33 pages 1 hour read

Louise Erdrich

The Shawl

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 2001

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Summary: “The Shawl”

Content Warning: The source text contains descriptions of domestic violence and mentions suicide in the form of self-sacrifice.

“The Shawl” by Louise Erdrich is a short story that utilizes point of view, ambiguity, complex characterization, and diction to discuss The Impact of Generational Trauma, Storytelling and the Healing Process, and Self-Sacrifice and Cultural Identity. These themes are present in much of Erdrich’s work, the bulk of which depicts life in Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) communities across North Dakota and Minnesota during the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. “The Shawl” is broken into two discrete sections, each employing its own point of view. The first section, which uses the third person to detail the experiences of one of the narrator’s neighboring families, is followed in the second section by a first-person account of the narrator’s childhood.

Originally published in the March 2001 issue of The New Yorker, “The Shawl” was later anthologized in The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories, 1978-2008, published by Erdrich in 2010. The pagination in this guide references the 2021 digital reprint edition of that collection.

The unnamed narrator of “The Shawl” begins his tale with a story often told by the Anishinaabeg people in his community. The story is about a married woman named Aanakwad who fell in love with another man. Already the mother of two children with her husband, a nine-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son, Aanakwad recently gave birth to her lover’s child. She loves the father of her new child so passionately that she sinks into a state of deep despair. She neglects all of her children, finds cooking and cleaning impossible, and becomes alternately angry and despondent. Her daughter cares for her infant sibling and, because of the time and energy she spends watching over this child, falls asleep exhausted each night, wrapped in a red-and-brown plaid shawl.

Although he loves Aanakwad deeply, the husband is forced to acknowledge that his life with her has become “no good” (362). He contacts her lover’s uncle, who arrives in a horse-drawn wagon to bring Aanakwad and her child to his nephew. Before she leaves, Aanakwad and her husband argue bitterly over the custody of their children, and even though he desperately wants to keep both his son and daughter, Aanakwad wears him down. Ultimately, he agrees to let her take the girl. The sight of his mother, sister, and infant sibling riding away is too much for Aanakwad’s young son, who chases after them, running so hard that he falls to the ground. While collapsed on the road, watching his mother and sister ride away, he sees menacing, shadowy shapes pursuing the wagon.

Aanakwad’s husband follows the boy, wraps him in a blanket, and brings him home. The boy tells his father about the shadows and, although the boy thinks he has been visited by spirits, the father understands that they are not spirits but wolves. He sets off along the road to Aanakwad’s lover’s home; upon finding wolf tracks, he follows them to “a terrible scene” (364). He finds evidence of a struggle and the torn remnants of his daughter’s plaid shawl. Although he does not initially speak of what he saw, as the years pass his health deteriorates due to tuberculosis, and he finally reveals the story to his son. He tells the boy that Aanakwad threw her daughter to the wolves so she and her new baby might survive. Horrified, the son feels irreparably damaged and wonders how he will live with the knowledge of his mother’s violent act.

The narrator continues his story in the second section, although now he speaks in the first person about the trials and tribulations of his early childhood. His father developed an alcohol addiction after the death of the narrator’s mother and subjected the narrator and his younger twin siblings, Doris and Raymond, to physical abuse. The children routinely hid their father’s belt so he could not beat them with it, although that did not stop him from harming them. He instead used boards, tree branches, and his fists. The siblings built a small campsite in the woods where they could escape their father. It was not uncommon for them to spend entire nights there together in hiding.

One night, when the narrator is 13 and now large enough to challenge his father, he attacks the man and they fight. The narrator knocks his father down, but the sight of his father bleeding on the floor fills him with pity. Finally forgiving him, he reaches for a scrap of cloth to clean his father’s wounds. The cloth is a piece of red-and-brown plaid blanket that his father, for reasons the narrator does not yet understand, always keeps by his side. Taking the cloth from his son, the father says that he used to have a sister. It is at this moment that the narrator’s father is revealed as Aanakwad’s young son. The local legend told by the narrator in the first section of the story is, in fact, his own family’s tragic history.

The narrator provides further context for the story of his family, noting that his father began drinking during a time when the government forcibly moved the Anishinaabeg people into towns and housing, a change that proved calamitous for the community. Forced out of their homes and natural living patterns, many Anishinaabeg people turned to alcohol and were subjected to violence with many dying by suicide. It was against the backdrop of this massive social upheaval that his father descended into addiction and began to physically abuse his children. Although the narrator notes things have begun to improve for the Anishinaabeg people, they still bear the scars of this displacement and carry the pain that their ancestors passed down.

The narrator tells his father that he should no longer keep the shawl; to release himself from grief and free his sister’s spirit, he must follow Anishinaabeg tradition and burn the tattered cloth. The narrator then suggests a new interpretation to the fateful story of Aanakwad and her daughter. He posits that, rather than being thrown from the wagon by Aanakwad, the girl recognized that one member of the party must be sacrificed so the others might live. Perhaps she did not want her infant sibling to die, knew that the child needed its mother, and knew that the party needed the infant’s uncle to navigate them to safety. The narrator argues that, because of what they know of the girl’s good character, this version of events is much more likely.

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