- Louise Erdrich: Tracks, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, The Plague of Doves ed. by Deborah L. Madsen
In Louise Erdrich: Tracks, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, The Plague of Doves, editor Deborah L. Madsen brings together nine original essays—three focused on each novel—that together give both new and experienced readers a superbly insightful and innovative glimpse into the vast array of critical approaches to lauded American writer Louise Erdrich. The essay collection’s structure, which helps achieve its goal of being “engaging and clear however complex the subject” (viii), is perhaps its greatest contribution to its readability. Madsen, who also contributes an informative introduction to each trio of essays, introduces the entire volume in “Louise Erdrich: The Aesthetics of Mino Bimaadiziwin.” Moreover, each essay is itself divided into sections that summarize the forthcoming essay, provide a situated research review, demonstrate close readings and careful development of the argument, and add a summative conclusion.
For experienced readers of literary criticism, this approach can seem artificial, even obvious, and it does constrain attempts at rhetorical or structural creativity; however, after making my way through several essays, the structure proved illuminating. The academic essay is an artifice that few scholars break from; Madsen’s collection foregrounds the various components, a useful tactic for undergraduate and graduate students looking to understand, not merely imitate, the expectations for a scholarly essay. For general readers, the structure provides needed directional clarity without simplifying the arguments presented. Endnotes are at a minimum, and the volume has a short, valuable section on additional reading. The “Works Cited” list alone is a fascinating catalogue of key scholarly texts on Native American literature and Erdrich studies.
As editor, Madsen deftly guides readers through key information. Her primary introduction concisely and smartly covers the key controversies surrounding Native American literature in general and Erdrich scholarship in particular. Personal, tribal, and historical background, as well as developments and debates in the scholarship, bring readers up to date. Throughout the volume, Madsen points out various ways many of the essays are in conversation with one another, taking up themes from different perspectives. For example, one of the most confounding and disturbing of Erdrich’s characters, Pauline Puyat, the mixed-blood character that becomes the fanatically religious Sister Leopolda, is revisited in several essays in the collection. Allan Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin’s essay, “A Bowen Family Systems Reading of Tracks,” offers readers an elaborated discussion of the Bowen Family Systems theory and the likely ways in which family members respond to anxiety in order to apply the theory to Pauline/Sister Leopolda. This application of a very specific theoretical approach initially seems artificial but eventually proves to have considerable explanatory power. [End Page 310] In the following essay, “‘I knew there never was another martyr like me’: Pauline Puyat, Historical Trauma, and Tracks,” Connie A. Jacobs engages trauma theory (providing an excellent and succinct review of it) in order to examine the weight of historical trauma on indigenous peoples and thus to interpret Pauline’s victimization by it. Because Pauline/Sister Leopolda returns in The Last Report on the Miracles of Little No Horse as the focus of an investigation to determine her potential for canonization, essays in part II return to this ambiguous and disturbing character and form a range of possible interpretations that expand, enlighten, and even generate empathy for her.
Each of the essays included in this volume pulls its weight. There is no outlier or identifiably weak essay, and it is clear that all the contributions were written with the collection’s goals of clarity and accessibility in mind. However, that doesn’t mean they are simple. Rather, these are among the most engaged, thoroughly researched, and, in a few cases, edgy readings of Erdrich’s fiction to date. Moreover, the essays serve the reader well by demonstrating how to situate one’s reading within the discipline. For example, in part II, The Last...