Louise Erdrich | Critical Essay by Susan Castillo

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Louise Erdrich.
This section contains 3,242 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Susan Castillo

Critical Essay by Susan Castillo

SOURCE: "Women Aging into Power: Fictional Representations of Power and Authority in Louise Erdrich's Female Characters," in Studies in American Indian Literatures, Vol. 8, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 13-20.

In the following essay, Castillo examines issues of women and power in Erdrich's novels.

Some years ago, when I was casting around for a topic for my Ph.D. thesis, I was struck, as I read so-called canonical authors, by the number of female protagonists in American literature who come to unsavory or untimely ends. Heroines, particularly those who challenge prevailing social and cultural norms, are all too prone to every sort of disaster: they are either condemned to social ostracism (as is the case with Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter or Sister Carrie in the novel by the same name by Theodore Dreiser) or die in ways which are more or less aesthetically appealing (as is the case with Hawthorne's Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance, Henry James's heroine Daisy Miller, Kate Chopin's Edna Pontellier, and so very many others).

In our own century, however, it is curious that female protagonists who actually manage not only to survive but actually to prevail and even prosper can be found in significant numbers in popular fiction and in fiction by so-called "ethnic" or minority writers. Perhaps for this reason, I have found novels by Native American women particularly attractive. When I began to read Leslie Silko's Ceremony, for example, I was fascinated by the roles attributed to women. The narrative is focused through a female deity, Ts'its'tsi'nako, Spider Woman, weaver of ideas and source of discursive authority. The women in the novel own land and work magic, and it is they who are largely responsible for the cure of Tayo, the male protagonist. In novels by other Native American women writers, we can encounter similar portrayals of Indian women as figures of strength and power. Some of the most fascinating examples of this phenomenon can be found in the texts of Chippewa writer Louise Erdrich.

The subject of women and the exercise of power has been, as one might expect, the source of intense polemic. In the anthology Women, Culture and Society, anthropologist Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo has come to some insights which I feel can be useful not only for the field of anthropology but also for the analysis of representations of gender roles. Rosaldo, drawing on the work of Max Weber and M. G. Smith, distinguishes between the concepts of power and authority. In this perspective, power is "the ability to act effectively on persons or things to make or secure favorable decisions which are not of right allocated to the individuals or their roles." Authority, on the other hand, is socially validated and implies a hierarchical chain of command and control. In this view, women have always exercised considerable power (particularly in the domestic realm), while men have retained authority, which is a culturally legitimated phenomenon. Among many Native American groups, women in traditional narratives are accorded both power and authority. However, in contemporary America, when Native American women are marginalized by traditional patriarchal structures not only because they are women but also because they are Native American, it is often the case that the texts they produce will portray women of power, though not necessarily of authority. It should also be noted, nonetheless, that in recent years increasing numbers of female characters who exercise both power and authority have begun to emerge in Native American fictional narratives.

Within the corpus of Louise Erdrich's fiction, two female characters have always held a particular fascination for me: Marie Lazarre and Zelda Kashpaw. Like most of Erdrich's characters, both Marie and Zelda are complex, often maddening, full of contradictions, and above all eminently real.

Marie's childhood is the antithesis of a Norman Rockwell-style Anglo-American idyll. She is the illegitimate daughter of Pauline Puyat, who appears in Erdrich's novel Tracks as a member of a family of "mixed bloods, skinners in the clan for which the name was lost." Pauline is an immensely powerful (though not authoritative) figure, though she uses her power toward negative and often self-destructive ends as she struggles to become assimilated into so-called mainstream America. She becomes pregnant by Napoleon Morrissey, described as belonging to a family of mixed-bloods who had profited from acquiring allotments that more traditional Chippewas had not known how to hold on to. Marie, the product of their union (if such it can be called), is delivered with spoons instead of forceps. After her birth, Pauline leaves her to be raised by her grandmother Bernardette Morissey and then enters a convent as Sister Leopolda. Marie ends up living in the woods with her Lazarre relatives, who have a reputation for being dishonest, dirty, and indolent.

Marie, however, is anything but a typical Lazarre. She is a bewildering mixture of toughness and compassion, of tenderness and astringent candor. Perhaps inevitably, she enters her mother's convent. There Pauline/Leopolda, who is totally deranged but nonetheless radiates a certain dark power, terrorizes the unsuspecting Marie by claiming that the devil is within her and, finally, by pouring boiling water into her ear in an effort to exorcize evil. Marie, despite her apparent docility, is no weakling either and retaliates by attempting to push Leopolda into a bread oven in an episode that reminds one of Hansel and Gretel, who end up cooking the Wicked Witch. Leopolda's wrath is terrible to behold, but Marie is not cowed:

She was fearfully silent. She whirled. Her veil had cutting edges. She had the poker in one hand. In the other she held that long sharp fork she used to tap the delicate crusts of loaves. Her face turned upside down on her shoulders. Her face turned blue. But saints are used to miracles. I felt no trace of fear.

If I was going to be lost, let the diamonds cut! Let her eat ground glass!

"Bitch of Jesus Christ!" I shouted. "Kneel and beg! Lick the floor!"

That was when she stabbed me through the hand with the fork, then look the poker up alongside my head, and knocked me out.

Needless to say, this is hardly an idyllic vision of the mother-daughter relationship. The surreal imagery of Pauline with blue inverted face, holding aloft the fork and poker as she whirls like a demented dervish, is one of immense tragicomic impact. Erdrich describes her as an adolescent made of "angles and sharp edges, a girl of bent tin," and the description still holds true of her as an adult. But Marie is her mother's child in many ways, and she has inherited Pauline's courage as well as her power, though fortunately not her insanity. This enables her to stand up to what would often seem a mad or profoundly unjust reality. Though "mainstream" society would dismiss both Pauline and Marie as persons without authority, as merely an addled nun and an insignificant half-breed girl, both are powerful and disturbing characters who stay vivid in the reader's mind.

As one might expect, Marie ends up fleeing from the convent. In doing so, she literally crashes into Nector Kashpaw. Nector, who describes her as "the youngest daughter of a family of horse-thieving drunks," is convinced she has robbed a pillowcase from the convent, and thus stops her in order to recover the stolen goods. Marie, after calling him "you damn Indian" and telling him "You stink to hell!," kicks him as hard as she can. But after this most unpromising beginning, she and Nector marry. Nector is an amiable weakling, a man who is clever and charming (all too charming, as things turn out, especially to the sexy widow Lulu Nanapush). He plaintively expresses his feelings for Marie (and indeed for Lulu) in the following terms: "Her taste was bitter. I craved the difference after all those years of easy sweetness. But I still had a taste for candy. I could never have enough of both…." He is prone to indolence and to a certain tendency to drink more than is good for him. Marie decides to use her power, however, to propel Nector into a position of authority:

I had plans, and there was no use him trying to get out of them. I'd known from the beginning I had married a man with brains. But the brains wouldn't matter unless I kept him from the bottle. He would pour them down the drain, where his liquor went, unless I stopped the holes, wore him out, dragged him back each time he drank, and tied him to the bed with strong ropes.

I had decided I was going to make him into something big on the reservation.

Indeed she does: Nector ends up as tribal chairman. Significantly, though Marie is by far the stronger figure of the two, she does not aspire to a position of authority on her own behalf.

Marie's daughter Zelda, when she appears in the novel Love Medicine, is similar to her mother and grandmother Leopolda in that she is fascinated by the all-female world of the convent, a realm in which women exercise both power and authority. In one unforgettable scene, Marie takes Zelda up to the convent to meet Sister Leopolda. Marie flaunts her respectability and social clout on the reservation before Leopolda. Regarding Nector's position as tribal chairman, she states baldly, "He is what he is because I made him." We can paraphrase the words "because I made him" in two ways: because she has literally forced him to achieve the chairmanship, and also because he is very much her creation. Leopolda reacts by diving under the bed for an iron spoon (as we recall, Marie had been delivered by two iron spoons) and then making a fearful racket on the iron bars of her bed. Marie wants desperately to wrest the spoon, the emblem of power, from her:

I wanted that spoon because it was a hell-claw welded smooth…. It had power. It was like her soul boiled down and poured in a mold and hardened…. Every time I held the spoon handle I'd know that she was nothing but a ghost, a black wind…. I would get that spoon. (emphasis added)

In the end, though she struggles with Leopolda for the spoon, Marie is overcome by the force of her own compassion. She has perceived that Leopolda's power is the power of death, of negativity.

When they return home, Zelda finds a note on the kitchen table which reveals her father's plans to leave Marie for the seductive Lulu Nanapush. Marie is stunned. She reacts by stripping the wax from the kitchen floor. Symbolically, she has been brought to her knees by love for Nector and by her own insecurities. But suddenly Marie seems to realize that she is a person in her own right. Power, after all, lies within us, while authority is conferred by others, and Marie does not need the reflected authority of Nector's position to exercise her own power:

But I was not going under, even if he left me…. I would not care if Lulu Lamartine ended up the wife of the chairman of the Chippewa Tribe. I'd still be Marie. Marie. Star of the Sea! I'd shine when they stripped off the wax.

Zelda, rather than entering the convent as she had wished to earlier, ends up getting pregnant by a man called Swede Johnson from the nearby boot camp, who promptly goes AWOL for good. Her only comment in later years is to state drily, "Learnt my lesson…. Never marry a Swedish is my rule." Later, her daughter Albertine tells us, she remarries. Her second (Swedish?) husband's name is Bjornson, and she lives with him in an aqua-and-silver trailer on the reservation. Albertine mentions her "rough gray face." Zelda and Albertine get on each other's nerves: Zelda asks her daughter about possible Catholic boyfriends and is horrified that Albertine might wish to be what she calls, in terms which remind one of Fifties films about secretaries with long painted fingernails, a Career Girl. Albertine is furious at her mother for not telling her about her Aunt June's death, but she eventually goes home to visit, saying, "I wasn't crazy about the thought of seeing her, but our relationship was like a file we sharpened on, and necessary in that way."

In Erdrich's next novel, The Bingo Palace, Zelda reappears. Lipsha Morrissey describes her in the following terms:

Zelda is the author of grit-jawed charity on the reservation, the instigator of good works that always get chalked up to her credit…. Zelda was once called raven-haired and never forgot, so on special occasions her hair, which truly is an amazing natural feature, still sweeps its fierce wing down the middle of her back. She wears her grandmother Rushes Bear's skinning knife at her strong hip, and she touches the beaded sheath now, as if to invoke her ancestor.

Clearly, Zelda is not a woman to be trifled with. Despite her criticism of Albertine, she has developed a career of her own, working in the Tribal Office. There she uses her authority to enroll her grandson Redford as a full-blood member of the tribe and manages to obtain WIC food to feed him. In her middle age, her passive/aggressive tendencies are even more accentuated, and she attempts to control others through her relentless goodness. Lipsha Morrissey, who has been raised to consider her his aunt, describes her as a medium stout woman in a heavy black velvet, beaded dress and adds, "When women age into their power, no wind can upset them, no hand turn aside their knowledge; no fact can deflect their point of view."

Lipsha has reasons to fear his aunt's intervention: he is vying with his slick cousin Lyman Lamartine (the son of Nector and Lulu Nanapush and father of Redford) for the affections of Shawnee Ray Toose, the daughter of Zelda's old flame Xavier. Thus, in the convoluted web of relationships on the reservation, Zelda is what Lipsha calls Lyman's "under-the-table half sister," and Zelda does what she can to further Lyman's courtship of Shawnee Ray. Lipsha is aware that he is up against a formidable adversary, and when Zelda comes to visit the bingo palace owned by Lyman where Lipsha is a waiter, he decides to get her drunk by spiking her tonic water with increasing amounts of gin. His purpose in doing so is ostensibly to mellow her up a bit. But this, predictably, backfires:

My motive is good—to make Shawnee Ray's life a little easier, for once the slight amounts of alcohol start having their effect, Zelda's basic niceness is free to shine forth. Right and left, she always forgives the multitude…. No matter how bad things get, on those nights when Zelda stays long enough, there is eventually the flooding appeasement of her smile. It is like having a household saint.

But you have to light a candle, make a sacrifice.

..…

I like my aunt, even though I find it difficult to keep from getting run over by her unseen intentions.

Eighteen-wheeler trucks. Semis, fully loaded, with a belly dump. You never know what is coming at you when Zelda takes the road.

Here in one brief sequence Zelda is compared to a queen nodding right and left to an adoring crowd, to a martyred saint, and—perhaps most accurately—to an eighteen-wheeler truck, in metaphors that convey a volatile mix of regal self-possession, relentless virtue, and power which will flatten you if you get in its way, as Lipsha soon finds out. She begins by telling her nephew "a tale of burning love," a phrase redolent of Presleyian thwarted romance and Fifties 45 rpm records. It is the story of her rejection of her boyfriend Xavier Toose because of her wish to marry a white man who would carry her away to a Doris Day life in the city Xavier stood outside in the snow waiting for her to say that she loved him and ended up nearly freezing to death. As a result, he lost his fingers to frostbite. Zelda then reveals to Lipsha that June, his mother, had tried to kill him as a baby by throwing him into a creek in a gunnysack weighted down with stones.

Zelda, curiously enough, has some characteristics in common with her nephew: both are persons of immense power but not a great deal of socially validated authority. Also, throughout her life Zelda shows a certain coldness of the heart, a fear of love and vulnerability; she literally freezes Xavier out. Lipsha, an androgynous character who is often feminine (though not effeminate) in his behavior, is also cold at heart. Though he is obsessed by his love for Shawnee Ray, he thinks only of himself, causing her to cry out, "You got the medicine, Lipsha. But you don't got the love." As Shawnee Ray knows intuitively, power (in Lipsha's case, the power to work magic) only succeeds if it is not used for selfish ends, while mere authority (as exemplified by Lyman) is contingent upon the vagaries of individual destinies and the twists and turns of history.

In the dramatic final scenes of the novel, both Lipsha and his aunt manage to overcome the cold they have felt all their lives. Zelda finally swallows her pride and summons up the courage to go to her old lover Xavier Toose. As she approaches, she literally thaws out: "Zelda's face bloomed toward his as though his features gave out warmth." Paradoxically, her new-found vulnerability is not weakening but empowering: "Light dashed itself upon Zelda, but she wasn't shaken. Her hands floated off the steering wheel and gestured, but she wasn't helpless."

Lipsha, in a parallel process, seems to experience the same discovery of the power of gentleness. At the end of the novel, as he lies trapped in a stolen car with a small baby during a blizzard, he recalls his parents:

I think about my father and my mother, about how they have already taught me about the cold so I don't have to be afraid of it. And yet, this baby doesn't know. Cold sinks in, there to stay. And people, they'll leave you, sure….

My father taught me his last lesson in those hours, in that night. He and my mother, June, have always been inside of me, dark and shining, their absence about the size of a coin, something I have touched against and slipped. And when that happens, I call out in my bewilderment—"What is this?"—and the thing I never knew until now it was a piece of thin ice they had put there.

But Lipsha, though he could attempt to escape on his own, refuses to abandon the baby to freeze to death. At the novel's end, it is unclear whether Lipsha has survived the blizzard or not. It is more than possible, however, that he and Zelda will surface once again in further novels by Erdrich, perhaps to exemplify the enormous force that is derived from the blurring of gender stereotypes and from the emergence of new concepts regarding the exercise of power and authority by men and women alike.

Additional coverage of Erdrich's life and career is available in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 10; Bestsellers, 1989: 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 114; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 41, 62; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 39, 54; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural, Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 152, 175; Major Twentieth-Century Writers; Native North American Literature; Something about the Author, Vol. 94.

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This section contains 3,242 words
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