When St. Thomas freshmen came to hear Louise Erdrich speak last fall about her novel, The Antelope Wife, they were looking for some clarification, hoping she would weave all the novel’s symbols together into a tapestry that they could touch and understand. Instead, she gave them a weaving of beads, entertaining clusters of color to string together their own patterns of belief, knowledge and understanding.
Erdrich, a critically acclaimed and popular novelist, talked leisurely with the audience, almost all of whom were required to read her sixth novel as the fall common text for freshmen. Although she rarely speaks publicly, and usually only to support Native American causes, Erdrich seemed happy to visit with students.
Casual, frank and approachable, she seemed more like a friend sharing stories than an award-winning novelist. Erdrich is the author of several novels, including Love Medicine, The Beet Queen and Tracks, and two books of poetry. The Antelope Wife, published in 1998, garnered her third nomination for a National Book Award.
Erdrich, whose father is German American and her mother French Ojibwe, is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Born in 1954, she is the oldest of seven children. Her books have explored themes such as the will to survive, the struggle for identity and how Ojibwe cultural tradition is passed from one generation to another.
In The Antelope Wife, beadwork, a revered Native American art, is used metaphorically to explore another theme: the relationship between chance and destiny.
"While I was writing this story, my mother sponsored a bead group at her house," Erdrich said. "I became interested in the meditative quality of actually doing the beading. All of us would be sitting at a table beading and there would be this increasingly calm feeling of everybody being engrossed in the same task. It seemed to me as though it was an element of the world’s creation; that this very female work that women did communally was somehow connected to the very beginnings of the world."
And so the novel begins, "Ever since the beginning these twins are sewing. One sews with light and one with dark. The first twin’s beads are cut-glass whites and pales, and the other twin’s beads are glittering deep red and blue-black indigo."
The Antelope Wife is an intricate and compelling text, full of humor and tragedy; however, it is not a novel for the casual reader.
It features several characters (some of whom are wholly or partially animal) and points of view — all recreated by one person, Cally. The novel begins with the story of a Native American baby rescued by cavalry soldier Scranton Roy. A few years later she is found by her mother, Blue Prairie Woman, who, as she is dying, calls to the antelope to take care of her daughter. The rest of the novel takes place in Minneapolis with the present-day ancestors of Roy and Blue Prairie Woman, one of whom is Cally. In her retelling of various characters’ stories, she imagines their points of view, including that of a dog.
The alternating time frames and points of view and the unclear relationship of characters, some of whom have the same name as their ancestors, had some of its freshman readers confused. A student in Dr. Andy Scheiber’s Critical Reading and Writing class wondered why they were even reading it.
Common texts are chosen according to how they fit the criteria chosen by English professors, he told them. "We want common texts that present a real challenge to students and teachers. They should be contemporary so that teachers have not had a chance to become ‘experts’ on the text. The novel must have literary merit and explore diversity issues."
Class participants shared their initial reactions to the novel: "There’s no beginning, middle, end," said one student. "It jumps all around," said another. Scheiber listened to his students’ angst and then explained the novel’s narrative structure as circular, not linear — "a story form that works well with Erdrich’s imagination," he said.
Erdrich explained, "I really wanted to have this sense — because of the beadwork weaving in and out — of weaving time and weaving the stories, because of the twins at the beginning of the novel weaving together the form of the world."
Before teaching the novel, the English Department faculty had talked about strategies for dealing with the genealogy in the book. "Some said that we shouldn’t provide a genealogy because it would be like giving students a crutch," Scheiber said. "I took a different approach. I created a family tree and I told students, ‘If your confusion is impeding your enjoyment of this novel, then look at this genealogy.’"
The English Department Web site offered students links to sites about Erdrich, Ojibwe language and culture, and the history of beadwork.
Scheiber guided his students past their hesitation to comment on the novel, by asking their reactions to hearing Erdrich speak the week before.
One student commented that she had been waiting to hear how the symbols in the book were significant to Native Americans or to Erdrich’s tribe.
"She doesn’t want readers to restrict the meaning (of her written words)," Scheiber explained. "We wouldn’t have much to talk about if Louise gave us a definitive answer. She tells a story and there are many different ways it could make sense."
In Abigail Davis’ freshman English course, two of her students chose an innovative approach to the novel. As discussion leaders for one class, Melissa Kerr and Pat Kroeger gave their classmates and teacher assignments involving colored beads, needles and thread. They instructed Davis to first create a menu using the foods from the novel, such as roasted elk, wild rice and the German pastry blitzkuchen. Then she was told to use beads to show the connection between food and people.
"It was fun," Davis said. "It was very inventive. The students did some really beautiful work."
One assignment they gave to a student group was to use beads to develop a pictorial representation of the animals portrayed in the story and their relationships to people.
"I think the class enjoyed a break from the norm," said Kerr, a native of Marshalltown, Iowa. "Pat’s beading idea sounded like a fun way to gain a greater understanding of the story." She admitted her hesitation when she began the novel. "Erdrich’s style of writing was hard for me to get used to, and there were parts of the book that seemed unsettling to me, but through class discussion I’ve developed a better understanding and greater appreciation for the novel."
Davis describes The Antelope Wife as one of Erdrich’s tougher books. "The biggest stumbling blocks were the complicated family relationships, the leaps in generations and flashbacks and that it’s not told in a linear fashion. It also was difficult getting my students to willfully suspend disbelief and to accept the Native American myths and legends in the book as being active parts of people’s daily lives. For students who don’t have experience reading this kind of fiction, it’s hard."
That’s why Davis required her students to read two other Native American texts and attend two of six events on campus related to Native American issues.
"I think the majority of the students were glad that they learned so much about contemporary Native American life this semester," Davis said. "I was aiming at not just limiting their understanding to one book (The Antelope Wife), but to look at Native American culture and life today. I think they see things differently now."
While on campus, Erdrich also met informally with students in an upper-level fiction-writing class and gave an evening lecture about the female characters in her novels. That talk was part of the Mythic Women Series sponsored by the Luann Dummer Center for Women at St. Thomas. It also was part of the university’s annual Sacred Arts Festival, which featured a Native American theme this year. Erdrich’s younger sister, poet Heid Erdrich — an assistant professor of English at St. Thomas — gave a reading of her works during the festival.
Louise’s new book, The Master Butcher’s Singing Club, will be published by HarperCollins this fall, and she is working on a sequel to Tracks. She also owns Birchbark Books, Herbs and Native Arts in Minneapolis. Louise lives in Minneapolis with her four youngest daughters.