Facing the World Without Land to Call Home : TRACKS <i> by Louise Erdrich (Henry Holt: $18.95; 226 pp.; 0-8050-0895-0) </i>
To enter Louise Erdrich’s new novel, “Tracks,” is to be led into a landscape of raw and intense beauty. The full-bodied nature of her characters with their disparate and impassioned lives allows us entry into the fundamental relationship between person and place. If landscape shapes character as Erdrich shows us it does, what happens when the land is taken away?
Erdrich is a storyteller. We know this through her two novels, “Love Medicine” and “Beet Queen,” the way in which she casts a spell through her use of language and reels us into the world of her Chippewa people. “Tracks,” set earliest in time, not only gives the origins of the characters in the first two books (the Nanapush, Kashpaws, Lazarres, Lamartines, and Morrisseys) but provides the philosophical bedrock from which all the other stories spill forth. The basic conflicts centered around a particular people, what they believe and how they respond to their homeland in the face of change, remains central to the characters’ motivations. What binds these families together ultimately tears them apart. How one defines God defines the land which defines their fate.
“Tracks” spans 10 years in North Dakota in the early 1900s when tribal land was being seized not only by the U.S. government but by private interests as well.
“Land is the only thing that lasts life to life,” says the Chippewa elder, Nanapush, who is one of the narrators of the novel. “Money burns like tinder, flows off like water. And as for government promises, the wind is steadier. . . . I am a holdout.”
Nanapush is wise, witty and thoughtful. He is a raconteur who understands the ways of his people. He is the keeper of stories knowing his life and the lives of those he loves depend on them.
“You were born on the day we shot the last bear,” he tells his adopted granddaughter, Lulu. “And Pauline was the one who shot it.”
Pauline is the other narrator of “Tracks.” She is a mixed-blood ravaged by traditional beliefs and the Catholicism which she serves. “I have no family . . . I am alone and have no land. Where else would I go but to the nuns?” She is the “crow of the reservation” living off scraps. “And she knew us best,” says Nanapush, “because the scraps told our story.” Pauline is midwife to the dying and a death angel to the living. “I handled the dead until the cold feel of their skin was a comfort, until I no longer bothered to bathe once I left the cabin but touched others with the same hands, passed death on.” She moves among the people as a tormented soul. She is “the nun who could sniff out pagans because they once had been her relatives.” It is her vow to overcome her instincts through perseverance.
The tension between traditional native beliefs, the voice of Nanapush, and contemporary values rooted in Christianity, as defined through Pauline, enables “Tracks” to stand tall as a novel. But it is the bewitching character of Fleur Pillager that gives “Tracks” magic.
Fleur Pillager is the last of her lineage. Nanapush found her half dead from consumption (an epidemic that left the tribe “unraveled like a course rope, frayed at either end as the old and new were taken”) in her family’s cabin near Matchimanito Lake. He took her home. She was young and had “no stories or depth of life to rely upon.” “All she had,” says Nanapush, “was raw power, and the names of the dead that filled her.”
It is this raw power so lyrically expressed through Erdrich’s pen that makes Fleur Pillager one of the most haunting presences in contemporary American literature.
Pauline speaks: “Some say she kept the finger of a child in her pocket and a powder of unborn rabbits in a leather thong around her neck. She laid the heart of an owl on her tongue so she could see at night, and went out hunting, not even in her own body. We know for sure because the next morning, in the snow or dust, 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. . . .”
It is Fleur’s tracks that keep the novel moving, twisting, and meandering through unfamiliar territory. It is Fleur’s imagination, uncommon strength and commitment to the unseen world that suspends the community’s expectations. Anything is possible and probable in her domain. She is trickster extraordinaire. The same Fleur who bathes a stinking nun with sweet herbs out of compassion, snips off hunks of hair, trims fingernails and eyelashes off the disloyal and murders them with her bad medicine. She is the earth mother, the creator and avenger of life.
Erdrich has created a novel with such potency, it could be considered a medicine bundle in its own right. By her attention to detail and to that which is human, she has transformed day-to-day drama into myth. Her prose has never appeared more polished and grounded, more ethereal and mysterious. It is a circular story that still maintains a beginning, middle, and end. One is drawn into her web of tales as one is into those of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Pressures to sell the land pinch family nerves as Nanapush and Kashpaws are pitted against the Lazarres and Morrisseys. Heads are shaved. Braids are cut that in turn gag their kin. And in the end, this band of Chippewas forgoes snagging rabbits and set up snares for each other. Their tragic betrayal is their own as individual family members are seduced by greed, ignorance, and compliance in the name of God. It is the “land politic” that slays the Chippewa.
Nanapush speaks: “In the end it was not Fleur’s dreams or my skill . . . that saved us. It was the government commodities sent from Hoopdance in six wagons.”
With great heart, Nanapush offers comfort to Fleur. “You will not be to blame if the land is lost . . . or if the oaks fall, the lake dries, and the lake man does not return. . . .” But Fleur does not lose faith. Instead, she takes strength. The forest is her sanctuary where the source of her power lies. It is where she listens to the voices of her ancestors. She refuses to surrender herself to the “tribe of pressed trees,” joining the bureaucratic files of settlement papers. She unexpectedly meets the land oppressors on their own terms and cuts down her own forest. “A forest suspended, lightly held. The fingered lobes of leaves floated on nothing.” Fleur could leave. She had taken her destiny into her own hands and maintained her dignity.
Fleur disappears. Nanapush becomes tribal chairman. “To become a bureaucrat myself was the only way that I could wade through the letters, the reports, the only place where I could find a ledge to kneel on, to reach through the loophole and draw you home,” he says to Lulu who had been sent to boarding school. And Pauline changes her name to Sister Leopolda, wearing her shoes on the wrong feet to remind her of Christ’s sufferings.
Nanapush speaks in the midst of change: “Now I also knew the uncertainties of facing the world without land to call home.”
“Tracks” may be the story of our time.