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Set in North Dakota at a time in this century when Indian tribes were struggling to keep what little remained of their lands, Tracks is a tale of passion and deep unrest. Over the course of ten crucial years, as tribal land and trust between people erode ceaselessly, men and women are pushed to the brink of their endurance—yet their pride and humor prohibit surrender. The reader will experience shock and pleasure in encountering a group of characters that are compelling and rich in their vigor, clarity, and ...
Set in North Dakota at a time in this century when Indian tribes were struggling to keep what little remained of their lands, Tracks is a tale of passion and deep unrest. Over the course of ten crucial years, as tribal land and trust between people erode ceaselessly, men and women are pushed to the brink of their endurance—yet their pride and humor prohibit surrender. The reader will experience shock and pleasure in encountering a group of characters that are compelling and rich in their vigor, clarity, and indomitable vitality.
Little Spirit Sun
N A N A P U S H
We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. It was surprising there were so many of us left to die. For those who survived the spotted sickness from the south, our long fight west to Nadouissioux. land where we signed the treaty, and then a wind from the cast, bringing exile in a storm of government papers, what descended from the north in 1912 seemed impossible.
By then, we thought disaster must surely have spent its force, that disease must have claimed all of the Anishinabe that the earth could hold and bury.
But the earth is limitless and so is luck and so were our people once. Granddaughter, you are the child of the invisible, the ones who disappeared when, along with the first bitter punishments of early winter, a new sickness swept down. The consumption, it was called by young Father Damien, who came in that year to replace the priest who succumbed to the same devastation as his flock. This disease was different from the pox and fever, for it came on slow. The outcome, however, was just as certain. Whole families of your relatives lay ill and helpless in its breath. On the reservation, where we were forced close together, the clans dwindled. Our tribe unraveled like a coarse rope, frayed at either end as the old and new among us were taken. My own family was wiped out one by one, leaving only Nanapush. And after, although I had lived no more than fifty winters, I was considered an old man. I'd seen enough to be one. In the years I'd passed, I saw more change than in a hundred upon ahundred before.
My girl, I saw the passing of times you will never know.
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 take. I axed the last birch that was older than I, and I saved the last Pillager.
Fleur, the one you will not call mother.
We found her on a cold afternoon in late winter, out in your family's cabin near Matchimanito Lake, where my companion, Edgar Pukwan of the tribal police, was afraid to go. The water there was surrounded by the highest oaks, by woods inhabited by ghosts and roamed by Pillagers, who knew the secret ways to cure or kill, until their art deserted them. Dragging our sled into the clearing we saw two things: the smokeless tin chimney spout jutting from the roof, and the empty hole in the door where the string was drawn inside. Pukwan did not want to enter, fearing the unburied Pillager spirits might seize him by the throat and turn him windigo. So I was the one who broke the thin-scraped hide that made a window. I was the one who lowered himself into the stinking silence, onto the floor. I was also the one to find the old man and woman, your grandparents, the little brother and two sisters, stone cold and wrapped in gray horse blankets, their faces turned to the west.
Afraid as I was, stilled by their quiet forms, I touched each bundle in the gloom of the cabin, and wished each spirit a good journey on the three-day road, the old-time road, so well-tramplcd by our people this deadly season. Then something in the corner knocked. I flung the door wide. It was the eldest daughter, Fleur, about seventeen years old then. She was so feverish that she'd thrown off her covers, and now she huddled against the cold wood range, staring and shaking. She was wild as a filthy wolf, a big bony girl whose sudden bursts of strength and snarling cries terrified the listening Pukwan. So again I was the one who struggled to lash her to the sacks of supplies and to the boards of the sled. I wrapped more blankets over her and tied them down as well.
Pukwan kept us back, convinced he should carry out the Agency's instructions to the letter. He carefully nailed up the official quarantine sign, and then, without removing the bodies, he tried to burn down the house. But though he threw kerosene repeatedly against the logs and even started a blaze with birchbark and chips of wood, the flames narrowed and shrank, went out in puffs of smoke. Pukwan cursed and looked desperate, caught between his official duties and his fear of Pillagers. The last won out. He finally dropped the tinders and helped me drag Fleur along the trail.
And so we left five dead at Matchimanito, frozen behind their cabin door.
There are some who say Pukwan and I should have done right and buried the Pillagers first thing. They say the unrest and curse of trouble that struck our people in the years that followed was the doing of dissatisfied spirits. I know what's fact, and have never been afraid of talking. Our trouble came from living, from liquor and the dollar bill. We stumbled toward the government bait, never looking down, never noticing how the land was snatched from under us at every step.
When it came Edgar Pukwan's turn to draw the sled, he took off like devils chased him, bounced Fleur over potholes as if she were a log, and tipped her twice into the snow. I followed the sled, encouraged Fleur with songs, cried at Pukwan to watch for hidden branches and deceptive drops, and finally got her to my cabin, a small tightly tamped box overlooking the crossroad.
"Help me," I cried, cutting at the ropes, not even bothering with knots. Fleur closed her eyes, panted, and tossed her head side to side.
In the past year alone, Louise Erdrich completed one novel, nearly finished another, opened a bookstore and, at forty-six, gave birth to a daughter named Azure. When Erdrich walks into her Minneapolis store, Birch Bark Books, Herbs and Native Arts, she is juggling an armful of paper and books and passing out chocolate tins with pictures of Elvis Presley and the cartoon character Pepe Le Pew on top. She adjusts Azure, who's ready to be fed. "Overdoing it is my motto," she announces. "I'm one of those overdoing-it mothers."
Motherhood isn't the only area where Erdrich overachieves. She's published nine books of fiction, two volumes of poetry, two children's books, a book of essays, and numerous short stories and poems. Her work is recognized for its complexity and for its poetic, touching, gently sarcastic, and humorous voice. Erdrich delves into how Native and European American cultures come together, clash, fall apart and, at times, figure each other out and learn to love. Showing compassion for all her characters -- no matter what their weaknesses or sins, of which they tend to have a multitude -- she often writes stories with more than one point of view. She did so masterfully in her first and best-known book, Love Medicine, and she does so -- again, masterfully -- in the new one, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. Lyrically reflective, wittily refracted, and adeptly sensual, the story centers on Agnes DeWitt, who, because of a series of passions and events, lives most of her life as Father Damien Modeste, a mission priest on an Indian reservation between 1912 and 1996. The Last Report -- the sixth in a series of Erdrich books to focus on two families in Argus, a fictional Red River Valley reservation town along the Minnesota-North Dakota border -- is as thoroughly imbued with a challenging kind of spirituality as it is graced with an intriguing story.
Rich and complex as Erdrich's writing is, her life matches it for intensity and involvement -- and she wouldn't have it any other way. "I only enjoy life if it's really complicated," she says. She exudes a calm strength, but hers is a serenity earned, likely necessitated, by a life and career visited often by controversy and tragedy.
At Birch Bark Books, Erdrich's complexity is on display. There's an oil painting, for instance, by imprisoned activist Leonard Peltier, of Ka-ishpah, a forefather of Erdrich and freedom fighter of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, the same band to which Erdrich (of Ojibwe and German heritage) and Peltier belong. Erdrich attended Peltier's 1977 trial for the murder of two FBI agents and is confident that "not one scintilla" of hard evidence linked Peltier to the murders. After Peltier was convicted (he's been held in Leavenworth Prison for twenty-four years), she wrote to him and they began a correspondence. In December, The New York Times published her editorial in support of Peltier while President Clinton was considering a pardon; it was not granted. On another wall is a shelf filled with books by Michael Dorris, Erdrich's former husband and writing partner. Erdrich met Dorris in 1972 when she enrolled in Dartmouth's first coed class; he was the head of the Native American Studies program. The two didn't get involved until several years after Erdrich graduated and after she'd worked as a waitress, a poetry teacher at prisons, a construction-flag signaler, an editor for the Boston Indian Council's newspaper, The Circle, and had earned a master's degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins. By then, Dorris was a father, the adoptive single parent of three Native American children who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, an experience he described in a 1989 memoir, The Broken Cord. Erdrich and Dorris married in 1981, had three daughters, and collaborated intensely on projects, including co-authoring the 1991 novel The Crown of Columbus.
But their life together unraveled. They separated in 1995, and were planning to divorce, when allegations of criminal sexual child abuse were leveled against Dorris by some of his children. He was under investigation, but nothing was resolved. Dorris committed suicide in 1997.
After Dorris's death, Erdrich was pursued by rumor and innuendo about the couple's marriage, their separation, their family, their careers. Published next to an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that explained the allegations and details about Dorris's death -- a story for which Erdrich declined to be interviewed -- was a letter she wrote the editor. She expressed thanks to the community for its kind support, and asked that her family be granted privacy and time to grieve.
Today, Erdrich fiercely guards her privacy and that of her children. Quite simply, she states, "I'm finished talking about relationships." But her writing speaks to that which she won't; The Last Report can be seen as an extended reflection on exactly that -- relationships -- and it explores other issues central to Erdrich's life.
"I think every book is connected to a writer's psyche, but I can't say I know exactly how," Erdrich says. "It would be easy to say you were having gender issues at the same time you were writing, or a religious crisis. Certainly the task of my life has been to bring my daughters through a period of grief, but I don't think that's what the book is about entirely. It is about surviving, but I think it's about surviving yourself. The book became to me a search for a spiritual solution to the old human dilemma: Why am I me and why am I here and why is it so hard to be who I am?"
Hearing the Stories
A few years ago, Erdrich and her daughters walked by a blackened storefront window in their peaceful Minneapolis neighborhood. They started fantasizing about opening a bookstore, "complete with the bookstore cat you see in all those British movies." When the space came up for lease, Erdrich and her sister, poet Heid Erdrich, decided to start a business.
After stripping it back to its original bones -- it was originally a meat market, then a dentist's office -- they put in a stairway made from birch trees some friends in Wisconsin had found blown down on their land. Then they brought in the confessional.
Erdrich -- who claims to have a terrible addiction to rummage sales, estate sales, and anything vintage -- rescued the intricately carved Roman Catholic confessional from an architectural salvage store. Heid thought they could wire the confessional for CDs on one side and tapes on the other; their mother suggested they put books with sins in the title -- especially those about the seven deadly sins -- inside. Dream catchers dangle from the confessional's corners. A plain, framed copy of the U.S. Government's 1837 Treaty with the Chippewa hangs inside. It's a three-dimensional metaphor, raising questions about the role of the church and government in the life of Native Americans during the colonization of North America and bringing together both sides of Erdrich's ancestry. Though it serves mainly as decoration, Erdrich admits that she bought it because she "wanted to sit in the priest's box for once."
The confessional, a place of comfort and grace, is a reminder of the sanctity of stories and necessity of privacy. As a writer, Erdrich has been sitting in the priest's box for a long time. "Fiction for me is listening," she says. "It's about what I hear. I keep notes and I jot things down all the time and see what comes over the airwaves, what comes over the brain waves."
The oldest of seven children, Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, and raised in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her parents both taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. An avid reader, she also enjoyed the record player her father purchased with green stamps. "Not only did I read Shakespeare, but I had the record of King Lear, which was fantastic. Being in North Dakota, I never actually saw a stage production, but I heard King Lear. I can still hear that record, the sound of those voices." The voices Erdrich listened to while writing Love Medicine came to her primarily as first-person confessions. The book is a multigenerational portrait of two Ojibwe families, the Kashpaws and Lamartines, set in Argus. Over the past seventeen years, those whispers have added up to five more novels about the Kashpaws and Lamartines: The Beet Queen, Tracks, The Bingo Palace, Tales of Burning Love, and, now, The Last Report. "These are the people who came and talked to me way back when," Erdrich says. "And they keep talking to me, so I have to keep writing about them. I don't have a real choice about it. It's not like I can say, 'Now, I'm finished.' Because then they come back and they have another story to tell."
She stays busy with other stories, too. Starting in 1996, for instance, she published three books in three years: Grandmother's Pigeon, a children's story, The Antelope Wife, and The Birchbark House, which her friend Mark Anthony Rolo, a playwright and the former editor of Minneapolis's Native American newspaper, The Circle, says was the result of her dream to write the Native American version of Little House on the Prairie. She illustrated the book, which became a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.
"The great thing about Louise," says Rolo, a member of the Bad River Ojibwe, "is that she lives in a Native community in town. And her family is well rooted in her community back home. She is not the Jane Austen of the Native community looking out a window at the industrial plight of her people."
The First Step of The Last Report
Erdrich started writing The Last Report in 1988, originally intending it to explain how all the earlier novels came into being. She imagined the local priest in Argus, Father Damien, who had appeared as a minor character in Love Medicine, divulging all the confessions of the community to a writer, who would turn out to be Erdrich herself. It wasn't until six years and several books later that Erdrich picked up The Last Report again. The completed version chronicles the life of Father Damien. Erdrich started the book with two images: a woman in a white nightgown floating down a river on the top of a piano, and a priest taking his clothes off for bed and revealing that he is actually a woman. Turns out they became the same person.
Some of those images come directly from Erdrich's life. Though no longer a practicing Roman Catholic, she was raised in the church and still reads everything that comes her way about Catholicism. A nun taught her piano when she was a young girl; she resumed playing in her late thirties, during "a particularly difficult time" and was astonished that her fingers remembered the old pieces. Today, she calls it an incredible solace to be able to have music when she wants it. "For a time I relied upon it so much," she says. "It was enormously consoling." As for the river, growing up, Erdrich was always conscious of its moods: The nearby Red River flooded when she was a child, and again in April 1997. It devastated Grand Forks, North Dakota, that time: It reached flood stage on April 4, and the dikes overflowed on Friday, April 18; Michael Dorris died in the midst of that flood (his body was found on April 11, 1997). The Last Report, which in its early pages is visited by a flood, ends in 1997, too.
Erdrich's new book is filled with lost love, lost identities, stories in danger of being forgotten, illness and death. But at its heart, The Last Report -- lyrical and funny and mesmerizing -- is about someone who, rather than being overwhelmed by loss, survives it. Agnes, in spite of her deprivations, achieves a fantastically full life.
"Agnes really has to live through the fact that she has an amazing drive to follow what her spirit dictates. She does follow it, and it is immensely difficult," Erdrich says of her heroine. "So maybe that's what it's about. And if it's autobiographical, what can I say?" She laughs. "It's hard surviving Louise. Louise has trouble surviving Louise."
But as she finishes her next novel, she has help. It's been a few years since she's had an infant with her while she works. "I talk to Azure every morning, and I say, 'So you're going to help me write the book, right?' " Then, after she gets her older daughters ready for school, Erdrich sneaks up to her room with a cup of tea. She ties the ropes of an Ojibwe swing to her foot so she can swing Azure and write at the same time.
"Maybe when I'm eighty, I'll start being a person who will choose the less complex of the choices, and life will be manageable," Erdrich says. "But I don't do that. I have an overwhelming need to experience everything that life can possibly offer." (Karen Olson)
Set in North Dakota at a time in the past century when Indian tribes were struggling to keep what little remained of their lands, Tracks is a tale of passion and deep unrest. Over the course of ten crucial years, as tribal land and trust between people erode ceaselessly, men and women are pushed to the brink of their endurance -- yet their pride and humor prohibit their surrender.
Narrated by compelling characters like Nanapush, the patriarch and tribal elder who "guided the last buffalo hunt ... saw the last bear shot ... trapped the last beaver with a pelt of more than two years' growth" and Pauline Puyat, whose fascination with witchcraft and religion leads her down treacherous and unstable paths, Tracks follows the epic story of Fleur Pillager, who has been described by The Los Angeles Times as "one of the most haunting presences in contemporary American literature."
Questions for Discussion
About the Author
Louise Erdrich is the author of ten novels as well as volumes of poetry, children's books, and a memoir of early motherhood. Her novel Love Medicine won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. She lives in Minnesota with her daughters and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore.
Posted September 18, 2012
Posted June 13, 2003
This book was absolutely amazing! I was a little bit confused when I first started it but as I got into it became one of those books I just couldn't put down. Louise Erdrich does a beautiful job of showing the two cultures clashing by using two different generations as the narrators, Nanapush who represents the Native culture and all of it's beliefs/traditions, and Pauline, who denies her Native American heritage and considers herself completely white. With the central character Fluer, who could easily be a symbol of Native American culture as a whole, showing many signs of resistance this book was just mesmerizing!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 4, 2001
In keeping with the development of Erdrich's rich, fictional Native American saga, 'Tracks' takes her characters one step closer to reality. Contrary to initial impression, the novel does not limit itself by cultural lines. Erdrich's work provides an insightful and engrossing tale, which highlights the struggles of a frayed culture. However, spoilers abound and surprises go unappreciated for those who haven't read her previous works first. Erdrich makes brilliant use of alternating narrators. One speaker is a highly spiritual grandfather named Nanapush, and the other a crazed and confused Indian woman called Pauline, retelling the life of protagonist Fleur. Both offer differing slants when shedding light on Fleur's troubles, including passage through a suicidal youth and falling in love with shy Indian boy Eli. Rich imagery, and the short-and-sweet figurative way of Native American storytelling may be a bit much for some. However, the manner of speech fits the novel beautifully for those so inclined to a book of this type. Interesting, not mind-blowing, it is an honest and sufficient work in the representation and preservation of a culture.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 19, 2009
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Posted December 28, 2008
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Posted August 9, 2010
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Posted November 25, 2009
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Posted December 8, 2010
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