Native American Fiction
A User's Manual
By David Treuer
Graywolf Press Copyright © 2006 David Treuer
All rights reserved.
Readers will remember the pitch-perfect opening of Louise Erdrich's revolutionary first novel, Love Medicine, when June Kashpaw wanders off to die into the barren fields outside Williston, North Dakota.
June Kashpaw is intent on heading home, but the trip to the bus station becomes a bar seduction by a "mud engineer" named Andy. They drink, eat Easter eggs together at the bar, and, later, have a sexual fumble in his Silverado pickup truck before he passes out, and she decides to walk clear across the state of North Dakota wearing nothing but a windbreaker, slacks, and high-heel shoes.
The opening focuses very closely on June's body and the way she moves, "easy as a young girl on slim hard legs," on the Rigger Bar in which she meets her paramour, on the weather, which is overcast (but warm) for Easter weekend, all in all, on the tactile qualities of the stage set. The third-person voice, which will be abandoned for the most part in the rest of the novel and replaced by revolving first-person narrators, is unhurried. The voice is patient, in control; the narrative eye wanders, but never very far past the surface. Only on page 4 does the voice veer toward the meaningful:
"Ahhhhh," she said, surprised, almost in pain,"you got to be."
"I got to be what, honeysuckle?" He tightened his arm around her slim shoulders. They were sitting in a booth with a few others, drinking Angel Wings. Her mouth, the lipstick darkly blurred now, tipped unevenly toward his.
"You got to be different," she breathed.
Then we learn that June feels fragile, like the eggs she's been eating, that her clothing is ripped and torn, that cruising bars for rig pigs like Andy is a sadly common fact of her adult life; she is a walking wreck.
And, after June and Andy park his truck along a back road for a quick and disappointing sexual exchange, walk is what she does. "Even when it started to snow" the novel tells us,
she did not lose her sense of direction. Her feet grew numb, but she did not worry about the distance. The heavy winds couldn't blow her off course. She continued. Even when her heart clenched and her skin turned crackling cold it didn't matter, because the pure and naked part of her went on.
The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home.
Thus begins Erdrich's multigenerational tale of love and loss and survival. As the novel progresses we are introduced to a number of narrators — Marie Kashpaw, Lulu Lamartine, Nector Kashpaw, Albertine Johnson, Lipsha Morrisey — all related in one way or another, all telling their own stories, all trying to puzzle out two questions posited in the first chapter: why June died in the snow (which is never overtly answered), and who Lipsha's father and mother might be.
Modern readers, no doubt, feel as though they are receiving cultural treasures, some kind of artifact or sensibility that, if they are non-Indian, is different from their own and, if they are Indian, is a part of their tribal patrimony. Comments by critics tend to support this interpretation. Speaking of the structure of Love Medicine, the critic Hertha D. Sweet Wong claims that Love Medicine's "multiple narrators confound conventional Western expectations of an autonomous protagonist, a dominant narrative voice, and a consistently chronological linear narrative." Wong asserts that "Native American oral traditions have long reflected ... polyvocality." Wong enlists the help of Paula Gunn Allen, the most famous and most frequently quoted Native American literary critic, who goes so far as to say, "One useful social function of traditional tribal literature is its tendency to distribute value evenly among various elements, providing a model or pattern for egalitarian structuring of society as well as literature." One wonders exactly what "elements" she is talking about, but then she provides the answer to our confusion by mournfully concluding that "egalitarian structures in either literature or society are not easily 'read' by hierarchically inclined westerners." However, Allen's claim for equality among Indian parts is also true of the Homeric epics and echoes Auerbach's description of The Odyssey's machinery.
Allan Chavkin, another leading critic of Native American fiction, makes the most strident claims for the inherent "culturalism" of Erdrich's writing. He suggests that the inclusion of both the "real" and the "unreal" or "supernatural" along with her "polyvocality" that "is ascribed to the magical realism of the postmodernists probably has its origin in Erdrich's Chippewa heritage." It is alarming in a book dedicated to exploring the manifestation of cultural sensibilities in Native American literature that Chavkin feels compelled to include the modifier "probably." And if it does nothing else, the tentative link, the modest use of "probably," signifies that the relationship between prose and culture is "probably" a bit more difficult to identify than his claims suggest. At least it seems this way because while most critics of Love Medicine claim the book is somehow "Chippewa," they don't try very hard to prove it, and in the end, rely on (and largely misconstrue) what Erdrich herself has to say about it. While some readers have made comparisons between Erdrich's novels and Chaucer, Herman Melville, Cormac McCarthy, and Gabriel García Márquez, most discussions of Love Medicine focus on the elements readers take to be "authentically" Indian. Chavkin quotes Erdrich herself who says that Love Medicine reflects "Chippewa storytelling technique." Case closed, evidently.
These are some of the critical claims made for the ways and means with which Love Medicine constructs itself. And, if the claims and the critics are not wholly wrong, they are at least missing what is most active, fascinating, and brilliant about Erdrich's masterpiece, and by extension, much of Native American literature. Let us allow Erdrich's prose to guide us in our exploration of her work.
In the first chapter of Love Medicine, "The World's Greatest Fishermen," months after June wanders off into the snow, her niece Albertine receives a letter from her mother telling her about June's death. After thinking over the news Albertine finally leaves Fargo and makes the trek back to the reservation. This unfolds over five pages. Three pages are dedicated to Albertine's thoughts about her father, mother, grandmother, uncles, and great-uncles. One page is given over to her drive north and west during which the narrative takes in the entire landscape and gradually focuses in on the reservation landscape itself. Finally she arrives in the middle of a conversation between her mother Zelda and her aunt Aurelia as they make potato salad and bake some pies.
All of it — the swirl of conversation, the quickly pulsing focus both narrowing in on pies or hand gestures and panning back out to include government Indian policy and family history — leaves the reader deliciously confused, weary, and like Albertine, ready to land someplace and to know what that place is. Erdrich doesn't create trust with the reader, she craftily makes us dependant on her for guidance. Then, King, June's son, arrives with his white girlfriend Lynette, their son King Junior, and Grandma and Grandpa Kashpaw — that is, Marie and Nector — and the vortex of backstory increases in speed and intensity. When Albertine thinks about her grandfather's mind and its rapidly disintegrating outlines she could very well be describing the reader's reaction to the book:
Elusive, pregnant with history, his thoughts finned off and vanished. The same color as water. Grandpa shook his head, remembering dates with no events to go with them, names without faces, things that happened out of place and time. Or at least, it seemed that way...
Toward evening, Gordie, June's on-and-off husband, and Eli, Nector's brother, show up. We are now twenty-seven pages into the novel. And then something seemingly minor happens. King, in a fit of drunken generosity, gives Eli his new baseball cap, which fuels the growing flames of anger between King and Lynette. Just when the argument between King and Lynette becomes physical, even violent, Gordie begins telling a joke: There was an Indian, a Frenchman, and a Norwegian. They were all in the French Revolution ... After Gordie delivers the introduction to his joke while seated inside the house, Lynette, sensitive to jokes about Norwegians, heads outside. Then we cut to King and Lynette:
"There were these three. An Indian. A Frenchman. A Norwegian. They were all in the French Revolution. And they were all set for the guillotine, right? But when they put the Indian in there the blade just came halfway down and got stuck."
"Fuckin' bitch! Gimme the keys!" King screamed just outside the door. Gordie paused a moment. There was silence. He continued the joke.
"So they said it was the judgment of God. You can go, they said to the Indian. So the Indian got up and went. Then it was the Frenchman's turn. They put his neck in the vise and were all set to execute him! But it happened the same. The blade got stuck."
"Fuckin' bitch! Fuckin' bitch!" King shrieked again.
This device, known as intercutting, works beautifully. It interrupts the swirl, the almost timeless flow of history and emotion, the seeming eternity of family dysfunction (where did it start? when will it end? what is the most important part to notice?) and gives the scene temporal and spatial rigidity. We finally have palpable conflict on which to rest our attention, that, when intercut with Gordie's joke, is frozen in time. The most notorious use of intercutting occurs in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary during the agricultural fair when the story moves between three levels of action — the masses at the fair, the speechmaking officials on a raised platform, and above them Rodolphe and Emma who watch everything as they prepare to make love for the first time. The narrative is timed so that Emma and Rodolphe articulate their desire just when the officials announce the manure exhibit. The effect is comic and wry and exemplifies Flaubert's use of structure as commentary. Flaubert made a necessity of form, he let his world work for him and in doing so preserved its naturalistic unity.
Erdrich's deployment of this device also creates a kind of unity, but a different kind. Intercutting freezes the novel in time, which makes it possible for both the characters inside the novel and the readers outside of it to analyze and inspect the situation. And, contrary to Paula Gunn Allen's claims stated previously, Erdrich's use of intercutting creates a delicious, heightened, and, indeed, foregrounded sense of the action.
If intercutting provides us with a framework — a way of focusing our attention on specific actions and specific consequences while preserving the feeling of flow and shift, then we still need something else. We need a vehicle for meaning, and Erdrich amply provides us with one: pies.
When Albertine arrives back home near the beginning of the chapter she smelled the "rich and browning piecrusts." In defiance of temporality the pies move back in time, because on the next page, after the pies have been browning beautifully they are being patted and crimped by Zelda. "They were beautiful pies — rhubarb, wild Juneberry, apple, and gooseberry, all fruits preserved by Grandma Kashpaw or my mother or Aurelia."
Two pages later Zelda "began to poke wheels of fork marks in the tops of the pies." The pies continue baking while the story swoops back into family history and then forward into the present tense, until Albertine takes the last pie from the oven on page 22. The family sits down to eat. They argue. People get up from the table. Some propose a visit to June's grave. The novel is not hurried at all.
After King and Lynette fight, Albertine connects with Lipsha, and they lie down in a field and talk. Albertine falls asleep on the fieldedge and is awakened by the sound of a new round of violence. She rushes up the hill to the house and finds King trying to drown Lynette in the sink. Albertine tries to help her, but is beaten down by King. She stands up, and then she sees what he has done:
All the pies were smashed. Torn open. Black juice bleeding through the crusts. Bits of jagged shells were stuck to the wall and some were turned completely upside down. Chunks of rhubarb were scraped across the floor. Meringue dripped from the towels.
"The pies," I shrieked."You goddamn sonofabitch, you broke the pies!"
After King notices the damage he has done he quickly leaves. Lynette follows. They end up making love in the car parked on the driveway.
But Albertine cannot leave the pies alone. "Sometime that hour I got up," she tells us in the closing lines of the chapter,
leaving the baby, and went into the kitchen. I spooned the fillings back into the crusts, married slabs of dough, smoothed over edges of crusts with a wetted finger, fit crimps to crimps and even fluff to fluff on top of berries or pudding. I worked carefully for over an hour. But once they smash there is no way to put them right.
The prose arrangement is quite elegant. All the people in the house — Zelda, Aurelia, Eli, Nector, Gordie, King, Lynette, King Junior, and Lipsha — have been introduced and then have exited the stage, leaving a twist of half-understood passions and grudges in their wake. Albertine (arguably the sanest narrator and therefore the most reliable spokesperson for the whole) is left alone with the damaged pies. The pies, alone, spotlighted by the narrative focus they have received, carry the burden of meaning that all the human characters have left behind: they represent and symbolize those relationships. Regardless of how Wong and Allen would like it to be, there is no egalitarianism here, either among pies or among people.
As the novel progresses, we collect a number of symbols large and small that when taken together carry the book. Erdrich's ability to find that one thing that can stand in for all the rest is almost unequalled and only surpassed by Toni Morrison's symbolic strokes. For example, King's car becomes, literally, the vehicle through which Lipsha learns the secret of his mother's identity. When Dot knits the jumper for her soon-to-be-born baby, that little yarny outfit stands in for the burden of knowledge and the sometimes heavy bonds of family. And when Lipsha tries to unite Marie and Nector by making "medicine" out of two turkey hearts, those hearts, like the pies in the beginning of the book, stand in for the complex of relations, not only between people, but also between a past (cast as a cultural landscape) and the present (colored by the dominant society). When viewed closely the weight of meaning is unequally distributed, and this is how the novel creates its own sense — out of the tools provided by centuries of invention in Western literature.
It would appear that as much as critics would like Love Medicine to act out old-time traditional Indian techniques, it does not. Rather, it treats Native subjects with strikingly modern, or better, strikingly un-Indian, techniques. This is not to say anything about authenticity. The point of discussing Erdrich's use of symbol is to show how she makes her book work and to exercise a kind of interpretive attitude that makes understanding how the book works as pleasurable as the book itself.
The Myth of Polyvocality
In addition to the symbolic objects that Erdrich creates, the figurative language of the multiple narrators rests on the creation and manipulation of symbolic speech. For example, immediately after the close of the first chapter we get a chapter from the perspective of Marie Kashpaw (nee Lazarre) concerning events that took place fifty-seven years before the opening chapter, in 1934.
So when I went there, I knew the dark fish must rise. Plumes of radiance had soldered on me. No reservation girl had ever prayed so hard. There was no use in trying to ignore me any longer. I was going up there on the hill with the black robe women. They were not any lighter than me. I was going up there to pray as good as they could. Because I don't have that much Indian blood. And they never thought they'd have a girl from this reservation as a saint they'd have to kneel to. But they'd have me. And I'd be carved in pure gold. With ruby lips. And my toenails would be little pink ocean shells, which they would have to stoop down off their high horse to kiss.
In the span of thirteen sentences we are greeted with seven different instances of metaphoric language. We get "dark fish must rise" and "plumes of radiance" and "soldered" in the first two sentences. The next eight sentences are not only devoid of literary devices, but they also suggest an "uneducated" and "girlish" voice that has little grasp of grammar or syntax. And in the last three sentences of the paragraph we are once again bombarded by metaphoric images such as "I'd be carved in pure gold" and "ruby lips" and toenails that were "little pink ocean shells" and "high horse."
Erdrich's use of metaphor (mostly) and simile (somewhat), along with the larger symbolic moves of the novel are always perfectly accomplished. But what is worth noting is not their presence, rather, it is their placement. For example, the novel opens with a virtual absence of figurative language. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Native American Fiction by David Treuer. Copyright © 2006 David Treuer. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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