Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich

Feb 01, 09  2 STARS

it was ok. Read in January, 2009

I am a great admirer of Louise Erdrich, so I was disappointed in this quasi-travel memoir. It read more like a series of daily notes: a little bit about the writer, a little bit about how enchanting she thinks her baby is, a little bit about her important lover, and books she reads, and books she took with her, and her marvelous house, and the death of a tree, and ancient Ojibwe rock paintings at Lake of the Woods. And so on.

I was interested in her remarks about rock paintings, and as always with Erdrich, learned more history of the persistent, and ongoing, devastation of the Ojibwe's cultural connection to living simply with their environment. She speaks of the Canadian government's decision
within the recent past (during the lifetime of Tobasonnakwut, Erdrich's baby's father) to remove the Ojibwe, who "had stabilized their lives and partly recovered from the wave of nineteenth-century invasions and diseases, from their lives in and around Lake of the Woods and raise the water levels, destroying their homes, their blueberry and cranberry and wildrice bogs, and inundating many of their sacred paintings"

As a registered Ojibwe with both German and French blood, Erdrich lives in a present where through her blood runs all the past--native and invader alike. She writes with great power and imagination about all. She tells stories with refreshing unfamiliar humor partly derived from a native tradition of earthiness and humorous survival and appetite that reminds me of the Coyote stories of the natives of the southwest. For examples, see her prose folk-tales about Potchikoo in Original Fire: Selected and New Poems, and of course the beloved characters Nanapush and Margaret Kashpaw in the tales that culminate in the greatest of her novels yet, in my opinion: The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No-Horse.

Her imagination for stories, for characters, for incidents at once tragic and comic, romantic and lunatic, is rendered in deft language and amazing detail: "tender new labia of phlox"; "the first leaf already, the veined tongue rigid between the thighs of the runner beans"; "two bluebirds pause on shivering wings". She brings us candid reports and an authentic music from beyond common boundaries of contemporary literature. She writes of young and old, men in and out of jail who are not vicious or depraved, men and women and their children besieged by alcoholism, by desperation. She writes of lovers who become irrationally passionate, hungry, starved for more and more of each other, of enemies who simmer their rancor over decades and generations. Her characters, poor, rich, broken, blooming, male, female, native American, EuroAmerican, all have depth and presence and purchase. None are mere figurants. She has no contempt. The only writer I know who equally plumbs depths in every character touched is Shakespeare; they both bestow attentive empathy on every character. They both find something to love and something to laugh at in the heart of all humans.

I read everything by Erdrich because her stories create unimagined worlds for me, expand my sense of the depth of life in the most ordinary of us, surprise me, delight and entertain me. And teach.

Even this book teaches: of John Tanner, kidnapped by the Sioux as a child and raised Ojibwe, a culture to which he returns; of Ernst Oberholzer a bibliophile who passionately loved the north of the American continent, and his home on Rainy Lake where his collection remains. Of the Ojibwe's ancient rock paintings which I long to visit now. And of W.G.Sebald's Austerlitz, a book of remembering.

But Books and Islands disappointed.

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