Review: “The Antelope Wife” by Louise Erdrich

Family stories repeat themselves in patterns in waves, generation to generation, across blood and time.

In 1998, Louise Erdrich published The Antelope Wife to high praise from readers and from critical reviewers.  But in 2009, Erdrich reread the novel and started to think about the characters. The result was a complete reworking of the book, published in 2012. I was very intrigued by the idea that an author would return to a well-received work and drastically change it. In an interview published in the P.S. section of the Harper Collins edition, Erdrich says that only “the beginning is the same, and then the book changes utterly“. I haven’t read the original, but I’m going to have to find a copy so I can make a comparison.

As the revised version of The Antelope Wife opens, a cavalry soldier pursues a dog with a Ojibwa baby strapped to its back. For days, he follows them through “the vast carcass of the world west of the Otter Tail River” until finally the dog allows him to approach and handle the child–a girl, not yet weaned, who latches onto his nipples until, miraculously, they begin to lactate. In another kind of novel, this might be a metaphor. But this is the fictional world of Louise Erdrich, where myth is woven deeply into the fabric of everyday life. A famous cake tastes of grief, joy, and the secret ingredient: fear. The tie that binds the antelope wife to her husband is, literally, the strip of sweetheart calico he used to yoke her hand to his. Legendary characters sew beads into colorful patterns, and the patterns become the design of the novel itself.

The Antelope Wife centers on the Roys and the Shawanos, two closely related Ojibwa (or Chippewa) families living in modern-day Gakahbekong, or Minneapolis. Urban Native Americans of mixed blood, they are “scattered like beads off a necklace and put back together in new patterns, new strings,” and Erdrich follows them through two failed marriages, a “kamikaze” wedding, and several tragic deaths. But the plot also loops and circles back, drawing in a 100-year old murder, a burned Ojibwa village, a lost baby, and several generations of twins.

Though the saga is animated by obsessive love, mysterious disappearances, mythic legends and personal frailties, Erdrich also works in a comic vein. There’s a dog who tells dirty jokes and a naked wife whose birthday surprise has an audience. Throughout, Erdrich emphasizes the paradoxes of everyday life: braided grandmas who follow traditional ways and speak the old language also wear eyeliner and sneakers. In each generation, men and women are bewitched by love, lust, and longing; they are slaves to drink, to carefully guarded secrets or to the mesmerizing power of hope.

The book is full of familiar themes–love, family, history, and the complex ways these forces both bind and separate generations, stitching them into patterns as complex as beadwork. At least initially, this swirl of characters, narratives, timelines, and connections can take a little getting used to (Erdrich now draws family trees in the beginning); the plot sometimes bogs down with an overload of emotional complications, the novel ultimately celebrates the courage of following one’s ordained path in the universe and meeting the challenges of fate. In the end, Erdrich’s lovely, lyrical language prevails, and I felt like I had succumbed to the book’s own dreamlike logic.

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