Some reviews are harder to write than others. This can be especially tricky with a writer like Erdrich, whose work is so luminous that is fairly floats off the page, even when she’s not in top form. A state that, by the way, most writers couldn’t achieve when working at the peak of their powers. So how to talk about a novel that so far surpasses most fiction, but does not surpass what Erdrich herself has penned in the past? That is the dilemma.
Drawing upon her Ojibwe and German backgrounds, Louise Erdrich has been writing intersecting stories of Native Americans and the white communities that surround them since her award winning—and magnificent—novel Love Medicine. The landscapes they inhabit, primarily in Minnesota and North Dakota, come to represent the values of the different communities: places to conquer and make money for the whites, an ancestral home full of lessons both illuminating and brutal for the Native Americans. The drama in her latest novel, Four Souls, stems from that difference and the consequences of them.
While this is not the strongest of her work, Erdrich’s writing is always luminous, and in the best of her books, it carries the action along on a stream of magic, injecting the normal activities of her characters with a sensibility straight out of myth. All of her characters seem somewhat outside the normal rules of biology and physics. They live in worlds (for the environments they inhabit are so distinct as to constitute different universes) that approximate our own, but somehow shine a bit more brightly, even when literally dirty, full of poverty or despair. Four Souls is no different: full of difficult, flawed characters, whose lives reflect the mistakes that they commit, mistakes that, it turns out, are not so much actions as extensions of those very flaws, of the people themselves.
At the heart of the book lies the story of Fleur Pillager, a fierce and fiercely proud Ojibwe Chippewa woman who walks away from the reservation, leaving her small daughter behind to fend for herself at the mercy of the nuns who run the government school, to the young Twin Cities to avenge the theft of her land (and its trees). To do so, she makes her way the home of John James Mauser, another proud soul who has used a mix of charm and the biased laws of the time to trick many a Native American woman out of her land.
In short order, Fleur—who has taken her mother’s name, Four Souls, as her own—moves from role of laundry maid to mistress of the house. Intent on revenge, she first has to cure Mauser of the haunting illness he incurred during WWI—whether the result of mustard gas or shell shock is never clear—if only so that he can suffer properly at her hands. In the process, she both seduces and is seduced by him. Their passion overtakes the house, produces a strange baby boy, and, driven as it is by rage and the desire for vengeance, destroys them both.
But that is not the only story being told, especially since Fleur herself never narrates her own tale. Instead, the novel is divided into alternating sections, narrated by two very different figures. The first is Nanapush, an old Ojibwe whose own story, though bound up with Fleur’s, focuses on his relationship with Margaret, a pious Catholic woman he has taken up with in his later years. Their love, though a balm to his soul, is disturbed either by her desire for a new technology - linoleum, for which she sells away some of her son’s land and incites Nanpush’s indignation—or his jealousy, especially once his old nemesis, Shesheeb, moves back to the reservation. Nanapush convinces himself that Margaret has fallen into the other man’s arms and, out of his own pride, rage, and foolishness both tries to get her back and pushes her away.
The other narrator, Polly Elizabeth Gheen, starts out as Mauser’s sister-in-law and housekeeper, a woman who lives on the fringes of other people’s lives, and so takes comfort in her own punctiliousness. She lives at the beck and call of her empty-headed, fickle sister (who isn’t empty-headed enough not to leave Mauser) and brother-in-law. Until Fleur walks into her parlor and her life, and despite her prejudices—common for the time and place—against the Native American population, when she grows so attached to the mysterious newcomer that she eventually allows a surprising love into her own life.
The heart of this novel explores many ideas: the power of motherhood and naming, two forces aligned in the narrative, the corrosive nature of vengeance, and the importance of land. At the end of the tale, Nanpush writes,
“Once we were a people who left no tracks. Now we are different. We print ourselves deeply on the earth. We build roads. The rust and skids of our wheels bite deep and the bush receded. We male foundations for our buildings and since wells beside our houses. Our shoes are hard and where we do it is easy to follow.”
Thus ends Four Souls, in a vision that speaks to both loss and possibility, both of which, it is clear, are bound up with the land. Because land is at issue from the start, and the novel becomes an extended inquiry into the meaning of ownership, especially of land, which by all logic should belong to everyone and no one at once. A central drama of this novel, but one that is far overshadowed by the individual actions of its players is the communal decision the Ojibwe tribe must make when white land developers offer to buy their land.
The Native Americans, led by Nanapush, reject the offer, keep their precious land, if only for a little while, but there is an implication here that the whole notion of that rejection, while a victory, is already a sign that the war has been lost. The white population has succeeded in forcing the Native Americans to think of the land as property, to be bought, sold, developed, even protected. Fleur shakes off all other obligations—as a mother, daughter, human being—in order to get back her land. She loses her soul—not just one, but four—in that quest, because the land, after all, was hers in deed only.
Fleur acts as the stand-in for her people here, her drives an extreme variation of their needs. They need to keep the land. That is the only way to maintain any cultural autonomy. But in keeping the land, they come more and more to resemble those from whom they would protect the land and who would take it from them.