As Louise Erdrich's magical novel The Antelope Wife
opens, a cavalry soldier pursues a dog with an Ojibwa baby strapped to its back. For days he follows them through "the vast carcass of the world west of the Otter Tail River" until finally the dog allows him to approach and handle the child--a girl, not yet weaned, who latches onto his nipples until, miraculously, they begin to give milk. In another kind of novel, this might be a metaphor. But this is the fictional world of Louise Erdrich, where myth is woven deeply into the fabric of everyday life. A famous cake tastes of grief, joy, and the secret ingredient: fear. The tie that binds the antelope wife to her husband is, literally, the strip of sweetheart calico he used to yoke her hand to his. Legendary characters sew beads into colorful patterns, and these patterns become the design of the novel itself.
The Antelope Wife centers on the Roys and the Shawanos, two closely related Ojibwa families living in modern-day Gakahbekong, or Minneapolis. Urban Indians of mixed blood, they are "scattered like beads off a necklace and put back together in new patterns, new strings," and Erdrich follows them through two failed marriages, a "kamikaze" wedding, and several tragic deaths. But the plot also loops and circles back, drawing in a 100-year-old murder, a burned Ojibwa village, a lost baby, several dead twins, and another baby nursed on father's milk.
The familiar Erdrich themes are all here--love, family, history, and the complex ways these forces both bind and separate the generations, stitching them into patterns as complex as beadwork. At least initially, this swirl of characters, narratives, time lines, and connections can take a little getting used to; several of the story lines do not match up until the book's conclusion. But in the end, Erdrich's lovely, lyrical language prevails, and the reader succumbs to the book's own dreamlike logic. As The Antelope Wife closes, Erdrich steps back to address readers directly for the first time, and the moment expands the book's elaborate patterns well beyond the confines of its pages. "Who is beading us?" she asks. "Who are you and who am I, the beader or the bit of colored glass sewn onto the fabric of the earth?... We stand on tiptoe, trying to see over the edge, and only catch a glimpse of the next bead on the string, and the woman's hand moving, one day, the next, and the needle flashing over the horizon." -- Mary Park, editor
From Publishers Weekly
"Family stories repeat themselves in patterns and waves, generation to generation, across blood and time." Erdrich (Love Medicine, etc.) embroiders this theme in a sensuous novel that brings her back to the material she knows best, the emotionally dislocated lives of Native Americans who try to adhere to the tribal ways while yielding to the lure of the general culture. In a beautifully articulated tale of intertwined relationships among succeeding generations, she tells the story of the Roy and the Shawano families and their "colliding histories and destinies." The narrative begins like a fever dream with a U.S. cavalry attack on an Ojibwa village, the death of an old woman who utters a fateful word, the inadvertent kidnapping of a baby and a mother's heartbreaking quest. The descendants of the white soldier who takes the baby and of the bereaved Ojibwa mother are connected by a potent mix of tragedy, farce and mystical revelation. As time passes, there is another kidnapping, the death of a child and a suicide. Fates are determined by a necklace of blue beads, a length of sweetheart calico and a recipe for blitzkuchen. Though the saga is animated by obsessional love, mysterious disappearances, mythic legends and personal frailties, Erdrich also works in a comic vein. There's a dog who tells dirty jokes and a naked wife whose anniversary surprise has an audience. Throughout, Erdrich emphasizes the paradoxes of everyday life: braided grandmas who follow traditional ways and speak the old language also wear eyeliner and sneakers. In each generation, men and women are bewitched by love, lust and longing; they are slaves to drink, to carefully guarded secrets or to the mesmerizing power of hope. Though the plot sometimes bogs down from an overload of emotional complications, the novel ultimately celebrates the courage of following one's ordained path in the universe and meeting the challenges of fate. It is an assured example of Erdrich's storytelling skills.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.