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Once Upon a Time, Today: Hearing Fleur's Voice in Tracks

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 38, Number 2, Summer 2008
pp. 249-268 | 10.1353/jnt.0.0013

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

"I thought," she said, her voice soft and stroking, "you might deal me in."1

Questions of voice and representation are charged, whether asked about a specific novel or a situation in the "real" world. As Louis Owens tells it, examples of "the refusal to hear or recognize Native American voices. . .are astonishingly and depressingly easy to discover" (Mixed Blood 50). That this is so finds an analogy in William Boelhower's semiotic analysis of recent cartographic depictions of the indigenous presence in the United States. On a majority of contemporary maps, Boelhower observed that the remainder of "Indian country," the reservation, is marked as an "internal space which appears even today as a complete blank on popular road atlases" (Through A Glass 70). While on some maps, the reservation is excised—it is not there, nor is its absence indicated—on the maps Boelhower studied, the reservation is represented merely as a placeholder, a blank, an empty open space. Fleur's daughter, Lulu Lamartine, voices a perspective held by many people regarding contemporary mapping: "Well quote me. I say that every time they counted us they knew the precise number to get rid of" (Love Medicine 282). Nonetheless, in an era marked both by an explosion of scholarship and creative work documenting the misrepresentation of Native Americans, as well as the vibrancy of Native American people and nations, Boelhower's cartographic study is an unnerving reminder of the public terrain into which Fleur Pillager's story enters.

And what a story it is. While Erdrich's third novel details Fleur's resistance to external colonizing forces, on the one hand, and, on the other, internal tricks and betrayals of her by her community, she does not tell her own story directly, in spite of her position as a powerful and feared member of her tribe. Why? What meanings attach to a character who is represented with such vehement particularity, but by others? I will argue that the narration itself acts as a medium through which Fleur's agency and power is translated, both visually and acoustically. Moreover, in such a narrative situation, "she" becomes a vibrant combination of circumstances: not only as the one who is spoken for, not only as the narrative container for loss and for the past, but also, as the major story whose multiple components bespeak survival and laughter in the present tense. Simply put, first-person narrators are not the only ones doing the talking. Fleur's voice can be heard as well.

Boelhower's cartographic study can be useful as a visual figuration to help understand how to hear Fleur differently if we use it as an analogy for the situation she represents in Tracks. Turning to the novel, I argue that a certain postmodern stance on history which emphasizes absence and loss may inadvertently duplicate the empty space on the roadmaps Boelhower analyzed. Such an emphasis, when applied to Fleur Pillager, tends to obscure an appreciation of her as an active force of survivance (Gerald Vizenor's familiar concept): a representation of loss, yes, but especially of both survival and resistance. In addition, I argue that Erdrich's strategic mixture of innovation and tradition establishes a non-linear time zone in which Fleur's voice can be heard, not as an "I" of the story, but as a cultural attitude, a tone that speaks of the past, of her homeland, for the future, and for the planet. I also discuss Fleur's identity as a complex blend of two first-person narrators and a third-person overview and, as therefore, inseparable from the environment in which people live the stories they tell about themselves. In that context, a close reading of the swirl of events in Argus alerts readers to a narrative territory that thrives on contradictions and makes what we cannot know as much a part of Fleur's story as what we can know. Finally, I foreground some of the assumptions of trickster tales, appropriate for such a story as Fleur's, which present ancient cycles of suffering and survival as very much alive and relevant in the present, and make possible a reading of her as both an...

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