Louise Erdrich’s Tracks

Posted: July 21, 2008 in adult literature, alternating narratives, Louise Erdrich

Erdrich, Louise.  Tracks.  1988.  New York: HarperCollins Perennial, 1989.

I’m including some adult fiction in the books I read for my alternating narratives project, in order to see if this sort of storytelling is used similarly or differently in work for a different audience.  I’m working with the idea that when writers for children do this, they manipulate it in a way that makes their books accord with the characteristics and conventions of children’s literature–the ones I outline in my book The Hidden Adult. If it turned out that books for adults did the same things, that might challenge my theories about what is characteristic about children’s literature, and that’s the kind of possibility I intend to explore and consider.

At any rate, Tracks does do some of things I’ve come to expect of texts for children with alternating narratives.  It has the narrating character’s name as part of the title of each chapter.  The two focalizing characters each tells their story-the elderly male Nanapuash to his granddaughter as a way of reaching out to her to get her not to marry the wrong man from the wrong family, and the young female Pauline, whose listener isn’t identified but it seems likely to just be herself.  He tells his story as a way of reaching out, she as a kind of self-justifying confession?  The two are clearly different and opposite.  Nanapush shares a name with, and may actually be, the trickster of traditional Ojibwa beliefs; he represents cleavage to aboriginal traditions, sex, laughter, family, oneness with the environment and the mystical creatures who live in it and/or represent it.    Pauline is half-white but feels the need to hide and move away from her aboriginal roots.  She becomes what is depicted as a body-hating, life-denying novice, and later, a nun.  He seeks to pleasure himself and others; she needs to punish her body, and also, those of others.  He accepts and enjoys the world, she rejects it–and the world is what the sense perceives, nature, i.e., as Pauline understands it, not white (to book comes close to suggesting that white equals spirit or mind, while aboriginal equals body? or is it just Pauline who comes close to that?).   Her turning to what she understands as whiteness and white ways destroys her and also, all the others she has understood to be her and Christ’s enemies.

Their differing choices are significant because they are representatives of a culture under seige, as whites come in and make claims to the land these Ojibways live on in the early years of the twentieth century; their decision to be as they always were or become as white then represent the key choices that might determine their survival not just as individuals but as representatives of a people.

The plot proceeds consecutively, so that Pauline’s sections tell what happens next after what Nanapush has been describing, and then he tells what comes after that, and so on.  So they don’t retell the same events all that often, although each is often involved in the events the other describes; but it’s clear and most important that his version of what things means is quite different to and opposite to hers.

In a children’s novel about events and characters of this sort, what would most likely happen is that the two would come together, see that each other is not quite so bad as they had first imagined, and form a new community based on shared values.  Perhaps also expectable would be that those eventually shared values would involve questions of tolerance, acceptance of otherness, etc, that had earlier been the values of one of the two main characters, so that what would declare itself as a compromise would actually mean that one character would be giving in to and accepting the values of the other–and those values would be the mainstream liberal humanist middle-class values that children’s literature, still as always a predominately middle-class and mercantile institution, almost always preaches.

But that’s not what happens here.  Pauline and Nanapush have no tolerance for each other or for what each other stands for, ever.  She hates his values, he hers–and that’s even more true at the end than it was all along.  The novel shows them, if anything, moving further away from each other rather than closer, each tragically (or maybe not tragically) locked up in their own separate space.  I suggest not tragically because the other odd thing here is how uncompromisingly the book makes its clear that Nanapush is right about things ands Pauline wrong.  It is, strangely, far more obviously one-sided in this way than a children’s novel with a similar setup would be likely to be.

Nevertheless, the novel is not without subtlety, because it’s also eventually clear that both characterrs do things that contribute to the tragedy–the loss of land and homes–and also, that the tragedy is unavoidable, that the powerful whites will get their way no matter what anyone does.  In a weird sense, the real issue isn’t what will give you power in terms of land, etc. but rather, what will make it possible for you to bear the inevitable disaster.  And maybe both opposing views are just different ways of coping, each apparently successful for the one who chooses it?   Although here, once more, it seems clear that Nanapush’s way wins, even though Pauline, ironically, sees her various defeats as part of the punishment she deserves, and so as positive. And meanwhile, readers get to see the irony of her self-torture and understand it as an comment on certain aspects of aboriginal history in America.

Anyway: for me, what’s key here is how the book varies from similarly set-up children’s novels–primarily, I think, in terms of how it produces and and invites an ironic distance from one of the two focalizing characters.  I can’t think of a text for children with alternating streams of narrative that does that–unless, maybe in certain picture books for young readers?

  1. […] As often in this sort of alternating narrative text (as in, e.g. Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, Richard Wagamese’s Keeper ‘N Me,  John Smelcer’s The Trap, and Greg […]

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