We open with a scene of mass murder. A child (Moses, Kal-El) is spared when the killer’s weapon jams. He quiets the baby with music. Violence and music permeate the following tales and only at the very end do we learn who the baby grew up to be and the identity of the killer. There are other atrocities to come. How these events came to be and the ongoing impact of time and transformation define this book.
Multiple narrators, multiple generations, much overlap between Native Americans and European settlers. This is apparently typical of her work. I began my character catalog by dividing between Native and European, but it became clear in time that there was too much intermarriage for that to be truly meaningful. I suppose one could add a “mixed-blood” section, but then what about quatroons, et al.
One narrator, Evelina, relates the stories told by her grandfather, Seraph Milk, also known as Mooshum. There are many to be told. In one striking scene, set in 1896, masses of passenger pigeons are devouring all the crops and seem biblical in their pestilential impact. Very grabbing. Other events are far too familiar, bigotry, lynching, murders, madness, greed. The characters are interesting and the stories intriguing. There are many characters and I often had trouble keeping them straight. In fact, entire train rides (I do most of my reading while commuting on the subway) were sometimes taken up with cataloguing them. This book needs a family tree illustration to help the reader keep track of the characters. (a comment I saw often repeated when I searched for information about the author on line).
There are many tales in this book, taking place over several generations in North Dakota. It is almost as if Erdrich had collected short stories
and used a central core of blood relations to unite them. In fact, the acknowledgements section notes several magazines and short story collections in which parts of the book had previously appeared, lending support to that notion. I still do not know if the book was intended originally as a novel or pieced together from short stories.
So, who killed the family and who was the spared child? We get there in good time, with many side trips to the branches of the local family trees. It is a rewarding journey with stories that grab and hold on, sometimes magical language, and memorable characters.
This is a book worth re-reading. Once one has a sense of the whole, it becomes easier to pick out the elements, the relationships, the literary elements when traveling the path a second time, to see how Erdrich traces the echo of events down the corridors of time.
Highly recommended, but take your time, keep track and savor.
in trade paper - 4/23/13