This weekend here in Minnesota is snowy and bitterly cold, good weather to hunker down and gorge on Louise Erdrich novels. I just finished reading Tracks (1988), a story of the decimation and dispossession of the Ojibwe (a.k.a Chippewa) Indians of Minnesota and North Dakota during the years 1912-1924.
This is how the novel begins:
‘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 east, 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.” (1)
This sense of unfathomable loss permeates Tracks, and yet the novel is not entirely bleak. Erdrich’s characters, especially Nanapush, are never without humor and resilience. Nanapush is one of the novel’s two alternating narrators. The other one is Pauline. Pauline is an odd young woman–half mad–full of longing and resentments. She gravitates towards a masochistic kind of religiosity and eventually becomes a nun, albeit one who is twisted and sometimes sadistic.
Nanapush, a man of about fifty, is the only surviving member of his family. He possesses a wealth of historical knowledge about the tribe that he is passing on orally to his granddaughter, Lulu. We readers are positioned as eavesdroppers to his oral history. He says to Lulu, “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 a hundred before. My girl, I saw the passing of times you will never know (2).
In the beginning of the novel, Nanapush finds a young woman named Fleur Pillager barely alive in her cabin, surrounded by five dead family members. Fleur, like Nanapush, is also the last survivor of her family. Nanapush takes Fleur home with him and becomes like a father to her. They are both overwhelmed with the spirits of the dead who surround them. The names [of their dead family members] “grew within us, swelled to the brink of our lips, forced our eyes open in the middle of the night. We were filled with the water of the drowned, cold and black, airless water that lapped against the seal of our tongues or leaked slowly from the corners of our eyes. Within us, like ice shards, their names bobbed and shifted. Then the slivers of ice began to collect and cover us” (6).
Nanapush and Fleur almost succumb to their grief by moving on to the next world; many people did. Nanapush notes that “there were many of our people who died in this manner, of the invisible sickness” (6). They do not die, though. It is probably an overstatement to claim that Fleur, Nanapush, and Pauline flourish, but they do lead vigorous lives of passion, love, violence, vengeance and even laughter. Erdrich writes in a lyrical style in which the line between realism and myth often blurs. Her prose is beautiful and her characters are magnificent.
This is the second time I have read Tracks. The first time was long ago in a different century. I remembered very little about the book except for the haunting power of Fleur Pillager. All three main characters—Nanapush, Pauline, and Fleur—are compelling creations. Fleur, however, is mesmerizing. She is strong. She is beautiful. She is frightening. Nanapush calls her “a woman gone wild, striking down whatever got into her path” (45). Pauline claims she almost destroyed the town of Argus.
What I find interesting (from a craft perspective) is that this untamed woman does not have a voice in the novel. Fleur has a huge impact on the people around her. We read about her from Nanapush’s and Pauline’s perspective, but we never hear her own voice, her own story.
In this sense, Fleur reminds me a little bit of Caddy Compson from William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury. Caddy has three brothers who are all obsessed with her, but in different ways. Each brother narrates his own section of the novel in which Caddy plays a central role. We never hear Caddy’s story from her own perspective.
Writers, take note. One might expect that not giving a character her own voice would dilute her power. I am not sure if that is the case, though. For me, at least, Fleur and Caddy both remain indelibly ingrained in my mind long after I was done reading. Might they have had even more impact if they could have spoken for themselves? It is hard to say, but my guess would be no. Maybe observing other characters trying to hard (yet failing) to understand and “capture” these female characters is what makes them so compelling.
What do you think? If you have read Tracks or Sound and the Fury, do you think Fleur and Caddy should have been allowed to speak for themselves? Why or why not? Can you think of other really compelling characters who were not given a voice? Have you written any?
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