Hello, dear pond readers! Welcome back to the pond and my next post on my Engaging Books journey of discovery. Today, I’m discussing the second book on my list: Tracks by Louise Erdrich. During Spring 2017, I read this beautiful book. There will be some spoilers and they will be marked.
The view in Blue Mound State Park, WI by E.A. Schneider
Tracks is simultaneously about surviving and the cost of surviving. It chronicles the lives of the Ojibwe community in Matchimanito, North Dakota in the early 20thCentury between 1912 and 1924. The prose is lovely, haunting, and heartbreaking laced with dry, sardonic humor. Multiple characters narrate the story and their perspectives beautifully interweave, sometimes overlapping and sometimes not. Nanapush, the trickster elder, is my favorite narrator but I also enjoyed the story as told by Pauline, as unreliable and unpleasant as her version of the story is, because you have to keep reading; her words are hypnotic. For the next seven paragraphs, starting after the bumblebee picture below, I’m going to be dropping some heavy spoilers about Tracks so you might want to jump down to the paragraph after the Fox River image.
Bumblebee in flight by E.A. Schneider
Fleur Pillager is the main character of Tracks but you never see the story through her eyes. Rather everyone in the community of Matchimanito and Argus spends the book talking about Fleur and the decline of the local Ojibwe culture is the haunting backdrop. The story straddles World War I. Lumber companies are buying up land. Family allotments are designed to be hard to keep because the encroaching invaders want it so and they have all the power of numbers, guns, and germs. Disease repeatedly lays waste to the community and every family has lost members to its grip. Government boarding schools take children out of the community network of extended family, dressing the children in orange to make it harder for them to flee. With the decline of the traditional subsistence options because of the white colonists and the loss of population, starvation is a perennial issue. Some characters resist taking government assistance as long as possible to cling to the old ways while others in Matchimanito adapt to the invading culture successfully enough to survive though they strain their connection to the Ojibwe community in the process.
Trillium by E.A. Schneider
Feet and footwear seem to be a recurring motif in Tracks, underscoring themes of agency, mobility, freedom, and legacy. We find at the end that Nanapush is telling the story of Fleur to her daughter, Lulu Nanapush, in part to convince her to reconcile with her estranged mother. Lulu nearly loses her feet to frostbite during one of the most dramatic sections of the book when she runs through the snow wearing ruby red patent leather Mary Jane shoes to get help to save Fleur’s life during a winter miscarriage. The shoes, a gift from Eli to Lulu much disapproved by Fleur, are a symbol of the intruding force of white American culture on the Ojibwe customs that helped them survive in North Dakota for generations and they nearly cost Lulu her feet. Only Nanapush saves Lulu from a traveling American doctor who would have amputated to stave off gangrene.
It is one of the most poignant parts of the book to read Nanapush’s temptation to trust the modern American ways to save his granddaughter’s life though he ultimately puts his faith in the old, slow ways. Fleur, in her embrace of the old ways and sabotage of the local lumber company, sends Lulu to a government boarding school voluntarily to save her from both starvation and retribution from the locals angry with Fleur, and Lulu never forgives this betrayal. Personally, I found it interesting that as fierce as Fleur is about following Ojibwe culture in extremis, she wants her daughter to survive regardless of which world she has to do so in. The last image of the story is Lulu running to Nanapush and Margaret, her grandparents, when they finally regain custody of her from the boarding school years later. It is an image filled with love and hope that the family and the people will endure. Nanapush honors Fleur, calling her the heart of their people and raising her daughter, even though he is ultimately able to adapt to the American ways enough to survive, as tricksters always can.
Unfurling possibilities by E.A. Schneider
Against this vibrant background of love, loss, and change, Fleur Pillager is the center of the story, the anchor point of a changing landscape, culture, and time whom we see but we cannot completely inhabit her perspective. Fleur is apart while still being the heart, distant while standing in arm’s reach. Fleur is never the narrator of her own story. Reading Tracks, I found myself uncomfortably reminded of Antonia and her settler life on the frontier in My Antonia by Willa Cather. I read My Antonia over 15 years ago; while I have not re-read it, the book left a strong impression on my mind and I have plans to re-read the novel.
Even though I think these books can be in dialogue with each other and part of the point of this book project is to put vastly different perspectives on the table together, there are two glaring, insurmountable differences between Fleur’s and Antonia’s stories: Antonia is white and her story is a triumphant elegy to the settlement of the American West, a romance with the myth of the colonial frontier itself.
As a white invader, Antonia can in the end become a wholesome farm wife with status and power, albeit small, even if she starts out as an exotic outsider that embodies the mythic spirit of the Frontier, while Fleur, being an Ojibwe woman, cannot achieve a happy end by the standards of either culture. Despite a long relationship with Eli Kashpaw, Fleur remains a symbol of untamed Nature who ultimately rejects all society, Ojibwe and white, to live in the wilderness alone with the gravestones of her dead family. Tracks is telling the tale of settler colonialism from a place of critique rather than praise. For Native Americans, colonialism isn’t a section in a history book, it is an ever-present fact of life. Antonia and Fleur are two outsiders with stories that bear similarities in my memory but the power difference inherent between conqueror and conquered can never be forgotten. That poignant gap has been something I’ve mulled over a lot after reading Tracks. This comparison, as iffy as it is, is something that I hope to return to and fill in more in future posts after I re-read both books together. Hopefully, I can do that sometime in the not too distant future.
Prairie grass by E.A. Schneider
Reading Tracks and following the stories of this dynamic ensemble cast of characters, Fleur, Pauline, Nanpush, Margaret, Nector, Eli Kashpaw, Lazarre, Napolean, and Father Damien, I found myself having compassion for all of the characters and why they do what they do in a way that I don’t often do in community style novels. The Ojibwe are a conquered people who must reckon with survival, and its costs, in the face of occupation. The fact that many of the characters make sometimes cruel, shortsighted, and selfish decisions makes perfect sense when you remember that their lives are always on the line without the options and safety nets they had maintained for generations. Whether one adapts successfully like Bernadette to be prosperous, protect one’s own land like Margaret Kashpaw, or reject everything to live and die traditionally like Fleur, the decision makes sense given what is at stake.
Fox River by E.A. Schneider
As a reader I couldn’t help but appreciate all of these wonderful, human characters. While the tone of Tracks is serious, I can’t emphasize enough how delightful the humor of the story is. The Matchimanito people in Tracks feel real in part because of the laughs they share. All the bawdy humor, all the practical jokes, and all the wry observations breathe life between the lines. I highly recommend this book; I’m so glad that I got to meet these characters and walk with them awhile. I look forward to reading more of Louise Erdrich’s work.
Having said all that praise of Tracks, you might justifiably wonder why I have not posted this blog entry until now, over a year later. Two reasons: I was sad and I was scared.
I was sad because when I read Tracks, the news was filled with stories about the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The people of Matchimanito in Tracks are forever linked in my memory with the people of 2018 North Dakota fighting to protect their water, treaty rights, and their honored dead from the forces of rapacious capitalist American culture. Tracks is fiction set over 100 years in the past between 1912 and 1924 but nothing has substantively changed for our Native American brothers and sisters in America: powerful people want their resources and there isn’t a whole heck of a lot they can do about it though they certainly made a heroic stand. While this was happening, all I could do was watch and pray and read this book. In my head I recognize that being a witness to history matters, prayer matters, and reading narratives from other points of view matters; in my heart it sure does not feel like much.
I fully admit that I’m as dependent on fossil fuels as the next person. I also fully admit that I think a well-constructed pipeline that is in accordance with the strictest possible environmental regulation beyond any government mandated minimum is demonstrably better than trains or barges for transporting crude oil. Those two admissions having been made, I will state this: the DAPL did not have to cross Lake Oahe. I don’t care if profits would be decreased or the cost of continued environmental impact statements (EIS) by the Army Corps of Engineers was high. Profit is not as important as healthy water or honoring treaty rights or letting the dead rest in peace. Something can be safer without being safe and minimal, minor safety incidents are neither minimal or minor when you live there, when your children play there, and your dead rest there. Yes, Not In My Backyard syndrome is problematic but every backyard and community is different; their voices need to be heard. I think doing careful science and investigation to make a safe piece of infrastructure that affected communities can be comfortable with matters. Saying that profit is not the be all end all of life is a pretty radical statement in America but I believe it to be true.
Black-eyed Susans by E.A. Schneider
The injustice of the whole DAPL project made me furious and sad. The DAPL was rerouted from the Bismark, North Dakota area to be closer to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. In contemporary life as in Tracks, Native Americans are expendable when jobs and profit are on the line. America is built on gravesoil from the government sanctioned genocide of millions of Native Americans. Native Americans are still here, they didn’t fade away into the landscape as is often depicted in pop culture, but most people don’t remember that or think about Native Americans until they have the temerity to protest something. When I went to undergrad, I took multiple classes in Anthropology and English that were about Native American history and culture and I took those classes with Native Americans. When I think of Native Americans, I think of real people first not sport team mascots or film characters. While I know that no culture is a monolith and every Native American has their own experience, opinions, history, and life, I thought of my classmates a lot watching the DAPL coverage and wondered how they were processing all of that.
So, I’ve talked about the sadness, now for the fear. I’m afraid of being part of the problem. I’m afraid of being just another white person who means well and does harm with all my good intentions. I’m afraid of not only coming across as someone more interested in virtue signaling and social media progressive liberalism but actually being that person. I don’t want to be culturally appropriative. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t want to try to help, I want to really help. We can’t change the past. No amount of reparations can bring back the dead. All we can do is make the present and the future a more just, compassionate reality for all Americans. And I don’t know how to do that anymore than I suspect you do, dear pond reader. But I realized that this entire paragraph is going to be true of every book I read on this list. I can’t let fear win. Even though I’m scared and I don’t know how to help, I figure that hiding this blog post and compulsively re-writing it isn’t going to help so here I am, posting my thoughts in all their imperfect reality.
Sturgeon Bay in Summer by E.A. Schneider
Blossom by E.A. Schneider
Spring blossom in wind by E.A. Schneider
Poppy by E.A. Schneider
First fiddleheads of spring by E.A. Schneider
Maple Leaves in Spring by E.A. Schneider
November is National Native American History month and this November 2018 was certainly historic. The past, including the recent past, is filled with blood, pain, and oppression but the future has the potential to be both brighter and more just. Even if it will be really hard, this American experiment of representative government has always been hard and I look forward to seeing what the future brings.
There are still a couple days left in November. If you haven’t already read Tracks, you’ve still got time to start. If you have, what did you think of Tracks, dear readers? Do you have any comments or questions or favorite quotes? Do you have any other thoughts on the issues I’ve brought up? Please, leave a note below and thank you for stopping by the pond today.
Maple leaves by E.A. Schneider