Tracks is Louise Erdrich’s third novel about several interrelated families of the Anishinaabe tribe near the town of Argus, North Dakota. It is told in the alternating voices of the rambunctious trickster figure, old Nanapush, and the viciously sanctimonious Pauline Puyat, whom readers of Love Medicine know better as Sister Leopolda. Because of these two voices pushing against each other, eagerly trying to subvert each other and each working to substitute their own story as the real one, I was tempted to say that this is a novel of two opposing forces. But it’s far more complicated than that. This is a story of family and tribe, of jokes and laughter, of vicious transcendence and bitter sanctity, of government money and the relentless betrayal of the land, of monsters beneath the water, of hunting and famine, of love and death, of community and isolation.
The central character in this story is the strange and elemental Fleur Pillager. She has strength and powers that perhaps even she is not fully aware of. When she is only a girl, working at a butcher shop in Argus, she plays at poker every night with the other men who who work there. When she wins the entire pot one night, they beat her and rape her. That night, a tornado visits Argus, and destroys the town — but no one is hurt except the three men, frozen in the meat locker where they took shelter.
That butcher shop is where Fleur first meets Pauline, who is drawn to her for her power. Pauline follows Fleur to her family home on the reservation, where Fleur meets and falls in love with Eli Kashpaw. Pauline’s simmering jealousy of the family Fleur creates is one of the dark and destructive forces in the novel. Erdrich paints a portrait of a community that is crumbling from the outside — disease, betrayal of government promises, selling the land — and from the inside as well, with Pauline ready to undermine and corrupt whatever she touches.
This novel is haunted, even from the first few pages, by the spirits of the dead. When Fleur returns to the reservation, she is driven almost to madness by her grief that so many of the Anishinaabe were killed by consumption (and it is no coincidence that the disease that killed them is consumption, either, since the other kind of consumption — greed — is what kills the rest of the community.) Later, when Fleur loses her second child, she goes into a hallucinatory trance and goes into the other world to bargain for its life. Madness is always a possibility here, always at the periphery of vision in this book. There are spirits everywhere, and whether or not they can ever be appeased is an open question.
This leads directly to the question of voice. Of course those who are dead have no voice, but neither, in this novel, does Fleur, whose strong and restless spirit works so hard to create community and to rescue her land from the grasp of the government. She is left to have her story told by two unreliable narrators: laughing Nanapush, whose method is to talk and talk and talk — including contradictions and outright lies — until he gets his way; and Pauline, who twists the truth to make herself look perfect and silences everyone around her.
The story of Pauline’s half-mad, masochistic grip on white culture and religion is one of the most compelling parts about this novel. While Fleur allies herself with Misshepeshu, the water monster in the lake, and the coiled power there, Pauline turns to the passive and lamb-like Christ she finds in the white man’s church, whom she believes she can manipulate and control. She inflicts strange pain and punishments on herself, piling up her imaginary rewards, utterly controlling her body (until Nanapush confronts and humiliates her.) She rejects her Indian heritage completely, despising her name, her family, and her language. It becomes clear that this means she also despises herself, with murderous power.
I mentioned a couple of reviews ago that I’d read three books in a row that had to do with the strange forces of nature and of magic. Tracks is the best of the three by a long shot. Erdrich’s prose is powerful and beautiful even where it is matter-of fact, and it is clear even where it is nonlinear and fragmented. She takes these forces and voices, this consumption and these needs, these wild and fragile human beings, and she makes a world.