Louise Erdrich’s Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country (2003)

The table of contents is simple but thrilling for me, the book’s five chapters all themes and topics of great interest: Books and Islands, Islands, Rock Paintings, Books, and Home.

If the other titles in the series (from National Geographic)  are even half of what this volume appears to be, even at first glance, I’m not about to cross off one book from my TBR, but about to add twenty-three to it.

Books Islands ErdrichNonetheless, I’ve plucked this book from my TBR not, in this instance, for its bookishness, but for its Louise-Erdrich-ness. Because this year I am making good on my promise to myself to read and reread her books.

Beginning with Tracks, it was clear this would be a project which would require both attention and curiosity, which is appropriate because it would seem that the author possesses both qualitites in quantity.

Books & Islands begins quietly, with a packing scene, preparations for a journey. It’s fitting, this talk of difficulty with leavetaking at the beginning, given the volume’s concluding theme: home. (And, yes, you were probably wondering if she tells you which books she packed: that’s just what a bookish person would wonder. And, yes, she does.)

This is the kind of quiet satisfaction readers can expect to find here. It isn’t all spelled out. In some ways, the volume appears to be a rather superficial collection of musings and observations about a trip (partly by road and partly by lake and partly by inward motion).  But this is an invitation to settle in and allow the journey to unfold.

From the very beginning, readers are reminded that their worldview can shift easily. On the first page, there is a small inset map which displays both Canada and the United States, with an even smaller rectangle drawn in solid black roughly in the middle.

The full-page map, however, is titled “Ojibwe Country”. Covering parts of land now called Ontario and Minnesota, provinces of two neighbouring countries, these words are scattered across a homeland (although the reserve territories are marked as well).

This is the land readers will travel with Louise Erdrich, when she is 48 years old and her baby is 18 months old, often nursing while they travel, through the territories on the map and in the TOC.

At first, I wasn’t certain about my connection to her as a narrator. Yes, she says some things which are immediately inviting. Like, “I cannot imagine home without an overflow of books.” And when she talks about how books are the primary decorating motif in her house? Well, yes, of course.

But there is often a moment when I begin to read a bookish book in which I am sharply disappointed because the writer does not have exactly the same kind of bookishness as I do. After all, I’ve come to this kind of volume often because I’m yearning for that kind of bookish connection. And when the writer talks about books I don’t recognise, at first I’m put off a little. Maybe we can’t be friends, I worry.

This is foolishness on my part, which was even more strongly evident in this case, because it was the chapters on rock paintings and language which secured this book in the “long to have” column in my reader’s imagination. (Possibly I would have felt a sense of kinship with only these sections, but I think the bookishness was important too, and now it’s impossible for me to separate the different facets of the story from her as a storyteller.)

Perhaps this isn’t entirely surprising. I planned a vacation in my twenties around an image I’d seen of rock paintings in an Ontario lake. (And I didn’t plan it well enough, because I visited too early in May to travel to the paintings by boat and had to peer at them from a considerable distance on one of the rainiest days imaginable; I still have a photograph of a bench near the waterline half-submerged, because the rain was falling so fast, so fierce.)

But these passages in Louise Erdrich’s book are more about the stories than about the rocks themselves. About, for instance, the story told by Tobasonakwut (her sun dancer, who is a community healer, politican, teacher and negotiator) about his father. “The Creator is the lake and we are the waves in the lake.”

It’s also about her experience learning Ojibwemowin, the language her grandfather spoke fluently, but which she had to learn from the tapes produced by Ojibwe anthropologist Basil Johnson (rather than from family or nearby community members). This is a language of action (befitting a people always on the move), a language of verbs (for how can you carry so many nouns) and a language of human relationships (with up to 6,000 forms for each verb to express those relationships between nouns).

While reading about these subjects, it’s rare that a single sentence stands out. I would reach a powerful passage and unstick the sticky-flag and prepare to place it, but the passage would go on and on, until I realised that I simply couldn’t extract a single element to preserve. I simply wanted to reread the piece as a whole.

This is true for the descriptions of her home library, of the library on the island (which contained some 11,000 books and includes a ghost book – yup!) and that of her bookstore: this is a volume to which I would love to return, at a whim, as a whole.

I look forward to finding a copy. In the meantime, you might like to find one as well?



  1. […] la Roche’s Ringing the Changes Shirin Ebadi’s Until We Are Free Louise Erdrich’s Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country Negin Farsad’s How to Make White People Laugh Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s The Urban Bestiary […]

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. Stefanie April 27, 2017 at 11:23 am - Reply

    Oh my gosh! this book sounds marvelous! Why have I never heard of it! It is now on my library list, I just have to figure out how to slip it onto my reading pile!

    • Buried In Print April 28, 2017 at 2:46 pm - Reply

      Not that it helps much – because I know your library stack is unwieldly – but it is a slim little volume and you can easily enjoy it in an afternoon. It’s mesmerizing!

  4. Susan Osborne April 27, 2017 at 2:31 am - Reply

    Oh dear! I hope you’ll have an opportunity to revisit the lake on a sunny day. This sounds like a very enticing series – I have my fingers crossed that I can find/order it in the UK without having to resort to Amazon. (I hadn’t thought of revisiting – it’s about five hours away – but I should!)

    • Buried In Print April 28, 2017 at 2:44 pm - Reply

      Here’s hoping you can avoid the bigbox scene. If it helps, here’s the site for Louise Erdrich’s shop, although I don’t know if she would have stock of her older titles as well as the more recent ones: Birchbark Books.

  5. Naomi April 26, 2017 at 5:59 pm - Reply

    48 and traveling with an 18 month old baby… I’m impressed already! And 11,000 books?

    I have a funny picture of you in my head now peering across a lake in the pouring rain with your binoculars, trying to get a look at those rock paintings. Oh! Now you’re pulling on a wetsuit and are running into the lake, determined to get a closer look. 🙂

    • Buried In Print April 28, 2017 at 2:41 pm - Reply

      I would love to visit that library; it just sounds amazing. I’d also like to visit Birchbark Books, her bookstore, although I don’t think that’s any more likely! (Maybe if I’d thought to check the schedule for the boat tours of the region I might also have remembered to buy/pack a wet suit. As it is, the view of the figures was a blurry one from such a distance and in the wet wet wet. However, it’s a rich memory all the same.

  6. Melwyk April 26, 2017 at 10:19 am - Reply

    I have this one right there on my TBR shelf looking at me…perhaps a wonderful read for my staycation that is coming up soon…to feel as if I’m on the move. I do love Erdrich.

    • Buried In Print April 26, 2017 at 2:29 pm - Reply

      It’d be a perfect read for an armchair vacation; I’m think you’d love it even if you weren’t already an Erdrich fan!

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