- Tracks (novel)
"Tracks" is a 1988 novel by
Louise Erdrich. It is the story of Fleur and a Native American tribe in the early 20th century. The lifestyle for the tribe is ending and the story is presented by Pauline and Nanapush, two of the main characters in the novel. The book takes place over 12 years.
Erdrich grew up in North Dakota, is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, won the National Magazine Award, and currently lives in Minnesota with her children where they run a book store called the Birchbark.
Other works include Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, The Crown of Columbus, The Bingo Palace, Tales of Burning Love, The Antelope Wife, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, Jacklight, Baptism of Desire, Grandmother’s Pigeon, The Birchbark House, and The Blue Jay’s Dance.
A Native American village on a reservation in North Dakota. The timeframe of the story told by Nanapush stretches between 1912 when Nanapush saves Fleur to 1924 when Lulu returns from boarding school. However, this can be extended back to 1862 when Nanapush is born at Lake Matchimanito and forward to around the 1940’s to when the story is actually being told to Lulu. Most of the story takes place here in the Pillager cabin with early stays in Argus. Argus
Fleur goes to Argus in the summer of 1913 once she is no longer wanted at Lake Matchimanito. Argus is a white town where Fleur goes after she leaves Lake Matchimanito. Here she meets Pauline and works in Kozka’s meat cutting and packaging company. She plays poker here with Dutch James, Lily and Tor, three white men. She leaves Argus in the winter of 1913 after the three men rape her and a tornado hits the next day eventually leads to the death of two of the three men and the other loses his legs and arms. 1. “It was just a grid of six streets on either side of the railroad depot” (12). Pillager cabin on Lake Matchimanito
A small wood cabin on the shore of the Lake where the Pillager family has lived for generations. Upon returning from Argus, Fleur goes back to live in her old house where her parents and three siblings died. Eventually Eli Kashpaw, Margaret Kashpaw, Nanapush, and Lulu live there as well. Much of the interaction between the characters takes place here. The cabin symbolizes the wild nature of the Pillagers but also their separation from whites and the rest of the Native American community. Catholic convent
When Pauline turns to religion she goes to live at the convent with the other sisters. While here, Pauline does all of the early morning tasks such as preparing water for the day and breaking the ice around the grounds. She lives with other nuns but often goes back to the Pillager cabin where she once felt she belonged. Kashpaw house/allotment
Instead of paying the fees on the Pillager land, Margaret and Nector instead pay for the Kashpaw allotment and expect the family to move there. This land is much closer to town than the Pillager cabin and is on the opposite side of Lake Matchimanito.
*Fleur Pillager - the focus of the novel. The reader first encounters Fleur when Nanapush tells the story of how he came about the Pillager cabin and everyone was dead inside except for Fleur Pillager. Fleur was born in 1895 and was found alone in her cabin in 1912 when she was just 17 years old. All total, Fleur nearly drowns 3 times and has an affinity for Lake Matchimanito where it is rumored that she has an ongoing affair with Misshepeshu, the creature at the bottom of the lake. Men fear Fleur because early in her life every man she came into contact with would die, with the exception of Nanapush. The reader only knows Fleur through the stories told by Nanapush and Pauline so it is difficult to know everything about Fleur or what she might be thinking. All of the Native Americans on the reservation know the stories of the Pillager family and thus believe that Fleur too must possess some magical abilities.
*Nanapush - One of the two narrators of the story, Nanapush is considered an elder in the tribe although he is only 50 years old. Nanapush’s narration is easy to follow and reliable at the same time. The reader feels a sense of identity with Nanapush because as the novel progresses we learn more and more about him. He knows many medicines and tricks to make life easier for those he cares about. For instance, an excellent hunter himself, Nanapush is able to tell Eli Kashpaw how to hunt even though he is far away from Eli and can control the pace of his step with only a song and a drum. When Fleur is sick, Nanapush holds a ritual in the Pillager house that revitalizes Fleur. It is always Nanapush who comes to the rescue of the family and is a source of strength for those who need it.
*Pauline Puyat - The second narrator of the book, Pauline meets Fleur in Argus where she learns to look up to Fleur and the way she carries herself. Pauline does not like the way she looks and feels that others feel the same way about her and that is why she is not liked as much as Fleur. Pauline follows Fleur back to Lake Matchimanito where she gets a job with Bernadette Morrissey watching after and preparing the dead. She has a brief affair with Napoleon and becomes pregnant. When the baby is born, Pauline names it Marie and gives it to Bernadette. Pauline eventually turns to the convent when she is no longer wanted in Native American society. Everything she does is for Christ and she is always thinking of new methods of flagellation. Pauline seems unstable and thus the reader has a hard time believing everything that is said in her narration. It is hard to believe Pauline because she even lies to herself.
*Eli Kashpaw - Eli is hunting a deer one day when he loses it and meets Fleur who has caught the same deer that Eli had been tracking. Instantly Eli realizes that he wants to be with Fleur and goes to Nanapush, the only person who knows her, and asks for his help. Nanapush warns that Fleur is dangerous for men but Eli insists that he help him with Fleur. Eventually Fleur comes to feel the same about Eli and the two live together. They have their daughter Lulu together. Eli is bewitched by Pauline into having sex with Sophie and when Fleur finds out the relationship between Eli and Fleur is never the same. At the end of the novel, Eli tries to earn enough money to buy back the Pillager land for Fleur by getting a job with the lumber company. We never learn what finally happens to Eli but we know that he is not reunited with Fleur.
*Margaret Kashpaw - The mother of Eli, she is strict and does not approve of her son’s choice to fall in love with Fleur. All the same, when Fleur becomes pregnant and is giving birth to Lulu, Margaret comes to the Pillager cabin to help deliver the baby. Once the baby is born, Margaret stays at the cabin and lives with Eli, Fleur and Lulu. When Nanapush moves into the cabin as well, the two develop a relationship. Margaret more or less takes care of the house by cleaning and cooking. She, like Nanapush, is older and thus knows things that the younger characters do not, things that help the family survive. She has a very strong resolve and it is Margaret who pulls the family together and decides that the family will work hard to raise the land fee.
*Lulu Nanapush - the daughter of Eli and Fleur, Lulu seems to share qualities of both of her parents but also of Nanapush, her namesake. Nanapush’s narration is told to Lulu; he is trying to convince her to not marry a member of the Morrissey family, one of the rival families of the Pillagers and Kashpaws.
*Nector Kashpaw - the younger brother of Eli, Nector does not have the same respect for his Native American heritage that Eli does. He gets caught up in the modern world and is susceptible to vices such as drinking. Nector symbolizes the side opposite Eli and Nanapush in the symbolic struggle between the two factions of the Ojibwe tribe.
*Father Damien - the priest at the local convent, Father Damien makes numerous visits to the Pillager cabin. Father Damien really is the only link between the white man and the Pillagers. He brings them news of the government rations that are available to them but also brings them the news that land fees will be required.
*Bernadette Morrissey - She is a mentor of Pauline and teaches her how to care for the dead and dying. When Bernadette no longer does this, she gets a job as the secretary of the Agent. Here she has tremendous power because she is a voice in the ear of the representative of the white man and has control over what mail goes in and out of Lake Matchimanito.
*Clarence Morrissey - Clarence is furious when he learns about Sophie and Eli and so he punishes the Kashpaw family by ambushing Nanapush and Margaret on the road one day and shaving Margaret’s head. Nanapush retaliates by snaring Clarence by the throat but he chooses not to kill him and instead lets him be saved by Boy Lazarre.
*Sophie Morrissey Lazarre - an absentminded little girl who has a sweet tooth. Pauline tricks her and Eli into having sex in Lake Matchimanito. Eventually she marries a Lazarre but has to do so in Canada because some fear that the two families might be too closely related.
*Napoleon Morrissey - The only man who would ever touch Pauline. They have a baby together but Napoleon has nothing to do with the child. Thinking that he is really Misshepeshu, Pauline strangles Napoleon on the banks of Lake Matchimanito and hides the body behind Fleur’s cabin.
*Boy Lazarre - Together with Clarence Morrissey, the two ambushed Nanapush and Margaret and shaved her head. Also caught in the snares set by Nanapush, but is able to free himself and Clarence.
*Moses Pillager - the cousin of Fleur who is the only other survivor of the sickness that killed the rest of the Pillagers. Helps Nanapush with the ceremony that shakes Fleur from her sickness.
Author's Point of View/Purpose/Role
Louis Erdrich is Native American herself and thus has an appreciation for the lives and concerns for her characters in this book. When Nanapush is the narrator, the point of view is first person and the register is casual, he is orally telling a story to his granddaughter Lulu. Nanapush’s narration seems trustworthy and rational. The other narrator is Pauline who it seems is writing her version of events because she has no one to tell her story to. Pauline too writes in first person but her register is more consultative as if she is just trying to record an accurate description of events. At the same time, Erdrich makes it hard for the reader to believe or trust Pauline because she seems to be unstable.
The first purpose of Erdrich’s novel is to provide commentary on Native American society, the importance of oral tradition for example. A second purpose is to analyze the rift between Native Americans who respect and try to hold onto the honor and traditions of their past and those Native Americans who have forgotten their rich history and are now trying to live in a white man’s world. Erdrich uses the relationship between Eli and his brother Nector to highlight her point. Eli still tries to live a native life whereas Nector seems to have abandoned his heritage and is trying to live a new, modern life. The third purpose of the novel is to show the incursion of white people into Native American’s lives. Throughout the novel, Nanapush refers to “the Agent” who works in the town and is always laying taxes on lands that are not his and that have been owned by Indians for centuries. And then at the end of the novel, the lumber company destroys the Pillager land and causes the family to split up for good. Erdrich is a medium for the concerns and problems of Native Americans and presents problems to the reader so that they may analyze the situation and come to their own conclusions.
There are many themes of this book depending upon a reader’s perception of what Nanapush and Pauline say.
"1.Traditional Native American lifestyles are impossible in the modern world." No matter how hard one tries to hold onto his heritage it will eventually be taken from his by the advances and demands of a modern civilization. The only thing that will be left over of the Native American way of life will be the tracks of the forgotten people.
"2.Rifts between Native Americans within the tribe are more detrimental than conflict with white men." United, a band of Native Americans can stand together and defy white men but this is impossible when the Native Americans cannot even agree with one another.
“Power travels in the bloodlines, handed out before birth. It comes down through the hands which the Pillagers are strong and knotted, big, spidery and rough, with sensitive fingertips good at dealing cards. It comes through the eyes, too, belligerent, darkest brown, the eyes of those in the bear clan, impolite as they gaze directly at a person” (31).Pauline writes this about the Pillager bloodline. She is directly referencing Fleur who has all of these traits.
“Even though she was good-looking, nobody dared to court her because it was clear that Misshepeshu, the water man, the monster, wanted her for himself. He’s a devil, that one, hungry with desire and maddened for the touch of young girls, the strong and daring especially, the ones like Fleur” (11).This is both a comment on Fleur and Eli. Pauline is again describing Fleur how she sees her and why people at Lake Matchimanito want to avoid her. At the same time, Eli is still willing to pursue Fleur and is not afraid to love her despite the fates of the other men who have been associated with Fleur. This shows that Eli is brave, daring and truly in love with Fleur.
“I know he paid the money down on Kashpaw land from foresight, shrewdness, greed, all that would make him a good politician. As he grew older, he resembled Eli more in face and less in spirit. Whereas the elder brother never lost his tie to the past, the younger already looked ahead” (209).This quote reflects the struggle between the new and old generations of Native American culture. Nanapush comments that Nector now is looking ahead to the future and has lost his ties with the past that his brother Eli still has and respects. The two brothers now only look like one another and don’t act like each other.
“They say, or Bernadette does, that when they found me in the tree later that morning, everyone was shot with fear at the way I hung, precarious, above the ground. They were amazed I could climb there, as the trunk was smooth for seven feet and there were no hand- or footholds of any sort. But I remembered everything, and wasn’t in the least surprised. I knew that after I circled, studied, saw all, I touched down on my favorite branch and tucked my head beneath the shelter of my wing” (68-69).It is perfectly natural to Pauline that she turned into an owl and flew to the top of this tree. She felt at peace doing this because she had just found her calling, watching people dying and harvesting souls. This is a dark characterization of Pauline; she finds comfort and pleasure in watching people die and dealing with their dead bodies.
“My knuckles grazed an inch of his skin. Then he caught my palm in his. For a moment I thought, with wild certainty, that he would hold my fingers to his lips. But he looked at my hand with curiosity, no intent, and then, like a fish too small to keep, he threw it back” (77).With this Pauline has alienated herself from the Pillagers and Kashpaws. She can no longer live the life that she has been living up to this point and now turns to the convent.
“To our minds, Lulu’s eyes blazed bright as his. Yet she had the Kashpaws’ unmistakable nose, too wide and squashed on the tip. She was good-looking. She had Fleur’s coarse, quick-growing hair. Sheer black” (70).This characterization of Lulu not only gives her physical features but also suggests that perhaps Misshepeshu is the girl’s father when Pauline says that her eyes were like his. But then she goes on to say that her nose was obviously the nose of a Kashpaw.
Nanapush’s narration is much more reliable than Pauline’s. The reader trusts and identifies with Nanapush because he is so wise and is able to protect his family. However, Pauline is always awkward around the other characters and tends to put herself in socially uneasy situations that have an effect of repelling the reader. Finally, it is apparent to the reader that Pauline often lies to herself so it is difficult to say when she is telling the truth. For instance, Pauline admits that she knows that she killed Napoleon Morrissey. However, she then goes on to convince herself that the devil presents itself in many different forms and the body of Napoleon was just the medium of choice for the day. So the reader comes to accept everything that Nanapush says as truth and only believes Pauline when her story is confirmed by something that Nanapush says. The chapters alternate between Nanapush and Pauline which has an interesting effect in the telling of the story. Both narrators, more or less, tell the same story of the Pillager family and Fleur, but from very different perspectives. It is like hearing two versions of the same story. By structuring her novel in this way, Erdrich can leave some important details out of one of the narrator’s stories but fill in the gap with a detail presented in the second narration. By positioning the two commentaries next to one another, the reader can easily see the difference between the more traditional Native American culture, Nanapush, and the new Native American culture, Pauline. The title of the novel is Tracks. Wherever a character goes, they will inevitably leave tracks, whether it is in the dirt or in the snow. These literal tracks are the tangible representation of the figurative tracks that each character leaves. A character’s tracks are determined by how they live their life. Eli would have much different tracks than his brother Nector because Eli remembers his heritage whereas Nector is looking towards the future. The tracks of the Native American tribe are becoming more and more faint and indistinguishable from the tracks of the white man. Nanapush and Fleur leave very distinct tracks because they honor their family’s history. At one point in the novel Margaret comments that she does not want Nanapush’s newspaper to touch her because she does not want the tracks of the white man’s newspaper to get on her skin. She is wary of the white man’s influence. Whatever tracks the characters leave will remain as their legacy. In the novel nature and things that are tied to the land are symbols of the Native Americans. For instance, when Fleur is giving birth to Lulu, a bear goes into the Pillager cabin. The bear is a symbol for the Ojibwe tribe and Fleur in general. On the other hand, technology and modern things are symbols of the white men and those Native Americans who have left their heritage behind. The tractors that come to cut down the trees on the Pillager land are symbols of the invading white men who push Fleur off of her land and drive the family apart. Misshepeshu is a symbol for the fantastic elements of Native American culture and story telling. No one ever sees Misshepeshu in the novel; he is just a symbol of the Native American willingness and ability to believe in things that aren’t necessarily right in front of them or obvious.
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