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'Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country' by Louise Erdrich

Sunday, July 13, 2003

By Maureen Gibbon

Louise Erdrich's new book of nonfiction is deceptively small -- just four chapters running a little more than 150 pages. Don't let the length fool you; this book contains enough stories, questions and observations to keep a reader thinking (and feeling) for months.

"Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country"

By Louise Erdrich

National Geographic Directions $20)


Part of series sponsored by National Geographic, the book is a travel narrative of the Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake portions of Minnesota, but it is also much more.

At 47, Erdrich finds she is pregnant. She goes from being "peri-menopausal to violently pregnant," and in response to the news, she weeps, snarls and laughs "like a hyena."

A year and a half later, Erdrich's 18-month-old daughter is her traveling companion to Lake of the Woods, a place that holds great meaning for the writer and her daughter and the father of her baby. As Erdrich puts it, "I'm a dry-land-for-hundreds-of-miles person, but I've gotten mixed up with people who live on lakes."

The father of Erdrich's baby is from the Canadian side of Lake of the Woods, and as a traditional healer and teacher, he knows the lake. According to Erdrich, "he and the lake are one person."

Her ancestors probably traveled the area at one time. And Lake of the Woods, it turns out, is filled with "books" -- islands and small rock outcroppings bearing pictographs painted by Ojibwe Indians from over the course of 1,000 years.

Through Erdrich's retelling, the reader learns some of the history, teachings and stories of this area. For instance, we learn that Ojibwes had sturgeon farms long ago, and that tea made from wikeh, a kind of green-gold reed, is good for the immune system. The people and the lake are one:

"... everyone who lived near the lake was essentially made of the lake. As the people lived off fish, animals, that lake's water and water plants for medicine, they were literally cell by cell composed of the lake."

One of the most intriguing stories in the book illustrates just how thoroughly the lake and the land surrounding the lake provided the Ojibwe with all they needed:

"When the water is high, large pieces of bog pull free of the lake bottom and drift all through the bays and channels. Looking at these bogs it is easy to see how, once, when a raiding party of Bwaanag [Sioux] had camped in Ojibwe country, they were driven out by use of a floating bog. The warriors entered the bog from underneath and swam it to the shore, like Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane."

Throughout the book, Erdrich attempts to answer the question "Why books?" or "Why are books important?" Throughout her journey, she comes up with different answers -- books are hope, books allow those who came before to talk to us even after they are dead, books free us from boredom.

Erdrich finally says to the "Why books?" question: "So that I will never be alone."

This book is a treasure and a delight. It is filled with hope as strong as the wikeh, the water reeds, Erdrich writes about. It is a talisman for the times.

Maureen Gibbon, a resident of Minnesota, is author of the novel "Swimming Sweet Arrow."

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