Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Louise Erdrich’s Four Souls (2004)

As with Tracks, the primary voices in Four Souls are Fleur’s and Nanapush’s.

Erdrich Four SoulsSo, although it was published more than ten years later, I opted to read Four Souls next, to keep these characters fresher in mind and heart, hoping for a deeper understanding.

Two other women play significant roles in this story as well (and one other man, whose perspective is represented only through two of the women’s experiences – isn’t that an interesting turn-about).

Four Souls is actually a name, and having the book named for a name is key to understanding the tales therein. The simple act of naming is not simple at all.

“There are names that go through the generations with calm persistence. Names that heal a person just for taking them, and names that destroy. Names that travel, names that bring you home, names you only mutter in the deep water of your sleep. Names that bring memory of painful attachments and names lost to time and the reckonings of chance. Names are throwaway treasures. Names hold the sweetness of youth, bring back faces and unsettling resemblances. Names acquire their own life and drag the person on their own path for their own reasons, which we can’t know. There are names that gutter out and die and then spring back, distinguished. Names that go on through time and trouble, names to hold on your tongue for luck. Names to fear. Such a name was Four Souls.”

Readers do not observe Four Souls in all of the situations described herein, but the act of naming is essential.

This is true for Nanapush too, “the one they call fire, the one who makes my own snare, who shot off a tree branch, ate snakes to survive, had wife upon wife, and remembers the making of Under the Ground”.

Simultaneously, a name is what is preserved and also what can preserve you.

“Your name will live inside of you. Your name will help you heal. Your name will tell you how long to live and when to give up life. When the time comes for you to die, you will be called by that name and you will answer. For you have been lonely so long, you nameless one, you spirit, and it wll comfort you to finally be recognized here upon this earth.”

A glimpse into Louise Erdrich’s study of Ojibwemowin in Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country (2003) underscores the importance of getting the words right, of understanding the role and significance of parts of speech, allocation and assignation.

The act of creation and restoration is integrally important in this novel too. This takes new and unfamiliar forms in Louise Erdrich’s perspective and women play a unique and vital role.

“To sew is to pray. Men don’t understand this. They see the whole but they don’t see the stitches. They don’t see the speech of the creator in the work of the needle. We mend. We women turn things inside out and set things right.”

This, too, adds significance to the visceral nature of the storytelling, this turning out and setting right. The language in Four Souls is spare but the sensory detail is rich.

“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.”

Storytelling rests upon that kind of power, identifiying and ordering and preserving. But sometimes what is omitted is as important as what is included.

“That is also the story – what is left after the events in all their juices and chaos are reduced to the essence. The story – all that time does not digest.”

Relationships are complicated in Four Souls and frequently readers only receive one version of a tale. “We are all imperfect in our love for one another.” And, yet, we expect one side of a story (often our own) to suffice for understanding.

Personally and politically, there are betrayals and misunderstandings in Four Souls. Nanapush – educated by the Jesuits and still bookish in his way – is keenly aware of the political noose tightening around the neck of his people.

“We were snared in laws by then. Pitfalls and loopholes. Attempting to keep what was left of our land was like walking through a landscape of webs. With a flare of ink down in the capital city, rights were taken and given.”

The link to the land, explored more directly in Tracks, remains prominent in Four Souls. The language is elemental, imagery frequently erupting from the landscape itself, even with (especially with) basic characterizations.

“Perhaps the Pillager stuff was all used up in Fleur. She was the last, and like the longest-boiled kettle of maple sap, she was the strongest and the darkest.”

It feels right to begin my Louise Erdrich reading project with the strongest and the darkest of the souls; I’ve tried to arrange my reading in chronological order in terms of recurring characters, but may resort to publication order as I read on with the stories.

Which of her books have you read? Have you dabbled or do you consider yourself a serious fan? Next, for me, is Love Medicine.

Erdrich Love MedicineTracks (1988)
Four Souls (2004)
Love Medicine (1984)
The Beet Queen (1986)
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001) *Reread
The Bingo Palace (1994) *Reread
Tales of Burning Love (1997)
The Antelope Wife (1998)
The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003)
The Painted Drum (2005)
The Plague of Doves (2008)
Shadow Tag (2010)
The Round House (2012)
LaRose (2016)

Also, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country (2003)

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2 comments to Louise Erdrich’s Four Souls (2004)

  • “The simple act of naming is not simple at all.” I like this a lot.

    I have only read Tracks and have Tales of Burning Love on my shelf, which I should really get to soon.

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