The Short Stories of Louise Edrich's Novels
Ferguson, Suzanne, Studies in Short Fiction
In much recent short story theory, attempts are made to identify formal characteristics peculiar to the genre of "short story," or, in a variation of that attempt, to identify elements in a story that influence the reader to believe s/he is coming to the conclusion, or at least foreseeing the end of a "story" (see, especially, the work of Susan Lohafer), thus implying a conception of reading that attends to formal signals of a "whole" fictional work. In 1982, Suzanne Hunter Brown, who has since carried her psychological/ cognitive investigations further, experimented with reading a chapter of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles as if it were an independent story, showing how different elements emerged with different importance when read as elements of a short story rather than a novel. She concluded, as I do in "Defining the Short Story, Impressionism and Form" and as have other critics such as Karl-Heinz Stierle and Mary Rohrberger, that in the short story, the reader is more likely to focus on theme and symbol, which allow us to process the text as a meaningful construct, rather than on verisimilitude, which allows the reader to "live" vicariously through a novel. This is not to say that verisimilitude is unimportant in the short story, but rather that we experience it differently in a fiction we expect to be short because we are attending more carefully to its potential for creating themes. Also importantly, more interpretive "capital" is likely to be located in the individual words and phrases of the short story text than of the novel, where according to Brown the reader generally attends more to and recalls whole scenes (35).
Similar attempts have been made to theorize special generic characteristics of the story "sequence" or story "cycle," analyzing volumes of stories presented by their authors as having special interrelationships, with their multiple representations of themes that are progressively or recursively developed. Yet what of the novel that has appeared, wholly or partly, as independent stories in magazines? When the stories were published, they were read as short stories--yet because we now know them to be "chunks" of novels, we cease to consider them as separate works.
Louise Erdrich's novels are among those that have frequently been preceded by story publication; and indeed narrative situations in which individual story-tellers narrate their own or others' "stories" are typical of the Erdrich novel and have been frequently remarked by her critics. The stories that make up Erdrich's novels rub against each other, juxtaposing different narrative voices, time frames, and styles, creating productive dissonances of signification and feeling. Yet despite being what one critic calls "collection[s] of interlocking narratives,"(1) her novels are not generically similar to those collections that are identified as "cycles" or "sequences," like Winesburg, Ohio, Dubliners, Go Down Moses, 7he Golden Apples, or the like, precisely because the "stories" have become "chapters," and the intermittently reappearing narrators achieve independent, important lives as characters in their own narratives as well as in those of the other character/narrators. Neither are the "short stories" interpolated into a "master" narrative like the "stories" told by characters in The Confidence Man or Absalom, Absalom! Rather, they are the episodes of that narrative.
In this paper, I want to return to "framing" some of Erdrich's stories as short stories, in order to explore their construction of meanings in that genre, comparing them with their novelistic counterparts, in a sense "defamiliarizing" them to explore the interpretive differences that emerge when they are read as stories rather than parts of novels, and speculating on the generic and interpretive implications of Erdrich's "new" kind of story-sequence novel. I will discuss the four stories that have so far been singled out for Best American Short Stories or Prize Stories, the O. Henry Awards: "Saint Marie" and "Scales," Chapters 2 and 11 of Love Medicine; and "Fleur" and "Snares," Chapters 2 and 5 of Tracks. The stories range in length from 4,200 words ("Snares") to about 6,000 ("Fleur")--an "average" length for short stories. All four are "told" in first person, as if to a reader/listener, in a generally "oral" style that does not intrinsically distinguish any particular audience.
Closest in actual text to its corresponding chapter in the novel is "St. Marie," first published in Atlantic Monthly in 1984. In it an adolescent mixed-blood girt who prides herself on the lightness of her skin narrates her experiences in attempting to become a "saint" among the nuns of the Sacred Heart Convent in a small northwestern American town with a substantial Indian population, at an unspecified time apparently early in the twentieth century. Her efforts to impress and then successfully oppose the tyranny and sadism of her "mentor," Sister Leopolda--who has already terrorized Marie and her classmates in the convent school--are ironically fulfilled when a fork-wound in Marie's hand inflicted by Sister Leopolda is taken to be a manifestation of Christ's stigmata by the rest of the convent.
In its story form, "Saint Marie" is a riveting anecdote of the perversion of Catholicism,(2) and particularly of religious orders, by an emotionally unstable and cruet nun who seems bent upon domination (and perhaps sexual seduction) of a naive but ambitious youngster determined to "rise" from the circumscriptions of Indian life into a position of respect and power. Marie insists that the nuns, representative of European Americans, will "have a girl from this reservation as a saint they'd have to kneel to" (103). Her desire to get to town from "the bush" makes her--and others, she implies by the plural pronoun--"so anxious to get there we would have walked in on our hands and knees" (103), in an easily recognizable reference to the "myth" of the young person from the country who comes to make good in the city--a "Euro-American," masculine-gender story familiar from Tom Jones and The Red and the Black to "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" and The Great Gatsby. For the Native-American female, this paradigm has poignant connotations of co-optation and revenge.
One strong thematic thread of the story is Marie's attempt to conceptualize and control her world by figuring it in terms that will bring together her Indian heritage with the culture of the dominant class of Euro-Americans as represented in the narratives and metaphors of the Catholic Church. Although she recognizes "the homelier side" of the decrepit convent even as she climbs the road to join it (104), she believes that Sister Leopolda will be the vehicle of her "rise," for where the other nuns have "long ago gone blank and given up on Satan," Leopolda "kept track of him and knew his habits," like Marie's own grandmother "who called him by other names and was not afraid" (104-05). Satan as the figure for evil--cruelty, domination, perhaps sexual perversion--is a shadow in a school cloakroom, an unseen force that lurks powerfully in the emotions and projections of both Marie and Leopolda. Even this opening section of the story is rife with pointed reminders of the sometimes unwitting destruction the Church brought to the Native Americans--as in the remembered tale that some "bush Indians" stole a Jesuit's hat and ate it as "medicine," but were killed "with belief" because the hat was contaminated With smallpox. Undeterred by Sister Leopolda's vicious attack on her in the schoolroom under the pretense that Satan has inhabited her, Marie determines to have Sister Leopolda's "heart.... Sometimes I wanted her heart in love and admiration. Sometimes. And sometimes I wanted her heart to roast on a black stick" (107), with the typically mixed emotions of the oppressed.
Although in many of her story/chapters, Erdrich uses figures and narrative elements from Ojibway/Chippewa oral tradition,(3) in "St. Marie" the oral paradigm strongly resembles the German folk tale, "Hansel and Gretel,"(4) as Marie's arrival at the convent parodies that of the children at the witch's house in the tale: Sister Leopolda tempts Marie with exotic foods that are kept under her lock and key and puts her to work in the kitchen, preparing to bake bread. After a central incident in which Leopolda scalds her, Marie is nearly defeated--"I felt I had no inside voice, nothing to direct me, no darkness, no Marie"--but a vision comes to her in which she is transmogrified: "I was rippling gold. My breasts were bare and my nipples flashed and winked. Diamonds tipped them. I could walk through panes of glass.... She was at my feet, swallowing the glass after each step I took" (110). Apparently relenting, Sister Leopolda applies salve to the burns in the privacy of her cell, but Marie's vision returns to her and she tries to leave. "Don't go," [Leopolda] said quickly. "Don't. We have just begun" (111). The appeal, which inevitably suggests to the reader that Sister Leopolda has sexual seduction in mind, is taken by Marie as a plea not to leave the convent, to remain and have the "evil" of her rebelliousness expunged from her. Weakened by the scalding, she is unable to get farther than the kitchen, where in another allusion to "Hansel and Gretel," she pushes Leopolda into the oven, "the gate of a personal hell. Just big enough and hot enough for one person" (112). Unluckily for Marie, the oven is too small and Leopolda's poker propels her back out, where, in a rage, she stabs Marie's hand with the fork she has used to test the bread for doneness. Here the folk tale "Hansel and Gretel" is suddenly metamorphosed into a warped "saint's legend."
Although she has never heard of the stigmata, when Marie awakens and perceives the nuns praying around her, she is smart enough to play out her role as a "saint." In a comically bitter irony, Leopolda has told the others of the "miracle," in order to save herself from exposure. Marie savors her triumph as Leopolda must "worship" her--"Leopolda with her soul like a rubber overboot. With her face of a starved rat. With her desperate eyes drowning in the deep wells of her wrongness"--but soon feels pity, as wen, though she finds it "a feeling more terrible than any amount of boiling water and worse than being forked" (115). In a final irony, then, Marie is in effect "saved," and her "saintliness" is manifested in pity for her vanquished enemy. Her triumph is turned not to vengeful or holy joy, however, but to "dust." The story ends with her telling herself, "Rise up and walk! There is no limit to this dust!" (115), as the tale opens out into its generalized meaning as a parable of Indian/European contact, and the pervasive corruption of misused power.
The short story is perfectly self-contained and terrifically rich in the intensity of the emotional conflict both between Marie and Leopolda, and within each (told by Marie but manifested in Leopolda's changing behavior and affect). While it exemplifies the essentially destructive relation between the Church (as manifested in this time and place) and the Indians, it also provides a general portrait of the deadly conflict between oppressor and oppressed, in which the oppressed becomes as cruel, if only temporarily, as the tyrant, as well as an exemplum of the power of a vision of transcendence, however limited and perverted. Although the end of the story suggests that Marie is now to be free of her illusions, it hardly matters, as the characters have played out their roles, served their purposes in the larger myth, as do Gretel and the Witch.
As Chapter 2 of Love Medicine, "Saint Marie" retains its basic themes, but they are quickly subordinated to the development of the novelistic character of Marie Lazarre and that of Sister Leopolda, who disappears until Chapter 8, "Flesh and Blood," when the middle-aged Marie takes her daughter Zelda to be "blessed" by the aged, seemingly dying nun (in Tales of Burning Love  we find that she lived well beyond her hundredth year). Placed following the drama of Love Medicine's first chapter, in which June Morrissey (an "adopted" daughter of Marie) walks to her death in a blizzard on her way back to the reservation near Easter, 1981, and her (courtesy) niece Albertine Johnson narrates some of the background of the Kashpaws, Lazarres, and Morrisseys--three of the four main interrelated families of Erdrich's reservation--Chapter 2 takes the narrative back to 1934. The relations of Church and reservation, of power and degradation, remain evident. But as a chapter, the story has other structural and semiotic functions, most notably establishing the characters of Marie and Leopolda, but also, as the specific dating implies, establishing the verisimilitude of time and place essential to a reader's experience of the novel. Marie becomes a major figure in the unfolding family saga at the center not only of Love Medicine but of the entire group of four novels about the same group of families. In the next (third) chapter, we learn that Marie did in fact leave the convent and virtually immediately seduced Nector Kashpaw, who actually was on his way to court Lulu Pillager/Nanapush when he became embroiled with Marie, still wearing a bandage on her wounded hand. Marie's attraction to the Church as a means of gaining power and prestige prefigures her later actions in becoming a political leader of her tribe. Indeed her manipulativeness, her apparent lack of any genuine emotions except those connected with power and prestige, may all be traced to this formative period in which she has had to establish her own power through shifting allegiances between Sister Leopolda and the evil one. We discover much later in the saga that Marie is in fact Leopolda's own daughter, conceived when she was still Pauline Puyat, the narrator of "Fleur" and other chapters of Tracks. Thus rereading of the chapter after reading the rest of the sequence establishes a different dynamic between Leopolda and Marie, in which Leopolda is more clearly trying to relive her life through her daughter rather than simply trying to seduce and dominate a young girl, extending the correspondences with the Gretel/Witch fabula.
"Scales" (published in North American Review in 1982 and anthologized in Best American Short Stories of 1983) is also a story with powerful paradigmatic images of the dissonances between white and Indian worlds. Its narrator is a nameless young woman who meets Gerry Nanapush and his wife Dot in a bar; works with Dot during the last months of Dot's pregnancy in a truck-weighing station for a large construction site, again in an obscure part of (what is here named) North Dakota; and becomes Dot's friend and helper after the birth of her child, when Gerry has been rearrested for breaking out of jail and imprisoned for killing a Federal Agent during the arrest.
Although much of the story-space is given to the relationship between the women, as it progresses from Dot's original attack on the narrator (she is the Albertine of Love Medicine, Marie's granddaughter) to a close if largely tacit friendship, the true thematic center of the short story unfolds around Gerry, whose family name, Nanapush, is a transparent adaptation of the Ojibway/Chippewa trickster, Nanabozho (Towery 104, and many other writers on Erdrich). Gerry exemplifies the dilemma of the American Indian living under the auspices of the US Government: "He was mainly in the penitentiary for breaking out of it, ... since for his crime (assault and battery when he was 18) he had received three years and time off for good behavior" (145). The "assault" was a brawl with a cowboy who accused the Chippewa of being "also a nigger" (146); Gerry had thought the (to him trivial) affair would "blow over" before it reached court, but the cowboy--angered by Gerry's opportunistic attack on his testicles--persisted. The cowboy had white witnesses, who the narrator says are "good ... to have on your side since they have names, addresses, social security numbers, and work phones" (146-47), whereas Gerry had Indians, who disappeared at powwow time and "were not interested in looking judge or jury in the eye" (147). Like Gerry, they "had no confidence in the United States Judicial System. They did not seem comfortable in the courtroom, and this increased their unrehability in the eyes of judge and jury" (147). Because he believes he is unjustly imprisoned, it seems only reasonable to Gerry that he should escape whenever he feels the need.
Gerry is an escape artist, who "boasted that no steel or concrete shitbarn could hold a Chippewa, and he had eel-like properties in spite of his enormous size" (145). Gerry views the prison as "a hate factory," in which one learns to be a criminal. In the novels, his episodic escapes are explicitly related to the trickster/god narratives of Chippewa and other native American legend. His son by June Morrissey, Lipsha, is his true heir as a bearer of Indian trickster power. Gerry's return to his family at the end of Love Medicine is seen by Lipsha as an opportunity to absorb some of his father's power. Lipsha becomes increasingly important in the saga, and chapters interpolated in a second edition (1993) of Love Medicine prepare for this centrality. (It is Lipsha's apparent but unconfirmed death in a blizzard-cumcar accident at the end of The Bingo Palace--in the company of a white child he has accidentally kidnapped while helping Gerry flee toward the Canadian border--that demands a sequel not provided by Tales of Burning Love, even though Gerry, Dot, and a blizzard--possibly the same one--figure significantly in the latter.)
The changes between the "Scales" story and the novel chapter seem related to the need in the story to ally the women around Gerry and his son, Jason, and in the novel--where he has other sons--to unite the women further through the birth of a daughter, Shawn. Neither male nor female child has a large role to play in either the story or the novels--at least so far. Dot, however, the heavy, unlovely, rough woman of the story, is the Dot Adare who became "Beet Queen" of Argus, North Dakota, in the hilariously grotesque ending of The Beet Queen. Like Marie Lazarre, she is another girl who has been brought up suffering from an essential insecurity of self. This insecurity of her character is absent in "Scales," as is any reference to Albertine's having attended nursing school and lived away from the reservation for a number of years. That Albertine is portrayed in "Scales" completely without relations, past, or even her name contributes to her representative status as an observer-narrator. In the short story, she and Dot (a name, we learn in The Beet Queen, that was a nickname bestowed by her embittered mother in an attempt to make her child as enigmatic and empty as a final punctuation mark) are simply two Indian women trying to survive in a society that gives them only a precarious toehold, sharing the care of an infant fitted out for life in garments knitted by them with explicitly weapon-like knitting needles so tightly they resemble chain-mail armor. As a Jason, he might sow dragon's teeth and lead his people against an enemy, though the name, according to Albertine, is simply "like [that of] most boys born that year" (153).
The "Scales" of the story's title refer literally to the truck-weighing contrivance that represents Euro-American state regulation of the highway construction business, which provides a kind of living to Dot and the narrator and other Indians who work there. The baby is too light to be weighed on them, but Gerry, ironically, can be, as he smuggles himself back to Dot in time for her lying in. The word also refers to the "scales" of Euro-American justice, in which Gerry as Indian can never achieve a just weight. It is tempting also to relate the word to the "scales" that fall from the eyes of Saul at the moment he believes in Jesus and becomes the apostle Paul, exemplifying how all must let such scales fall in order to see clearly, and "weigh" ideas truly. As the narrator comes to know Dot, her assumptions and the readers' about Dot's crudeness (matching her unprepossessing appearance and bulk) fall away, and Dot emerges with virtues of faithfulness and true affection unsuspected by the reader at the beginning of the story. Although the story is in a sense a tall-tale of Gerry's love for his wife and the development of friendship between the women, its subtext, told as summary by the narrator, is its real raison d'etre: revelation of the fundamental dissonance and "unweighability" of Indian and European world-views, and the inevitable subjection of the Indian in this system. Although in the novel text these themes are no less present, they seem less important than the narrative exposition of Gerry's character and of the atmosphere of the marginal, institutional culture these "misfits" must inhabit.
A 6,000-word narrative that became Chapter 2 of Tracks, "Fleur" was published as a story in Esquire in 1986. In Tracks, it is the narrative of the young Pauline Puyat,(5) later to become the sadistic Sister Leopolda. She is one of the two primary narrators of the novel, balancing Old Nanapush, the adoptive uncle of its protagonist Fleur Pillager and a major trickster figure in the unfolding saga. In Chapter 1 of Tracks, Nanapush relates the sad history of his and Fleur's tribe during the last years of the 19th century and the first of the 20th, especially the epidemic and famine of the winter of 1912. Pauline's narrative of Fleur in Chapter 2 is thus the primary introduction of Fleur's character in an action, a retrospective exposition showing why she is thought to have supernatural powers, and in particular the power to destroy men. As a short story, "Fleur" is also ostensibly--for its narrator--a sort of traditional exemplum of the man-destroying woman. Indeed, the narrator (she has no name in the story) tells us that Fleur "almost destroyed th[e] town" of Argus, North Dakota. However, the story shows that the men of the Argus butcher shop essentially destroy themselves--morally by raping Fleur, and physically by shutting themselves into an ice-filled meat locker during a tornado, where the narrator, not Fleur, entraps them. The "story," "Fleur," explicates and foregrounds the conflict between masculine/white and feminine/Indian forces, while the "chapter" establishes one possibly demented or dishonest narrator's view of a complex and powerful protagonist who becomes important to us not only as representative of the struggle of the traditional native American values against the materialistic ravages of modern Euro-American culture, but of what we might see as universal human values of love and family ties as well as female nature and power.
The changes in the novel version are not to Fleur's character but in connections made with other characters and other episodes. In the novel, one of the men trapped in the locker lives (albeit ravaged by gangrene), and a second child is introduced: Pauline's younger cousin Russell Kashpaw, who along with Pauline helps trap the men in the locker, and who becomes a significant figure in The Beet Queen and The Bingo Palace. The deliberateness of the men's closing out the children in the storm is explicit in the novel, where in the story the shutting out of the narrator might be inadvertent and never realized by the men, to whom she has been essentially "invisible" even in their presence.
Although identical from story to novel, the spectacular scene of an enormous sow's attacking Fleur's primary enemy, Lily Veddar, who has pursued Fleur into the sow's pen when she went to feed the animal after winning all the men's money in a poker game, takes on more powerful significance in the story, providing a memorable "objective correlative" for the violence of the struggle between the female and male forces of the story. The actual rape of Fleur which follows is represented only as the cries the narrator hears and is too afraid to answer with some protective action, while the fight of Lily with the sow is "shown" in graphic, indeed virtuosic detail. Next day, when the tornado appears, it seems to the girl an incarnation of the sow: "a fat snout that nosed along the earth and sniffled, jabbed, picked at things, sucked them up, blew them apart, rooted around as if it was following a certain scent ..." (12), suggesting that the real sow was somehow possessed when it attacked Lily and that the same demonic spirit now activates the winds. Yet tornadoes are common enough on the Great Plains, and the oppressive heat and humidity on the night of the card game and its aftermath, the rape, are clear indications not only of a naturalistic explanation of why the men behave so irrationally but how they know to take shelter in the locker when the storm approaches.
The "point" of the short story is located in the character of the unnamed narrator rather than of Fleur, for after all she has said about how Fleur destroys men (and almost the town), it is the narrator herself, the barely visible, anonymous narrator, who barricades the men in the locker and doesn't reveal their whereabouts after the storm. Thus, aided by the men's selfishness and indifference to her plight and perhaps by their shame at having raped Fleur, it is she who kills the men, although Fleur (who has already left town, most likely before the storm) is held responsible by the community. This nameless narrator, a figure for the alienated, self-less female child, tells us in the end only the "facts" of how the men were found, not admitting her guilt, then or later, when she returns to the reservation to "live a quiet life."
The real story of the narrator's tacit league with Fleur against the men is embedded in the folk-tale-like narration of Fleur's supernatural powers as the lover of the lake spirit, Misshepeshu, powers validated by the narrator's appeal to the authority of her grandmother. The narrator reports in seemingly free indirect style the grandmother's opinion of the strange deaths of the men who saved Fleur from her "first drowning" early in life: "it went to show, ... [i]t figured to her, all right. By saving Fleur Pillager, those two men had lost themselves" (1). The narrator's alliance with the other Indians--especially the mothers--in relating the story of Fleur's early drownings and the relationship with Misshepeshu--who may have fathered a child Fleur bore later--is shown in her consistent use of the first person plural in this expository part of the story, although she uses the singular for her narrative of what happened in Argus. At the beginning of the story she is the voice of the emerging modern, Americanized Indian community which estranges Fleur, the traditional Indian, whose independence and spirituality they cannot tolerate. The short story is less about its title character, a powerful traditional woman (possibly a witch), than about the nameless, nondescript, adolescent female narrator who out of weakness--and possibly envy of Fleur's strength and attractiveness--allows Fleur to be raped then avenges her on behalf, perhaps, of women in general. As a chapter, the narrative is crucial to establishing Fleur's centrality to Tracks, and it is Pauline's role as a narrator rather than as a characteragent that is most essential there.
"Snares," published in Harpers' in May 1987 (The Best American Short Stories, 1988), is the shortest of the four stories under consideration. It forms only the central portion of a chapter of Tracks that is more than twice as long and includes Eli Kashpaw's courting of Fleur Pillager (which Old Nanapush reluctantly assists with "love medicine") as well as narrating the aftermath of the episode central to "Snares": a cold, hungry winter in which Margaret Kashpaw and Nanapush separate and reconcile. "Snares" is the narration of Old Nanapush, who alternates with Pauline as one of two primary narrators of Tracks. In contrast to Pauline, the forever dispossessed outsider, mixed-breed, orphaned, ambiguously gendered, physically uncomfortable, and barely tolerated by any "family" to which she annexes herself, Nanapush represents the old order of Indian life, at home in nature and tribal custom, left with diminishing powers by age and the inexorable advance of materialistic "white" culture among his tribe. (As Maszewska points out, he tells his story to young Lulu Nanapush to try to keep her bound to the old order and to her mother, Fleur ). Although the Catholic priest, Father Damien, whose religion many of the Chippewa, including Margaret Kashpaw (formerly Rushes Bear), the mother of Eli and Nector, have managed to assimilate, would seem to be Nanapush's antagonist, in the story as in the novels, the two have lived long enough and seen enough of the triumph of their common enemies to become, essentially, tacit allies.
Although Nanapush and Margaret are both aged at the time of the action, their resistance against the younger generation's desire to sell off tribal lands for development unites them at first in an uneasy friendship. After they are captured and humiliated by one of the Lazarre family and Clarence Morrissey in an attempt to intimidate them, however, their relationship becomes closer, and they end as an engaged couple. In the novel, we know both the antagonist characters' "places" in the hierarchy of tribal families: "Boy" Lazarre is one of Fleur Pillager's "victims"-- she has caused him to lose his tongue-tip in an earlier confrontation so that he cannot speak intelligibly; and Clarence Morrissey is one of the brothers of Sophie, whose affair with Eli Kashpaw (engineered by the jealous Pauline) led to his estrangement from Fleur earlier in the narrative time of Tracks. In the story, however, Lazarre can speak and Morrissey is simply a name for the mixed-blood character who is most literally "snared" as Nanapush avenges the humiliation of having to watch while Margaret's braids are cut off and her head shaved when the two younger men try to bully the old pair into signing for the sale of the land. Once again, the lines of the short story are more simply drawn to emphasize a theme, where the material in the novel both reaches out to other plot lines and themes, and draws in elements already begun in other sections.
Nanapush's nature as a manifestation of the Ojibway/Chippewa trickster, Nanabozho,(6) is a prominent aspect of the story. "I'm a talker, a fast-mouth who can't keep his thoughts straight, but lets fly with words and marvels at what he hears from his own mouth" (123-24), he says, as he relates how he tried to persuade Lazarre and Morrissey to release him and Margaret after their capture on a cold winter night walking home from a "Benediction Mass." Although Morrissey seems willing enough to let them go on Nanapush's promise to sign the land sale agreement and not report them to the tribal police, Lazarre is not taken in: he wants to "shame [Margaret] so she shuts her mouth" (124). Despite Nanapush's final threat that in attacking Margaret they affiront "the witch, Fleur Pillager" (who is Margaret's son Eli's mate, recall), Lazarre pursues his plan. The braids, "never cut in this life till now," are then used as a gag for Nanapush, who manages to save them--thus gaining Margaret's admiration--when the two are released.
Both Margaret and Nanapush feel the need for revenge, but the problem, Nanapush says, is "how does an aching and half-starved grandfather attack a young, well-fed Morrissey and a tall, sly Lazarre?" (126). Part of the revenge is begun by Fleur, who on seeing Margaret shaved and hearing the story cuts her own braids and shaves her own head. Subsequently she seeks out Lazarre and Morrissey in town and follows them to the Morrissey household where she touches things and sprinkles "powders that ignited and stank on the hot stove," and ends by taking hair from Morrissey and hair, fingernails, and eyelashes from Lazarre, who is too "hypnotized by the sight of Fleur's head and the quiet blade" (128) to defend himself. Although he apparently dies of blood-poisoning he got from a bite Margaret gave him in the original struggle, both he and the community believe he has been bewitched: at his death, Nanapush relates, "All the whispers were true. Fleur had scratched Lazarre's figure into a piece of birchbark, drawn his insides, and rubbed a bit of rouge up his arm until the red stain reached his heart." His death is orchestrated to occur by his falling backward into a row of traps at the trading store, which "clattered down around his body[,] jumped and met for a long time, snapping air" (131).
In the meantime, Nanapush has rigged an old fashioned "snare" for Morrissey, digging and hiding a "drop" in the path Morrissey would take to town from Lazarre's shack, and fashioning a noose out of a piano wire he has "borrowed" from Father Damien's instrument. His head caught in the noose, Morrissey has enough presence of mind to straddle the too-narrow hole, although he must presumably maintain his poise until freed by Lazarre, whom he cannot summon, because "If he twitched a finger, lost the least control, even tried to yell, one foot would go, the noose constrict" (129). Nanapush reveals himself to Morrissey as the "trapper," but is unable to complete his revenge by unbalancing his victim. "Pity entered me. Even for Margaret's shame, I couldn't do the thing I might have done. I turned away and left Morrissey still balanced on the ledge of snow" (130).
The material snare which captures Morrissey is only the outward and visible sign of the multiple psychological snares of the story--the nets of custom which oblige those who are humiliated to take revenge, the temptations of material greed, the mental terrors of those who believe in supernatural powers ranged against them. In keeping with the other chapter designations of Tracks, the chapter in the novel is designated only by its season, "Manitou-geezis" or "Strong Spirit Sun," identified as Fall 1917--Spring 1918 on its opening page, The short story's title, like that of "Scales" (which is its chapter title in Love Medicine) helps us organize the themes, in this case to see the relationships Erdrich has drawn between the spiritual "snares" and the physical image of an old fashioned rabbit snare ingeniously extrapolated to catch a large man.
The stories' tendency to be more parabolic than the chapters is clear. Because we know so little of the story characters' backgrounds, they have only the functions of their actions in the story--they are not individuals but representatives of a class or type. Another feature of the stories is that their narrators become proportionally more important than they are in the novels, again as types or representative figures. The implications for the poetics of the short story are also to be reckoned with. This analysis supports the hypothesis that the short story is formally not so much an essentially separate and distinct genre as that a fiction is read differently when it appears as a story rather than as part of a larger unit--whether "cycle" or "sequence," "novel" or "saga." Thus, although Erdrich does make changes--sometimes minuscule, sometimes fairly substantial, from story to novel--the differences have less to do with changing the formal relations within the narrative than with making sure the "facts" fit with the rest of the novel. The numerous published maps of the genealogy of the saga's families (and the need to make or have such a map while one is reading the novels) again evince the reader's desire to have extensive verisimilitude with regard to the intra- and interfamilial relationships (as if the characters were "real" people) over the generations and among the various shifting alliances.
The implications of this analysis for the poetics of Erdrich's wuvre is also of interest, I believe. As several critics have noted, Erdrich's theory of fiction appears to be based upon a conviction that people tell stories constantly to make sense of their lives, that "reality" itself--the reality of family, of love, of success or defeat--is for humans the stories that we tell as means to analyze, understand, and control our history and our identity.(7) Despite the contemporary reader's learned suspicion of all character narrators, Erdrich seems to insist that the only truth is in their stories. If "the Puyat lies," as Nanapush reports to Lulu (in Tracks) that Fleur has told him, and we suspect Nanapush/Nanabozho himself of editing and improving the stories he tells for aesthetic effect and a more favorable impression of his own character and actions, whatever "truth" lies in these narratives is the one we construct as we follow the composite narratives of the novels.
The short stories, with their single narrators, raise fewer questions, lead us more directly to their meanings, reveal more clearly the relations between action and signification. The saga becomes more and more intriguing formally, not least because different narrators and narrative stances keep arising. As the "structure" extends through generations (and volumes), the formal elements fade and the entire "history" begins to have a shape and place in the reader's imagination, much as does Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. It seems a world "beside" the real world, where things happen to people embedded in a complicated cultural situation that unfolds through time and keeps pace with our own era. Their telling of their stories is what gives the characters' lives meaning and dignity, humor and horror. Yet it is perhaps only when we recuperate the individual chapters as "short stories" that we can most clearly perceive how the meaning and value arises from experience through the process of making it a story.
(1) Robert Silberman (105). Also, Hans Bak in "Toward a Native American `Realism'" calls Love Medicine "a novel-like book of fragmented but thematically interwoven stories" (146). Karl Kroeber notes the "problem ... of distinct short stories narrated by different characters involved in events scattered over half a century" in Love Medicine (2). Kathleen Sands wrote that Erdrich's "storytelling technique is the secular anecdotal process of community gossip," and that "there is no predictable pattern of development" (15-16).
(2) For historical accounts of Indian/Catholic relations in Erdrich-land, see Julie Maristuen-Rodakowski (40-41), and Sidner Larson (2-3).
(3) In addition to a number of articles, two recent dissertations discuss Erdrich's use of Ojibwa/Chippewa oral narrative traditions. See Whitson (1993) and Reid (1994).
(4) This oral-tradition story comes to most of us "read" from a book, thanks to the brothers Grimm and generations of translators and adapters.
(5) As one of the two narrators of Tracks and one of the chief characters in the saga of Erdrich's Kashpaw/Nanapush quartet, Pauline is closely scrutinized in a theoretical context by Daniel Cornell in "Woman Looking: Revis(ion)ing Pauline's Subject Position in Louise Erdrich's Tracks." See also Jadwiga Maszewska (321-22) and Victoria Walker (37-38).
(6) Nanapush was so named by his father: "Nanapush. That's what you'll be called. Because it's got to do with trickery and living in the bush. Because it's got to do with something a girl can't resist. The first Nanapush stole fire. You will steal hearts" (Tracks 33). He is called "Aneesh" (Anishinabe) by Margaret (47).
(7) Jennifer Sergi, in "Storytelling: Tradition and Preservation in Louise Erdrich's Tracks," characterizes Erdrich's emphasis on tales and their tellers as "`the Indian way'" (279), but the elaboration of narrative method in Erdrich's novels is also very much present in the modernist/impressionist European tradition. Joni Adamson Clarke, in "Why Bears are Good to Think and Theory Doesn't Have to be Murder: Transformation and Oral Tradition in Louise Erdrich's Tracks," extrapolates the narrative theory of the book as "offer[ing] multiple narrative possibilities which can be employed to defy any fixed pronouncement or theoretical stance that, in [T. Minh-Ha] Trinh's words, `presents itself as a means to exert authority--the Voice of Knowledge'" (43). See also James Ruppert, "Mediation and Multiple Narrative in Love Medicine."
Bak, Hans. "Toward a Native American Realism: The Amphibious Fiction of Louise Erdrich." Neo-Realism in Contemporary American Fiction. Ed. Kristiaan Versluys. Amsterdam: Rodopi, Antwerp: Restant, 1992. 145-70.
Brown, Suzanne Hunter. "`Tess' and Tess: an Experiment in Genre." MFS 28 (1982): 25-44.
--. "Discourse Analysis and the Short Story." Lohafer and Clarey 217-48.
--. "Reframing Stories." Lohafer and Clarey 311-27.
Clark, Joni Adamson. "Why Bears are Good to Think and Theory Doesn't Have to be Murder: Transformation and Oral Tradition in Louise Erdrich's Tracks." Studies in American Indian Literatures 4 (1992): 28-48.
Cornell, Daniel. "Woman Looking: Revis(ion)ing Pauline's Subject Position in Louise Erdrich's Tracks." Studies in American Indian Literatures 4 (1992): 49-64.
Erdrich, Louise. "Fleur." Prize Stories 1987: The O. Henry Awards. Ed. William Abrahams. Garden City: Doubleday, 1987. 1-14.
--. Love Medicine. Expanded ed. New York: Harper, 1993.
--. "Saint Marie." Prize Stories 1985: The O. Henry Awards. Ed. William Abrahams. Garden City, New Jersey: Doubleday, 1985. 103-15.
--. "Scales." Best American Short Stories 1983. Ed. Anne Tyler. Boston: Houghton, 1983. 141-54.
--. "Snares." Best American Short Stories 1988. Ed. Mark Helprin and Shannon Ravenel. Boston: Houghton, 1988. 121-31.
--. Tales of Burning Love. New York: Harper, 1996.
--. The Beet Queen. New York: Bantam, 1987.
--. The Bingo Palace. New York: Harper, 1994.
--. Tracks. New York: Harper, 1989.
Ferguson, Suzanne, "Defining the Short Story: Impressionism and Form." May 218-30.
Kroeber, Karl. "Introduction." Special Issue of Studies in American Indian Literatures 9 (1985): 1-4.
Larson, Sidner. "The Fragmentation of a Tribal People in Louise Erdrich's Tracks." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 17 (1993): 1-13.
Lohafer, Susan. "How is Story Processed." Lohafer and Clarey 209-16.
--. "Preclosure and Story Processing." Lohafer and Clarey 249-75.
--, and JoEllyn Clarey, eds. Short Story Theory at a Crossroads. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989.
Maristuen-Rodakowski, Julie. "The Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota: Its History as Depicted in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine and Beet Queen." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 12 (1988): 33-48.
Maszewska, Jadwiga. "Functions of the Narrative Method in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Louise Erdrich's Tracks." Faulkner, His Contemporaries, and His Posterity. Ed. Waldemar Zacharasiewicz. Tubingen: Francke, 1993. 317-22.
May, Charles, ed.. The New Short Story Theories. Athens: Ohio P, 1994.
Reid, E. Shelley. "The Compound I: Narrative and Identity in the Novels of Toni Morrison, Louis Erdrich, and Amy Tan." Diss., State U of New York at Buffalo, 1994.
Rohrberger, Mary. "Between Shadow and Act: Where Do We Go from Here?" Lohafer and Clarey 32-45.
Ruppert, James. "Mediation and Multiple Narrative in Love Medicine." North Dakota Quarterly 59 (1991): 229-41.
Sands, Kathleen M. Rev. of Love Medicine. Studies in American Indian Literatures 9 (1985): 15-16.
Sergi, Jennifer. "Storytelling: Tradition and Preservation in Louise Erdrich's Tracks." World Literature Today 66 (1992): 279-82.
Silberman, Robert. "Opening the Text: Love Medicine and the Return of the Native American Woman." Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures. Ed. Gerald Vizenor. 1989. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1993. 101-20.
Stierle, Karl-Heinz. "Story as Exemplum--Exemplum as Story: On the Pragmatics and Poetics of Narrative Texts." May 15-43.
Walker, Victoria. "A Note on Narrative Perspective in Tracks." Studies in American Indian Literatures 3.4 (Winter 1991): 37-40.
Whitson, Kathy J. "Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine and Tracks: A Culturalist Approach." Diss. U of Missouri, Columbia, 1993.
Wong, Hertha. "Adoptive Mothers and Thrown-Away Children in the Novels of Louise Erdrich." Narrating Mothers: Theorizing Maternal Subjectivitics. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991. 174-92.…
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Publication information: Article title: The Short Stories of Louise Edrich's Novels. Contributors: Ferguson, Suzanne - Author. Journal title: Studies in Short Fiction. Volume: 33. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 1996. Page number: 541+. © 1997 Studies in Short Fiction. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.