It’s human nature to want people to like what you like, but when they resist, pointing to reasons they should like it is like explaining a joke. No laughing, no liking. Such it is with my friend and Louise Erdrich. I’m a HUGE fan of Louise. I consider her among the top five living writers in the country, perhaps the top ten in the world. If you took the trouble, as few do, to scroll through the archives of carlrbrush.com, you’d see how highly I regard her work and why. Yet, I hadn’t read the 1997 work The Antelope Wife. When my friend, who has never warmed to Louise for some reason, was assigned Antelope in a class and said “didn’t like it,” I of course had to dig in.
Now I’m not going to claim that this is equal to masterpieces like The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (See my Dec, 2006 commentary.) or The Master Butcher’s Singing Club. However, it’s an intense, mystifying, and life-affirming read. I’ll admit there are some weak places–an unfortunate gag scene with stick-on gift bows that nearly sinks to sitcom level, for example; and an equally unfortunate sequence from the point of view of a dog named (for obvious reasons) Almost Soup. However, who can resist writing like this?
“Dusted all over like an egg with freckles, Peace McKnight. . .was sturdily made as a captain’s chair, yet drew water with graceful wrists and ran dancing across the rutted mud on curved white ankles. . . . At night, the kerosene lamplight in trembling rings and haloes, Miss Peace McKnight felt the eyes of Scranton Roy carve her in space.”
Stuff like that all the way through. Like most of Erdrich’s work, Antelope Wife’s chronology is disjointed, a metaphor, I believe for the non-liner, organic way we experience time and life. Events from the beginning of the more than one hundred years of the book’s history appear in the final pages, events from the late nineteen nineties appear in the beginning. And the sequences are jumbled in between. In this case, she makes the metaphor concrete with two broken strings of beads–one of blue stones, the other of red, so that the scatter of events is matched by the scattering of the beads. Ditto with the treatment of characters. Again, this mixture of time and space and people is usual for Erdrich, but here she complicates it even more with duplicate names. There are three generations of twin girls with identical names, and we’re often not quite sure which generation we’re reading about. This confusion is neither accidental nor is it literary trickery. It echoes life’s difficulty in stringing together the scattered elements of life.
The book begins with a cavalry nineteenth-century raid/massacre on a defenseless Indian village. Scranton Roy (mentioned above in the quoted description) is a soldier who commits an atrocity during that raid, then performs a humanitarian act of equal weight in saving the life of an infant who is carried away on the back of frightened dog. By the time he catches up with the dog, he is far away from the village and his unit and he never goes back. Still, the humanitarian act turns into an atrocity when he from one point of view saves the child and gives it a home, from another point of view steals the child from its mother and people. This Hegleian interaction of good and evil, animal/human continues throughout the book and down through the generations that Scranton Roy begets.
The above summary is way too prosaic, though, for it leaves out the element of magic. Many authors cross into the fantastical, but Erdrich lives there. A father nurses two children. Girls are raised by antelope and deer. People stare into rivers and find themselves swimming with underwater spirits. It also leaves out the comedy, of which there is plenty. Ribald, profane, dangerous, and deeply serious comedy of the kind that makes you laugh while people die naked.
If you want to read this for the history or sociology, there’s plenty of that, too. You’ll find a depiction of the Native American migration to and from the cities and the interaction between reservation Indians and urban ones. Louise even brings the Hmong into the mix, one of the latest additions to the incredible racial stew we are preparing in America.
Throughout, despite the horrible things people do to one another, the women sew constantly, threading the beads of their lives and culture into taut strings, making patterns of the loose beads, trying to make sense of the “. . . longing [that] makes us do the things that we should not. Even longing for the good. For loive. Longing is the bliss of thieves that getting kills.”
I don’t suppose this will make my friend like the book any better, but maybe it will convince her it has more worth than she first thought.