I’m so bad about posting (and linking to) my reviews. Links below to reviews 27 through 36.
Days after a coworker of mine gifted me a novel about Native Americans (Song of the Wolf by Scott C. Stone), I abandoned it and picked up another that, it turns out, was more to my liking. Little did I know that it was the third in a tetralogy, yet would end up being the only one to successfully grab my attention. I requested the first in the series (Love Medicine) from the library afterwards, except I couldn’t hardly believe it was written by the same person, because what kept me enthralled with Tracks was her, well, magical magical realism.
Forget that I had a hard time keeping the narrative and characters straight at times. When multiple chapters were published in prior years as short stories, that they would not quite mesh comes as no surprise. Reading Erdrich was, to me, akin to reading poetry, in that I was more engaged by the lyricism of the words than their meaning. Love Medicine was hopelessly plain by comparison; me giving up on it tells you all you need to know about my taste in literature, as well as both film and television. It’s all in the way it’s either written or said.
Do you think King became my favorite author on the strength of his characters and plot? No, he just happens to write in a manner which I find palatable, due in part to my own style being similar in some respects. Strip that away and you’re left with what can only be described as silliness only one notch above theGoosebumps books I used to crave most of all as a child. Pixar, another favorite of mine, would meet a similar fate if they were to hand the screenwriting duties over to someone else less accomplished. Toy Story, if handled by the same writing staff as Monsters University, would never have impacted me the way it did; as I detailed some in my review of the latter, Monsters University hits on some of the same narrative beats as Toy Story, yet Toy Story did it better.
That’s what’s happening here with Erdrich’s series of books. I didn’t read far enough to claim the two are at all mirror images of one another in every other respect; however, whatever Erdrich is going for, Tracks does it better, which is why I’m thankful Goodreads chose this as my entry point. If I’d begun with Love Medicine, Tracks wouldn’t have even been considered. To further clarify the startling differences in writing style between the two, here are the opening lines of the two, in each case a microcosm of the whole. First, Tracks:
We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.
Second, Love Medicine:
The morning before Easter Sunday, June Kashpaw was walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota, killing time before the noon bus arrived that would take her home.
Can you now understand why Love Medicine was so at odds with my expectations? Tracks‘ opening line says more to me than Love Medicine‘s, doing it in only half the time and with a beauty none of what I read from Love Medicine could match.
This is all to say that, if Tracks has you hooked already, pick it up and read ahead, because there’s more where that came from. I can’t speak to matters of character or plot, since my attention was focused not so much on the words themselves and their meaning as it was on their sound, not unlike how a song’s lyrics take countless listens before they register as anything more than the exercising of another instrument, a series of notes adding to the whole. All I’m qualified to tell you about Tracks is that I couldn’t name many books better written than it. The only thing I can fault it for is its clarity; yes, I wasn’t as focused a reader as I probably should have been, but the point still stands thatTracks, for all its gorgeous imagery, let its plot and characters get a little muddled, from time to time, amidst the pretty words. If you’re like me, though, that won’t much matter.
Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.
I remember reading Love Medicine (1993) by Louise Erdrich for an English class in high school. I was probably too young and inexperienced to really appreciate it. I just vaguely remember some domestic violence and being disturbed. So, when I saw that The Round House (2012) was making news and getting good reviews, I was, at first, ambivalent about reading it. Fortunately, I let go of my high school ignorance and gave Erdrich another try.
Joe Coutts is thirteen years old during some of the most formative events of his life. He lives a pretty comfortable life on the Ojibwa Reservation as a much-loved only child of his father, Basil Coutts, an attorney and tribal judge, and his mother, Geraldine Coutts, a tribal clerk. When his mother is brutally attacked and raped, Joe’s stable family is abruptly and unexpectedly torn apart. His mother is suddenly not the same mother he’s grown up with his entire life, and his father is a distracted version of himself. Joe not only feels the loss of his parents, but the burden of responsibility for finding out who did this. To complicate things, Joe, who is still a child, is not privy to all of the details of the investigation. He faces a lot of confusion, fear, and frustration.
Click here for the rest of my review.
Goodreads summary: “When Irene America discovers that her husband, Gil, has been reading her diary, she begins a secret Blue Notebook, stashed securely in a safe-deposit box. There she records the truth about her life and her marriage, while turning her Red Diary–hidden where Gil will find it–into a manipulative farce. Alternating between these two records, complemented by unflinching third-person narration, “Shadow Tag” is an eerily gripping read.
When the novel opens, Irene is resuming work on her doctoral thesis about George Catlin, the nineteenth-century painter whose Native American subjects often regarded his portraits with suspicious wonder. Gil, who gained notoriety as an artist through his emotionally revealing portraits of his wife–work that is adoring, sensual, and humiliating, even shocking–realizes that his fear of losing Irene may force him to create the defining work of his career.
Meanwhile, Irene and Gil fight to keep up appearances for their three children: fourteen-year-old genius Florian, who escapes his family’s unraveling with joints and a stolen bottle of wine; Riel, their only daughter, an eleven-year-old feverishly planning to preserve her family, no matter what disaster strikes; and sweet kindergartener Stoney, who was born, his parents come to realize, at the beginning of the end.”
I feel like I’ve read about several duplicitous diaries lately! Shadow Tag was a pretty uncompromising read with its depiction of alcoholism, abuse, negligence, and some sexual assault thrown in for good measure. Generally, I gravitate toward genre or high-concept books, so I don’t always have a lot to say about books like this, which throw reality in my face like a bucket of ice water. This is a definitely WYSIWYG novel; if the plot description above intrigues you, you’ll enjoy the way the story unfolds (if not the bleak content.) None of my waffling on this review should be taken as a negative assessment, though. I’m actually interested in checking out Erdrich’s other work, as this was really well-written, with evocative imagery and a sense of profundity without pompousness.
Altogether, I recommend this book. It’s a fairly short read, and even with the heavy themes, I got through it very quickly. This, it should be mentioned, is definite praise for Erdrich. Where often I can only handle so much of a sad story at a time, I actually had trouble putting Shadow Tag down. Despite the ominous feeling that it wasn’t going to end in happiness for Irene, I was drawn to her and felt compelled to stay with her, even through her manipulations. I admire the way that Erdrich fleshed out her characters (even the children) so thoroughly in fewer than 300 pages. As I said before, definitely pick this up if you’re in the mood.
Last year for CBR4, I reviewed Louise Erdrich’s Pulitzer Prize nominated novel The Plague of Doves and gave it 4 stars (which seems stingy in retrospect — it deserved 5). Her latest National Book Award-winning novel The Round House is another brilliant work. As far as I’m concerned, Erdrich is the best American writer around.
The events of The Round House occur in the summer of 1988. Our narrator is a 14-year-old Native named Joe, son of Judge Coutts and Geraldine (characters from The Plague of Doves). They live on a reservation in North Dakota, where dad is a tribal judge, mom is a recorder of genealogies and Joe hangs out with his buddies doing fairly typical things like riding bikes, hanging out at the lake, drinking and smoking. Their lives are shattered when Geraldine is violently raped. Geraldine retreats into herself, refusing to divulge details about the crime to tribal, state or federal officials (the question of exactly where the crime occurred will be important to determining who has jurisdiction). The Judge re-examines cases he tried in order to see if he can figure out who might want to hurt him and his family. Joe and his friends engage in some investigating of their own, and Joe makes startling discoveries about the crime and members of his community. Ultimately, he must decide how he will act on what he has learned, and the choice is excruciating for him.
The plot is grim but, sadly, based on a staggering reality — that one third of Native women are raped, 86% by non-Native men, and that justice is rarely served. Erdrich, who is part Chippewa, provides statistics and facts at the end of the novel. The lack of justice will surely make readers burn, but injustice is part of Native American history. Erdrich does a beautiful job of weaving Native history into her stories without making it seem forced or pedantic. The facts flow naturally into conversations that characters have, and the reader can see the influence of 200 years’ worth of US government decisions on the lives of Natives today.
As a writer, Erdrich is simply amazing. Her imagination and ability to put herself in the place of different ages, sexes and cultures is superb. She can write the dream sequence of Mooshum, explaining the tale of the wiindigoo, a spirit that possesses a person at a time of desperation. Then she can produce a detailed conversation between fourteen year olds about Star Trek Next Generation. She can break your heart with Joe’s decisions and his friends’ fates, and she can make you laugh out loud when the priest hears a confession that causes him to chase a teen out of the church and around the neighborhood. One especially delightful character is Grandma Ingnatia, aka Grandma Thunder, who scandalizes the younger people with her frank talk about sex. When Joe and his friends go to her place for lunch, they get an earful.
You boys listen up, said Grandma Ingatia. You want to learn something? Want to learn how to keep your little peckers hard all your life? Go and go? Live clean like Napoleon. Liquor makes you quicker and that’s no good. Bread and lard keep it hard! He is eighty-seven and he not only gets it up easy, he can go five hours at a stretch.
We wanted to sneak away but were pulled back by that last piece of information.
By far the most powerful writing deals with Geraldine’s trauma. The revelation of the crime committed against her is shocking and brutal. Equally devastating is the way Erdrich describes the aftermath — Geraldine’s anguish and depression and its effect on her family. In one scene, Geraldine is taken by surprise when she doesn’t hear her husband enter the house. He hugs her from behind, causing her to scream and drop the casserole dish she had been holding. Joe narrates what followed:
…my mother flushed darkly and an almost imperceptible shudder coursed over her. She took a gasping breath, and put her hand to her wounded face. Then she stepped over the mess on the floor and walked carefully away…. As she walked up each riser she looked straight ahead and her hand was firm on the banister. Her steps were soundless. She seemed to float. My father and I had followed her to the doorway, and I think we both had the sense that she was ascending to a place of utter loneliness from which she might never be retrieved.
Erdrich creates a rich, complicated, fascinating community peopled with very human characters. They are flawed (some drink too much, some can be abusive, some are less than honest) but despite their mistakes and flaws, still do selfless beautiful things for one another. They are real. And the resolution to the plot is also very real, a mix of relief and sorrow.
You could read The Round House without reading The Plague of Doves first, but you would be giving yourself a treat to read them back to back. Erdrich is a national treasure and I intend to read all of her books and hope that she doesn’t stop writing for a long time.