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.
Nonetheless, 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?