December 05, 1988 12:00 PM

by Louise Erdrich

Those who come late to Louise Erdrich—those who somehow managed to miss out on both Love Medicine, which won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award for the best work of fiction, and the 1986 novel, The Beet Queen—are likely to react to Erdrich’s latest work like a 30-year-old woman getting her first kiss: Why didn’t someone tell me? Tracks chronicles the lives of the grandparents and parents of the characters in Love Medicine and The Beet Queen, who are members of the Pillager family of the Chippewa nation. The novel opens in the unspeakably cruel North Dakota winter of 1912. Smallpox, forced migration and exile have done their work on the tribe’s diminishing ranks, and tuberculosis bids fair to finish the job. “We started dying before the snow and like the snow, we continued to fall,” says the gnomic survivor Nana-push, who is one of the book’s two narrators and a leading actor in the story. “It was surprising that there were so many of us left to die.” The wise Nanapush is the voice of the past and the voice of reason. He recalls, “I guided the last buffalo hunt, saw the last bear shot…I spoke aloud the words of the government treaty…I saved the last Pillager.” The story’s other narrator is the mixed-blood Pauline, who wishes she were pure Canadian like her grandfather, refuses to speak Chippewa, wants to be off the reservation and causes a good share of the mayhem in Tracks. From their discrete perspectives, Nanapush and Pauline tell the story of Fleur, the last Pillager, who according to Nanapush “was too young and had no stories of depth of life to rely upon. All she had was raw power, and the names of the dead that filled her.” To Pauline, who envies Fleur her strengths, particularly her sexual powers, the last Pillager “messed with evil and dressed like a man. She got herself into some half-forgotten medicine, studied ways we shouldn’t talk about. Some say she kept the finger of a child in her pocket and a powder of unborn rabbits in a leather thong around her neck. She laid the heart of an owl on her tongue so she could see at night.” But as much as Tracks is the story of the mysterious Fleur, it is also the story of bewildering taxes and allotment fees and sticky-fingered government agents, of the betrayal of one Indian by another and the loss of ancestral land. “I saw this,” says Nanapush. “Leaves covering the place where I buried Pillagers, mosses softening the boards of their grave houses, once so gently weeded and tended by Fleur. I saw the clean markers she had oiled with the seat of her hands, blown over the wind, curiosities now, a white child’s toys.” Erdrich writes with such power and beauty that it’s impossible not to reread some sections. One character “couldn’t rub two words together and get a spark.” “Power travels in the bloodlines, handed out before birth,” she writes elsewhere. And one of Pauline’s observations begins, “It comes down through the hands, which in the Pillagers are strong and knotted, big spidery and rough with sensitive fingertips good at dealing cards. It comes through the eye, too, belligerent, darkest brown, the eyes of those in the bear clan, impolite as they gaze directly at a person.” Tracks is sad and grotesquely funny, heartbreaking and breathtaking. (Holt, $18.95)

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