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'The Antelope Wife' by Louise Erdrich

Spirit-And-Blood Relationships Bind Two Families

Sunday, May 03, 1998

By Betsy Kline, Post-Gazette Staff Writer


The Antelope Wife

By Louise Erdrich



Everything is all knotted up in a tangle. Pull one string of this family and the whole web will tremble."

The interworkings of the Shawano and Roy families is a tangle to be sure, as puzzling as a cat's cradle, as fascinating as the Indian bead work of blood, lust and tears stitched together by the mythic Native American spirits who shape and shadow this complex and sometimes frustrating new novel by Erdrich, storyteller extraordinaire and mixed-blood member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Ojibwa.

"The Antelope Wife" is a galloping tale of love, betrayal and revenge that begins with the tragic 19th-century diaspora of Indian tribes and ends up with a healing family powpow of their urban descendants in modern-day Minneapolis.

It is difficult at times for even the most attentive reader to sort the myth from the truth in Erdrich's complex story. From the opening chapter, this reader determined to keep a genealogical tree, only to abandon the attempt two chapters later in a hopeless tangle of names and family connections.

There are so many stories in "Antelope Wife" that one hardly knows where to begin. Centuries of myth are layered on generation upon generation of family tales that cycle and circle like a mesmerizing tribal dance. Animal spirits play pivotal roles.

Ironically, it is a white man who sets the story in motion. Scranton Roy, the son of a Pennsylvania Quaker father and poet mother, is a calvary soldier engaged in a raid on a quiet Ojibwa village "mistaken for hostile during the scare over the starving Sioux."

No sooner has Roy savagely murdered an old woman than his attention is diverted by a dog fleeing with a child strapped to a cradle on its back. He pursues the dog, saves the baby and raises her as his own, the model of a pioneer father. It would seem he has made atonement for his sins, but another century will pass before the score is finally settled.

Erdrich's women are awesome in their imperiousness, starting with Blue Prairie Woman, the bereaved mother of the lost little girl. She reclaims her child, only to succumb to white man's disease. The daughter is rescued yet again, by a herd of wild antelope.

That free spirit is endangered yet again as history repeats itself when Klaus Shawano abducts and seduces her descendant, Sweetheart Calico, and takes her as his antelope wife. Blue Prairie Woman's other daughters, the twins Zosie and Mary, hold the key threads of the story that follows.

The men are interesting, to be sure, but they pale next to the ferocity of their women, who embody all that is physical, sensual and spiritual.

The saddest case is that of Richard Whiteheart Beads, Rozin Roy's husband. He is helpless when Rozin falls in love with another man, Frank Shawano the baker . Whiteheart Beads cannot face Rozin's leaving, so he resolves to kill himself by carbon monoxide in the garage. But while waiting to be overcome by the poisonous fumes, he sneaks to the kitchen to get whiskey, long enough to allow his daughter Deanna to creep into the back of the car, hoping to run away with her dad, and to lock himself out of the garage. The family tragedy is compounded.

It is hard to read of Whiteheart Beads sad, distracted state and his repeated suicide attempts without thinking of the suicide last year of Erdrich's estranged husband, the writer Michael Dorri s. A forward by the author states that the book was written before that unhappy event and all the rumors of Dorris' alleged sexual abuse of their children. Still, it is hard not to wince.

By the time the last bead is fixed in place in "The Antelope Wife" and the last clues to the puzzle are revealed, the reader can only marvel at Erdrich's artistry and revel in her characters' unquenchable spirit.

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