The latest Erdrich novel (The Painted Drum, 2005, etc.) about the Ojibwes and the whites they live among in North Dakota spirals around a terrible multiple murder that reverberates down through generations of a community.
In the 1960s, Evelina Harp’s Ojibwe grandfather, Mooshum, tells mesmerizing stories of his past. Having found a murdered family and saved the surviving baby, Mooshum and three Ojibwe friends were blamed for the killings and lynched by a mob of local whites in 1911. For reasons not immediately apparent, Mooshum was spared at the last moment, but his friends died. Evelina’s first boyfriend is Corwin Peace, whose ancestor was one of those lynched. Her favorite teacher, a nun, descends from one of the mob leaders. And Evelina’s middle-class parents of mixed heritage straddle the two cultures. Aunt Neve Harp sent her banker husband, who is Corwin’s father, to prison after he arranged Neve’s kidnapping by Corwin’s then teenage uncle Billy in a phony ransom subplot (a little reminiscent of the movie Fargo). Spiritual Billy evolves into the tyrannical leader of a religious cult until his wife Marn Wolde, the daughter of farmers whose land he’s taken over, kills him to save her children. While in college Evelina ends up briefly in a mental hospital where she gets to know Marn’s lunatic uncle Warren. Corwin, under the positive influence of Judge Coutts and his new wife, Evelina’s Aunt Geraldine, becomes a musician playing the same violin that once belonged to his ancestors. Judge Coutts’s previous lover Cordelia, an older woman and a doctor who won’t treat Indians, was once saved by Mooshum and his friends. Guilt and redemption pepper these self-sufficient, intertwining stories, and readers who can keep track of the characters will find their efforts rewarded. The magic lies in the details of Erdrich’s ever-replenishing mythology, whether of a lost stamp collection or a boy’s salvation.
A lush, multilayered book.