"Land is the only thing that lasts life to life," warns Nanapush, a character in Louise Erdrich's Tracks. "Money burns like tinder, flows off like water. As for government promises, the wind is steadier." Nanapush watches his Native American peers sell their land off to the white government piece by piece--and with the land, his heritage.
The character is articulating his author's ethos: Above all, land endures. Place has a sentience in Erdrich's prose; it murmurs memories and whispers fortunes. This sensibility has earned her comparisons to the great ode-weavers of the South, William Faulkner and Eudora Welty; Erdrich's version of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County is the country in the shadow of the Turtle Mountain reservation along the border of North Dakota and western Minnesota. Erdrich grew up in these flatlands (she lives in Minneapolis today), where 10,000 Chippewa live on and off reservations among white farmers and laborers, and where, of course, land and fortune are inextricably entwined.
In "Where I Ought to Be: A Writer's Sense of Place," a 1985 article for the New York
Times, Erdrich quotes from Welty's own manifesto, "Place in Fiction":
It is only too easy to conceive that a bomb that could destroy all traces of places as we know them, in life and through books, could also destroy all feelings as we know them, so irretrievably and so happily are recognition, memory, history, valor, love, all the instincts of poetry and praise, worship and endeavor, bound up in place.
For Welty, an apocalypse that destroys place would destroy story as well. For Erdrich, though, that apocalypse has already occurred. "Many Native American cultures were annihilated more thoroughly than even a nuclear disaster might destroy ours," she writes in the same article. "Others live on with the fallout of that destruction; effects as persistent as radiation--poverty, fetal alcohol syndrome, chronic despair.... Contemporary Native American authors... must tell the stories of contemporary survivors while protecting and celebrating the cores of cultures left in the wake of the catastrophe. And in this, there always remains the land."
Memory, history, valor, and poetry still exist, but now there's far less land to hold them all; the stories of millions of ghosts are now kept on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Welty's bomb has left people tied more closely to what land remains. Their stories are written indelibly on this earth; story, too, endures from life to life. And this is what compels Erdrich to write.
Erdrich's six novels, beginning with the National Book Critics' Award-winning Love Medicine, are devoted to uncovering the history in the land. Each book exists in essentially the same setting, with overlapping characters and themes. And all the books are narrated by multiple characters, with each informing the others' story. Through all Erdrich's novels, then, the bloodlines grow longer and thicker, the landscape more defined. Regardless of timeline, characters coexist and converse in Erdrich's world. They are subsumed by the place itself; the protagonist is a choral "we" whose stories become the land.
In her Times article, Erdrich writes that technology and mobility have changed place in fiction; contemporary society lacks a communal sense of it, and instead we must create context through shared symbols, objects, icons. We can tell worlds about a character, she writes, by whether they order a Heineken, a Schlitz, or a Hamm's (from the land of sky-blue waters...). In her novels, Erdrich uses the same shorthand to create context. Erdrich's land, as much as it is Turtle Mountain, is the constant tension between the old ways and assimilation, a tension that appears in details. In the same world, one character wears a protective medicinal string of blue beads; another is in love with Pinocchio's Blue Fairy.
"Place" for Erdrich is the location where medicine beads and Disney coexist. On the one hand, there are the guardians of tradition, best represented by Nanapush of Tracks. "I guided the last buffalo hunt," he says. "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.''
Then there are thoroughly modern characters like Klaus--a self-described Urban Indian for whom the broad expanse of the plains makes him want to "leave. Go Home. Back to the city, Minneapolis, Gakahbekong we call it, where everything is set out clear in lines and neatly labeled, where you can hide from the great sky, forget." Klaus works as a sanitation engineer. "Used to be us Indians had nothing to throw away--we used it all up to the last scrap," he explains. "Now we have a lot of casino trash, of course, and used diapers, disposable and yet eternal, like the rest of the country.... We're now the first Native-owned waste-disposal company in the whole U.S. and proud of it." Through Erdrich's novels, this conversation is always taking place--between Minneapolis and the reservation, great sky and industrial clouds, old religion and white religion, between ideal and compromise, memory and future.
Through the particular rhythms of Erdrich's prose, theme is painted with the same brush that creates the flat North Dakota landscape. Her air is heavy with destruction--broken treaties, incomprehensible taxes, an ever-encroaching white culture--and the destruction's fallout in the form of alcoholism, plague, depression. Erdrich never lets these evils exist as the motor of a morality play, but rather as part of the background that informs her characters. Past injustices, Moorhead blizzards, glimmering casino lights, and black moods form the scene that creates story; the story, in turn, maintains culture; and the culture preserves the land. Erdrich's work is dedicated to the hope that all three will last.
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