“How can I tell you this? How can I make you see?” Nanapush, the Ojibwa narrator, asks us. “Sometimes it is too difficult for even an old man, one who loves to sling words.” But sling words he does: masterful phrases that captivate, enchant, and sometimes horrify readers of Louise Erdrich’s 2004 novel, Four Souls—one of several novels or stories that have profoundly influenced my conception of first-person voice. Some of the passages in this story are so rich in imagery, metaphor, and personification they could stand alone as narrative poems.
This is not surprising; for in addition to being a prolific novelist and the author of children’s books and creative non-fiction, Louise Erdrich has also published several books of verse. In Four Souls, she makes full use of her poet’s sensibility, channeling it into the narrative voice of Nanapush, a wise but cantankerous old man who spins a tale like few others can.
Nanapush, one of the three narrators who deliver this story of loss and revenge, is the adoptive father of Fleur Pillager, an enigmatic, cunning, and fiercely-independent Ojibwa woman. Physically beautiful, men fall her way “like notched trees.” But unfortunately, as Nanapush metaphorically tells readers, she “treat[s] them that way too, and burn[s] them with her heat or use[s] them for her purpose.” This is precisely her intention when, in the novel’s opening, she sets off on foot to wend her way into the resplendent home and life of a wealthy white man, and to kill him.
John James Mauser, a millionaire lumberman, has generated much of his fortune over the years by acquiring and clear-cutting American Indian lands in the upper Midwest. But what specifically draws Fleur toward this unfamiliar milieu, and compels her to enact vengeance, is that Mauser’s new mansion in Minneapolis is built from trees recently cut and stolen from her family’s ancestral grounds around the sacred Lake Matchimanito. But it is not simply the lumber. For Fleur—and obviously too the narrator, old Nanapush—the mansion as a whole looms as a grotesque insult upon the Ojibwa, embodying the amalgamated sins of a conquering people. When describing the Mauser home in chapter one, author Erdrich, through the voice of Nanapush, gives readers the most concentrated example of flowing, poetic narrative in the novel. It is at once a magnificent and horrific list of shame—an elegiac indictment of environmental, racial, and class exploitation. She begins with the decorative touches, including the
…fine lace produced by young women whose mothers had once worked the quills of porcupines and dyed hairs of moose together into intricate clawed flowers and strict emblems before they died of measles, cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, and left their daughters dexterous and lonely to the talents of nuns.
Erdrich continues the almost hypnotic passage with a dense and vivid description of some of the other building materials. And in doing so, the indictment expands in reach and scope. With great poetic instinct, she plants clues in her list indicating that Fleur Pillager and her fellow Ojibwa were not the only victims of Mauser’s destructive extravagance:
The chimneys were constructed of a type of brick requiring the addition of blood, and so, baked in the vicinity of a slaughterhouse, they would exude when there was fire lighted a scorched, physical odor. Iron for the many skeleton keys…the griddles…the Moorish-inspired turned railings…was mined on the Mesabi Range by Norwegians and Sammi so gut-shot with hunger they didn’t care if they were trespassing on anybody’s hunting ground or not and just kept on digging deeper, deeper into the earth.
On the list goes, leading to the final section of this passage: a two-paragraph narrative ode to the house itself that reads like a rap sheet, albeit a poetic one. Excerpted below, it begins with a few non-poetic introductory sentences that lay out some necessary backstory elements; chiefly, that the Minneapolis mansion was originally intended not simply for Mauser alone, but also his first wife, Placide (Fleur will eventually become his second). Moreover, it establishes that the marriage of John James and Placide has been unsatisfactory at best—sexually and emotionally barren. A greedy man on the climb, he had married her “for money, maybe worse.” And while the two have never really had each other in the sense of a relationship, they have—at the story’s beginning, at least—shared a life of sorts within the walls of this house. Consequently, and fittingly, Erdrich begins many of of the metaphorical lines that follow with the phrase: “this house.”
…this house of chimneys whose bricks contained the blood of pigs and calves so that the greasy sadness drifted in the festive rooms….this house of tears of lace constructed of a million tiny knots of useless knowledge….This house of windows hung with the desperations of dark virgins….this house of stacked sandstone colored the richest clay-red and lavender hue. Once this stone had formed the live heart of sacred islands. Now it was a fashionable backdrop to their ambitions….They had this house of crushed hands and horses dropping in padded collars….This house under which there might as well have been a child sacrificed, to lie underneath the corner beam’s sunk sill, for money that remained unpaid for years to masons and to drivers was simple as food snatched outright.
At last, this epic, first-chapter poetic narrative closes with a brief passage that also serves as segue, returning readers’ attentions to Fleur and reminding them of the crusade of vengeance she has embarked upon:
This house…made of wood, fine-grained, very old-grown, quartersawn oak that still in its season and for many years after would exude beads of thin sap—as though recalling growth and life on the land belonging to Fleur Pillager and the shores of Matchimanito, beyond.
Louise Erdrich gives old Nanapush ample opportunity to sling words each time his turn to narrate comes around, as it does time and again throughout the novel. Each time, he delivers the tale like a master. And while the passages presented here are certainly the most concentrated examples of narrative poetry in the novel, it is only a portion of the total story. The poetic authority that Erdrich brings to her character narrator is evident throughout the book. Four Souls, like all of the author’s novels, is a treat for readers who respect the beauty and density of language. And for writers of fiction, it is a humbling experience to encounter it—a work of art, deserving close study.