Author Louise Erdrich was a teenager when she slept in a football field, by herself, looking up at the stars in the Great Plains skies. This event was tantamount to a rite of passage into adulthood, from a “difficult” childhood. In an interview, she said, “My clearest memory of growing up in North Dakota was the space and flatness. . . . I remember how things smelled and felt and tasted when I went back to Turtle Mountains.”
In her books, those immense and limitless Plains skies emerge almost as minor characters. In The Blue Jay’s Dance, she is homesick for them, even as she lived in New Hampshire with her children and then-husband, Michael Dorris. After Dorris’ death, she moved back to Minnesota, her birthplace, to resume writing books about those vast spaces.
Her non-fiction work--Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country--tells of Erdrich’s trip with her baby and life partner, Tobasonakwut, from Minnesota to see rock paintings in Ontario, Canada. Like her previous works, Books and Islands interweaves the themes of Native American culture, mythology, cosmology, art, and history. In addition, she writes in sacred terms of Ojibwemowin, the complex language of the Ojibwe people—with thousands of variations for a single verb.
The book depicts the full life that metamorphosed from a very painful experience and time. In five chapters—entitled “Books and Islands,” “Islands,” “Rock Paintings,” “Books,” “Home,”—Erdrich gives a glimpse of her life now: in her late forties, she had a baby with her life partner. In Chapter one, she talks unabashedly of her pregnancy: “I wept, I snarled, I laughed like a hyena. . . . On the wall behind my midwife there was a framed poster of that obnoxious poem about the woman who looks forward to getting old so that she can wear purple. I happened to be wearing purple that day, and I was old, and I was pregnant.”
Yet, Erdrich is delighted with the baby herself, as the little family sail in canoe over lakes, rocks, isles. “My happiness”—she writes—“in being an older mother surprises me. . . .”
Then, she introduces readers to her new love, “Tobasonakwut, the sun dancer”—who rock-climbs and “can sleep anywhere.” She says, “He is a one-man spiritual ER.” A teacher and spiritual healer, Tobasonakwut has created a foundation to further Native American causes. As a child, he was forbidden to speak the Ojibwe language. If he did so, he was beaten or punished. (By contrast, Erdrich learned Ojibwemowin as an adult—“I wanted to get the jokes, [and] to understand the prayers . . . and the sacred stories. . . .”)
Erdrich’s child was named after a mythical spirit-woman—Nenaa’iikizhikok—who controls the stars and skies. A force of nature herself, Nenaa’iikizhikok (or Kizhikok, “Sky Woman”) is one of “four spirit-women” in Native American cosmology. These spirit-women “take care of all of the waters of the world,” as Nenaa’iikizhikok “cleans up the sky after a thunderstorm, makes sure the clouds are moving. The stars . . . in their places.”
Though we learn of Erdrich’s emotional renaissance, today a bookstore-owner, traveler, new mom, with a new life partner, the ghost of her previous life haunts us. Erdrich herself glosses over this quickly. In chapter two, she states that her two brothers helped her immensely after her husband’s death. They lived with her, to “guard my children. . . and made sure I didn’t stay in bed all day. . . .”
As Erdrich and Dorris were well-known for their literary collaboration, working on novels together in different capacities, many of us wondered what her new books would be like? Would the writing change? Would we notice?
Fortunately, Books and Islands continues Erdrich’s valiant effort to tell the complex story of the Ojibwe people. She continues to be a voice for her people. The book is a mature prose volume, more grounded or earth-bound than, say, The Blue Jay’s Dance–a book I love, with its lyrical, rounded, transluscent tones, a prose poem—a joy to read, filled with delightful anecdotes of the writer’s life in New Hampshire, alongside otters, birds, loons, and critters from the woods.
Gradually, a portrait of contemporary Native American life emerges, filled with innumerable spirits—“The Wild Rice Spirit,” “The Horned Man,” “ Baby Spirits,” “The Wolverine Spirit.” “The Confused Man” Spirit, with whom the author shares her house. The “four spirit-women.” Also, the real Nenaa’iikizhikok—a grandmother—who resides now “in the spirit world.”
Moreover, we learn the importance of “tobacco offerings” in daily life. The story of “trader’s rum” chronicles the undoing of a man through alcohol.
Erdrich also writes of how reading books has sustained her. Books such as Austerlitz, Middlemarch, Spirit Horses, Tristram Shandy, Concise Dictionary of Minnesotan Ojibwe. She shares with us a universal question she has asked herself and others since she was aged nine: “What book would you take to a desert island?”
In Chapter four, Erdrich describes a blissful time gobbling blueberries--“miinan” in Ojibwemowin--with Kiizhikok, her little daughter. She writes, “This is the one traditional Ojibwe pursuit I’m good at. . . . We eat with a lot of laughing.” Also, she relates how one of her daughters—descended from a hunter-people—is a vegetarian. “The joke goes: What is an Ojibwe vegetarian called? A poor hunter.”
“Home” is the book’s final chapter. “Home,” she writes, “is familiar and it is disorienting.” It is a recurring theme for Erdrich. Years ago, in an interview, she said, “The women in my books are lighting out for home. . . .” And so, in Books and Islands, as Erdrich approaches Minnesota and her life, “I start dialing, and talk to my daughters from the road, check in with my household and with my bookstore people, with my sisters and parents. All of a sudden I am back in the web of connection. . . . [I ] muddle around trying to enter the stream of my life.”
Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country is a slender personal travelogue that illuminates the history of the Ojibwe nation—while it acknowledges Native American spirit-women and real women like Nancy Jones, a female Ojibwe hunter. Also, “Striped Earth Woman,” and “Acts Like a Boy”—the author’s female ancestors. And the ancient Nenaa’iikizhikok. Add to them Louise Erdrich, the author of this pensive book infused with the pulses of fierce women.
--Yolanda A. Reid
Note: Earlier in November, 2012, Louise Erdrich won the National Book Award—which she blogs about at her website, http://www.birchbarkbooks.com/_blog/Birchbark_Blog. Also, check out an interview of Erdrich at http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6055/the-art-of-fiction-no-208-louise-erdrich.
Copyright © 2012 by Y. A. Reid