For better or for worse, most white people have two popular avenues of contact with native Americans: casino gambling or Louise Erdrich. My money's on Erdrich, with whom the odds of winning something of real value are essentially guaranteed.
The daughter of a Chippewa mother and a German-American father, this Minnesota author won critical and popular success with her first novel, "Love Medicine," in 1984. Since then, through a steady accumulation of beautiful, often funny books set around an Ojibwe reservation, she's created the most compelling literary landscape since Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
The brevity of her latest, "Four Souls," makes it a tempting entry point for readers new to her canon. And whether we like it or not, length takes on special importance for English teachers trying to add quality multicultural voices to an already packed curriculum. But "Four Souls" is clearly part of a larger, organic whole - something for fans to savor and another compelling reason for readers who don't know her to start at the beginning.
Like all Erdrich's novels, this one is about healing, physical and spiritual recovery in all its agony and beauty. Fleur Pillager is the last survivor of a long line of medicine women. Estranged from her only daughter and deeply embittered, she sets out on a mission to kill John James Mauser, a wealthy businessman who swindled many native Americans, including her family, out of their land.
When she arrives at the door of his mansion - built from her sacred trees - she immediately gets a job as a laundrywoman. John James Mauser produces an extraordinary amount of dirty laundry (one or two complete bed changes per night), owing to a peculiar affliction that makes him sweat profusely. He also suffers from frequent seizures, another legacy of his service in World War I, which has left him weak and miserable.
So weak and miserable, in fact, that Fleur cannot kill him. Though "she got to know the house the way a hunter knows the woods," her prey is too decrepit. "When Fleur saw how Mauser already suffered, she felt cheated of her revenge. She wanted the man healthy so that she could destroy him fresh." First, she must nurse him back to health, kneading the tension from his muscles and banishing the demons from his brain.
Her patience is boundless. She keeps his linens brilliant white even while pursuing her dark plans, but somewhere in the process, Mauser falls in love with her, and Fleur is ensnared in her own plot. "Affection," Erdrich writes, "takes one by surprise."
Two narrators convey this strange tale. The first is Mauser's lonely sister-in-law, Polly, who hired Fleur to clean their linens, unaware that she was bringing one of Mauser's many victims into the house. She's been studying her sister's sterile marriage for years, serving as a kind of embittered handmaid. By the time she realizes the threat that Fleur poses, it's too late.
The second narrator is Nanapush, a marvelous Ojibwe storyteller who has appeared in other Erdrich novels. Interspersed with chapters from Polly, his installments fill in Fleur's painful history and the twisted progress of her plot against Mauser.
Halfway through the novel, he shifts to the tale of his own revenge plans against a "special foe," an old rival for his wife's affections whom he's tried to kill many times. Nanapush is equal parts wisdom and slapstick, a narrator willing to relive his own humiliation in the service of a good story. "Jealousy is a powerful many-toothed creature," he notes, "whose bite leaves a poison in the blood."
"Do you know what I'm telling you is a reflection of errors? There was Fleur's vengeance, which you'll see has an outcome unpredicted," Nanapush says, and "my vengeance, which led down paths of perfect foolishness but which, at each juncture, seemed logical and sane."
Actually, the logic and sanity of his plans are not always so obvious. He almost kills his wife while trying to ensnare his foe. His extra- special love potion gets eaten by his archenemy's dog, which, as you might imagine, leads to unintended results. He drinks a case of peace-offering wine before he makes it home. And in the most hilarious episode, he appears as a transvestite at a special council meeting.
There's a "Midsummer Night's Dream" quality to Nanapush's antics, humor laced into the mystery of the forest and the power of this rich language. Determined to kill his foe and reignite his wife's ardor, poor Nanapush, instead, just keeps digging himself in deeper and deeper, sliding along the exponential scale of comedy that Erdrich calculates so well.
Tragedies strike in these tales, but they're built on a foundation of real love. Erdrich manages to control the flashes of anger and frustration that can melt suddenly into a very different metal. What's so satisfying is the way the two revenge plots reach a convergence that's neither depressing nor silly, but deeply moving.
Nanapush's wife eventually begins to narrate her own chapters, explaining the spiritual process that Fleur must endure to recover from what she has suffered and from what she has inflicted.
She also assures us of her enduring affection for Nanapush. "No matter how foolishly my husband behaved," his long-suffering wife says, "no matter how dreadful his mistakes, jokes, and sins, he loved me. In that, my suspicious woman's heart came to trust."
Erdrich's most striking contribution may be her articulation of a value system that's wholly contrary to the culture of accumulation and competition that we're eager to export in our great white way. Given the vibrant success of her novels, the Indian wars may not be over after all.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to Ron Charles.