As a writer, I have a fascination with the near magical ability to shift and shape words into pieces of art. I marvel at other writers who seem to do this effortlessly, as if they were simply born with an inherent ability to charm words into gorgeous imagery and strong storylines on the page. I've found that author Louise Erdrich falls into this category, using beautifully descriptive language in all of her work: “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall…and then a wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of government papers…”
Thus begins the novel Tracks, set in North Dakota beginning in 1912. The story spans a decade, following the intertwining lives of Native American people clinging to their tribal land. A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe herself, Erdrich often focuses on some aspects of Native American experience and tradition in her books. Tracks delves into both headlong, treading the line between modernism and “the old ways“. Two main characters, Nanapush and Pauline, narrate this novel, in turn telling the story of another vital character, Fleur Pillager. Nanapush saved a teenage Fleur from dying as “consumption” (tuberculosis) swept through the tribe, essentially taking on the role of a father to her after she recovered from illness. Nanapush’s narrations are told in a matter of fact way that I really enjoyed, with dashes of mischievousness and humor thrown in. Though he never says it outright, the tone of Nanapush’s narrative is “It may be right, or it may be wrong, but I’m just telling you the way I remember it”. Pauline, on the other hand, is an unreliable storyteller from the start, whose narration gets shakier as the novel goes on. In fact, Nanapush tells the reader that there’s a question amongst the people whether Pauline is “afflicted, touched in the mind.” With that revelation, readers can take her account of what happened with a grain of salt, and at first, her telling of the story doesn’t seem that far-fetched or out of the ordinary. It’s later, as the reader gets deeper into the book and Pauline gets deeper into instability, that we fully see what Nanapush alluded to.
This whirling together of myth, legend and reality is one of the things that made Tracks so engrossing for me. The concept that someone has the ability to leave their human form behind in the woods at night and roam as something different, leaving behind prints with claw marks, is no more unusual a thought than how to prepare for an upcoming winter. The dynamics between the characters, especially Fleur as she ages and Nanapush, acting as a father figure, are compelling too. All through the book, we're left to wonder about Fleur; there's an air of mystery and bewilderment about her, but her story is always told by others. We get hints about her thoughts and feelings, but are left to draw our own conclusions; not even the person who probably knows her best (Nanapush) can be certain what she'll do. There’s one especially powerful scene towards the end of the novel where government officials come to the land. In a rare but tense moment of actually understanding Fleur's thinking and actions, Nanapush realizes that she's taken resistance to a level that even he didn‘t anticipate.
The appeal of Erdrich's work may be that "stories pulled straight from life" quality that it has. Like reality, they have moments of ugliness, despair, and human shortcomings. Yet equally, they contain moments of beauty, joy, and hope. I see bits and pieces of myself in her characters each time I read one of her books, and that's a true testament to good writing. That as cleverly crafted or beautiful as the writing is, the shared experience of human emotion and everyday life shines through, and draws readers in, again and again.
|Broadside; College of St. Benedict/St. John's University|