Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Tracks by Louise Erdrich

A New York Times Bestseller, ‘Tracks’ is a masterpiece from Louise Erdrich, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction 2012 – a story for our times, narrated by a uniquely twentieth century figure.

By turns reticent, garrulous, spiritual and profane, Nanapush, like the Native American culture he belongs to, is a living contradiction – alien, beguiling, strong and dying…
Set in North Dakota, at a time in the early twentieth century when Indian tribes were struggling to keep what little remained of their lands, ‘Tracks’ is a tale of passion and deep unrest. Over the course of ten crucial years, as tribal land and trust between people erode ceaselessly, men and women are pushed to the brink of their endurance – yet their pride and humour prohibit surrender.

The reader will experience shock and pleasure in encountering a group of characters that are compelling and rich in their vigour, clarity, and indomitable vitality.

Amazon  Description

Tracks is a tale of a key moment in the destruction of Native American culture and society in the face of illnesses brought by the white man (we started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall) and the machinations of the government officials and commercial companies interested in exploiting the natural resources that the Native Americans had both relied on and cherished:  once the bureaucrats sink their barbed pens into the lives of Indians, the paper starts flying, a blizzard of legal forms. 

The book follows the lives of two women. Fleur is an attractive young woman who loses her family to illness but is strong in the old ways, so much so that she is regarded by others as having magical powers. Pauline is half white and early on shows disdain for her native roots and expresses a desire to be like my grandfather, pure Canadian. This disdain expresses itself in a destructive spite towards Fleur and her family and  also in a masochistic Catholicism, which she uses to justify her actions. Both women are remarkable creations.

I wrote in my review of The Hummingbird's Daughter of duality. Here in another magic realist book we get duality. In fact, looking over the various books I have read as part of this magic realism challenge, dualism seems to be a regular element of the genre. As in The Hummingbird's Daughter we have two cultures meeting and clashing. Pauline's mind is torn apart by her two backgrounds. 

The duality in Tracks  is also reflected in the narrative structure. There are two narrators in the book, with alternate chapters spoken by Pauline and the old man Nanapush. Nanapush is a tribal elder, who has seen the destruction of the old ways: In the years I’d passed, I saw more change than in a hundred upon a hundred before.  He saved Fleur when she was found ill with her dead family and regards her as a pseudo-daughter. His narration is told to Fleur's estranged daughter in an effort to secure a reconciliation. It is not an accident that Nanapush is based on the Ojibwe trickster hero Nanabozho. In his tale Nanapush admits to tricking others and lying, so we are warned not to trust his narrative, although one gets the impression that his deception is done for good motives. Pauline's narrative is equally unreliable, but for reasons of her mental instability and self justification/delusion. 

One of the interesting aspects of this narrative structure is its impact on the magical elements. Both Nanapush and Pauline present Fleur as having magical powers linked to native spirits and nature: It was as if the Manitous all through the woods spoke through Fleur, loose, arguing. . . . Turtle's quavering scratch, the Eagle's high shriek, Loon's crazy bitterness, Otter, the howl of Wolf, Bear's low rasp. But should we always believe them? When I read Nanapush's accounts I didn't have any problems with the magic, but Pauline's account of magic, which in the second part of the book combines native American magic with visions of Jesus sitting on the stove, seemed more like the delusions of a tortured mind.

Another aspect of the narrative structure is that the central figure of Fleur is present but removed, always filtered through others' eyes. She is nevertheless a powerful presence in the book, haunting the actions and thoughts of others. This seems appropriate in that Fleur stands for the world that is being lost.   

by Zoe Brooks

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