." Fleur has had a child, but no one knows for sure who fathered it. Pauline emphasizes that old men talk about the story over and over but, in the end, "only know that they don't know anything."
One of the men who works at Kozka's Meats, Tor is involved in the card games with Fleur and dies in the meat locker with Lily and Dutch. He a "short and scrappy" man married to a woman that does not appear in the story except to say that she received a blow to the head during the storm.
Jean is run over by a cart after saving Fleur from drowning in Lake Turcot.
Pauline's stepfather, Dutch works at Kozka's Meats and dies in the meat locker the night after he rapes Fleur with Tor and Lily. He brings Pauline's mother from the reservation and marries her, but she dies after a year, and he forces Pauline to drop out of school in order to take her mother's place in the butcher shop. He smokes cigars and, when he gets angry, veins bulge in his forehead.
Pete's wife, Fritzie is "a string-thin blonde who chain-smoked and handled the razor-sharp knives with nerveless precision." She works with Fleur but is not as strong as she, so Fleur is responsible for much of the heavy lifting. Fritzie keeps close tabs on her husband, refusing to tolerate any talking behind her back. A practical business owner, she refuses to let the town break through the meat locker in order to discover whether the men are inside because it would spoil the frozen meats, her and Pete's major investment.
The owner of the butcher shop, Pete is a soft spoken man who keeps his thoughts to himself because of his wife's influence. The only book he reads is the New Testament, and he always carries the lens of a cow's eye for good luck. Pete hires Fleur because of her strength and seems to bear no ill will towards her, which is why, Pauline implies, his and Fritzie's living space is spared by the storm.
George Many Women
George Many Women bends over to look at Fleur when she washes up on the shore of Lake Turcot. Fleur curses him, saying he will take her place, so he refuses to go outside, but Fleur's magic seems to work nevertheless because he soon drowns in a bathtub.
The "waterman, the monster" Misshepeshu is a "love-hungry" devil that lives in Lake Turcot and yearns for young girls like Fleur. Chippewa mothers warn their daughters that he may appear handsome to them, with "green eyes, copper skin, a mouth tender as a child's," but when they fall in his arms "he sprouts horns, fangs, claws, fins." Once he changes shape, he appears somewhat like a merman, with joined feet and brass scales, until he pulls the girls under, at which point he "takes the body of a lion or a fat brown worm." Erdrich implies in "Fleur," and makes more explicit during Eli Kashpaw's courting of Fleur in Tracks, that the form-shifting, magical Misshepeshu is associated with Fleur's sexuality and sexual power.
Pauline is Dutch's stepdaughter and the narrator of the story. She blends into the walls, or "melt[s] back to nothing" as though she is a part of the furniture, and she knows about everything that goes on at Kozka's Meats, including Fleur's rape. A "skinny, big-nosed girl with staring eyes," Pauline is captivated by Fleur but has mixed feelings about her, ranging from fear to admiration to disdain. She is also somewhat jealous of Fleur's good looks and powers because by contrast Pauline is quite homely, with a dress that hangs loose and a curved back like an old woman's. A timid and insecure girl, she cannot bring herself to come to Fleur's aid when she is raped, and she seems to feel somewhat regretful about this. It may be a reason why she locks the men inside the meat locker during the storm, murdering them, although Pauline seems to imply that she felt compelled to do this because of Fleur's magic.
Whether to believe Pauline about this motive is one of the cruxes of the story. Erdrich's novel Tracks suggests much more explicitly that Pauline is not a reliable narrator. She is eager to stress that she has a minimal impact on the story, but she is the one who actually locks the men in the meat locker. Regardless of whether Pauline murdered the men of her own volition or whether she is a reliable narrator, she retains a close connection with Fleur after the storm in Argus, as though she is drawn to her and repelled by her at the same time.
The intriguing subject of Erdrich's story, the daring Fleur Pillager is a Chippewa woman with magical powers. Chippewa men are attracted to her good looks, but they fear her because she has power from spirits and natural forces. She has "wide and flat" cheeks and a strong, muscular upper body, but her hips are "fishlike, slippery, narrow" and she has "sly brown eyes." She wears a green dress that, during the August night at the climax of the story, looks like a transparent "skin of lakeweed." The men at Kozka's Meats do not notice her very white, "strong and curved" teeth nor the fact that her fifth toes are missing, and they vastly underestimate her.
Fleur's reasons for moving to Argus are unclear; she may simply want a change from her home on Lake Turcot, or she may fear that people on the reservation will try to get rid of her. In any case, she works hard and with great strength, and she is able to cheat the men at cards (possibly using some kind of supernatural powers). The men, particularly Lily, are infuriated by her confidence and boldness, perhaps more than by the possibility that she cheats at cards. The women seem to respect Fleur, and Fleur takes to Pauline and appears to protect her. Pauline, however, has complex feelings about Fleur that must be deciphered in the subtext of what Pauline says.
Pauline claims that Fleur is "haywire, out of control," and that she "messed with evil, laughed at the old women's advice, and dressed like a man." She goes on to claim that Fleur practices ancient Chippewa medicine and charms, and she emphasizes that Fleur is responsible for summoning the storm that kills the three men who raped her. Pauline also suggests that Fleur magically compelled her to lock the men in the meat locker. It is not clear that all of these things are true or that Fleur is single-handedly responsible for all that happens. In one sense, Fleur is a victim who is raped by three brutal men. In any case, as she is presented by the narrator, Fleur possesses magical power related to her femininity, which no one fully understands.
Lily is a fat man "with snake's cold pale eyes and precious skin, smooth and lily-white, which is how he got his name." He works at Kozka's Meats and likes to play cards with his "stumpy mean little bull" dog on his lap. The main actor in the rape and the events leading up to it, Lily attempts to bait Fleur by raising the stakes in the card game. During the chase, Lily falls into the sow's pen and has a dirty and vicious fight with it in which he crawls around in the mud and is bitten in the shoulder. Erdrich implies during this description that Lily is a pig himself.
One of the most important themes in Erdrich's story is that of female power. The situation at Kozka's Meats is somewhat like a battle between the sexes, in which Fleur, Pauline, and Fritzie have their own methods of dealing with a brutish, dangerous group of men. Daring and fearless Fleur is the most overt wielder of female power, as Pauline emphasizes throughout the story. Fleur seems to draw this power from ancient Chippewa spirits, medicines, and charms, as well as her sexuality. This may be a reason why the men rape her, to maintain what they perceive as their rightful control over her, because they are sexist and masochistic. In the end, they realize they cannot understand or control her.
The fact that Pauline locks the three men in the meat locker indicates that she too has power, the ability to remain out of sight and then take revenge at the right moment. Unlike Fleur, Pauline Themes is meek and insecure, unable to stand up for herself or for Fleur at the crucial time. Nevertheless, Fleur and Pauline connect, both in Argus and after Fleur leaves Argus. They have two different kinds of female power, one direct and confrontational, the other indirect and secretive. Fritzie, able to control her husband and censor him effectively, illustrates a third kind of female power, which is that of a wife over her husband.
Topics For Further Study
- Research Native American history in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. What did Native American communities go through in the adjustment to reservation life? How did U.S. government policy towards Native Americans change, and what were the effects of these policies? How did the experience of Chippewa tribes in North Dakota fare in comparison to other tribes across the country?
- Fleur and Pauline appear in a variety of Erdrich's works, as do their relatives and descendents. Assign a group of classmates to each read a novel from Erdrich's saga that begins with Love Medicine (1984) and continues through The Painted Dream (2005). Then, have a group discussion about what happens to these characters, how they relate to one another, and how "Fleur" is important to Erdrich's saga as a whole.
- Research the history of violence against women in the early twentieth century. How was violence against women reported and documented? What organized attempts were there to combat it? What was the status of the Women's Rights Movement? How would you characterize male attitudes towards women during this period?
- Research the history of North Dakota and the Great Plains, paying particular attention to Chippewa history. What kinds of immigrant groups came to this part of the country during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries? Where did the Chippewa migrate, when did they do so, and how were reservation boundaries chosen? How did the disappearance of the buffalo affect life on the Great Plains? What is life like now on North Dakotan Chippewa reservations such as Turtle Mountain?
Except for Pete, who is under Fritzie's strict control to the point where he can talk about nothing but agriculture, the male workers attempt to make a show of their own power. They disdain women, then find themselves outwitted by Fleur and rape her to prove their dominance over her. Erdrich strongly suggests, however, that women have the real power at the same time that they can be abused by men (raped like Fleur, forced to keep out of sight within the walls like Pauline, or overworked like Fritzie). In fact, despite the fact that they are butchers, the men are continually compared to the meat and livestock, while the women are the ones sharpening knives, carrying packets, and boiling heads. The long passage describing Lily's fight with the sow makes it clear that he is like a pig himself, and the final image of the men frozen in the meat locker suggests that these men have been reduced to the level of carcasses.
Erdrich frequently refers to Fleur's sexuality and her good looks, beginning with her description of Fleur's drowning. Fleur's interactions with the waterman/spirit can be understood, in part, as a metaphor for her sexual development; Misshepeshu is a "love-hungry," sexual creature connected to Fleur's own sexual powers. Fleur is characterized as androgynous and fishlike: "her hands large, chapped, muscular, Fleur's shoulders were broad as beams, her hips fishlike, slippery, narrow." Fleur's daring personality, which fascinates and infuriates the men at the butcher shop, exudes from her sexuality, particularly during the night when she is raped. She wears a tight, transparent dress and gives the men a "wolfish" grin when she wins the card game; in response the men try to convince themselves of their power over her by violating her sexually. Fleur returns to Lake Turcot where she has a child and is visited only by Pauline (although, apparently, some say she has relations with white men or Chippewa spirits). Though she has a child, she is not married, and she lives independently, apart from male control. The men who attempt to take possession of her, either by saving her or raping her, die.
Racism and Sexism
The men at Kozka's Meats resent Fleur because she is capable, strong, beats them at cards (thus spoiling their chief source of pleasure), and because she is a Native American. Tor calls her a "squaw," or a Native American woman, as an insult, and the men believe that they should be superior to her intellectually and physically simply because of their male gender. Erdrich's story dramatizes white racism and male sexist beliefs, especially as these apply to Great Plains Native Americans. "Fleur" enacts the racism and sexism common in the 1920s that resulted in severe abuse and injustice.
Pioneered by post—World War II Latin American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, magic realism is a literary technique in which supernatural elements appear within an otherwise realistic narrative. Magic, spiritual powers, and inexplicable paranormal events all may be elements in a story employing this technique, which tends to challenge the reader's perception of ordinary reality.
Erdrich uses magic realism when she implies that Fleur has special powers that enable her to swim with the water spirit Misshepeshu, drown and still live, and summon a storm to kill men who attack her. Events that can be explained logically, the narrator invests with magical interpretation. Fleur is infused with magical power from the spiritual world. In this story that takes on the quality of myth, Erdrich is able to locate the essence of Fleur's significance in the ambiguity of her sexuality, in male attraction to and fear of female power. Erdrich presents the magical as real, without restricting herself to verisimilitude.
First-Person Narrative Perspective
Observant, unobtrusive Pauline is a mysterious person, who tells this story filtered by the lens of superstition and myth. She deliberately shapes the story as she reports it, on the one hand saying she sees more than others because she is "invisible," and on the other, admitting that there are some things one cannot say. For example, Pauline states that Fleur studied evil ways "we shouldn't talk about," which implies that Pauline censors or alters as she narrates.
Pauline's bias in favor of Fleur becomes particularly important as the story comes to its climax, when she stresses that Fleur is responsible for the deaths of the three men. In fact, the events of the story suggest that Pauline herself is responsible for their deaths. By the end of the story, when Pauline states that the old men chattering about the story "don't know anything" about what really happened, the reader senses that Pauline knows what happened herself and that she chooses not to tell all of it. Erdrich's use of such a first-person limited perspective allows her to add intrigue and mystery to the story and question whether it is ever possible to really know what happened in such a situation.
North Dakota in the Early Twentieth Century
West of Minnesota, on the southern border of Canada, and within the large area of the central United States known as the Great Plains, North Dakota has an arid climate with extreme temperatures and a rural economy. Sparsely populated until the late-nineteenth century, the state has a history of groups of Native Americans and immigrants competing for land. Anglo-American and Canadian settlers moved to North Dakota in the mid-nineteenth century to farm and participate in the fur trade, but many moved away in the late-nineteenth century, and Norwegian and German-Russian immigrants began to replace them. By 1910 North Dakota had an uncommonly large percentage of foreign-born residents, and its two main immigrant groups tended not to mix.
Compare & Contrast
- 1910s: Chippewa cope with poverty, lack of adequate hunting space, depression, and loss of land. There is little or no organized resistance to the American government, although Chippewa leaders and activists interact with government agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
1980s: The militant American Indian Movement, founded by three Chippewa in 1968 to address disenfranchisement, poverty, and treaty rights of Native Americans, continues to carry out some activism, including taking over a camp in the Black Hills of South Dakota between 1981 and 1984. The movement is in decline, however, due to Federal Bureau of Investigation actions against it and the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975, which helps to alleviate many of its concerns.
Today: Chippewa continue to struggle with poverty. Most have only the minimum education, and nearly fifty percent are unemployed, for a variety of reasons. The Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota has experienced a longstanding plague of corruption in the tribal council, and the effects of a casino it operates on its land have not been altogether positive.
- 1910s: North Dakota reaches the end of a population boom as poverty, low farm prices, and bank failures loom on the horizon.
1980s: The North Dakotan economy suffers from a rise in oil prices and a severe drought beginning in 1987.
Today: Although the North Dakotan economy has picked up since the 1980s, much of the state continues to be plagued by drought.
- 1910s: German-Russian and Norwegian immigrants and white-owned businesses buy up Chippewa land.
1980s: Reservation boundaries are stable, although many consider Turtle Mountain Reservation crowded.
Today: The Turtle Mountain Reservation continues to be crowded, and some land has been developed for a hotel and casino.
North Dakota experienced a population boom between 1898 and 1915, when railroads had been completed, connecting the region with the West. In politics, Republican Progressives instituted reforms and made a number of businesses public enterprises in order to stand up to the Minneapolis-St. Paul grain traders. They were accused of mismanagement, pro-German sympathies, and socialism, however, and they were removed from office in the recall election of 1921. In 1913, the year the events of "Fleur" take place, people were beginning to suffer in small towns, farms, and on Native American reservations, which were particularly hard-hit by disease, drought, and lack of food. Sioux, Chippewa, and other tribal lands had been greatly reduced by this time, to some of the least fertile areas of the state, and Native Americans continued to die after the disappearance of buffalo herds and the onset of disease and malnutrition in the late nineteenth century.
The Chippewa, otherwise known as Ojibwa or Anishinabe, first came in contact with French colonial fur traders in the sixteenth century, in the Great Lakes region. Traditional Chippewa lifestyles varied according to region, but most Chippewa were hunters and not farmers, a tradition that continued into the twentieth century. Many Chippewa became involved in the French fur trade after contact with Europeans, which led to alliances with the French. Like other Plains Native Americans, they were gradually driven off their indigenous land by expanding Americans of European decent. In addition to killing Chippewa in conflicts such as the French and Indian War and the War of 1812, these Americans forced Chippewa tribes into undesirable areas, depleted the plains of animals for them to hunt, and spread disease. Chippewa tribes were also involved in a series of disputes with the Sioux, whom they drove south as they made their way to Minnesota, North Dakota, and Ontario.
After the buffalo were nearly exterminated and many Native Americans faced malnutrition, the American government passed the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. Forcing Native Americans to give up tribal lands for individual land grants, this policy led to the transfer of nearly sixty percent of Native American land to whites by the time it was repealed in 1934. Because of disease, inadequate hunting space, malnutrition, and the loss of land to whites, the suffering of the North Dakota Chippewa persisted into the early twentieth century. Untold numbers died, lived in poverty, and/or suffered from depression as they were forced to change their way of life.
Louise Erdrich has been a popular novelist and a critical success since the publication of her first novel Love Medicine in 1984. "Fleur," which was in draft form during Erdrich's college days, gained early praise from Erdrich's professor and future husband Michael Dorris. As Ruth Rosenberg quotes Dorris in her entry on Erdrich for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 152: "['Fleur'] was alternately hilarious and terribly sad, a building swirl of impressions that clung to the imagination with incredible power." Critics tended to agree; the story was selected by editor Sharon Ravenel as a distinguished short story of the year, and in 1987 it was a first-place winner in the O. Henry Awards. The story was then incorporated into Erdrich's successful 1988 novel Tracks.
In her essay "The Short Stories of Louise Erdrich's Novels," Suzanne Ferguson compares the original story version of "Fleur" to chapter 2 of Tracks, writing that the story version "explicates and foregrounds the conflict between masculine/white and feminine/Indian forces." Ferguson goes on to assert that the central focus of the story is not Fleur but Pauline, who, she argues, is actually responsible for allowing Fleur to be raped "out of weakness—and possibly envy of Fleur's strength and attractiveness," and then avenges her "on behalf, perhaps, of women in general." Other critics discuss the characters of Fleur and Pauline across the entire novel Tracks, focusing on various themes, including feminism, displacement, Native American history, and the issue of narration. Barbara Hoffert in her Library Journal review of the novel calls it a "splendid" work by a writer "whose prose is as sharp, glittering, and to the point as cut glass."
Trudell is an independent scholar with a bachelor's degree in English literature. In the following essay, Trudell discusses female relationships, female sexuality, and female power in Erdrich's work, focusing on her short story "Fleur."
Fleur Pillager is a symbol of female sexuality and mystique throughout Erdrich's Chippewa saga. She draws the great practitioner of old Chippewa ways, Eli Kashpaw, to court her; she is rumored to have sexual relations with the water spirit Misshepeshu; she retains some form of magical and sexual power from the spirits; and her daughter Lulu becomes a great matriarch of the Turtle Mountain Reservation, having eight children all by different fathers. Fleur's sexuality refuses to conform to white American notions of an attractive woman. Even her name, which combines the French word for "flower" with the English word that means taking spoils by force, seems to be a contradiction within early twentieth-century American society, incorporating both the male model of ruthlessness with the female model of beauty and frailty.
"Fleur," a story that had been in Erdrich's mind and in draft form on paper for many years, is the first chronological appearance of this fascinating and nonconformist character. It describes Fleur's connection to traditional Chippewa ideas about sexuality, it suggests that she wields a magical power over men, and it explores the nature of her strengths and vulnerabilities. One purpose of this essay, therefore, is to explore ideas about femininity that Fleur expresses and represents as they are developed in this story that introduces her.
As much as it is about Fleur and her Chippewa sexuality, however, "Fleur" is also about the narrator Pauline, who becomes another of Erdrich's most important figures in the Chippewa saga. After giving birth to the other matriarch of the Turtle Mountain Reservation, Marie Lazarre Kashpaw, Pauline abandons her and transforms into a sadistic, half-crazy nun. Later (as related in Love Medicine), she becomes locked in a vicious battle with her daughter, although Marie does not know that Pauline, now Sister Leopolda, is actually her mother. Like Fleur, the development of Pauline's guilt-ridden, timid, obsessively Christian sexuality (or repression of her sexuality) has its roots in the story of her experience in Argus, where she is shown to be almost the direct opposite of Fleur at the same time as the two young women share a mysterious bond. This essay highlights Pauline's role in the story and in some of the central themes of Erdrich's saga, therefore, paying particular attention to the relationship between Fleur and Pauline.
Because it tells of the beginning of this relationship, "Fleur" is, in a way, an origin or source of Erdrich's profound and longstanding exploration of competing ideas of female power and sexuality. In Tracks, Pauline and Fleur fight a kind of battle between Christianity and Chippewa mysticism that is full of sexual overtones. In Love Medicine, the daughters of Pauline and Fleur carry on an intense, lifelong conflict that is as much about their own sexualities and sources of power as it is about the fact that they are in love with the same man. In the end, however, they have a reconciliation of sorts that emphasizes the feminine bond between the nagging, jealous, industrious Marie and the sensual, manipulative, and seductive Lulu.
This bond can perhaps best be described as a bond of power. Despite the rampant sexism and violence against them, by both white and Native American men, it is important to note that, in "Fleur" and throughout Erdrich's saga, the women actually run the show. Although men rape Fleur and demean Pauline, the two Chippewa women (and both are Chippewa despite Pauline's later denial of her half-Chippewa heritage) laugh last in Argus. Their victory over the men, in which they reduce Lily to a pig in the mud and freeze all three men in the meat locker like the animals they are, is best understood as a triumph of female power. Even Fritzie participates in this drama, bringing Pete away from the struggle just like she brings him away from the lewd masochistic table talk: by her wifely control over his speech and actions. Fritzie also reveals herself to have power over men by refusing to allow the meat locker to be broken open in the search for Tor, Lily, and Dutch. Indeed, it is significant that Fritzie, not Pete, makes the decision that protecting their "investment" is more important than the possibility (if a very small one) of saving the men's lives.
Each of these three women has developed her own avenue to power, and for all of them this power is somehow related to sexuality. For Fritzie, her power is a function of her exclusive control over her husband as a sexual object; he is not allowed to discuss other women or even read anything but the Bible. Accordingly, she sees the frozen, locked up meats—an overt metaphor for men and male sexuality since they are being punished for their rape of Fleur—as her investment and postpones the opening of the locker that has become their grave.
The fact that Fleur's power is sexual is even more overt, beginning with her association of Misshepeshu, Fleur's water spirit and possible husband. Fleur's mysterious communion with the waterman is developed throughout Tracks, but it begins in the first paragraphs of "Fleur," when Misshepeshu is described as a "devil … love-hungry with desire and maddened for the touch of young girls, the strong and daring especially, the ones like Fleur." This sexual creature is associated with Fleur's magical powers and "ways we shouldn't talk about," and he is subtly invoked again at the height of Fleur's sexual desirability, on the night the men rape her. That night, described as "drenched" in a tight-fitting green dress that "wrapped her like a transparent sheet," a "skin of lakeweed," Fleur stands in steam and paddles skulls in a vat, her sexual power drawn from wetness, the lake, and Misshepeshu. Fleur's power does not seem to diminish because the men rape her; even if she has nothing to do with their deaths, she escapes with their money and, as is clear from the subsequent events in Tracks, continues to wield power over men, including Eli Kashpaw.
Pauline, on the other hand, at first seems to have no power at all, let alone sexual power. She is completely ignored by men and observes them while being invisible to them. She disappears by becoming "part of the walls" of Kozka's Meats. Unlike Fleur's dress, Pauline's "dress hung loose," her "back was already curved, an old woman's," and the men "never saw [her]." Pauline's only power seems to be that she "knew everything, what the men said when no one was around, and what they did to Fleur," and it is from this knowledge that she gains the power to kill the men, including her stepfather.
There are two key aspects to Pauline's character and her revenge over the three men that are crucial to understanding the nature of her power over others. First, there is the fact that Pauline is an almost omniscient narrator. Pauline is able to manipulate the reader's understanding of Fleur and of the story by framing the events to make it appear that Fleur has killed the men with her magical or spiritual powers, when in fact Pauline is the one who locks them in the meat locker. Because she is able to lurk at the periphery without drawing the attention, interest, or violence of the men that Pauline is able to maintain control over the narrative and discover how to kill the men.
Second, the power Pauline assumes is based on her feelings for Fleur and these feelings seem, at least in part, sexual. Pauline gains the courage and motivation to kill the men because she wants to avenge Fleur's rape and because she feels very strongly about Fleur herself. Pauline feels a complex host of emotions towards Fleur, from guilt that she did not help Fleur when she was raped, to admiration for her boldness, to jealousy of her charms and powers, to sexual attraction to her. Pauline's emphasis on Fleur's good looks, intrigue with the stories of Fleur's connection to Chippewa spirits that she has denied in herself, and fascination with Fleur's great powers to the point that Pauline blames her for the deaths of the men she has killed herself, all suggest her attraction to Fleur, though she would never admit this to herself.
In "Fleur," therefore, Erdrich develops one of the central points that will resonate throughout her saga: that women establish their power by using their sexuality and communion with other women. Pauline's mix of jealousy, fear, and attraction to Fleur, like their daughters' intense lifelong battle, culminates in a kind of reconciliation and mutual understanding. While the rest of her family dislikes and despises Pauline, Fleur retains a certain closeness towards her that, as Erdrich reveals in "Fleur," comes from their bond of female power. Whether it is Fleur's aggressive and outward sexual power or Pauline's introverted and repressed homosexual desire, this communal female power, a formidable force that underlies Erdrich's entire saga of Chippewa life, is drawn from female sexuality.
Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on "Fleur," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following essay excerpt, Ferguson explores the difference in the interpretation of "Fleur" when it is read as a short story rather than as part of a novel.
In much recent short story theory, attempts are made to identify formal characteristics peculiar to the genre of "short story," or, in a variation of that attempt, to identify elements in a story that influence the reader to believe s/he is coming to the conclusion, or at least foreseeing the end of a "story" (see, especially, the work of Susan Lohafer), thus implying a conception of reading that attends to formal signals of a "whole" fictional work. In 1982, Suzanne Hunter Brown, who has since carried her psychological/cognitive investigations further, experimented with reading a chapter of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles as if it were an independent story, showing how different elements emerged with different importance when read as elements of a short story rather than a novel. She concluded, as I do in "Defining the Short Story, Impressionism and Form" and as have other critics such as Karl-Heinz Stierle and Mary Rohrberger, that in the short story, the reader is more likely to focus on theme and symbol, which allow us to process the text as a meaningful construct, rather than on verisimilitude, which allows the reader to "live" vicariously through a novel. This is not to say that verisimilitude is unimportant in the short story, but rather that we experience it differently in a fiction we expect to be short because we are attending more carefully to its potential for creating themes. Also importantly, more interpretive "capital" is likely to be located in the individual words and phrases of the short story text than of the novel, where according to Brown the reader generally attends more to and recalls whole scenes.
What Do I Read Next?
- Erdrich's Tracks (1988), which focuses on the lives of the Nanapush and Kashpaw families between 1912 and 1924, is the ideal work to read after "Fleur." In it, the reader will discover what happens to Fleur and how the story of her experience in Argus fits into her life on the Turtle Mountain Reservation.
- A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987), by Erdrich's estranged and late husband Michael Dorris, is a compelling novel about three generations of Native American women.
- Harpers Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry (1988), edited by Duane Niatum, is an excellent collection of Native American poetry.
- Erdrich's Four Souls (2004) is the sequel to Tracks, following Fleur Pillager's dramatic quest for justice after she leaves the Turtle Mountain Reservation for Minneapolis in 1919.
Similar attempts have been made to theorize special generic characteristics of the story "sequence" or story "cycle," analyzing volumes of stories presented by their authors as having special interrelationships, with their multiple representations of themes that are progressively or recursively developed. Yet what of the novel that has appeared, wholly or partly, as independent stories in magazines? When the stories were published, they were read as short stories—yet because we now know them to be "chunks" of novels, we cease to consider them as separate works.
Louise Erdrich's novels are among those that have frequently been preceded by story publication, and indeed narrative situations in which individual story-tellers narrate their own or others' "stories" are typical of the Erdrich novel and have been frequently remarked by her critics. The stories that make up Erdrich's novels rub against each other, juxtaposing different narrative voices, time frames, and styles, creating productive dissonances of signification and feeling. Yet despite being what one critic calls "collection[s] of interlocking narratives," her novels are not generally similar to those collections that are identified as "cycles" or "sequences," like Winesburg, Ohio, Dubliners, Go Down Moses, The Golden Apples, or the like, precisely because the "stories" have become "chapters," and the intermittently reappearing narrators achieve independent, important lives as characters in their own narratives as well as in those of the other character/narrators. Neither are the "short stories" interpolated into a "master" narrative like the "stories" told by characters in The Confidence Man or Absalom, Absalom! Rather, they are the episodes of that narrative.
In this paper, I want to return to "framing" some of Erdrich's stories as short stories, in order to explore their construction of meanings in that genre, comparing them with their novelistic counterparts, in a sense "defamiliarizing" them to explore the interpretive differences that emerge when they are read as stories rather than parts of novels, and speculating on the generic and interpretive implications of Erdrich's "new" kind of story-sequence novel. I will discuss the four stories that have so far been singled out for Best American Short Stories or Prize Stories, the O. Henry Awards: "Saint Marie" and "Scales," Chapters 2 and 11 of Love Medicine; and "Fleur" and "Snares," Chapters 2 and 5 of Tracks. The stories range in length from 4,200 words ("Snares") to about 6,000 ("Fleur")—an "average" length for short stories. All four are "told" in first person, as if to a reader/listener, in a generally "oral" style that does not intrinsically distinguish any particular audience….
A 6,000-word narrative that became Chapter 2 of Tracks, "Fleur" was published as a story in Esquire in 1986. In Tracks, it is the narrative of the young Pauline Puyat, later to become the sadistic Sister Leopolda. She is one of the two primary narrators of the novel, balancing Old Nanapush, the adoptive uncle of its protagonist Fleur Pillager and a major trickster figure in the unfolding saga. In Chapter 1 of Tracks, Nanapush relates the sad history of his and Fleur's tribe during the last years of the 19th century and the first of the 20th, especially the epidemic and famine of the winter of 1912. Pauline's narrative of Fleur in Chapter 2 is thus the primary introduction of Fleur's character in an action, a retrospective exposition showing why she is thought to have supernatural powers, and in particular the power to destroy men. As a short story, "Fleur" is also ostensibly—for its narrator—a sort of traditional exemplum of the man-destroying woman. Indeed, the narrator (she has no name in the story) tells us that Fleur "almost destroyed th[e] town" of Argus, North Dakota. However, the story shows that the men of the Argus butcher shop essentially destroy themselves—morally by raping Fleur, and physically by shutting themselves into an ice-filled meat locker during a tornado, where the narrator, not Fleur, entraps them. The "story," "Fleur," explicates and foregrounds the conflict between masculine/white and feminine/Indian forces, while the "chapter" establishes one possibly demented or dishonest narrator's view of a complex and powerful protagonist who becomes important to us not only as representative of the struggle of the traditional native American values against the materialistic ravages of modern Euro-American culture, but of what we might see as universal human values of love and family ties as well as female nature and power.
The changes in the novel version are not to Fleur's character but in connections made with other characters and other episodes. In the novel, one of the men trapped in the locker lives (albeit ravaged by gangrene), and a second child is introduced: Pauline's younger cousin Russell Kashpaw, who along with Pauline helps trap the men in the locker, and who becomes a significant figure in The Beet Queen and The Bingo Palace. The deliberateness of the men's closing out the children in the storm is explicit in the novel, where in the story the shutting out of the narrator might be inadvertent and never realized by the men, to whom she has been essentially "invisible" even in their presence.
Although identical from story to novel, the spectacular scene of an enormous sow's attacking Fleur's primary enemy, Lily Veddar, who has pursued Fleur into the sow's pen when she went to feed the animal after winning all the men's money in a poker game, takes on more powerful significance in the story, providing a memorable "objective correlative" for the violence of the struggle between the female and male forces of the story. The actual rape of Fleur which follows is represented only as the cries the narrator hears and is too afraid to answer with some protective action, while the fight of Lily with the sow is "shown" in graphic, indeed virtuosic detail. Next day, when the tornado appears, it seems to the girl an incarnation of the sow: "a fat snout that nosed along the earth and sniffled, jabbed, picked at things, sucked them up, blew them apart, rooted around as if it was following a certain scent …," suggesting that the real sow was somehow possessed when it attacked Lily and that the same demonic spirit now activates the winds. Yet tornadoes are common enough on the Great Plains, and the oppressive heat and humidity on the night of the card game and its aftermath, the rape, are clear indications not only of a naturalistic explanation of why the men behave so irrationally but how they know to take shelter in the locker when the storm approaches.
The "point" of the short story is located in the character of the unnamed narrator rather than of Fleur, for after all she has said about how Fleur destroys men (and almost the town), it is the narrator herself, the barely visible, anonymous narrator, who barricades the men in the locker and doesn't reveal their whereabouts after the storm. Thus, aided by the men's selfishness and indifference to her plight and perhaps by their shame at having raped Fleur, it is she who kills the men, although Fleur (who has already left town, most likely before the storm) is held responsible by the community. This nameless narrator, a figure for the alienated, self-less female child, tells us in the end only the "facts" of how the men were found, not admitting her guilt, then or later, when she returns to the reservation to "live a quiet life."
The real story of the narrator's tacit league with Fleur against the men is embedded in the folk-tale-like narration of Fleur's supernatural powers as the lover of the lake spirit, Misshepeshu, powers validated by the narrator's appeal to the authority of her grandmother. The narrator reports in seemingly free indirect style the grandmother's opinion of the strange deaths of the men who saved Fleur from her "first drowning" early in life: "it went to show,… [i]t figured to her, all right. By saving Fleur Pillager, those two men had lost themselves." The narrator's alliance with the other Indians—especially the mothers—in relating the story of Fleur's early drownings and the relationship with Misshepeshu—who may have fathered a child Fleur bore later—is shown in her consistent use of the first person plural in this expository part of the story, although she uses the singular for her narrative of what happened in Argus. At the beginning of the story she is the voice of the emerging modern, Americanized Indian community which estranges Fleur, the traditional Indian, whose independence and spirituality they cannot tolerate. The short story is less about its title character, a powerful traditional woman (possibly a witch), than about the nameless, nondescript, adolescent female narrator who out of weakness—and possibly envy of Fleur's strength and attractiveness—allows Fleur to be raped then avenges her on behalf, perhaps, of women in general. As a chapter, the narrative is crucial to establishing Fleur's centrality to Tracks, and it is Pauline's role as a narrator rather than as a character-agent that is most essential there.
Source: Suzanne Ferguson, "The Short Stories of Louise Erdrich's Novels," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 4, Fall 1996, pp. 541-55.
In the following essay excerpt, Angley discusses Fleur in terms of how she embodies the beliefs of the Chippewa and of her own clan—the bear clan.
Just as the bear's tracks disappear from the Chippewa homelands during the opening decades of the twentieth century, the traditional ways of the Native Americans are being erased by the encroachment of white technology and greed. The environment that supports an ancient way of life is on the verge of destruction, and this environment, this land, is what Fleur fights to save. Even though her fight is in some ways a hopeless one, the struggle transforms and strengthens Fleur. Fleur's choices ensure the continuation of the Pillager clan and its powers, however marginalized they may appear to be in Erdrich's other three novels. In the The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, Paula Gunn Allen states:
Indians endure—both in the sense of living through something so complete in its destructiveness that the mere presence of survivors is a testament to the human will to survive and in the sense of duration and longevity. Tribal systems have been operating in the "new world" for several hundred thousand years. It is unlikely that a few hundred years of colonization will see their undoing. (2)
Fleur, like the Indians Allen refers to, endures and does so in the strongest sense of the word. Fleur is earthy, slippery and transformative, cunning, magical and powerful—the embodiment of a way of life that will not be eliminated. Through Fleur as envisioned in these stories that Nanapush and Pauline narrate, Erdrich creates new Chippewa stories as she re-vises the old ones. Erdrich puts down linguistic tracks that symbolize both the presence and the loss of a culture whose myths, history, and religion are reflected in the oral tradition.
Earthy. As I mentioned earlier, the Pillager clan is known as the bear clan. In Chippewa mythology, the bear manito (supernatural spirit) represents a wide range of:
sentiments, expressing some awe and also some love. For the bear was considered quasi-human, in anatomy, erect carriage, cradling of young with the forearms … shows of intelligence, inclination to moderate conduct despite great physical strength. (Landes, Ojibwa Religion 27)
Nanapush describes Fleur by saying, "All she had was raw power, and the names of the dead that filled her" (Erdrich, Tracks). Likewise, Pauline observes "… we followed the tracks of her bare feet and saw where they changed, where the claws sprang out, the pad broadened and pressed into the dirt. By night we heard her chuffing cough, the bear cough."
Slippery and transformative. While Fleur's identification as bear-like or wolf-like strongly links her to the earth and while the bear and the wolf make tracks, or leave their imprint on the earth like Fleur does, she is also tied just as strongly with water as is the entire Pillager clan. In fact, as Van Dyke notes in "Questions Of The Spirit: Bloodlines In Louise Erdrich's Chippewa Landscape": "Fleur Pillager is an exemplification of traditional Chippewa power, and she owes her power to her spirit guardian, Misshepeshu, the water spirit man" (15). Pauline's description of Fleur reflects Fleur's "fishness" when she says, "shoulders were broad and curved as a yoke, her hips fishlike, slippery, narrow. An old green dress clung to her waist,…" Nanapush notes Fleur's affinity for the water monster when he describes Fleur's power over Misshepeshu. He reveals that Fleur's return from Argus was welcomed because "we didn't like to think how she did this—she kept the lake thing controlled." In the eyes of both narrators, Fleur is powerful. She is also transformative: a bear one minute, a wolf or a fish the next.
Cunning, magical and powerful. Fleur has the Pillager grin which is described as wolf-like. Her teeth are "strong and sharp and very white." Her eyes are described as sly and brown. When describing Fleur after Fleur has defeated the white men in Argus at the poker table and after Fleur supposedly caused the storm that destroyed much of the town, Pauline makes an important statement about the nature of Fleur's power:
Power travels in the bloodlines, handed down 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. (Erdrich, Tracks)
Few would doubt the magical, shaman-like power of Fleur Pillager, and because fewer women than men attain this rank, Fleur seems to be even more extraordinary. As Landes says, "The fact that certain women do not try any masculine pursuits, throws into stronger relief the fact that other women do make these techniques their own in greater or smaller part" (The Ojibwa Woman 177).
Erdrich refers to Tracks in an interview with Hertha Wong. She discusses her vision of the quartet of novels as comprising the four elements: air (The Beet Queen), water (Love Medicine), earth (Tracks), and the fourth (recently published as The Bingo Palace) will most likely be fire. The fourth novel will follow The Beet Queen chronologically. Therefore, Tracks, the first in terms of chronology, is earth. In Native American tales, earth is often associated with the feminine, with mother. In "Adoptive Mothers and Thrown-Away Children in the Novels of Louise Erdrich," Wong notes that "[m]other is not merely one's biological parent; she is all one's relations (male and female, human and animal, individual and tribal); and she is connected to the earth" (177). Also, the bear often represents the transformative power of the Great Mother in Native American myth, and Fleur is a member of the bear clan. Discussing why she chose the number four for her novel sequence, Erdrich notes:
It's the number of completion in Ojibway mythology. There are different myths, but one of them is the bear coming through different worlds, breaking through from one world into the next, from the next world into the next world. The number of incompletion is three and the number of completion is four, so four is a good number. (211)
The myth of the bear moving between worlds is an apt description of Fleur who moves between the material and corporeal, the ancient and the modern, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the Chippewa world and the white world. Fleur's strength is tested repeatedly in the novel, especially when she loses her second born, a son, in childbirth. Her inability to save him seems to indicate that Fleur, as Sidner Larson says, "is beaten down" (11), and perhaps she is, at least temporarily. Nevertheless, Fleur does not give in passively to fate; she mourns her loss and continues her fight to survive as she faces even more loss.
By the end of the novel, the Pillager land is lost to the logging company; although, Fleur has a moment of great irony when she saws the tree trunks so that with the right amount of wind, they will all fall over (in a circle). It is no accident that the wind comes up just as the loggers begin their destruction of her forest. In "Woman Looking: Revis(ion)ing Pauline's Subject Position in Louise Erdrich's Tracks," Daniel Cornell discusses Fleur's loss of power against the Euroamerican institutions, a loss he argues that Nanapush predicts. Cornell says "Fleur has no where to go where she will not already be positioned as 'other,' both as a woman and as an American Indian" (62). And, finally, she loses Lulu, her only surviving child, but this loss is by Fleur's own-choice. Fleur sees no other way to prepare Lulu for survival in the white man's world except to send her away to the government school. Wong's view of Fleur's decision to send Lulu away is that "abandoning one's child is not an act of selfishness; it is an act of despair or an act of desperate mercy" ("Adoptive Mothers" 186). Perhaps the greatest love is that which recognizes its inability to "own" another person. Thus, at the end of the novel, Fleur packs her few possessions. Nanapush says:
When she buckled herself into the traces of the greenwood cart I said, "Stay with us." I got no answer. There was none that I expected. An extra set of moccasins and a thin charred pair of patent leather shoes were slung over one shoulder…. She looked around at me, her face alight, and then she set out. (Erdrich, Tracks)
Fleur is gone, but not defeated. Fluer's power to transform her losses into strengths is hinted at in the The Beet Queen, but in The Bingo Palace Fleur triumphs over those forces which had seemingly beaten her down.
Fleur chooses to continue a nomadic existence living off of what she can barter (peddle). She moves between both worlds, her own and the white world. She appears briefly in The Beet Queen. It is eight years after she walked away from her forest. She uses her medicine to save the life of Karl Adare who has shattered his feet jumping off of a freight train. While Fleur works to break Karl's fever, his vision is of a bear. "A bear rose between the fire and the reeds. In the deepest part of the night, the biggest animal of all came through in a crash of sparks and wheels" (Erdrich, The Beet Queen). The next morning Karl's fever has disappeared. This section from The Beet Queen supports my view of Fleur as undefeated, as enduring.
Fleur also resurfaces in The Bingo Palace. Her great-grandson, Lipsha, goes to Fleur's home in the remote woods to ask her for a "special" love medicine. Lipsha is caught between two worlds, and in order to "find" himself he has to acknowledge the power of the traditions which Fleur has not forgotten. Fleur is waiting for Lipsha.
We think about the Pillager woman, Fleur, who was always half spirit anyway. A foot on the death road, a quick shuffle backwards, her dance wearies us. Yet, some of us wish she'd come out of the woods. We don't fear her anymore—like death, she is an old friend who has been waiting quietly, a patient companion. We know she's dawdling, hanging back as long as she can, waiting for another to take her place,… This time she's waiting for a young one, a successor, someone to carry on her knowledge,… (Bingo Palace)
Wong notes that "… Native American women long have been associated with the continuance of tribal tradition, both through childbearing and through transmission of cultural values in stories" (174). Fleur is responsible for passing on the tribal spiritual beliefs to her heirs, to Lipsha.
The Bingo Palace reveals that rather than allowing her spiritual beliefs and her "will" to be destroyed by the white man's interference in Chippewa life, Fleur fights. She eventually wins the Pillager land back by getting into a "cosmic" card game with former Indian Agent, Jewett Parker Tatro, who had purchased the Pillager land from the logging company. Dressed in stark white and accompanied by a white boy, Fleur sets her trap. "Fleur was never one to take an uncalculated piece of revenge. She was never one to answer injustice with a fair exchange. She gave back twofold" (Bingo Palace). Fleur is not a victim at the end of Tracks. She is waiting for an opportunity to subvert the power of the white man, and when she subverts Jewett Parker Tatro in The Bingo Palace, she moves back onto the Pillager land. Therefore, in this four-novel sequence, Fleur's allegiance to the ancient ways continues to empower her bloodline, and Fleur derives much of her power from that which is natural and feminine in her spiritual beliefs.
Paula Gunn Allen discusses the feminine in Native American culture, which Fleur draws upon for her strength. Allen's chapter, "Grandmother of the Sun: Ritual Gynocracy in Native America" from her book The Sacred Hoop is revealing. Looking at ancient Native American myths, Allen shows that Woman is at the center of everything (11). Also, in her introduction to this book, Allen states, "Traditional tribal lifestyles are more often gynocratic than not, and they are never patriarchal" (2). A little further on, Allen argues:
In tribal gynocratic systems a multitude of personality and character types can function positively within the social order because the systems are focused on social responsibility rather than on privilege and on realities of the human constitution rather than on denial-based social fictions to which human beings are compelled to conform by powerful individuals within the society. (3)
Allen's description of the power structure of patriarchy reveals a Western world view. Many feminist authors have posited that patriarchy has evolved from men's deep-seeded fear of women. Certainly, the men who played poker with Fleur and the loggers who encroached upon Pillager land represent patriarchy, and in the end, they have reason to fear Fleur.
Allen's chapter on gynocracy contains mythic tales similar to the Chippewa tales about Misshepeshu who is supposedly Fleur's spirit lover. Allen quotes a portion of a translation of Fr. Noel Dumarest, a nineteenth-century priest, who transcribed the following Keres creation myth.
In his account [Fr. Dumarest's], when the "Indian sister" made stars, she could not get them to shine, so "she consulted Spider, the creator." He characterized the goddess-sisters as living "with Spider Woman, their mother, at shipapu, under the waters of the lake, in the second world." (16)
The similarity between shipapu and Misshepeshu is obvious, and Fleur's immersions in Matchimanito Lake are directly related to spiritual renewal and empowerment. In the Chippewa language maci manito means evil spirit (Van Dyke 18). In the Keres myth, the powerful women creators live at shipapu, while in the Chippewa myths, the water monster is male and he is often evil. Despite their differences, these two myths reveal the power of ritual birth or renewal which is symbolized by water. Fleur can be seen as a representative of a feminine view of humankind that deconstructs and embodies oppositions such as good and evil, material and corporeal, feminine and masculine. This fluidity reflected in Erdrich's characterization of Fleur is reminiscent of the Great Mother figure in many Native American belief systems who represents the cycles of the natural world which are both creative and destructive.
Another mythic connection is the significance of the white scarf that Fleur wraps around her shaven head in Tracks. In The Beet Queen and The Bingo Palace white is also a color associated with Fleur. White is the color of snow (frozen water) which is symbolic of the harsh reality of the Chippewa way of life on the northern plains. Winter with its chilling cold and snow is an element or a force that Fleur and the other characters in the book learn to respect. Several times in the novel, Fleur nearly loses her life to both of these elements. Water can mean both a real and a symbolic rebirth, just as snow can mean both a real and a symbolic death. In fact, in Tracks Pauline is described as windigo (insane), a term which has its origins in Chippewa mythology where it means "giant cannibalistic skeleton of ice" (Landes, Ojibwa Religion12-13). Winter, then, plays heavily into the lives and imaginations of the characters in Tracks. Another mythic parallel that can be found in Allen's chapters is that in Keres myth Shipap (notice the similarity to shipapu and Misshepeshu) is the female center of the earth, and the "color of Shipap is white" (19). Ojibway artist Norval Morriseau says of Misshepeshu, "… the true water god, the white one in colour,…" (qtd. in Van Dyke 19). With her white scarf and her white suit, Fleur represents the Great Mother—earth, water, fire, and air—who is central to Native American spirituality and myth and who has both feminine and masculine traits.
Source: Patricia Angley, "Fleur Pillager: Feminine, Mythic, and Natural Representations in Louise Erdrich's Tracks," in Constructions and Confrontations: Changing Representations of Women and Feminism, East and West, edited by Cristina Bacchilega and Cornelia N. Moore, Literary Studies East and West, No. 12, University of Hawai'i, 1996, pp. 159-69.
In the following essay, Rosenberg discusses Erdrich's writing career.
The families Louise Erdrich first introduced in a short story, "The World's Greatest Fishermen" (1982)—the Kashpaws, the Lamartines, the Pillagers, and the Morrisseys—have also appeared in four of her novels. The focus of each changes as previously silent characters speak, revealing their secrets. Three generations interact in the Turtle Mountain Reservation of North Dakota and the nearby town of Argus. Erdrich claims she has no control over whose voice will emerge or what part of the past will be disclosed. Thus the story keeps growing, its truths changing as each new narrator adds an additional perspective. Readers discover a community of unpredictable people by overhearing their gossip, puzzling out their relationships through subtle clues. Despite their tragedies, they are exuberantly funny. Erdrich also possesses the gift of depicting spirits as vibrant presences, not transcendent beings. These forces emanate from stones, pulse from drums, rustle in the leaves of trees, can be summoned by medicines, or flow through fingertips. The forces under a lake, the power within a pipe, and the ancestors' dancing in the northern lights control the destinies of these people.
Louise Karen Erdrich was born on 6 July 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota, the eldest of seven children. Her mother, Rita Joanne Gourneau Erdrich, had been born on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation, of which Patrick Gourneau, Erdrich's grandfather, had been tribal chairman. Her father, Ralph Louis Erdrich, of German descent, taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school, where her mother also taught. The family lived in faculty housing at the edge of the small town of Wahpeton, North Dakota, three hundred miles away from the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Some aspects of her paternal grandmother, Mary Erdrich Korll, appear in The Beet Queen (1986) as well as in the poetry sequences called "The Butcher's Wife" in Jacklight (1984) and Baptism of Desire (1989). Her great uncle, Ben Gourneau, inspired some of the details for the characterization of Eli Kashpaw. Her mother had told her many of the stories in Tracks (1988), the first written but third published of her novels.
In a 1991 Writer's Digest interview, collected in Conversations with Louise Erdich and Michael Dorris (1993), Erdrich credits a childhood without movies or television for her narrative impulse:
The people in our families made everything into a story. They love to tell a good story. People just sit and the stories start coming, one after another. You just sort of grab the tail of the last person's story: it reminds you of something and you keep going on. I suppose that when you grow up constantly hearing the stories rise, break and fall, it gets into you somehow.
Erdrich's tetralogy is comprised of chapters narrated by different speakers. The events, spanning a century, assume the form of a traditional Chippewa story cycle. As Erdrich explained to Malcolm Jones of the St. Petersburg Times in 1985:
This reflects a traditional Chippewa motif in storytelling, which is a cycle of stories having to do with a central mythological figure, a culture hero. One tells a story about an incident that leads to another incident that leads to another in the life of this particular figure. Night after night, or day after day, it's a storytelling cyle.
Erdrich told Joseph Bruchac in Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets (1987) that she idolized her grandfather: "He is funny, he's charming, he's interesting." She respected his being able to live with dignity in two cultures—maintaining the old religion, speaking "the old language," doing pipe services for ordinations, knowledgeable about the ways of the animals. But he also attended mass, "gave Tricia Nixon an Anishinabe name, for publicity," and danced in pow-wows. In a 1986 interview with Nora Frenkiel of the Baltimore Sun she recalled how "he searched his fields for old stones used in tomahawks, and remade the entire beadwork." But above all, she says, "My grandfather was a great storyteller." Although none of her fiction is autobiographical, she has given her character Nector Kashpaw some of her grandfather's attributes. Nector's devoted wife, Marie, bears some resemblance to her grandmother, Mary Gourneau, who married at age fourteen.
Erdrich's father made the Depression era so vivid for her that she was able to fictionalize his accounts in The Beet Queen. She got the idea for the novel from his anecdote about his first airplane ride, which inspired a plot based on Adelaide's flight. He also gave her the idea for one of her poetry sequences, as she told Jan George in 1985: "My father is a terrific storyteller and made his relatives and the characters in the towns where he grew up almost mythic. I owe 'Step-and-a-Half-Waleski' in Jacklight completely to him. There really was a woman like her in his childhood." Erdrich's father also introduced her to William Shakespeare, playing and replaying records of Macbeth and King Lear. He encouraged her and her sisters to write by occasionally paying them a nickel for their stories. Her sisters Heidi and Lise are also published authors. When Erdrich was judging the entries for a volume of best American short stories, she regretted that the rules prevented her from accepting Lise's submission.
Except for a few years in a parochial school, Saint John's, in Wahpeton, Erdrich attended public school. One small detail that surfaced later in her fiction was her election to the B# piano club while she was taking music lessons with her teacher Sister Anita. Wallace Pfef in The Beet Queen is described as being a supporter of the B# piano club. Another incident, which she uses in The Bingo Palace (1994), had actually happened to her when she was fourteen. One May night she took her sleeping bag out to the football field and awoke at dawn with a skunk curled up on top of her. In a 1993 essay in the Georgia Review she wrote how she envied skunks their fearlessness. She wrote in the January 1985 Ms. that performing on the piano in public "terrified me to the point of nausea or paralysis."
In 1972 she entered Dartmouth College on scholarships as part of its first coeducational class. That same year her future husband, Michael Dorris, had been appointed head of the Native American studies department. Their first collaboration was published in an Indian magazine, a children's story that he wrote and she illustrated. Dorris said in The Broken Cord (1989) that "her bold, quirky drawings" were "better than my text."
Her first publications were in Dartmouth literary magazines. One of her teachers, A. B. Paulsen, considered her a poet of unusually high talent. She finally felt credentialed when Ms. accepted one of her poems; an American Academy of Poets Prize in 1975 was further validation. After graduation she worked as poet in the schools for the State Arts Council of North Dakota, teaching "children, convicts, rehabilitation patients, high-school hoods and recovering alcoholics." The following summer James Wright, a Dartmouth history professor, invited her to serve as consultant on a documentary he was filming on Northern Plains Indians for Nebraska Public Television.
A variety of minimum-wage jobs followed, many of which found their way into her fiction later. Many of her characters are waitresses, as she had been, either "on the night shift in an all-night family diner" or "on the breakfast shift as a short-order cook." She prides herself on still being able to crack four eggs one-handed. She also weighed trucks on the interstate and worked as flagger on a construction site—both jobs she gave to characters. She weeded beets, picked cucumbers, delivered newspapers, sold popcorn, and worked as an ad manager and as a bookstore distributor of small-press publications. The scenes in Love Medicine (1984) set in the elder-care center gain verisimilitude from her having worked in one.
In 1979 a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University enabled Erdrich to move to Maryland and concentrate on her writing. In a small apartment she worked on the poems she submitted as her thesis. After receiving her master's degree in 1980 she became editor of the Boston Indian Council newspaper, The Circle. In Massachusetts she wrote a textbook, Imagination (1981), for Merrill while waitressing at a pastry shop.
An invitation to read at Dartmouth led to her meeting Dorris again. As he wrote later in The Broken Cord, her reading left him "dazed, stunned." Her poems were "vivid stories, tight and condensed as black holes in space." They had time only to exchange addresses because he was leaving for New Zealand and she for the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Their correspondence became an exchange of manuscripts, each writing long editorial comments on the other's drafts. After working at Yaddo, Erdrich was invited to serve as writer in residence at Dartmouth. Her arrival on campus in January 1981 coincided with Dorris's return. On 10 October 1981 they were married in a civil ceremony in the backyard of the house Dorris had shared with his three adopted children. Erdrich's mother had sewn the wedding gown and mailed it to Cornish, New Hampshire, from North Dakota.
To pay for repairs on their farmhouse the couple collaborated, under the pseudonym Milou North, on stories published in the British magazine Woman. Erdrich told the Washington Post in October 1988 that their first fictions were "not terribly deep, but they were uplifting. Always about a young woman under stress who resolved her crisis affirmatively."
Their next collaboration won the Nelson Algren Award, a five-thousand-dollar prize from Chicago magazine. Dorris's aunt Virginia Burkhardt had sent them the announcement of the contest early in January; the deadline was 15 January. In a single day Erdrich drafted the story of a family reunion "with events, but no conversation or details." As she finished each page at the kitchen table, she took it into the living room for Dorris's suggestions. After they mailed off "The World's Greatest Fishermen" they spent so much time discussing the revisions they would make when it returned that they had enough material for a novel. It became the opening chapter of Love Medicine. Two other chapters, "The Red Convertible" and "Scales," had already been published. When Anne Tyler selected "Scales" for The Best American Short Stories 1983 she wrote of Dot Nanapush, "You think you won't care much about a gigantic, belligerent, pregnant woman who weighs trucks for a living? Just wait. By the time you see her violently knitting her orange and hot-pink baby clothes you'll care passionately."
For a year and a half the couple imagined scenarios for their characters, who, in the course of many conversations, became as familiar as relatives. The "Saint Marie" chapter gave them some problems. Dorris felt that it was not working in the nun's voice and suggested it be told by the novitiate. Erdrich went out for a long walk. "The next day," Dorris told Shelby Grantham of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in 1985, "there was a new draft on my desk. We had no other words about it—it just appeared there. And it was absolutely right." Henry Abrams, who selected it for the 1985 O. Henry Awards, agreed.
When they sent Love Medicine to publishers it received polite responses but no offers. Dorris finally managed to place the manuscript with Holt by printing up stationery with the letterhead Michael Dorris Agency and promoting it himself. The novel became an immediate best-seller. The American Academy of Arts and Letters gave the thirty-year-old novelist the Sue Kaufman Prize for Best First Fiction, and distinguished writers acclaimed her achievement. Philip Roth praised her "originality, authority, tenderness, and pitiless wild wit." Toni Morrison wrote that "the beauty of Love Medicine saves us from being devastated by its power." Ursula K. Le Guin called Erdrich "a true artist and probably a major one," while the Chicago Tribune called her "the first novelist of her generation to have achieved front-rank writerly stardom."
The author who had seldom seen television was wooed by producers who saw possibilities in Love Medicine as a television serial; movie rights were also optioned. A measure of its worldwide appeal was its translation into eighteen languages. Native Americans wrote her thousands of letters, some of them asking how she could have known things that had actually happened to them. She appreciated their endorsement, especially those who told her she was the first writer who knew how Indians really talked. She acknowledged this at the New York Historical Society when the National Book Critics Circle honored her as the year's best novelist. It was the Chippewa who deserved the recognition, she said: "I accept this award in the spirit of the people who speak through the book." In 1984 she also won the Virginia Scully Award for Best Book Dealing with Western Indians and in 1985 the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.
A wide readership responded to promotions by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Quality Paperback Book Club. An academic audience, the Great Lakes Colleges Association, conferred upon her its prize for Best First Work of Fiction. In 1985 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship.
In August 1985 Dorris went on sabbatical to research The Broken Cord while Erdrich worked on The Beet Queen, based on her father's people. The family moved to Northfield, Minnesota, to a six-bedroom Victorian house a block away from Carleton College.
Erdrich submits her work to continual revision. The first longhand drafts are passed back and forth between the couple for interlinear comments. Then Dorris triple-spaces the manuscript on his word processor, using a different font for each successive version. The final manuscript is spread out on a long table and read aloud page by page. They do not send it out until they have achieved consensus on every word. Therefore they were surprised to find themselves still prompted to further revision after The Beet Queen seemed ready to send to the publisher. In a 1986 interview in the North Dakota Quarterly Erdrich said, "Right after Christmas, we started rewriting it from page 206 on. In a month, we rewrote pages 206 to 393, and made a whole new ending. The last 15 pages are completely new."
Some reviewers objected to the carefully reworked ending. Michiko Kakutani in the 20 August 1986 New York Times lamented its artifice in reassembling all the characters at a parade. Dorothy Wickenden in the 6 October New Republic wrote that "the coming together of all the characters and themes at the beet festival—complete with Dot's dramatic reliving of her grandmother's flight—is a contrivance." Josh Rubin in the 15 January 1987 New York Review of Books deplored the outlandish coincidences "in the novel's final set piece, which blatantly arranges the intersection of the redemptive return of wastrel Karl, the black-comic demise of Cousin Sita, and the rigged election of sullen Dot Adare as the 1972 Beet Queen of Argus, North Dakota."
The carefully contextualized conclusion arose from a spiderweb image in a mother's dream in the center of the novel. She notices "in the fine moonlight floss of her baby's hair, a tiny white spider making its nest. It was a delicate thing, close to transparent … throwing out invisible strings." The novel was spun out of that central metaphor. Erdrich's daughter Pallas, whose "passion is spiders" and who was delighted that one "spun a delicate web in an eave above her bed," inspired that passage.
The passages between the chapters lyrically describing the characters' dreams are the "invisible strings" making the episodes coherent. When the Bantam paperback edition failed to include these, Erdrich's lawyer, Charles Rembar, offered to share the expense of recalling the fifty thousand copies already in print. When they declined Erdrich changed to another publisher. HarperCollins paid an unprecedented six hundred thousand dollars for the paperback rights. From its third week after publication The Beet Queen was on The New York Times best-seller list. It was featured by the Book-of-the-Month Club as an alternate selection, was named by Publishers Weekly as one of the "Best Books," and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was published in England and translated into Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish, German, and French.
Erdrich's technical virtuosity impressed many critics. In the 15 January 1987 New York Review of Books Rubin wrote that her storytelling was so compelling that her authorial strategems "don't undermine the story's forward momentum and emotional conviction." Robert Bly in the 31 August New York Times Book Review expressed "amazement and gratitude at this splendid, feisty talent, capable of bizarre comedy, ordinary Midwestern facts and vigorous tragedy." Russell Banks in the 1 November 1986 Nation applauded the "exquisite ironies" wrought from "a Bruegel-like realism" and the elegant orchestration of the multiple voices that "blend, as in a chorus, without ever losing their remarkable individuality. Erdrich has been able to give each of her characters their own tone, diction, pitch and rhythm, without letting go of her own."
For her third novel Erdrich returned to her student manuscript, Tracks, portions of which had already been published as short stories. "Fleur" had been doubly honored. In 1986 it was cited by Sharon Ravenel as a distinguished short story of the year, and in 1987 it was chosen by William Abrahams as the first-place winner of the Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. In The Broken Cord Dorris described its impact on him a decade before at Dartmouth: "Louise read a section of what she described as a novel-in-progress: the tale of a Chippewa woman who bested a group of men in a card game in a butcher shop and their fury over the loss. It was alternately hilarious and terribly sad, a building swirl of impressions that clung to the imagination with incredible power." Erdrich said that rereading it led her to the realization "that it was now part of what the novel could be, and it eventually became the second chapter in the book." Dorris saw in the emerging trilogy three of the four natural elements. As the first novel had been governed by images of water, the second had reiterated references to air. The third would be dominated by images of earth, as the fourth would be by fire. The plot of Tracks is a conflict over the land. The Anishinabe are threatened by surveyors preparing for allotment as well as by loggers. Since it moved back into tribal history to events between 1912 and 1924 Dorris considered it a prequel to the other two novels. Alternately narrated by Nanapush and Pauline (who becomes Sister Leopolda in The Beet Queen), its silent auditor is the child Lulu (the matriarch of Love Medicine). The already-published short story "Snares," which had been selected for The Best American Short Stories 1988, became the fifth chapter.
Erdrich was reluctant to let this book, scheduled for publication in September 1988, go. She considers it her favorite because it gave her such difficulty, and she wishes she had had more time with it. In spite of her feeling that it was still incomplete, Tracks was widely praised, was adopted in college courses, and immediately ascended the best-seller lists. Studies in American Indian Literatures devoted two issues to it. Among the many topics discussed, that of dealing with ritual materials, of trying to transform an oral tradition into a written one, suggests why she felt Tracks posed such problems.
Erdrich uses the double-voiced narration again in her next book, Baptism of Desire. The Trickster voice is apparent in the "Potchikoo" cycle, while the convent voice can be heard in the Catholic poems. The two antithetical belief systems energize her poetry.
In 1990 Erdrich and Dorris collaborated on a travel book later printed in a limited edition. Route Two resulted from their family visits to relatives across the continent. They plotted their next project, the novel The Crown of Columbus (1991), on their drive through Saskatchewan described in Route Two. They had been intrigued by Columbus's multiple identities in the public mind for a decade, researching the complex personality of the man credited with "discovering" Native Americans. Erdrich undertook the task of reading every book that Columbus had mentioned in his diaries. Like the protagonist, Vivian Twostar, she worked in Dartmouth's Baker Library. At the time Erdrich was pregnant with their third daughter, Aza, as Vivian was with her baby, Violet.
The second narrator, Roger Williams, is writing an epic poem about Columbus. Erdrich described him in a 1991 Mother Jones article on the couple as "terribly self-important," and Dorris added that he is "a very fastidious, self-protective, established English professor." His joining the quest for the missing pages of Columbus's diary jolts him out of his academic isolation into the disorder of the everyday. As another of their pseudonymous publications Erdrich and Dorris submitted the poem about Columbus under the name Roger Williams to the periodical Caliban, admitting they were jealous of their invented author since he got printed with his first submission. The French publishers of the book wanted Williams's poem displaced to an appendix. However, Erdrich and Dorris defended its position within the text, since everything in the poem is paralleled in the novel and it therefore assumes structural importance.
Erdrich enjoyed the opportunity to write about literate characters in an academic setting, which allowed her to exercise her gift for parody. Her penchant for playing with forms made The New York Times Book Review writer uncomfortable. The book, he wrote, mixes too many genres: "domestic comedy, paperback thriller, novel of character, love story." Carla Freccero disagreed in the 17 October 1991 Women's Review of Books: "What has appeared to some critics as a helter-skelter fragmentary novel catering to popular tastes is in fact a highly structured, complex, symbolic rewriting of American history, framed by four parallel discoveries and four returns." With a first printing of 150,000 copies; excerpts in Redbook, Mother Jones, and Caliban; movie rights sold to Cinecom; and a two-hundred-thousand-dollar advertising campaign and author tours, the book became a resounding commercial success, and it was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate.
In 1993 Erdrich was invited to serve as the guest editor of The Best American Short Stories 1993. Pam Lambert in the 15 November 1993 People Weekly noted that Erdrich fortified herself for the task of selecting from the 120 entries with "a case of licorice. 'I like the red better, but you feel more professional eating black.'" Reviewers praised the collection assembled by Erdrich, calling it "remarkably rich." Her criteria had been "intellectual pleasure" as well as "texture, place, aroma, succulence, and stiff particularity," she wrote in her introduction.
In November 1993 Holt issued an augmented version of Love Medicine. Erdrich's editor there, Marian Wood, justified the expanded edition because the series of which it forms a part is "organic," and its growth had to be accommodated. The four inserted chapters set up The Bingo Palace. Serving as transitions to this fourth novel are the chapters "The Island," "Resurrection," "The Tomohawk Factory," and "Lyman's Luck." Erdrich's explanation, in the 14 October New York Times, of the augmented edition is interesting for what it reveals about her methods of composition:
When I started working on my new book, The Bingo Palace, I started sifting through these notebooks I have of handwritten manuscripts and notes of everything I'd done before. It's basically like a big compost pile. The notebooks not only suggested the shape for the new book, but they suggested that there were parts of Love Medicine that I had forgotten…. I felt that these voices needed to be included.
Those voices—Lulu, Marie, and Lyman—give readers the background knowledge needed to understand Lipsha's accession to the Pillager powers in The Bingo Palace. Lulu tells how Lipsha's father, Gerry, was conceived by the medicine man, Moses Nanapush, who was Fleur's cousin—the only male Pillager who survived the epidemic depicted in Tracks. Marie tells of the ancestral pipe to be inherited by Lipsha, which, when its stem is joined to its bowl, connects heaven and earth. Lyman speaks of the profound mourning for his brother, Henry Lamartine, Jr., which will be resolved by his performance of the grass dance. The business acumen he inherited from Nector Kashpaw, which leads him to found not only a tomahawk factory but also a bingo palace, leads finally to tribal recognition of his paternity. The epic ends with a reconciliation of sons with fathers after the rivalry between Lipsha and Lyman is healed during a joint vision quest. Not only are the old ceremonies restored but even the old language, as Gerry tells his son where to find him in Anishinabec. Gerry is the fictionalized counterpart of the Chippewa hero Leonard Peltier, wrongly imprisoned for eighteen years. His martyrdom inspires the union of all tribal people in protest.
Erdrich had been working on a story cycle called "Tales of Burning Love," scheduled for publication in 1995, when The Bingo Palace came to her during a blizzard. She interrupted her work on the story cycle to draft the novel in six weeks. Then an invitation came to write an introduction for a captivity narrative that had long been a family favorite. She reminisced about the history of a boy who in 1789 was adopted by the Ojibwa:
[T]he darkly bound narrative of the captivity of John Tanner stood upright on a shelf in my grandparents' Turtle Mountain Reservation home. It belonged to my grandfather Patrick Gourneau, and I first read it on the sun-soaked back steps of his house, just beyond the shade of the spreading woods where Tanner once joined an ill-fated early nineteenth-century Cree party. The story of Shaw-shaw-wa-be-na-se, or The Falcon, was a family touchstone especially cherished by my sister, Lise. Erdrich is also considering a book about the kindly Father Damien. In preparation she is studying the lives of the saints and the history of the Jesuit missionaries as well as researching Catholic devotions. As she told Bruchac, "You never change once you're raised a Catholic. You've got that symbolism, that guilt."
Erdrich is also planning a book about Mustache Maude, a female cattle rustler, "a North Dakota maverick" about whom she had published a short story in Frontiers. "The story was, as early work often is, an experiment in voice and form," Erdrich explained to an interviewer.
Erdrich has compiled a book of nature essays, selected from the many she has published in magazines, called The Bluejay's Dance (1995). The conceit of dancing away the threat of death is an apt metaphor for survival humor. She writes of a baby bluejay that had escaped a swooping hawk by fluffing its feathers and dancing a "manic, successful jig—cocky, exuberant, entirely a bluff, a joke." All of Erdrich's life-affirming exuberance is in that image.
Source: Ruth Rosenberg, "Louise Erdrich," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 152, American Novelists Since World War II, Fourth Series, edited by James Giles and Wanda Giles, Gale Research, 1995, pp. 42-50.
In the following essay, Sergi examines Erdrich's storytelling style in Tracks, especially as it relates to Chippewa traditions.
Without stories there is no articulation of experience: people would be unable to understand and celebrate the experiences of self, community, and world. And so cultures value the tellers of stories. The storyteller takes what he or she tells from experience—his or her own or that reported by others—and in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to the tale (WB, 87). The storyteller relies on memory (his or hers and his or her listener's) and creates a chain of tradition that passes on a happening from generation to generation.
Louise Erdrich is just such a storyteller. In her third novel, Tracks (1988), she not only chronicles the story of the Chippewas' struggle to preserve their land and culture; she also gives us the story of these stories and their tellers as well. She is telling this novel "the Indian way." The "artistry of the Indian 'word sender' characterizes reality: peoples, landscapes, seasons, tonalizes, lightens, spiritualizes, brightens, and darkens human experience, all the while working with the reality that is" (KL, 223). This reality is shown to readers by two storytellers who alternate chapters, in separate, very distinct voices: Pauline, a young mixed-blood who is confused and psychologically damaged by her unbalanced commitment to Catholic martyrdom and Chippewa tradition; and Nanapush, a wise old tribal leader gifted in the ancient art of storytelling. It is through Nanapush that Erdrich captures the act of Indian storytelling. It is written down, but Erdrich wishes to record and preserve not just the memories, intertwined closely with personal history and a sense of loss, but a cultural tradition, one that is oral, performed, formulaic, and perpetuated by the storyteller, who learns the rhythms and melodies—the craft—and expands, ornaments, and varies the tradition his or her own way, Thus Erdrich's Native American, and more specifically Chippewa, "tracks" are evident in her narratives, if not as those of the one who experienced it, then as those of the one who reports it.
How this oral tradition and history is being recorded is important, therefore, and "tracing the connective threads between the cultural past and its expression in the present" becomes a primary focus of scholars as well as novelists (KL, 2). How are translators and Native American artists, like Erdrich, bringing the oral and mythic traditions of their ancestors into print for native and non-native readers? Erdrich does this in a number of ways in Tracks: 1) she captures the form and purpose of oral storytelling; 2) she includes the contents of Chippewa myth and legend; and 3) she preserves these cultural traditions in a voice that harks back to the old as it creates anew.
Kenneth Lincoln, a Native American literature scholar, is also exploring the nature of the transition from orality to writing, and within his definition of Indian storytelling he describes the "story-backed old man giv[ing] the child eyes and voices, narratives that touch and are carried for life: words incarnate, flesh-and-blood ties, an embodied imagination. And the tribal backbone extends through ancestors who carry history in their bodies" (KL, 222). The fictional prototype of this "story-backed old man" is Erdrich's narrator, Nanapush. Nanapush is telling the story to his adopted granddaughter Lulu: "My girl, I saw the passing of times you will never know." He knows the old ways: "I guided the last buffalo hunt. I saw the last bear shot. I trapped the last beaver with a pelt of more than two years' growth. I spoke aloud the words of the government treaty, and refused to sign the settlement papers that would take away our woods and lake." He also tells Lulu how she fits into this history: "You were born on the day we shot the last bear."
Moreover, much as in Indian storytelling, it is not only what Nanapush has to say and to whom, but also the way in which he says it that is important. Nanapush's narrative style points to the novel's roots in Chippewa oral tradition. Erdrich is sensitive to the immediate difference between the printed word and the spoken, and she effects an accommodation between her printed text and her narrator's delivery. The stylistic devices of repetition and parallelism, employed as early as page 2 of the novel, work to create tension, balance, and symmetry in the words of Nanapush. His words suggest the rhythms of speech: at key moments in the narrative, readers sense a whispered statement, an abrupt phrase, a long pause. Before he tells the story of how Margaret loses her braids, for instance, he leads in with: "I can only tell it step by step." Erdrich also continually and skillfully reminds us of his audience and the intimacy attached to their relationship: "This is where you come in, my girl, so listen." Lulu sometimes grows tired of the long story, and in his own style Nanapush manages to reprimand the youngster and, in the process, remind her of her roots and her role in this storytelling tradition: "I made her sit down and listen, just the way you are sitting now. Your mother always showed the proper respect to me. Even when I bored her, she made a good effort at pretending some interest."
Erdrich's narrator not only serves to remind us of the importance of the ancient art of storytelling to a tribe, but his name also recalls the novel's debt to Chippewa mythic tradition. In Chippewa woodland myth Nanapush is the trickster-transformer who "wanders in mythic time and space between tribal experiences and dreams" (GV, 3). He is a teacher and healer and upholder of ancient and living traditions; but he is also human. He is sometimes prone to violence and overactive appetites. This paradoxical character is part of Chippewa creation and ceremonial stories. In my research of Chippewa tradition, myth, and legend the stories about the trickster vary, as does the spelling of his name (most likely because of phonetic transcription from oral tradition), but there are several similarities in all of them to Erdrich's Nanapush. (I must pause here to make a distinction. Chippewa is a comparatively modern and English term for the tribe; an older term is Ojibway. The name for these people in the language itself is Anishinaabe. Erdrich uses both Chippewa and Anishinaabe in the novel; all three were found in my research.) In most of the translations he possesses magic and wit. He plays tricks and is the victim of tricks. He is fond of and is good at hunting. He travels in a birchbark canoe, and the Anishinaabe honor and respect him. In chapter 3 of Tracks Nanapush tells us part of the origin of his name: "My father said, 'Nanapush. That's what you'll be called. Because it's got to do with trickery and living in the bush. Because it's got to do with something a girl can't resist. The first Nanapush stole fire. You will steal hearts.'" Erdich's Old Nanapush, then, serves a triple purpose in reminding readers of Tracks of the importance of tribal tradition, mythic condition, and storytelling.
Along with this trickster figure, there is other evidence in the novel that Erdrich is interested in preserving and presenting Chippewa cultural tradition to her audience. I cannot know for sure if Erdrich heard these stories as a child, read the accounts and research of Chippewa myth, tradition, legend, and religion, or discussed them as a member of an academic community. However, I do know they are incorporated, integrated, and an important part of her novel. So, like the creation figure Nanapush and her storyteller Nanapush, Erdrich imagines and desires her own variation of the mythic stories for the enjoyment and knowledge of her modern reading audience.
The setting of her novel is the fictional Matchimanito Lake. It may not be a real geographic location, but Matchi Manito is an evil manito in modern Ojibwa myth (CV, 82). The name of the lake is not the only reminder of Chippewa myth in Tracks. There is talk of windigos and manitous, burying the dead in trees, dreamcatchers, Jeesekeewinini (medicine man), and "Anishinabe characters, the old gods," as Nanapush refers to them. In chapter 6 Pauline gives us a description of "the heaven of the Chippewa," where Fleur goes to gamble for the life of her child. The gambling crowd "play for drunkenness, or sorrow, or loss of mind. They play for ease, they play for penitence, and sometimes for living souls."
Gerald Vizenor, a mixed-blood member of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe as well as a teacher and scholar, records a number of the oral creation stories in his book The People Named the Chippewa: Narrative Histories. In his prologue Vizenor recounts a story told by Odinigun, an elder from the White Earth Reservation, telling of Naanabozho's gambling in "the land of darkness." In this story Naanabozho must play the great gambler for "the destinies of the trickster and tribal people of the woodland." The tone and, of course, the setting of these two stories are similar; the stakes and energies are high. The outcomes are very different, however: Fleur's baby dies, while Naanabozho succeeds in not losing his tribes' spirit to the land of darkness.
One of the most prevalent and important "signs" of Chippewa myth in Tracks is Misshepeshu, the water monster. In the novel Misshepeshu's origin is tied to the arrival of the Pillager clan on Matchimanito Lake. The monster was thought to be responsible for Fleur's powers and the demise of her enemies. Pauline describes him in chapter 2:
He's a devil, that one, love hungry with desire and maddened for the touch of young girls, the strong and daring especially, the ones like Fleur.
Our mothers warn us that we'll think he's handsome, for he appears with green eyes, copper skin, a mouth tender as a child's. But if you fall into his arms, he sprouts horns, fangs, claws, fins. His feet are joined as one and his skin, brass scales, rings to the tough…. He holds you under. Then he takes the body of a lion, a fat brown worm, or a familiar man…. He's a thing of dry foam, a thing of death by drowning, the death a Chippewa cannot survive.
Erdrich's description of the lake monster is very similar to that given by Christopher Vecsey, another scholar interested in recording Chippewa oral myth. According to his account of this Chippewa myth, the Underwater Manito is "associated with both the lion and the serpent" (CV, 74). It inspired both awe and terror, as well as reverence, and was thought to be responsible for both malicious and good deeds: "It could cause rapids and stormy waters; it often sank canoes and drowned Indians." In some tales, however, it "fed and sheltered those who fell through the ice."
Erdrich uses this dialectical being throughout Tracks. When Fleur returns to Matchimanito from Argus, the townspeople attribute good fishing and no lost boats to Fleur's ability to "keep the lake thing controlled." Her special connection to Misshepeshu is even thought to be sexual, and the paternity of Lulu is questioned: "Lulu's eyes blazed bright as his,… eyes hollow and gold." Just before Pauline takes her vows and becomes Sister Leopolda, she tells the story (in chapter 8) of her entanglement with the lake monster. For Pauline, who has just recovered from self-inflicted burns, the lake monster represents the devil. She is delusional and very confused about her religious faith and her Chippewa traditional beliefs: "Christ had hidden out of frailty, overcome by the glitter of copper scales, appalled at the creature's unwinding length and luxury. New devils require new gods." She makes a last visit to Matchi-manito Lake, "determined to wait for my tempter, the one who enslaved the ignorant, who damned them with belief." She tells her story of a sexual, violent encounter with the monster in which she strangles him with her rosary, but the thing "grew a human shape … the physical form of Napoleon Morrissey." She feels no guilt for murdering the father of her child, because "he had appeared … as the water thing, glass breastplate and burning iron rings." Pauline believed she "tamed the monster that night, sent [him] to the bottom of the lake and chained [him] there by [her] deed…. [She] was a poor and noble creature now, dressed in earth like Christ, in furs like Moses Pillager [the medicine man and Fleur's brother], draped in snow or simple air." This description symbolizes the utter confusion some Chippewa could feel because of the crisis in their belief system brought on by Christian influences. Of course Pauline is an extreme example of the pull between Catholic teachings and Chippewa traditions, but Erdrich uses the lake monster, the underwater manito Misshepeshu, in this case as a symbol of the crisis of identity for Pauline.
Misshepeshu serves several symbolic purposes for Erdrich: he is an example of native tradition and lore; he brings the crisis between Chippewa myth and Catholic teachings to a state of rupture in the novel; and the language used to describe him becomes symbolic of the storytelling itself. According to Nanapush:
Talk is an old man's last vice. I opened my mouth and wore out the boy's ears, but that is not my fault. I shouldn't have been caused to live so long, shown so much of death, had to squeeze so many stories in the corners of my crain. They're all attached, and once I start there is no end to telling because they're hooked from one side to the other, mouth to tail.
The stories are circular and continuous and serpentlike. By telling tribal stories, singing old songs, Nanapush gives his culture a chance for continuation: "During the year of my sickness, when I was the last one left, I saved myself by starting a story…. I got well by talking. Death could not get a word in edgewise, grew discouraged, and traveled on." He not only discouraged death, but he encouraged life and continued his name with his storytelling. When a priest comes to baptize Fleur's illegitimate child, Nanapush tells him the baby is his: "There were so many tales, so many possibilities, so many lies. The waters were so muddy I thought I'd give them another stir." He later saves this child with his talking. Nanapush knew "certain cure songs, words that throw the sick one into a dream … holding you motionless with talking." Lulu was "lulled with the sound of [his] voice" and cured of frostbite with Nanapush's ancient gift.
For Nanapush, being a talker was a form of survival; he used his words and his "brain as a weapon." This gave him his identity as a trickster and a leader. He learned to ask questions and tell stories "without limit or end." As much power as the spoken word has for Nanapush, he has learned to fear the printed words the white man brings to his land: "Nanapush is a name that loses power every time that it is written and stored in a government file." Still, when he is about to lose his land, he admits to Father Damien that he should have tried to "wield influence with this [new] method of leading others with a pen and piece of paper."
As Nanapush is exploring the dichotomous nature of the transition from orality to writing, so is Erdrich. Readers are learning of the Chippewas' oral tradition through a printed text. Erdrich shows this duality through Nanapush. Although he expresses his disgust with the "barbed pens" of the bureaucrats encroaching on his people, making them "a tribe of file cabinets and triplicates, a tribe of single-space documents, directives, policy. A tribe of pressed trees. A tribe of chicken-scratch that can be scattered by a wind, diminished to ashes by one struck match." Nanapush tells us that he saves his granddaughter and brings her to his home with papers and records from the church: "I became a bureaucrat myself … to draw you home." It is interesting that Erdrich chooses the word draw in this case, evoking an image of the pen rather than of the voice. She realizes the conflict, to which she in part contributes: the Indian "oral tradition of medicine, religion, history, and tribal ceremony bridged from living ritual performance into the marketplace of print" (KL, 82). Nevertheless, for Nanapush and the Native Americans, the last word must be survival. His stories preserve and pass along, tracing and trying to make sense of living history. Erdrich gives us these stories in print; through her language she gives poetic voice and historical witness to human events, which is what all cultures expect from their storytellers.
Source: Jennifer Sergi, "Storytelling: Tradition and Preservation in Louise Erdrich's Tracks," in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 2, Spring 1992, pp. 279-82.
Thomas M. Disch
In the following review, Disch praises Erdrich for being able to "communicate what is unique and terrific about Indian culture and character without piety or scolding."
Louise Erdrich is the first novelist of her generation—she was 30 when her first novel, Love Medicine, appeared in 1984—to have achieved front-rank writerly stardom. While her peers were writing just those novels that the young are expected to write, chronicling their first dates and drug busts, Erdrich lighted out into the territory of Literature, working on a scale, and with an artistry, that simply dwarfs her contemporaries. One must reach for names like Balzac and Faulkner to suggest the sweep of her three interlocking novels, which already constitute a comedie humaine of some 800-plus pages, a North Dakota of the imagination that, like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, unites the archetypal and the arcane, heartland America and borderline schizophrenia.
Tracks, the third novel of this world-in-progress, is chronologically the earliest, being set from 1812 to 1924, and its main characters are members of Chippewa families, weakened by starvation, decimated by plagues and being slowly bulldozed from their treaty lands by the white men, whose tawdry triumph was chronicled in Erdrich's The Beet Queen (1986). There's no question on which side of the racial divide the author's sympathies lie (Erdrich is herself of German-American and Chippewa descent); the Chippewas of Tracks and Love Medicine are noble and anything but savages. But her novels never slip into the tendentious tone of the minority spokesperson; Erdrich never preaches, never even appears to be much concerned about the ways in which her Indian characters are being given a raw deal. The injustices of history are simply part of the landscape she paints.
Tracks is about survival. It begins in 1912, after two epidemics—the "spotted sickness" and consumption—have wiped out whole families in the densely packed reservations/prison camps of North Dakota. The story is narrated alternately by two survivors of those plagues: Nanapush, an old man whose many bereavements have dulled neither his sense of humor nor his sexual appetite, and the ineffably demented Pauline, an orphaned waif who blossoms into the kind of monster you love to hate. (Readers of Love Medicine already have encountered her as the older but ever-malevolent Sister Leopolda.) The tale these two narrators tell centers around the love of Fleur Pillager and Eli Kashpaw (both of whom had cameo roles in the earlier novels); but "love" doesn't quite convey what passes between this pair, while "passion" calls to mind the guff of conventional bodice-ripping fiction. The love that Erdrich celebrates is simply the fuel of the process of survival.
Yet it may be that the secret of Erdrich's success is the way she spins the straw of conventional women's romance novels into the gold of literature. Fleur Pillager's curriculum vitae is an erotic daydream, a fantasy of feminist revenge and the story of a mother's perfect (and ultimately misunderstood) love, while the man she loves with such tender fury is a darkly handsome huntsman who more than one once does her wrong and more than once is forgiven. Joan Crawford would have killed for the role. But the thing is, Erdrich is serious, as in Serious Literature; and as she takes each one of these old chestnuts from the fire of her imagination, it is fresh and tasty.
One reason for this may be that she is able to write about erotic matters convincingly from a male point of view; her male characters never have the unreal shimmer of wish-fulfillment that so often sets the TILT light to flashing when Sex A is writing about the sex life of Sex B. And one reason for this clarity of gender may be that her novels have been, by her own report, an enterprise she shares with her husband, Michael Dorris. However she does it, or they do it, the scene in which Eli Kashpaw and the nymphet Sophie Morrissey are bewitched into having sex verges on the Wagnerian in its delectible suggestiveness. (It's also a good example of how pornography cannot be legislated out of existence without gutting literature, for the Sophie-Eli scene could not be published under new anti-child pornography codes proposed by various states.)
A rarer virtue still, Erdrich can communicate what is unique and terrific about Indian culture and character without piety or scolding. She is no schoolmarm wrapping your knuckles for saying "Indian" instead of "Native American." She doesn't re-fry old legends. She doesn't explain. She gets us inside her character's skins by tailoring them so artfully they slip right on.
None of the above explains why Louise Erdrich's books, though written in prose that Ph.D. candidates can purr over, are sure-fire best-sellers. The reason is (as usual in such cases) that she knows how to plot. With almost each new chapter, her readers will be amazed, confounded or enlightened by some new swerve of the story. Those who can't do this sort of thing are prone to dismiss it as 'mere' cleverness; those who can do it—like Larry (Lonesome Dove) McMurtry or Robert (The Secret of Santa Vittoria) Crichton—enthrall vast audiences, sell millions of copies and still carry off literary prizes. Louise Erdrich can do it in spades, for not only are each of her novels cannily and precisely plotted, but, as their several strands interconnect, there are further "Oh-hos" and "Eurekas" for the attentive reader. Thus, readers of Tracks will discover that one of the romantic couples in Love Medicine actually was committing incest. They'll find out more about the dead man Lulu discovered in the woods, and his murderer, and who their daughter was. For this reason I urge readers who've not yet read Love Medicine to do so before they begin Tracks. (There are also connections with The Beet Queen, but they aren't as crucial.) Readers who have read Love Medicine will need no urging. Louise Erdrich is like one of the those rumored drugs that are instantly and forever addictive. Fortunately in her case you can just say yes.
Source: Thomas M. Disch, "Enthralling Tale: Louise Erdrich's World of Love and Survival," in Chicago Tribune, September 4, 1988, Books sec., p. 1.
In the following review, Hoffert calls Erdrich's writing "sharp, glittering, and to the point as cut glass."
In her splendid new work, Erdrich retrieves characters from her first novel, Love Medicine, to depict the escalating conflict between two Chippewa families, a conflict begun when hapless Eli Kashpaw—who has passionately pursued the fiery, elemental Fleur Pillager—is made to betray her with young Sophie Morrissey through the magic of the vengeful Pauline. That simple summary belies the richness and complexity of the tale, told in turn to Fleur's estranged daughter by her "grandfather," the wily Nanapush, and by Pauline, a woman of mixed blood and mixed beliefs soon to become the obsessive Sister Leopolda. As the community is eroded from without—by white man's venality—and from within, even Fleur must realize that "power goes under and gutters out." Not so for Erdrich, whose prose is as sharp, glittering, and to the point as cut glass. Highly recommended.
Source: Barbara Hoffert, Review of Tracks, in Library Journal, Vol. 113, No. 14, September 1, 1988, p. 182.
Erdrich, Louise, "Fleur," in Esquire's Big Book of Fiction, edited by Adrienne Miller, Context Books, 2002, pp. 358-72.
Ferguson, Suzanne, "The Short Stories of Louise Erdrich's Novels," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 4, Fall 1996, pp. 541-55.
Hoffert, Barbara, Review of Tracks, in Library Journal, Vol. 113, No. 14, September 1, 1988, p. 182.
Rosenberg, Ruth, "Louise Erdrich," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 152, American Novelists Since World War II, Fourth Series, edited by James Giles and Wanda Giles, Gale Research, 1995, pp. 42-50.
Peterson, Nancy, "History, Postmodernism, and Louise Erdrich's Tracks," in PMLA, Vol. 109, No. 5, October 1994, pp. 982-94.
Discussing Tracks from the standpoint of postmodern theory, Peterson argues that Erdrich has difficulty bringing Native American history into an epoch in which history and narrative are self-referential and not representational.
Stookey, Lorena Laura, Louise Erdrich: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 1999.
Stookey's useful companion to Erdrich's novels clarifies and analyzes the relationships and characters in the author's fictional world.
Williams, Terry Tempest, "Facing the World without Land to Call Home: Tracks by Louise Erdrich," in Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1988, Book Review Section, p. 2.
Williams's review praises the detail of Erdrich's novel.