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Tracks (Louise Erdrich)

January 10, 2010
Now I can see why so many people recommended this book to me. It’s a very interesting read, especially for someone who’s interested in the things I’m interested in. For one thing, the politics of this novel are really complex. The chapters alternate between two narrators, and they’re both characters in the novel. However, they’re characters who represent very opposite values. Erdrich’s decision to start and end with Nanapush (an older traditional Chippewa man) and to leave Pauline (a younger mixed-blood Christian fanatic) mixed up in the middle of things puts the reader’s sympathies with Nanapush right off the bad. Add to that Pauline’s mental instability and sneaky nature, and you have a character nobody really wants to sympathize with. The political implications of this authorial decision are many, but perhaps most significant is the fact that Nanapush (a likable character) has the first and last word against Pauline (an unlikable character) is highly likely to make the reader sympathetic to his point of view on all things — views on other characters, political ideology, cultural beliefs, etc. The fact that Pauline is so irritating just adds the likelihood that readers will not only be unsympathetic to her, but will actively hope for the demise of her and everything she stands for.
I also think Nanapush is an exceedingly interesting character. From the beginning he is characterized as a trickster figure, and his actions throughout the novel are consistent with this. Most of the time he fights his battles with his tongue, preferring to humiliate his adversaries rather than physically harm them. Second, he’s very clever and he uses his cleverness to his advantage. Third, he likes to do things on a whim (such as naming Fleur’s daughter Lulu Nanapush) and these offhanded decisions tend to end up working in his favor. Interestingly, he also harbors a deep distrust for all things white. He won’t allow his name to be documented, he doesn’t particularly care for the church, he is saddened by the land being lost to whites (and Native Americans who have become too interested in white ways) — the list goes on. Since trickster figures were around long before white colonizers, it’s interesting to think of this extra aspect of Nanapush’s personality. I wonder what the implications are if I consider this anti-white aspect of his character to be part of his role as a trickster as opposed to part of his unique personality….
But wait, there’s more! Since I’m really interested in the issue of magical realism and contemporary novels, Erdrich’s novel offers an opportunity to think about some of the problems with the label “magical realism.” Since this is a novel by a Native American author that incorporates cultural beliefs and practices, it’s a classic example of the issue of exactly what constitutes the “magical” in magical realism. Is it an entirely Western concept that the scene where the ghosts of the dead play cards with a living character, gambling for her life, does not qualify as “realism”? Is the presence of Misshepeshu (the lake man) to be considered a supernatural event, or cultural folklore incorporated into the fiction? Is the tornado in Argus to be considered an exceptionally well-timed natural disaster, or Fleur’s vengeful powers reaching out to cut down those who harmed her? In other words, there are a lot of events and characters in the novel that, by Western standards, would be considered supernatural; are we to consider them as such, or is that another classic example of the West imposing its belief structure on a culture that doesn’t subscribe to it?
On a much more personal note, I really enjoyed this story. It was interesting and I enjoyed reading it because it made me think more deeply about some of the issues I’ve been grappling with in my own studies. I am looking forward to reading Love Medicine and The Plague of Doves now…or rather, this summer when I (theoretically) have the time. Also, this novel made me realize how much the CIC-AISC seminar I participated in this previous June helped deepen my knowledge of Native American history during the removal process. This is one of the few novels where I feel safe in saying that I understood the context for the taxes, housing loss, and redistribution of land that was happening throughout the story, and it added a depth to the novel that I might have missed out on if I wasn’t familiar with the history.
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