I am not sure I would recommend this book to someone as a starter for Louise Erdrich. I do think I would recommend it as an interesting journey around upper Minnesota/southern Ontario/Manitoba. And I would definitely recommend it to someone seeing a somewhat more open side of Erdrich.
In this short travel narrative, Louise Erdrich travels around the physical terrain of Ojibwe Country at the intersection of Manitoba, Minnesota, and Ontario, but also in the more metaphysical world of history, language, and literature. She ruminates on the Ojibwe language that she didn’t start learning until adulthood, as her grandfather was the last speaker that she knew of, she thinks about the literature that she has brought with her on her trip as well as the literature that inspired her to ask questions about the land around her and her history. She thinks about her newly born daughter (born in 2001-02 to a 47 year old mother, something she also thinks about at length). She thinks about her forebears, both her Ojibwe and German sides, and she thinks about the nature of Lakes, Islands, Books, Travel, and Family.
Because the structure of this book drifts, as does the writing, the thinking and the subject matter, it’s not a very pinned down experience. This isn’t the kind of travel narrative that you could track on a map, and if you could, I don’t know that it would be that interesting to see it this way. Not only is the physical space she travels not that large, she goes by minivan.
This is the most personal book of hers I have read. It’s open about her family, her personal life, her intellectual life. It’s also the most researched and direct about her Ojibwe identity. Her novels often deal with character who seem unstuck in history because of the cultural violence they are party to, or they are the survivors of a destroyed history, who live the experience, but might not have access to learn more about the histories they occupy. As an educated, independent woman in 2003, Louise Erdrich does have that access, and it’s on display in this short text.
Here’s what it sounds like:
“As I was living in New Hampshire at the time, my only recourse was to use a set of Ojibwe language tapes made by Basil Johnson, the distinguished Canadian Ojibwe writer. Unknown to Basil Johnson, he became my friend. His patient Anishinaabe voice reminded me of my gradnfather’s and of the kindest of elders. Basil and I conversed in the isolation of my car as I dropped off and picked up children, bought groceries, navigated tangled New England roads. I carried my tapes everywhere I went. The language bit deep into my heart, but I could only go so long talking with Basil on a tape. I longed for a real community. At last, when I moved to Minnesota, I met fellow Ojibwe people who were embarked on what seems a quixotic enterprise–learning one of the toughest languages ever invented.”
There was a recent scandal with a Canadian writer who claims Native ancestry but whose claims are treated with some suspicion by various groups. I ended up doing some light research on Erdrich to make sure I wasn’t hitching myself up for more disappointment. She seems to be the kind of conscientious, thoughtful person she comes off as, and I am glad. She has done a lot of wonderful work that adds depth to many of her novels, and to how I think of her as a writer.