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Critical Essay by Julie Barak
SOURCE: "Blurs, Blends, Berdaches: Gender Mixing in the Novels of Louise Erdrich," in Studies in American Indian Literatures, Vol. 8, No. 3, Fall 1996, pp. 49-62.
In the following essay, Barak discusses Erdrich's use of gender mixing in the Indian tradition of the figures of the berdache and the trickster.
We have come to the edge of the woods,
out of brown grass where we slept, unseen,
out of leaves creaked shut, out of our hiding.
We have come here too long.
It is their turn now,
their turn to follow us. Listen,
they put down their equipment.
It is useless in the tall brush.
And now they take the first steps, not knowing
how deep the woods are and lightless,
How deep the woods are.
In an interview with Jan George shortly after the publication of her first book of poems, Jacklight, Louise Erdrich comments on the title poem, explaining that "Jacklighting and hunting are both strong metaphors for me of sexual and love relations between men and women. In the male tradition, men are the hunters and women are their prey, but in the poem 'Jacklight,' I am trying to say something like this: If our relationships are going to be human,… men have to follow women into the woods and women likewise. There must be an exchange, a transformation, a power shared between them." "Living in empty country," she says, "the woods to me have always been a place of mystery, shelter. That's where we have to go to find each other."
Erdrich and her husband and collaborator, Michael Dorris, have apparently found each other in that woods. Their many publishing successes in recent years are proof of the strength of their writing relationship, anyway. Both of them describe that writing relationship as a sensual/sexual union. Erdrich explains to Kay Bonetti in a 1988 interview how she and Dorris collaborate: "Michael and I plunge into each other's work with very little ceremony. We plot together, we dream up our characters together, we do everything together, except write the actual drafts, although even the writing is subject to one another's deepest desires." Erdrich describes their joint efforts as "co-conceiving" and says that she feels "more and more that we're seeing out of the same set of eyes … we think each other's thoughts, truly, so it is very much like having one vision." Dorris experiences their relationship in much the same way, noting that "when writing about both male and female characters it is a distinct advantage to have an absolutely trusted and equitable input from someone of the other gender who shares the same vision, almost as an opposite-gender version of yourself."
At one point, early in their collaborating lives, Erdrich and Dorris did join together to publish under a pseudonym, Milou North. The name and their collaborative efforts under it were an experiment, they explain in a 1987 interview with Hertha D. Wong, one that they enjoyed for "the romance of it." They thought it established a sense of mystery for their readers—"You really think that's probably a female, but you don't know." Through their play with authorial gender and the gender blending of their authorial selves in their shared labor they create the exchange and transformation Erdrich sees as necessary in gendered relationships.
Just as they played with their readers' expectations of authorial gender in the creation of that pseudonym, in their collaborative plotting they play with their characters' genders in the discovery stages of their novels. Dorris tells Wong how the character of Rayona in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water evolved during a long car trip he and Erdrich took together:
When we left New Hampshire the book was about a young boy who was coping with his mother's death, and by the time we reached Minnesota it was about a young girl whose mother lives. Since then it has expanded into three parts. One of which is in the mother's voice, and the next in her mother's voice. All of that really evolved out of changing the main character from a male to a female. Louise, I think, proposed that originally. It was hard to think of. It's like sending somebody to Sweden for a sex change operation, but it just worked better.
Erdrich and Dorris play with gender roles and boundaries in other ways, too. Where Rayona's gender is, finally, decided and firm, even though they experimented with it in the early stages of the novel, several characters in their work, especially those in the tetralogy published under Erdrich's name—Love Medicine, Tracks, The Beet Queen, and The Bingo Palace—are "gender-mixed" characters who are described either as exhibiting or in some way acting out opposite sex role mannerisms or behaviors. In developing this line of thought in what follows I will focus almost entirely on the tetralogy and cite these works as Erdrich's. The importance of Dorris's contributions should not be slighted or forgotten, however.
Erdrich develops a fluidity of gender identities in her characters by recreating a gender role available to her through her Native American background—that of the berdache, a powerful figure in many precontact aboriginal societies in North America. In "The North American Berdache" Charles Callender and Lee M. Kochems define the berdache as a "person, usually [but not exclusively] male, who was anatomically normal but assumed the dress, occupations and behavior of the other sex to effect a change in their gender status. This shift was not complete; rather, it was a movement toward a somewhat intermediate status that combined social attributes of males and females."
It is important to note that because many berdaches participated in cross-dressing it was often assumed that berdaches were all homosexual. However, Callender and Kochems believe that this "frequent equation with homosexuality distorts the sexual aspects of berdachehood," and they have found that though berdaches and their spouses or partners were the most consistent participants in homosexual behavior, "their orientations could be bisexual or heterosexual." Several other scholars support Callender and Kochems in this conclusion. Harriet Whitehead, in "The Bow and the Burden Strap: A New Look at Institutionalized Homosexuality in Native North America," asserts that "there is no evidence that homosexual behavior as such was used as a reason for promoting reclassification of an individual to the gender-crossed status. In contradistinction to occupational and clothing choice, cross-sex erotic choice is never mentioned as one of the indicators of the budding berdache." Of female berdaches, or manly-hearted women, Midnight Sun, in "Sex/Gender Systems in Native North America," writes that the role was "only associated with gender status and not cross-dressing or lesbianism."
Many North American tribes attributed a special status to berdaches and recognized them as especially valuable members of the community. Economically, berdaches were a boon to the community because they performed so many tasks so well. Callender and Kochems note that "[m]ale berdaches are consistently described as exceptionally skilled in women's work, while female berdaches showed a similar pattern of excelling in male activities, with hunting most often cited." The berdaches' ability to perform both roles, however, is what made them special to the community. A significant element in the prosperity of a household inhabited by a berdache "rested on the intermediate nature of their gender status, allowing them to combine activities proper to men and to women and maximize their economic opportunities."
Along with their economic success, berdaches were thought to possess many other talents or assets. James Thayer Steel, in "The Berdache of the Northern Plains: A Socioreligious Perspective," details the most common of these. They were often called upon to give children names in naming ceremonies and they were thought to have a special talent in educating children that accompanied a reputation for intelligence. They were seen as match-makers or "love-talkers" because of their ability to move easily between men and women. Moreover, they were reputed to have extremely active sex lives. Many berdaches had reputations as healers, especially good with love medicines, but also with childbirth, insanity, and wounds. Berdaches often oversaw funeral rites. They were thought to be blessed with both a lucky and a long life.
The female berdache is more commonly referred to by anthropologists as a manly-hearted woman. Oscar Lewis, in "Manly-Hearted Women Among the North Piegan," details the qualities that distinguish manly-hearted women from their sisters, noting that aggressiveness, independence, ambition, boldness, and a pronounced sexuality, as well as wealth and maturity, are among her common characteristics. Like the male berdaches, manly-hearted women excel in both men's and women's work. They also often practice medicine. Lewis notes that in contrast to the quiet demeanor of other women, manly-hearted women "do not hesitate to make speeches in crowds, they joke and tease and express opinions and disagreements, just as though they were men. They are often avoided because of their sharp tongues and readiness to defend themselves from criticism by exposing others to ridicule and humiliation." Moreover, manly-hearted women are reputed to be "ikitaki,—passionate women, and their sexual unconventionalities are the subject of much gossip." A woman becomes known as manly-hearted when she "can equal men in their own skills, in personal wealth, in the manipulation of property, in sexual prowess, and in religious participation, [and] break away from the verbalized restrictions applied to [her] sex."
Thayer points out that berdaches were both respected and ridiculed among their people, noting that the berdache "tended to be a marginal figure among the tribal groups of the Plains, but at the same time had a clearly recognized status and clearly defined talents." Because they received the call to become a berdache in a vision they were thought of as holy or special. "However," continues Thayer, "there was also a profound ambivalence towards this figure. On the one hand, his ritual and ceremonial power were highly regarded and his womanly talents highly praised, but because of his awesome vision and exotic life, the berdache also had a feared and avoided place in social relations." Because of their "in-between" status, berdaches in many tribes were treated, not just for a ceremonial moment but for all of their lives, like initiands in rites of passage ceremonies; they were freed from the restrictions of the usual, feared and respected for the powers granted them by their difference.
Many of Erdrich's characters fit, partially or completely, the definition of the berdache detailed above. Some do not, however, and these exceptions are telling in their own ways. A prime example of the disaster of mono-genderedness is Russell Kashpaw in The Beet Queen. Russell is a man—through and through. He was a high school football player, a volunteer for service in and a decorated veteran of three wars, who fell in love with the most stereotypically feminine of all of Erdrich's women, Sita Kozka. He suffers from a series of strokes and heart attacks which leave him completely paralyzed. When he is "displayed" in his uniform with all his medals in the Argus Beet Queen parade, many of the spectators believe that he's "stuffed." Suffering in the same way that Russell does are King, Henry Jr., and Gordie of Love Medicine whom Nora Barry and Mary Prescott describe in "The Triumph of the Brave: Love Medicine's Holistic Vision" as "doomed, but only because they are fixed upon their inabilities to measure up to the demands of traditional masculine ritual, and because they are unable to imagine anything else for themselves."
Some of her male characters are gender-mixed but unable to accept that mix gracefully; they struggle to find a way to live comfortably within it. This was common to many berdaches. They received their call to berdachehood in a vision, but they could refuse to pay heed to that vision, choosing instead to walk a safer, more conventional line. Ignoring a vision, however, often creates difficulties. Wallace Pfef, for example, in The Beet Queen, is aware of his homosexuality, but denies it to his community. Instead, he buys a picture of a pretty young girl at a farm auction and displays it in a prominent place in his living room. He creates a story for the townspeople about their love and her tragic death so that he won't be expected to court or marry any of the women in the community. Like the berdache, Wallace is good at making money. He is also good at both men's and women's tasks. Along with being a prominent citizen in Argus and a sharp businessman, he decorates his new home tastefully and cooks delicious meals, for both his adopted niece, Dot, and for his sometime lover, Karl Adare. He is present at Dot's birth, helping Celestine Jones in any way he can, and in this way is responsible for her naming: Dot's legal name is Wallacette.
Wallace's lover, Karl Adare, is another good example of a gender-mixed character who is uncomfortable with his vision. He is bisexual; he has affairs with both Wallace and Celestine Jones. Descriptions of him in the novel hover between the masculine and the feminine. He, too, has good luck with jobs and money, though he never amasses as much wealth as Wallace. Karl is a wanderer, never settling down long enough to create a niche for himself in any community. He's scared of love—searching constantly for the love his mother took away from him when she flew off into the afternoon sky with Omar the stunt pilot. Hans Bak observes that Karl "harbor[s] both masculine and feminine elements … [and] hovers uneasily in-between, unable to reconcile both sides into a balanced whole, incapable of finding rest or rootedness in either homosexual or heterosexual love, but always vulnerable to the danger of plunging into an underlying void."
Several other male characters in the novels are more comfortably gender-mixed and take on feminine tasks in the tradition of the berdache. Eli Kashpaw, for example, an expert hunter in Love Medicine, adopts June and cares for her. Barry and Prescott point out that "besides sharing with her his knowledge of the woods, he mothers her in a way she can trust." They continue: "Eli's behavior is unorthodox and encourages gossip because in his relationship with June he demonstrates complementary male and female ritual." He also acts as a healer later, in The Beet Queen, when he takes in and cares for his half-brother Russell after his strokes paralyze him.
Old man Nanapush, in Tracks, the "prequel" to Love Medicine, like many berdaches is a healer. His care saves Fleur from death when consumption is raging on the reservation. When Lulu's feet are frozen, he thaws them for her. As he sings a "cure song" to calm her as the blood pours back into her feet, he thinks,
Many times in my life, as my children were born, I wondered what it was like to be a woman, able to invent a human from the extra materials of her own body. In the terrible times, the evils I do not speak of, when the earth swallowed back all it had given me to love, I gave birth in loss. I was like a woman in my suffering, but my children were all delivered into death. It was contrary, backward, but now I had a chance to put things into a proper order.
When Fleur leaves the reservation after losing her land, Nanapush becomes Lulu's guardian, raising her as his own. He is also adept at love medicines, as berdaches often are, providing Eli with the medicine he needs to win Fleur. And, like many berdaches, he is sexually attractive and active, even into his eighties when he takes up with Margaret Kashpaw.
Many of Erdrich's female characters are berdaches or manly-hearted women too, though there are, as with the male characters, exceptions. The tragicomic life of Sita Kozka in The Beet Queen, like Russell Kashpaw's in that same novel, serves as an example of the perils of mono-genderedness. June, in Love Medicine, functions much like Karl Adare and Wallace Pfef do in The Beet Queen. She is called to be and trained in berdache ways, but is unable to accept her intermediate or mixed-gendered status. She has been taught to hunt by Eli; in many ways she is his "son," even dressing like Eli when she is younger. But she refuses this role in life and seeks out feminine, traditional women's roles. Through the course of her life she fails as a beautician, a secretary, and a waitress. She also fails at motherhood, abandoning two sons. Like Wallace and Karl she resists the call of her vision and is tortured by her refusal to answer it. June is one of those who can't be comfortable in accepting a gender mix inside herself.
Pauline in Tracks is, perhaps, another. As is common to many berdache, one of her occupations is overseeing funeral rites. Physically, she is described in both male and female terms. William Gleason, in "'Her Laugh an Ace:' The Function of Humor in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine," says that Pauline's passion is the "repressed rage of latent lesbianism," citing Leopolda's vicious scolding of Marie followed by her sensuous rubbing of liniment in "slow wide circle[s] into Marie's naked back," to support his assertion. Julie Tharp, in "Women's Community and Survival in the Novels of Louise Erdrich," claims, on the contrary, that Pauline's heterosexuality, her jealousy of Fleur's relationship with Eli, "keeps the women wary of one another and creates a vindictive streak within Pauline." Whatever her sexual preference, however, Pauline is definitely a tortured soul in terms of her sexuality, who finally chooses the chastity of the nunnery over sexual relationships with either men or women.
Mary Adare and Celestine James in The Beet Queen are both manly-hearted women. Both of them are economically independent, choosing to remain single and to support themselves, rather than marry. Marie Kashpaw, in Love Medicine, is a manly-hearted woman, too. She has raised herself up economically and socially by marrying Nector Kashpaw and she has, as many manly-hearted women do, made him into the man he is in the community. Lulu Nanapush is another. Lulu is well-known for her sexual promiscuity. She is bold about her sexual history, though, and like the manly-hearted woman she is unafraid to boast about her exploits. In Love Medicine, she hears people whispering "bitch" and "All those Lamartine sons by different fathers" behind her back during a tribal meeting. As a manly-hearted woman, she speaks up. "'I'll name all of them,' I offered in a very soft voice. 'The fathers … I'll point them out for you right here'."
However, Fleur is the quintessential berdache or manly-hearted woman. She is a good hunter, better than most men on the reservation. She is big and strong, capable of lifting sides of beef and pork by herself and of hauling her cart of odds and ends for sale throughout the community. She has great luck in cards, winning enough in her stay in Argus to pay taxes on her land for two or three years and, years later, winning her land back in a game of cards with Jewett Parker Tatro, the former Indian agent who had acquired her land in her absence. She lives alone, until Eli falls in love with her and comes to join her. Then their sexual exploits give the reservation plenty to talk about. She is also a healer, collecting medicines and distributing them. She saves Marie's life in childbirth. Lipsha goes to Fleur for love medicine in The Bingo Palace. Like many berdaches she is both feared and respected for her powers in her community.
I've detailed descriptions of only a few of the berdache characters in Erdrich's work. Lyman Lamartine, Gerry Nanapush, and Lipsha Morrisey also possess berdache characteristics. Shawnee Ray and her sisters, Mary Fred and Tammy, Zelda Kashpaw, Dot Adare, and Rushes Bear are among the women characters whom one could consider to be manly-hearted. Erdrich's reasons for blurring and blending gender borders in so many of her characters can, perhaps, be understood by comparing it to the other transformational or border-crossing characters in Native American myth.
In "Why Bears are Good to Think and Theory Doesn't Have to Be Murder: Transformation and Oral Tradition in Louise Erdrich's Tracks," Joni Adamson Clarke discusses the bear's importance to Chippewa myth. Bears were considered "quasi-human in anatomy, erect carriage, a cradling of young with the forearms, enjoyment of sweets and liquors, manner of drinking liquid, shows of intelligence, and inclination to moderate behavior despite great physical strength…. Moreover, a bear's life cycle, moving from hibernation in winter to reemergence in the spring, made him seem at once a symbol of both life and death." Clarke claims that "by thinking or 'playing' with the bear's human-like qualities and seasonal cycle, formerly sharp borders—like those between animal and human, life and death—fade and 'novelty emerges from unprecedented combinations of familiar elements'." Mixed-gender characters in Erdrich's fiction are "good to think" in this same way because, "as Judith Butler points out in her discussion of the subversion of gendered identity, 'perpetual displacement constitutes a fluidity of identities that suggests an openness to resignification and recontextualization'."
Erdrich's texts promote an openness to "resignification and recontextualization" not only by blurring gender boundaries but also by blurring other boundaries. Many of her characters are, for example, ethnically mixed and their genealogies and family relationships are hard to trace. Moreover, Erdrich blurs narrative lines in her fiction, fracturing her story line by employing many different narrative voices. Other critics have observed how Erdrich's work crosses genre boundaries and have attributed her power as a story teller to that aspect of her writing. Ann Rayson, in "Shifting Identity in the Work of Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris," cites a review of their jointly-authored novel, The Crown of Columbus, in which the reviewer claims it is "a very mixed bag" that "tries on too many costumes—domestic comedy, paperback thriller, novel of character, love story—and finally decides that, unable to make up its mind, it will simply wear them all at once." Rayson believes that "[i]n this artistic synthesis lies the power of Louis Erdrich and Michael Dorris and the challenge to critics who would seek a clear female or ethnic voice to legitimize theories of feminist and Native American literature."
Geoffrey Galt Harpham, in On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature, observes that "genre, genus, and genitals are linked in language as in our subconscious." Erdrich's blurring of all three in her fiction creates a grotesque art that "threatens the notion of a center by implying coherencies just out of reach, metaphors or analogies just beyond our grasp…. Looking at ourselves looking at the grotesque, we can observe our own projections, catching ourselves, as it were, in the act of perception." Erdrich's play along the boundary lines of genre, genus, and genitals acts in exactly this way in her novels. In her play with gender borders, in particular, she is attempting to break down her reader's notions of traditional gender roles by creating, over and over again, characters who cross over and through traditional gender definitions, who cannot be classified, who refuse to fit the traditional mold.
There is a connection, obviously, between the berdache figure and the figure of the trickster. Many critics have decoded Erdrich's characters as tricksters. The name of one of the main characters in Tracks is Nanapush, one of the linguistic variants of the name of the Chippewa trickster. This name is shared by two other characters in the text: Lulu Nanapush, his adopted daughter, and her son Gerry Nanapush. Several other characters in the novel inherit trickster traits from her or her son, most notably another of her sons, Lyman Lamartine, and Gerry's son, Lipsha Morrisey. Gerry's sometime lover, June Morrisey, as well as Mary Adare and her brother Karl, from The Beet Queen, have also been identified convincingly as trickster figures in recent criticism. The question to deal with here is not whether these characters are tricksters (there is certainly no lack of evidence to support that assertion) but rather how the blurred gender traits of so many of Erdrich's characters fit into the trickster motif.
In "A Tolerated Margin of Mess: The Trickster and His Tales Reconsidered," Barbara Babcock-Abrahams discusses the ambivalence of the trickster's character, labeling such characters "dialogic phenomena." She believes that "the ambivalence and the contradictions with which Trickster's tales abound are not proof, as Radin and others imply, of an incapacity to differentiate true from false, good from evil, beneficence from malevolence. Rather, they express the generative situation of ambivalence and contradictions that are the very basis of culture" (italics mine). Furthermore, she asserts that "the mediating figure of Trickster does not represent a regression to a primal, undifferentiated unity but is created in response to a present and constant perception of opposition" (italics mine). The plethora of mixed-gendered tricksters in Erdrich is her literary response to the present and constant perception of opposition in her life and in the lives of her characters. The fact that so many of her characters are mixed-gendered tricksters leads to the conclusion that one of the most threatening aspects of contemporary life in America is its insistence on strictly bifurcated gendered behavior.
Like so many of Erdrich's characters the trickster figure often crosses over gender borders. In one story in the Winnebago trickster cycle, for example, the trickster decides to find a home for himself one cold winter by disguising himself as a woman using an elk's liver and kidneys to create a false vulva. He presents himself to the chief of a nearby village, is accepted into the family, marries the chief's son and bears three sons. Later, while being teased by his mother-in-law, he loses his false vulva; his identity is discovered and he is forced to flee. Trickster's gender switching in this story functions in quite the same way that bears function in Ojibway/Anishinabe myth; trickster's crossing over encourages an openness to a fluidity of identities that can lead to resignification and recontextualization of traditional binary relationships.
Many definitions of trickster label him or her as a liminal figure, living on the edges of the worlds of animal and human, physical and spiritual, male and female. Like trickster, many of Erdrich's characters live in-between worlds—and not just gender worlds. Fleur, for example, is often thought of by others and depicted in their stories as a bear-woman, a fish-woman, a spirit-woman. We are told very emphatically several times in Nanapush's story that he lives at a crossroads in the town. He is also one of the only survivors from "before the white people," crossing the borders between the old and the new ways. Gerry Nanapush is both a hero and a villain. Lipsha's return to the reservation after a long absence is described in all sorts of "in-between" ways: "He slid through the crowd during the middle of an Intertribal song. We saw him edge against the wall to watch the whirling dancers, and immediately we had to notice that there was no place the boy could fit" (Bingo Palace, italics mine).
Victor Turner points out in "Betwixt and Between: Liminal Period" that "in liminal situations, neophytes are sometimes treated or symbolically represented as being neither male nor female. Alternatively, they may be symbolically assigned characteristics of both sexes, irrespective of their biological sex." Turner believes that the grotesqueness and the monstrosity that such gender negation or blurring imply are not
aimed so much at terrorizing or bemusing neophytes into submission or out of their wits as at making them vividly and rapidly aware of what may be called the "factors" of their culture…. Elements are withdrawn from their usual setting and combined with one another in a totally unique configuration, startling neophytes [and I believe other participants, too, observers or readers for example] into thinking about objects, persons, relationships and features of their environment they have hitherto taken for granted.
As liminal figures, berdaches and tricksters serve this same purpose in Erdrich's fiction, working between worlds to raise questions about accepted patterns of thought and action.
When Lipsha returns to the reservation at the beginning of The Bingo Palace, people are confused, not only about where he fits in but also about what sort of person he is. The description of who he is not emphasizes his mixed genderedness and his status as a liminal figure.
He was not a tribal council honcho, not a powwow organizer, not a medic in the cop's car in the parking lot, no one we would trust with our life. He was not a member of the drum group, not a singer, not a candy-bar seller. Not a little old Cree lady with a scarf tied under her chin, a thin pocketbook in her lap, and a wax cup of coke, not one of us. He was not a fancy dancer with a mirror on his head and bobbing porcupine-hair roach, not a traditional, not a shawl girl whose parents beaded her from head to foot. He was not our grandfather, either, with the face like clean old-time chewed leather, who prayed over the microphone, head bowed. He was not even one of those gathered at the soda machines outside the doors, the ones who wouldn't go into the warm and grassy air because of being drunk or too much in love or just bashful. He was not the Chippewa with rings pierced in her nose or the old aunt with water dripping through her fingers or the announcer with a ragged face and a drift of plumes on his indoor hat.
He is not male or female, not old or young, not in or out of the tribe. "He was none of these, only Lipsha, come home."
What Lipsha's reappearance and his antics do for the community is to help them revise their thinking about themselves as individuals and their goals as a community; his actions are a catalyst in the community's re-visioning experience. He is a "combination" character, a berdache figure, whose strength comes from his special role in the community and from the ways he is "mixed." Turner believes that "during the liminal period, neophytes are alternately forced and encouraged to think about their society, their cosmos, and the powers that generate and sustain them. Liminality may be partly described as a stage of reflection." It creates an unsettled situation in which "there is a promiscuous intermingling and juxtaposing of the categories of event, experience, and knowledge, with a pedagogic intention." Lipsha certainly learns his lesson in The Bingo Palace, and there is great hope at the end of the novel that, as the person in whom much of the community is joined, he will be able to share it with them.
Robert Pelton believes that "the trickster is not an archetypal idea, but a symbolic pattern that includes a wide range of individual figures." He calls trickster "a sort of inspired handyman, tacking together the bits and pieces of experience until they become what they are—a web of many-layered meaning." According to Pelton, the trickster represents the human race "individually and communally seizing the fragments of his experience and discovering in them an order sacred by its very wholeness." Hence, "the trickster discloses the radically human character of the whole cosmos," while at the same time "he shows the holiness of ordinary life." In many ways, Erdrich entreats her readers to join the carnival of her text in this role of "inspired handyman," to join together the pieces of her narrative strategies, genre crossings, and gender blurrings to create their own quilt of a text. The reader becomes the trickster, responsible for making the pieces fit for herself and for those for whom she interprets the text.
In Love Medicine, Lipsha begins "to see how instantly the ground can shift you thought was solid. You see how all the everyday things you counted on was just a dream you had been having by which you run your whole life." This is the message that readers of Erdrich's fiction begin to see, too. Her narrative strategies impress the reader with the idea that neither individual nor collective points of view are reliable or consistent. Her play with the berdache role nudges the reader toward seeing that this is also true of hegemonic gender expectations. Every kind of firm belief, in fact, becomes suspect. Everything is a puzzle, there is no one "true" way to solve it, the pieces never fit together in only one way. Nothing can be assumed, everything has gestaltic possibilities, the facts keep rotating gyroscopically, offering ever-changing possibilities. Just as Shawnee Ray puts together a ribbon shirt for Lipsha at the end of The Bingo Palace from "brown, calico, blue, cream, salmon trim—fitting the collar to the shoulders, figuring out the way she would join the ribbons at the yoke … [piecing in] scraps of other projects—turquoise, black and yellow satin," so the reader must put together a new view of gender roles and possibilities and of other generally held truths.
In the last chapter of The Bingo Palace, Fleur packs her sled with her ancestors' bones and takes them with her on her journey into death, trading her life for the life of her great-grandson, Lipsha. She doesn't leave them for good, however. Bear and berdache, she keeps them asking essential questions about themselves and their lives. Often in the night they hear her "bear laugh" as she watches them through the panes of window glass:
yet, no matter how we strain to decipher the sound it never quite makes sense, never relieves our certainty or our suspicion that there is more to be told, more than we know, more than can be caught in the sieve of our thinking … and all night our lesser hearts beat to the sound of the spirit's drum, through those anxious hours when we call our lives to question.
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