Roughing It

Tracks

by Louise Erdrich
Henry Holt, 226 pp., $18.95

Breathing Lessons

by Anne Tyler
Knopf, 327 pp., $18.95

Louise Erdrich’s first novel, the prizewinning Love Medicine (1984), presents, as through rifts in a smoke screen, lurid glimpses of the struggle of a group of Chippewa and mixed-blood Indians to cope with a life of poverty, alcoholism, and general demoralization on or near a reservation in North Dakota. The treatment is somewhat confusingly episodic, the prose poetically charged with imagery of exceptional vividness. Her second book, The Beet Queen (1986), deals primarily with the inhabitants of a small North Dakota town in the 1950s and only peripherally with the reservation Indians. Even more episodic in structure, it lacks, I think, the power of its predecessor. Now we have Tracks, which, we are told, is chronologically the first in a projected cycle of four novels. Set between 1912 and 1924, it evokes a brutal period of harsh winters, raging epidemics, famine, and expropriation, and it goes a long way toward accounting for the demoralization and uprootedness that prevails in Love Medicine. Several of the characters of that novel appear as infants or at a much earlier stage in their lives in the new work.

There are two alternating narrators. The first is Nanapush, who in his lifetime has seen his tribe “unraveled like a coarse rope, frayed at either end as the old and new among us were taken.” Nanapush has lost his entire family to the plague of “consumption” that has more than decimated the reservation. Addressing his adopted granddaughter, whom he has named after his dead child Lulu, he mournfully boasts of his past, which is also the past of his people:

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 lake. I axed the last birch that was older than I, and I saved the last Pillager.

Fleur, the one you will not call mother.

Fleur Pillager, a wild, unpredictable, often raging young woman with witchlike powers inherited from her lost ancestors, forms the turbulent center of both narrators’ stories. It is Fleur, living in a remote cabin by a lake in the heart of the forest, who tries to stave off the encroachments of the white man’s “civilization.”

The second narrator is Pauline, a nearly white, skinny, half-mad girl, whose sexual frustration and religious hysteria cause much of the mischief that befalls the hapless characters of Tracks. She, too, is obsessed with Fleur Pillager, who has been “drowned”—i.e., nearly drowned—twice in the “cold and glassy waters” of Matchimanito Lake and whose “drowning” has, in accordance with tribal superstition, brought about the death of her rescuers and witnesses. Here is a sample of Pauline’s narrative style:

Men stayed clear of Fleur Pillager after the second drowning. Even though she was good-looking, nobody dared to court her because it was clear that …

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