The first European settlers in North America regarded the Indians as savages because they had no acquisitive instinct. Land was "something that could not belong to any human". They held no title deeds and so their territories were seized by government and commercial interests and they were lured on to reservations, which in turn were also stolen.
Louise Erdrich, herself part Ojibwe, has used the destruction of their environment and traditions as backdrop for her 10 novels, and many of her earlier characters appear in Four Souls, the latest in her intertwining family histories. Confined to their ruined reservations mired in disease, starvation and dishonour, and "begging at the back doors of White houses", they sell sacred tribal objects to purchase the whisky that destroys them.
In the 1930s Fleur Pillager, a woman of striking beauty and terrible will, loved and hated to extremes, sets out for Minneapolis to find and kill the timber baron who swindled her of her island forest and left nothing but stumps. John James Mauser, "a ruthless man who'd stolen from the world with careless ease," has used the trees, the rocks and the labour of pitifully poor natives to build and adorn the mansion he shares with his bride, Placide.
Fleur discovers her enemy ill and suffering, infiltrates his household and bears him a son. His wife and sister-in-law are ejected and Fleur rules the establishment, having failed to take her revenge.
Yet a "subterrean justice" is at work. The child is an idiot and Mauser's fortunes are soon collapsing. Meanwhile, Fleur has succumbed to the whisky. Yet her power is undiminished and to the end she remains numinous but impenetrable.
The novel's two stories have three narrators: Elizabeth, the virginal and despised sister-in-law who befriends Fleur and her son; Nanapush, the elder, crazy yet inspired, foolish but great-hearted; and his adored wife, the imperious and disdainful Margaret who drives him mad with jealousy and sells her son's birthright for a linoleum floor.
We see reservation life through Nanapush's ancient eyes as he chronicles his people's struggle with the diabolical machinery and sleazy seductions of capitalism. Mixing the noble with the lurid, he recounts Fleur's past and his own bungled attempts to annihilate his old enemy Shasheeb, the "greasy duck", and rival for Margaret's affections. Nanapush and Fleur's tales meet in a descent into the dark arts of love and vengeance with farcical and terrifying results.
"'What gives us such cause to harm each other?' he asks himself. 'Where do we come by the substance of our anger and pride?'" There are wild encounters with the supernatural, madness and despair, and redemption through poker and Margaret's medicine dress.
Erdrich's voice is unique in American literature. While entirely original, it draws its strength from myth, legend and Ojibwe customs. Her prose is lustrous, yet she wields a precise emotional idiom to penetrate the skin of a culture, breaking the surface tension to allow us a view of an unknown world, a world in which everything is imbued with life.
Mary Flanagan's 'Adele' is published by BloomsburyReuse content