97 pages 3 hours read

Louise Erdrich

Tracks

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1988

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Tracks, by Louise Erdrich, appeared as the third in a tetralogy of works beginning with Love Medicine, continuing with The Beet Queen, and ending with The Bingo Palace. All of these novels center on the history of the Chippewa or Ojibwe tribe located in and around the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota. In Tracks, Erdrich reaches back into the early twentieth century to retell the great losses the Chippewa tribe experienced. When disease and starvation fail to kill off all the Chippewa people, the government colludes with logging companies to steal the remaining peoples’ land through ruinously high yearly land allotment payments. Survival alone becomes the paramount objective. Tribal unity and loyalty become frayed, and humanity tested, as some sell their land to the white government Agent or the loggers, while others struggle to keep their land no matter the price exacted.

Two narrators alternate to tell the story of twelve years in the history of the tribe: Nanapush, a tribal elder, and Pauline, a young orphan girl. Covering the years from 1912 to 1924, the events depicted through the two narrators’ visions both echo and contradict each other. Nanapush becomes a trusted and respected tribal elder, while Pauline becomes a Catholic nun whom many believe to be insane.

In two back-to-back epidemics—first smallpox and then tuberculosis—along with a treaty limiting their movement and assigning each clan an allotment of land, the Chippewa people were nearly wiped out by disease and starvation. Nanapush begins narrating the novel as the second epidemic wipes out whole families, leaving many orphaned children as well as single adults, like Nanapush, who have lost their wives and children.

The points of view and events depicted by both narrators reveal their agendas. Nanapush wants to persuade Lulu (his granddaughter) that her mother, Fleur, did not abandon her to the harsh environment of an Indian boarding school lightly. Pauline desires to be like Fleur and despises her at the same time: her jealousy and obsession make her narrative viewpoint unreliable. In a similar way, Nanapush’s narrative, which seeks to persuade Lulu to accept her mother, remains suspect. Both narrators have something critical at stake in recounting their stories. Pauline longs to be loved and to be thought special. Nanapush wants to survive and desires his adopted family to reunite. Pauline turns to white religion; Nanapush sticks to the old ways.

The central character in the novel is Fleur Pillager. After she is orphaned at age 17 during the 1912 epidemic, Nanapush takes her in, saving her life. Fleur, however, remains determined to live on her family’s land, and moves back to Matchimanito Lake, living on her own. Rumors and gossip continually swirl around Fleur because of her unusual strength, beauty, and life choices. For example, people gossip that Fleur, who has drowned in the lake twice and lived, controls the monster that lives in the lake. When the men who tried to save her die, the tribe assigns blame to Fleur.

When Fleur moves to Argus seeking work and money, Pauline is already living in the town. About the same age, the two girls work at the same butcher shop. Fleur, with the strength of a man, carries sides of beef and cuts meat. Pauline cares for her cousin, Russell, and grows jealous of Fleur’s powerful effect on men.

Fleur gains more attention when she joins the men’s card game. Pete Kozka, the butcher shop owner, and his three hired helpers play twenty-one and poker. Fleur wins consistently, making the men angry and suspicious. When she wins a huge pot containing all of the men’s pay for the week, the men drink, then chase Fleur down and rape her. Fleur moves back to the lake and hides that she has become pregnant. The men pay for their assault with their lives, once again focusing the town on Fleur’s power to kill.

Eli Kashpaw falls for Fleur, and he seeks Nanapush’s advice to win her love. When he is successful, and they begin living together in the lake house, the issue of Fleur’s baby’s provenance becomes clouded. By the time Lulu is born, Eli and Fleur are firmly a couple, and they raise Lulu together.

Pauline’s chapters display her growing madness and religious mania. She enters the novitiate and believes that Jesus wants her to convert as many people as possible, including Fleur and Nanapush, to save their souls. Her insanity reaches a climax when she mistakes Napoleon Morrissey for Satan and kills him. Her visions and beliefs conform to the gossip in the tribe, particularly concerning Fleur and her powers over men and nature.

Meanwhile, logging money and alcohol also haunt the tribe. Many people succumb to one or both, losing their land and their self-respect. Nanapush and Margaret Kashpaw move to the lake in order to survive. Nanapush and Margaret eventually become a couple. The issue of selling land allotments to the logging company or the government bitterly divides the tribe’s clans, and the yearly allotment payments become ruinously expensive.

After a difficult struggle to earn the money to save the Pillager, Nanapush, and Kashpaw allotments, Margaret Kashpaw deceives Fleur and Nanapush by only paying the fees for her own allotment. This deception tears Eli and Fleur apart. As she reconciles herself to the loss of her land, Fleur takes action. First, she sends Lulu to the safety of the government boarding school. Next, rather than allow the loggers to take down her forest, she saws through the trunks of the ancient oaks at the base herself. When the loggers and Eli come with their equipment, wagons, and horses to evict her, she stirs up a stiff breeze and the trees fall outward from the lake, crushing the men, equipment, and horses beneath them.

As she leaves the reservation, pulling a homemade oak cart, Fleur asks for Nanapush’s blessing. Once she is gone, Nanapush strives to bring Lulu home to the reservation. Eventually, he is successful, and the novel ends with Lulu’s return home to Nanapush’s and Margaret’s strong and loving arms.

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