Fleur Pillager is seeking revenge. At the start of Louise Erdrich's compelling new novel, Fleur is traveling to Minneapolis to extract retribution from John James Mauser, the logging mogul she believes stole her land. As preparation for the murder she is about to commit, the Ojibwe woman takes on her mother's name of Four Souls.
It's a risk: As one of the novel's three narrators relates, "Four Souls" is a powerful moniker. "There are names that gutter out and die and then spring back, distinguished. Names that go on through time and trouble, names to hold on your tongue. Names to fear. Such a name was Four Souls."
Like all of Erdrich's novels, Four Souls is narrated by a chorus of voices and proceeds in elliptical fashion. While Fleur's sections emerge in the third person, we hear directly from Nanapush, an Ojibwe elder who gives background and context to Fleur's actions. He recalls Fleur's mother and the trauma she endured to keep her sickly daughter on this side of the grave. He also remembers Fleur's prickly and violent relationships with other men, events Erdrich wrote about in her 1988 novel, Tracks. Finally, Nanapush also digresses into his own life, calling up an amusing story of how he once tried--and failed--to avenge an affair he thought his wife was having.
The book's action takes a clever turn when Fleur arrives in Minneapolis and finds Mauser suffering from a mysterious illness. She tricks her way into being hired as the laundress at his house, where she raises the suspicions of another narrator, Polly Elizabeth, Mauser's fussy and fatuous sister-in-law. While Nanapush reminds us of Fleur's past, it is Polly who describes Fleur's present and future, as she first heals, falls in love with, and then, miraculously, bears a child by Mauser.
In spite of this panoply of stories, Four Souls remains both tightly controlled and densely folkloric--the kind of novel one reads in a four-hour fever dream. Erdrich has always written well in the comic vein, but in recent novels--The Master Butchers Singing Club, for example--she has struggled to balance farce with heft. Four Souls, by contrast, is wholly successful in lambasting the folly and the melancholy of comeuppance. In the hands of another writer, the evolution of Fleur's emotions might have been a drippily sincere story. With Erdrich at the helm, it's a heart scorcher.