There is a story to it the way there is a story to all, never visible while it is happening. Only after, when an old man sits dreaming and talking in his chair, the design springs clear. There was so much we never saw and never knew.
“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” So begins Nanapush, as he recalls the winter of 1912, when consumption, the last in a line of diseases brought by the Europeans, wiped out whole families of Ojibwa, unraveling tribes “like a coarse rope.” By bearing witness to the story of his family’s and people’s disintegration, Nanapush, a tribal elder and sole survivor of his family, is intent on resisting death, on leaving tracks in the snow for those who come after to follow. Exemplifying one of the novel’s central themes–that storytelling is one way Native Americans have fended off cultural and historical extinction–Nanapush presses a sense of the past upon his young listener, his adopted granddaughter, Lulu, who herself is a remnant of a remnant–the only child of another sole survivor of a family destroyed by consumption, the fierce and unassimilated Fleur Pillager. But Nanapush has more immediate goals as well: to try to save Fleur’s land from the U.S government’s claims, and to save the tribe from being destroyed by the battles over land tenure between the tribe and white settlers. For the survival of the traditional world that sustains Nanpush and Fleur is threatened by corrosive forces that have taken root within the community, as well as by the venality of the whites without. Pauline, the novel’s second narrator, a half-breed from a mixed-blood tribe “for which the name is lost,” is representative of the self-division that erodes the Chippewa community from within. It is Pauline who, out of jealousy and hurt pride, magically causes Eli Kashpaw, Fleur’s unfortunate lover, to betray Fleur with the young Sophie Morrisey;this sets into motion the acts of violent revenge and betrayal.
A Reader’s Guide to the Work of Louise Erdrich
“The story of Chippewa’s losing struggle to preserve their land and culture is inherently more political than the stories set later in the twentieth century, more about radical innocence against ravenous greed. It has a mythic force, and Ms. Erdrich is, as always, the generous kind of storyteller, passing along not only everything her characters know, but the story of the stories as well. Giving life and shape and sense to what’s happened, she lets the designs spring clear.”
–Jean Strouse, New York Times Book Review
1. In what ways are Fleur and Pauline similar, and in what ways different? How does the novel develop the relationship between them, a relationship of fierce rivalry and hostility, and yet also surprising tenderness? Why is Pauline so obsessed with Fleur? How and why is this obsession connected to Pauline’s sexual relationship with Napoleon? to her self-immolation and transformation of herself into a Christian martyr and nun?
2. One theme of the novel is the dispossesion of Native Americans. A historical novel, Tracks is set against the reservation period in the history of U.S. relations to Native Americans, when the government relocated Indians to strictly defined reservations.The Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 had allowed for land that had been communally owned to be allotted to individual Indians, who were encouraged to use the land for profitable enterprises (farming, selling, timber rights), and in doing so become more assimilated into the dominant white culture. In what ways does the novel trace the impact of allotments and assimilation on specific characters (for instance, Margaret, Nector, Eli, Bernadette Morrissey, Edgar Pukwan, Jr.)? Do you think that the men and women in the novel deal dsifferently with the theme of dispossession (for instance, Nanapush and Fleur)?
3. When it is clear that Fleur’s dreams have failed to save her family from starvation, and it is the government’s rations that preserve them instead, Nanapush comments (Chapter Seven, “Winter 1918–Spring 1919), “Power dies, power goes under and gutters out, ungraspable. It is momentary, quick of flight and liable to deceive. As soon as you rely on the possession it is gone. Forget that it ever existed, and it returns. I never made the mistake of thinking that I owned my own strength, and that was my secret. And so I never was alone in my failures.” What do you think he means? How does the novel go about illustrating the wisdom of this view? In what ways is Nanapush’s observation related to a contrast in the ways power is deployed between the Chippewa and white cultures?