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"My father read local history, `and the white man appeared and drove them down into the earth'...an observation of the truth."
on 9 November 2012
(4.5 stars) Author Louise Erdrich, a member of the Chippewa (Ojibwa) nation, here writes one of her most powerful and emotionally involving novels. Though it starts as a crime story on the reservation, it quickly becomes an intense search for justice on all levels. It is also an examination of the lives of her characters, both old and young, as they face the challenges of reservation life. Their lives, as she shows in this novel, are seriously restricted by 1988, when this novel's action takes place, and any Native American who wants to honor the "old ways" on the reservation must now survive on infertile lands which cannot support them. Their culture has been seriously compromised by the arrival of Catholic missionaries who have weaned them away from their myths and traditions. Significantly, legal jurisdiction over crimes involving Native Americans now involves tribal officials, state police, and even the FBI.
In a powerful opening scene, filled with symbols and portents, thirteen-year-old Antone Basil Coutts (Joe), only child and namesake of Judge Coutts and his wife Geraldine, is helping his father to pull tiny seedlings from cracks in the foundation of their house, awaiting Geraldine's return from her office. When she finally arrives at home, she is almost unrecognizable, so badly beaten she can hardly see, reeking of gasoline and so traumatized by rape and other crimes that she has become mute. Young Joe knows that it will be up to him and his father to identify who has done this. They begin to study his father's old cases searching clues.
Joe is still a child, however, and though his empathetic father wants to protect him as much as possible, Joe becomes obsessed with getting his mother "back," determined to find and punish the rapist on his own. These tensions add drama and meaning to the novel, and Joe's contacts with others, both in his family and outside it, expand the scope. The sweat lodge ceremony is described, the extortion of elderly Indians by a white-owned supermarket on Indian land is detailed, the raucous and sexy (and hilarious) talk of elderly family members is recorded, the "flirting" of a stripper living with Joe's uncle is tension-filled and emotional, the appearance of ghosts to Joe, and the efforts of a local priest, a former soldier injured in Lebanon in 1983, are all described to powerful effect, keeping the interest and involvement of the reader at high pitch.
As in her other novels, Erdrich provides a sense of continuity by including characters from other books in this one - including the priestly Nanapush (from Tracks), who was an inspiration to Mooshum, thought now to be one hundred six years old in this novel. Mooshum, whose story is told here, was also a main character in The Plague of Doves, a book which also includes Judge Antone Basil Coutts, father of this novel's main character Joe, and Corwin Peace, father of Joe's friend Zach. By repeating these characters through successive generations, Erdrich provides a genealogy and sense of history which add to the sense of time and place, and highlight the changes, not all of them good, taking place within the community. The novel, one of Erdrich's best, will keep serious readers totally engaged with its sensitive descriptions and insights, even as those interested in just a "good story" will celebrate the action, excitement, and the issues it raises.