54 pages 1 hour read

Louise Erdrich

Antelope Woman

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide


Antelope Woman is a novel by Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) author Louise Erdrich. First published in 1998 as The Antelope Wife, Erdrich revised and updated the text in 2012 and re-issued it, adding new content, storylines, and chapters. Like much of Erdrich’s other work, the novel is a multi-generational story of both Indigenous and white families set in and around traditional Ojibwe lands in North Dakota and Minnesota. Erdrich is known for her use of magical realism, and Antelope Woman makes use of both realistic and fantastical elements to both tell the story of the Roy and Shawano families and create a narrative that engages with major aspects of Ojibwe history in the 19th and 20th centuries. Erdrich is also known for the polyvocality of her writing, and Antelope Woman examines a large cast of characters, each filling in their own particular part of the story. Antelope Woman engages with the themes related to the intersection of Gender and Indigeneity, The Impact of Relocation Policy on Ojibwe People and Their Communities, and Traditional Ojibwe Culture in Modernity. The novel weaves together history, myth, and narrative to craft a portrait not only of its characters and families but also Ojibwe communities in transition.

This guide refers to the revised, 2016 paperback edition by Harper Perennial. Readers should note that older copies of this text titled The Antelope Wife are outdated and will not contain the same plot, pagination, and storylines as the revised edition.

Note: The author uses the terms “Ojibwe,” “Indian,” and “Tribe.” Although the term Ojibwe is still used, it is increasingly being replaced by the more accurate “Anishinaabe.” “Indian” and “Tribe” have been replaced by the terms “Indigenous” and “Nation.” For the sake of continuity, this guide uses the term “Ojibwe.”

Content Warning: This guide contains discussions of the source text’s depictions of sexual assault, domestic violence, suicide, and substance abuse disorders.

Plot Summary

The novel is divided into four sections, Bezhig, Niizh, Niswi, and Niiwin. Each section begins with an epigraph. Together, these epigraphs narrate a folktale detailing the story of twin sisters who sew the world into being using string and beadwork.

Bezhig begins with an epigraph that describes the twins, already very old, beginning to craft a piece of beadwork that will become the world. The novel itself opens with the story of how its two primary families, the Roys and the Shawanos, meet. Scranton Roy, the son of a Quaker, enlists in the US Army and heads west. During a raid on an Ojibwe village, he kills an elderly woman. Scranton Roy is horrified by his own cruelty and immediately flees the village. He sees a dog carrying an infant in a cradleboard strapped to its back, and he follows it. He eventually catches up to it and removes the baby from the cradleboard, an Ojibwe girl whom he names Matilda. Matilda lives with him in his cabin until, at the age of 10, she is rescued by her mother, Blue Prairie Woman. Blue Prairie Woman tragically dies of a fever shortly after retrieving her daughter, and the girl disappears with a herd of antelope.

After Matilda’s departure, Scranton Roy fathers a son with Matilda’s teacher. When the boy, Augustus, is a young adult, he and his father return to the village where Scranton killed the old woman. He finds her friends and two of her descendants (twin girls), and he begs their forgiveness. Although they, sensing his contrition, absolve him of his crime, Scranton Roy takes his own life. Augustus remains with the family and marries one of the twins, who are Blue Prairie Woman’s younger daughters (although he is initially unable to tell them apart). He fathers four children by both of these woman, three sons and a daughter. His sons fight in World War I, and although they all return home, several of them are emotionally scarred by their experiences.

The second part, Niizh, opens with an epigraph that further details the twins’ creation: A world is stitched together out of beads that are not only blue, but ochre and rust, which represent unhappiness, pain, and violence. The narrative then jumps forward in time to the late 20th century. It focuses on further generations of the Roy family, with particular attention paid to the story of Klaus, Augustus Roy’s grandson. Klaus is a powwow trader. While selling his wares at a powwow, he catches sight of a group of mysterious and beautiful antelope women (modern-day descendants of Blue Prairie Woman and the girl called Matilda). Klaus is entranced by these women and, although he is warned to leave these mythic woman-antelope hybrids alone, he abducts the mother, giving her a sleeping potion so that he can take her back to his home in Minneapolis. The woman, whom he calls Sweetheart Calico, does not speak. Nonetheless, he assumes that she loves him and holds her prisoner in his home. She begins to decline and loses her looks to alcohol and unhappiness. Klaus’s friends and family think that something is not quite right about Sweetheart Calico, and they urge him to let her go, but he refuses. She makes repeated attempts to escape, but always returns: She is far away from her home and does not know how to leave the city.

Klaus lives and works with his friend Richard Whiteheart Beads, and the two become convinced that they are wanted for illegal dumping, a shady practice that is part of the business model for the clean-up crew that the two run. They decide that the best way to hide is to blend in with the city’s unhoused population and flee to a series of temporary camps on the banks of the Mississippi River and on the streets of Minneapolis. They leave behind Richard’s wife Rozin, his twin daughters Cally and Deanna, and Sweetheart Calico. Grandmas Noodin and Giizis, who are also twins, come to help Rozin with the girls. Sweetheart Calico eventually goes missing.

Part 3, Niswi, begins with an epigraph that further details contributions to the beginning of the world by the great-grandmother of the first Shawano. The narrative then focuses on the birth of Rozin’s twin girls. Cally and Deanna were not given traditional Ojibwe names, because the ones chosen by Giizis and Noodin derive from the families’ origin story, and Rozin feels that the names are too imbued with pain and suffering to be bestowed upon her daughters. Still, children need Ojibwe names, and she comes to feel that her daughters’ lack of these identifiers is causing discord in the family. She blames the girls’ wandering tendencies and illnesses on their having only English names and realizes that she must rectify the situation. Sweetheart Calico, too, continues to wander, and one night takes the twins on a dangerous adventure through the streets of Minneapolis. She continues to live in Rozin’s home, although she moves about with such secrecy that her presence goes undetected. Rozin finds a letter from a man named Jimmy Badger to Klaus, urging him to bring Sweetheart Calico back to her people—her absence is harming both her family and her community.

Part 4, Niiwin, begins with an epigraph that finishes the origin story begun in the first epigraph and provides additional detail about the creation of the world. The narrative begins with Cally and Deanna asking their grandmothers about their names. The girls learn about a dream that Giizis had about their ancestor, the old woman Scranton Roy killed in her village. She had seen her granddaughter, the girl whom Scranton named Matilda, but had given her (unbeknownst to anyone) her own name. She had also cursed Scranton Roy. Noodin tells a story about her own dream: She’d seen beads of such a beautiful shade of blue that she felt she must possess them, but she feared that they were unattainable. The beads’ owner, Blue Prairie Woman, came to her in a dream, and Noodin was able to win the beads from her by gambling for them. She explains that the beads are now in the possession of Sweetheart Calico. The price for the beads is Sweetheart Calico’s freedom, and Klaus walks with her out of the city, eventually letting her go. He vows to commit to sobriety and watches Sweetheart Calico disappear into the horizon.

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