Erdrich keeps to her cast of rich Chippewa characters here--Pillagers, Kashpawa, Lazarres: familiar to readers of both Love Medicine and The Beet Queen--but has placed them chronologically before the setting of those other novels. It's at a period (1912-24) that sees the death knell of their most natural Indian identity, thanks to famine and economic rapaciousness and the pressures of missionary Christianity. Two narrators hold sway here: one is Nanapush--an old but still sapid man, in touch with the throngs of dead all around him in the woods near the sacred lake Matchimanito (the most striking poetry of the ever-lyrically inventive Erdrich is this book's frequent and moving invocation of the spirits as milling within sight of the living--a seamlessness of states), and desperately trying to hold on before the lumber interests come and buy his land for nothing from him. Holding on is all but impossible, though--for there is no food: the Chippewa are dying like flies, and pittances matter. If Nanapush is the totem of the book, his antipode is mixed-blooded Pauline, at book's end a nun but until then ablaze with sexual jealousy and torment. Her chief nettle is Fleur Pillager, widely believed to be a water-witch, whose ease in love and revenge and self-confidence makes her a frighteningly awesome presence to most men and women. Erdrich's prose is rich, her imagination remarkably agile (paragraphs take strange jerky turns, rarely going where you thought they might), her sympathy and unsentimentality striking--yet this is a diffuse book, one lacking a core--either of emblem, as in Love Medicine, or screwy, heartbreaking story, as in The Beet Queen. If you've read those others, you'll read this too--its pages about the famine are unforgettable--but in a mood of generality, of taking in characters we're told are extraordinary but are rarely shown as such. Not the best Erdrich, in other words, but a block nonetheless in her quite special ongoing oeuvre.