When playing the old genre definition game, one of the trickiest traps of all is dividing fantasy from magical realism. The latter is a rather distinctive genre, more closely identified with the realms of literary fiction than the speculative variety. The basic idea is to take a population and explore real-world problems like identity, poverty, or totalitarianism by adding a bit of folkloric magic. The genre came out of Latin America (Gabriel Garcia Marquez is probably its most famous practitioner) but subsequently spread into other regions. I don’t think there’s any question that this novel, which deals with the rough and tumble relationships of several Ojibwa Indians in modern Minneapolis through the lens of myth, fits the bill.
We begin with the story of a US cavalryman who takes part in a massacre of Indians on the Northern Plains, then, feeling deep guilt, miraculously nurses a child separated from her family in the chaos. We then turn to the story of an Indian trader named Klaus Shawano, who bewitches a strange, untamed woman that people dub his “antelope wife.” At the same time, we get a love triangle between Klaus’s brother Frank, Richard Whiteheart Beads, and Richard’s wife Rozina. The story is mostly told through a series of vignettes that shift focus from character to character. There are multiple twins, talking dogs, tragedy and comedy, and eventually we learn how the modern characters are descended from the characters from the massacre at the novel’s beginning.
Erdich’s prose is quite poetic and full of poignant one-liners. But, it did feel a bit disjointed in the end. The problem is this: I think to really appreciate this novel, I’d need to read it again immediately to better understand the characters in light of later revelations about them; however, the novel didn’t quite sell me on the idea that doing so would actually be worth my time. So, instead, I’ll probably set it aside somewhat dissatisfied, but I am interested in reading more of Erdich’s work (especially since she’s such a major presence in my local literary scene). I do like that WFA has recognized magical realism though – it’s a slight bit of genre-bending that gives the award a definitive identity – we’ll see another example in the next decade that is one of my favorite books of the past decade.