By Louise Erdrich. HarperCollins. 210 pp. $23.95 For many readers -- as well as writers -- the end of a well-made novel can be a bittersweet moment. The pleasure of the book's conclusive, final chords is always weighed against the inevitable farewell one must say to the book's imaginary world and its inhabitants.
Louise Erdrich's 1988 novel Tracks was just such a book, a rich fictional tapestry of Native American life at the turn of the century. Based on characters who first appeared in her National Book Critics Circle award-winning Love Medicine, it told the story of Fleur Pillager, a North Dakota Ojibwe woman who stands against the economic and cultural genocide of her people.
It's easy to see why Erdrich would want to return to Fleur Pillager, and her new novel, Four Souls, picks up more or less where Tracks left off. The novel begins as Fleur is embarking on a mission of revenge, hunting down the man responsible for the theft and destruction of much of her tribal lands. She finds him in a grand house in Minneapolis, into which she quickly and expertly insinuates herself, taking a job as a laundress.
But the owner, John Mauser, is no typecast villain; married to the imperiously frigid Placide, and bossed about by his spinster sister-in-law, Polly Elizabeth, who presides over the household, he cuts a pathetic figure. He also suffers from seizures, brought on, according to his doctor, by a lack of sexual congress with his wife. Disappointed that she can't "destroy him fresh," Fleur abandons her murderous designs and seduces him instead. Before long the marriage is over, Fleur assumes her station as head of the household, and she bears Mauser a son, an autistic savant.
Like Tracks, Four Souls is told in part by Fleur's grandfather, Nanapush, who is speaking to the grown daughter Fleur abandoned in that novel. Though newcomers to Fleur's story may find the manner of Nanapush's narration confusing in spots, his voice is pleasingly authoritative and economical. He relates Fleur's journey of revenge with the compactness of a parable and balances moments of watery mysticism with a good streak of bawdy humor. Equally engaging is the voice of the novel's second major narrator, Polly Elizabeth, an avowed anti-Indian racist who is so child-hungry that Fleur's pregnancy arouses an instantaneous conversion to her cause: "[I] realize[d] that if I could lay aside my small contempt, I might cherish her," she says. "I might be able to help her grow the child, the babe whom I wanted to live with a longing quite beyond my own selfish habits." Erdrich's theme is less revenge than the unpredictable ways old wounds can heal. This affords the book a summing-up quality that may leave some readers feeling left out. Without the full weight of Tracks to push against, and the tragic history it relates, much of what transpires in Four Souls has the airiness of an extended epilogue. Who, for instance, is this daughter Fleur left behind? And what bearing does this have on her decision to have a child with Mauser?
Erdrich straddles the fence a bit, providing readers who might not know Tracks with just enough backstory to wish they did. But the better solution she employs is a resonating amplification of her theme via an adjacent subplot. For all Fleur's magnetism as a character, her story is upstaged in the book's second half by Nanapush himself and his own tale of vengeance gone comically wrong.
The object of his murderous rage is his "life's enemy," an Indian named Shesheeb who married and subsequently cannibalized Nanapush's sister during the "winter of our last starvation." Returned to the reservation after a lengthy absence, Shesheeb has settled down the road from Nanapush and his wife, Margaret -- "a splinter in my foot," says Nanapush, "that pierced me when I stepped down hard." The stage is set for confrontation when Margaret impulsively sells a portion of their land to predatory white developers in order to buy a linoleum floor for their cabin. This transaction is vintage Erdrich: It manages to be both a comically awful marital spat, something purely personal, and a crucible containing all the elements of the venality and recklessness of the Indian cultural genocide. When Margaret adds sexual jealousy to the mix, claiming a flirtation with Shesheeb, Nanapush embarks on a murderous mission that, despite its seriousness, possesses all the exuberant lapses of logic and risque set pieces of Shakespearean comedy, including everything from cross dressing and heroic drunkenness to an amorous dog.
The novel could run the risk at this point of being simply overwhelmed by its subplots, but Erdrich elegantly weaves her threads together in the book's last movement, when Fleur, her husband's fortune in ruins, returns with her son to the reservation and undertakes the final reclamation of her ancestral lands. How she accomplishes this is a secret no reviewer should reveal, and I won't. Suffice to say it adds a lovely coda to a book that, sequel or not, possesses many of the signature charms of its author's most accomplished work. *
Justin Cronin is the author, most recently, of a novel, "The Summer Guest."