The loss of ancestral lands and the revivifying power of traditions shape the dialectic that informs the latest in Erdrich’s expanding Ojibwe saga (The Master Butchers Singing Club, 2003, etc.).
This taut ninth installment focuses on characters initially fully developed in her third novel, Tracks (1988): austere, semi-legendary “medicine woman” Fleur Pillager and aging tribal chairman and inveterate lover of women Gerry Nanapush. The story of Fleur’s journey from her North Dakota reservation to Minneapolis, to seek revenge against prosperous land baron John James Mauser (the man who stole her land), and its bizarre aftermath are told by three narrators. Fleur’s stoicism and steely resolve are vividly evoked by Gerry, in a long conversation with her estranged daughter Lulu. Her decision to ruin Mauser by first healing his mysterious illness, then marrying him is described by Mauser’s spinster sister-in-law Polly Elizabeth, who becomes Fleur’s employer, then her devoted nurse and companion . And, late in the story, the details of Fleur’s return to the reservation and arduous re-connection with “her neglected spirits” are related by Gerry’s strong-willed common-law-wife Margaret Kashpaw, who loves, tolerates, browbeats, and outwits the misbehaving Gerry, while patiently assembling from hunted and found natural materials the “medicine dress” whose magical powers may permit Fleur reentry into the world she had abandoned. Four Souls (the name passed on to Fleur by her supernaturally empowered grandmother) feels a bit hurried and at times awkwardly focused. We lose sight of Fleur for some time while Gerry recalls his rivalry with neighbor and mortal enemy Shesheeb (who has an eye for Margaret). But the tale’s swiftness has a pleasing rhythm, and Erdrich’s double plot does skillfully link Gerry’s embattled relationship with Margaret to Fleur’s purification through anger, alcoholism, and suffering—accomplished not just with Margaret’s aid but with that of the retarded, “unnamed” son she bore her enemy.
A welcome addition, then, to a uniquely enthralling and important American story.