Sounds of a native strain - Erdrich novel tracks ancestral lives

Tracks, by Louise Erdrich. New York: Henry Holt. 226 pp. $18.95. Even before a well-known literary pundit divided American authors into the camps of redskins and palefaces, American readers, writers, and book critics had been listening for the sounds of a native strain - a literature not transplanted, but rooted deeply in the land: in some mystic sense, a product of the land. With writers as different as Twain and Whitman reckoned honorary redskins, it is no wonder that the portrayal of American Indian life by a talented writer who is also a member of the Chippewa tribe should have been greeted with a spontaneous outpouring of enthusiastic recognition.

``Tracks'' is Louise Erdrich's third novel. ``Love Medicine,'' her first, won the National Book Critics' Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, along with a torrent of praise. ``The Beet Queen,'' her second, received accolades equally hyperbolic. Thus, I approached Erdrich's work expecting either to love it or hate it: hoping either to be swept up in the spell of a gifted storyteller or fired up by the pretensions of yet another would-be Great American Writer.

Reading, I could not overcome a feeling of letdown. There was no great scandal to expose. Erdrich was certainly no poseur. She was clearly an honest and sensitive writer. But far from ``thrilling,'' ``stunning,'' or ``completely devastating'' me, as it apparently did such luminaries as Josephine Humphreys, Kay Boyle, Toni Morrison, and others whose wonder and amazement are encouragingly printed on the dust jacket, Erdrich's work merely ... interested me.

When was the last time an adjective like ``interesting'' was used to sell a book? Yet I realized that, had I been reading ``Tracks'' without any expectation of encountering a New American Masterpiece, I would probably have been more impressed by Erdrich's plain, yet supple, style, her imaginative, if sometimes awkward, interlinking of narratives, her commitment to evoking the world of the American Indian, and her passionate, starkly unsentimental vision of an ill-fated struggle to hold on to a vanishing way of life.

Set in the years 1912 to 1924, ``Tracks'' is actually - in terms of internal chronology - the first of a planned four-book cycle about some families of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota, where Erdrich, herself a descendant of that tribe, grew up. While ``Love Medicine'' and ``The Beet Queen'' span a period from the 1930s to the 1970s and '80s, ``Tracks'' draws readers back to a time when some still lived on the land as their ancestors had done before them.

As the last of the Pillager clan, Fleur, the elusive woman at the heart of this novel, is a living human embodiment of the wilderness that sustains her. Most of the other Indians, already half tamed by an encroaching world of government agencies, reservations, missions, paper work, and ready-cash-for-land deals, regard her as ``dangerous.'' She has beauty, daring, and power. Astonished eyewitnesses credit her with the ability to raise whirlwinds and survive drowning. (You know the type.)

While Erdrich's two other novels were each narrated by several voices, ``Tracks,'' a more intense work, has only two narrators: Nanapush, a wise old tribal leader, and Pauline, a young woman of mixed parentage who is as ungainly and unattractive as Fleur is graceful and sexually magnetic. Nanapush provides an authentically Indian viewpoint. Pauline believes herself to have a white person's perspective, although, as we soon discover, her view of Fleur is far more tinged with a strange blend of Chippewa superstitions and personal envy than Nanapush's level-headed view.

Pauline is determined to become a nun, although her version of Roman Catholicism is a confused brew of Indian legends and lives of the saints. She is desperate to join the white world: ``Even as a child,'' she says, ``I saw that to hang back was to perish.'' If Pauline seems an aberration, Fleur - whose quick wits and sinewy strength seem eminently suited to survive and prevail - is fated to become an anachronism. Because she is strong, she mistakenly believes it is in her power to single-handedly save the old way of life.

Nanapush quietly resists the encroachment of the white world but recognizes it is inevitable. He understands, as Fleur does not, that after a certain point, the will to power can become counterproductive: ``Power dies, power goes under and gutters out, ungraspable. ... As soon as you rely on the possession it is gone. Forget that it ever existed, and it returns.''

Living as we do in a climate of hype, these are words to remember. Trying too hard to achieve an effect can be self-defeating. It is valuable to be reminded that power does not come from mere declamation but is inherent in the essence of things, a lesson too often lost on practitioners of the hard sell in every field from politics to book reviewing.

When it comes to putting prospective readers in the right frame of mind to appreciate a novel, like ``Tracks,'' a little understatement could go a long way.

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