Outside an isolated Ojibwe country trading post in the year 1839, Mink was making an incessant racket. She wanted what Mackinnon had, trader’s milk—a mixture of raw distilled spirits, rum, red pepper, and tobacco. She had bawled and screeched her way to possession of a keg before. The noise pared at Mackinnon’s nerves, but he wouldn’t beat her into silence. Mink was from a family of powerful healers. She had been the beautiful daughter of Shingobii, a supplier of rich furs. She had also been the beautiful wife of Mashkiig, until he destroyed her face and stabbed her younger brothers to death. Their eleven-year-old daughter huddled with her now, under the same greasy blanket, trying to hide. Inside the post, Mackinnon’s clerk, Wolfred Roberts, had swathed his head in a fox pelt to muffle the sound, fastening the desiccated paws beneath his chin. He wrote in an elegant, sloping hand, three items between lines. Out there in the bush, they were always afraid of running out of paper.~ Story available online at The New Yorker
I’m always interested in how a writer decides on names, particularly who gets a name, and who doesn’t. Here, it isn’t really a writer’s choice. Of course everything that happens in a story is the writer’s choice, but in this piece, Erdrich has chosen to leave the choice to the eleven-year-old daughter of Mink, who chooses to keep her name to herself even as she and Wolfred forge a bond of those alone against the world. The third time he asks, “[s]he laughed, not wanting him to own her, and drew a flower.”
Of the characters introduced in that first paragraph, the story comes down to the two children, Wolfred and the girl, who save each other and escape the adults who have betrayed them in unspeakable ways.
It’s peculiar how kids often miss an abusive parent, and this girl is no exception; her loneliness for the mother who sold her into sexual slavery for a few days’ worth of booze permeates the story. I think it’s deeper than the loss of a parent: she loses her culture, her entire way of life, when Mink dies. Wolfred, himself only 17, becomes her protector – and later, in a beautiful display of loyalty, her patient – but he can’t make up for the loss. In fact, his misinterpretation of the flower underlines the gulf between them: she can’t imagine why anyone would be named after a flower, a thing that dies.
She brings her culture along in some ways: her mother’s drum, a dog who joins them as they escape from the store where Wolfred murdered MacKinnon, her nighttime flights over the treetops, the healing skills she’s picked up from her family. But the dangers of the adult world cannot be left behind so easily:
Mackinnon’s head, rolling laboriously over the snow, its hair on fire, flames cheerfully flickering. Sometimes it banged into a tree and whimpered. Sometimes it propelled itself along with its tongue, its slight stump of neck, or its comically paddling ears. Sometimes it whizzed along for a few feet, then quit, sobbing in frustration at its awkward, interminable progress.
I very much like this semi-fantastical element, particularly as it’s presented: both she and Wolfred see it, so it becomes more real than some flight of fancy or a hallucination. While the head is the embodiment of rage and they flee from it in fear, I would guess it represents different things to each of them. To her it’s the white world trying to own her; to him, it’s the guilt of having murdered someone, even though violence was his only choice.
But they are not alone in the world, and eventually, they must re-enter. For Wolfred, this is probably a good thing, but the girl will lose more of herself when she’s put into a school where the idea is to drain her of everything Indian, to make her acceptable in the white world:
At the school, everything was taken from her. Losing her mother’s drum was like losing Mink all over again. At night, she asked the drum to fly back to her again. But there was no answer. She soon learned how to fall asleep. Or let the part of myself they call hateful fall asleep, she thought. But that was all of herself. Her whole being was Anishinaabe. She was Illusion. She was Mirage. Ombanitemagad. Or what they called her now—Indian. As in, Do not speak Indian, when she had been speaking her own language. It was hard to divide off parts of herself and let them go. At night, she flew up through the ceiling and soared as she had been taught. She stored pieces of her being in the tops of the trees. She’d retrieve them later, when the bells stopped.
The last sentence of the story is quite pointed, but in general I found the end to be unsatisfying, leaving the story unresolved in a way that feels unfinished rather than a projection into the future. I seem to be noticing endings a lot these days. In her Page Turner interview, Erdrich does cite a forthcoming novel, LaRose (published this past summer), but tells us this story does not appear in this form though its elements are scattered throughout. I’m curious: does that mean one of the girl’s descendents is a character in the novel? Or did she become a cultural icon as an adult? How did her story get carried forward? In any case, I’m glad it did.