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79 “Red Mother”:The Missing Mother Plot as Double Mystery in Louise Erdrich’s Fiction by sheila hassell hughes 4 Louise Erdrich’s first novel, Love Medicine (1984), opens with the death of June Kashpaw, a motherless American Indian woman who abandons her own child and later returns to haunt him and others throughout this book and the later novel The Bingo Palace (1994). June’s is just the first of many such abandonments. Fleur Pillager; Lulu Lamartine; Lipsha Morrissey; Marie Kashpaw; Pauline Puyat; Karl, Mary, and Jude Adare; Augustus Roy I and II; Matilda Roy; Celestine James; Russell Kashpaw; and more: the list of Erdrich’s motherless characters is stunning in its weight and variety. Children somehow severed from their mothers have, in fact, played important roles in every one of the ten adult novels the prolific and much acclaimed “mixed-blood” (French-Ojibwe and German-American) writer has produced since 1984. In many cases, the mother’s loss is somewhat abated by one or more surrogates, but in every instance the original mother’s absence remains as powerful as any physical or spiritual presence, haunting her children and readers alike. The story of the missing mother is also always a mystery. Indeed, this essay takes up the missing mother as the primary, endlesslyrepeatedplotmysteryofErdrich’sfictionandassertsthatitcarries other sorts of meaning, constituting, in effect, a religious mystery as well. In demonstrating the intertwining pattern of these two forms of maternal mystery in the trope of the “red mother,” I will also argue that this multivalent figure requires multiple modes of reading and response, 80 sheila hassell hughes including not only cognitive comprehension, achieved through the employment of multiple disciplinary and cultural frameworks, but also a more thoroughly transformative response—through both a religious sort of apprehension that “rearranges” the reader, and through a resulting commitment to political engagement in the ongoing struggles of Indigenous women and their communities. The implications of this pattern of double-mystery, I will demonstrate, are not only cultural, socio-political, and psychic, but also religious. The missing mother is in some sense an embodiment of colonial processes that have left generations of Indigenous people in varying degrees of literal and spiritualdisplacement,homelessness,andmotherlessness.Againandagain Erdrich embeds these larger processes and effects in the lives and psyches of her characters through maternal relations, and so it is through the problem posed by the absent, failed, or forsaken mother that we find our way to religious mystery. But while Erdrich treats motherhood itself as something sacred and mysterious, it never appears in her fiction as something simply “natural” in the way the biological relationship is often romanticized. Maternity has a radical power to shape identities and transform lives, but it is always open for disintegration, contestation, remaking. And while the concrete facts of the mother’s actions may eventually be established (though even these are likely to shift from one narrative account to the next), the meanings they hold for her, for her children, and for others remain open— like a wound, or like a sacred text—an enfolded secret that pulls us back into it again and again. To apprehend the meaning of the missing mother’s mystery, I contend, characters and readers alike must be able to respond in a way we might call “religious,” recognizing her irreducible otherness, suspending final judgment in favour of fearful or awe-full recognition, and also looking within ourselves and allowing this present-absence to speak to us and to reframe our own roles in the grand scheme of social, political, and spiritual relations . The notion of “religious reading” proposed by scholars in the field of literature and theology, such as Greg Salyer and Robert Detweiler, requires engaging the text dialogically, applying not only critical-interpretive but also imaginative and reflective faculties, allowing literary texts to challenge and potentially to transform our own assumptions and beliefs. Such a practice is particularly difficult, but also especially important, for culturally privileged scholars approaching works of nondominant traditions— traditions such as Erdrich’s Anishinaabe culture, which offers a religious worldview that has been eroded and marginalized but nonetheless persists 81 the missing mother and continues to mend itself. I see the practice of religious reading as one strategy for attempting what Native critic Devon Mihesuah calls for from feminist scholars engaged in social-scientific research with Native women: “they must abandon any posturing about being an expert on what counts as knowledge about Native women,” she asserts, and “engage in reciprocal , practical dialogue...


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