To follow the trail of Erdrich's narrative in The Antelope Wife, remember a few essential things:
1. Time is not a linear process but a pool of information at which we drink. On the last page the story folds back nearly a hundred years to its beginning and, in the same paragraph, reaches forward twenty-five years past its own end, because what we need to know swims quietly in those two places. The narrator announced what would have happened, had some details of the story been different, and it is clear that this alternate future is a certain and inevitable as the conclusion of the novel.
2. Going out is always temporary. Always, coming home is good. Everything is out of balance until the antelope wife is allowed to go home. Even though she is technically a Shawano, the circumstances of her departure and her return make her "out of place."
3. Laughing at the silliness of love is neither impious nor cynical. Like Tales of Burning Love, The Antelope Wife ends with a ludicrous love scene, almost as funny as Jack's peanut race and wonderfully touching.
4. It was written, as Erdrich wisely warns us, before the suicide of her husband, Michael Dorris.
Anglo hippies, during the Vietnam War, were endlessly puzzled by American Indian patriotism; they looked for explanations in irony, innocence, "warrior values." The truth is simple. American Indian cultures are essentially conservative. Indians are conservators of home, tradition — those foundations that the past lays for the future, that bedrock upon which the present depends. If their enemies are also conservative, so what? If your enemies love dancing, do you learn not to?
Erdrich's stories turn like foraging herds through their own territory, and back upon themselves. They turn upon meals, because the Ojibwa and Cree worried enough about food to create a spirit of starvation, the windigo. The first imbalance of the novel is created by a windigo who comes among the Shawano; the windigo dog, whose stories balance against so much of the novel's action, is wary but accommodated.
The antelope wife, a kidnapped child cut loose from home by a series of terrible accidents, is so utterly lost that she can only be brought back by force, and what is taken by force is, inevitably, damaged. Causes ripple like signs of tossed pebbles, and she ripples through all the lives of what should have been her relatives.
Am I making sense? What a beautiful book this is. But what a waste of energy to contest with it, to try to hook its secrets out. Swim in the stories, listen with the back of your mind, wear the lives of the Roys and the Shawanos and Richard Whiteheart Bead until they become familiar. You will be warmed by their love. Not lulled, but filled and contented. It is a book of terrible truths, of mothers and dead children, of unbeatable guilt, but in the end, we come home.
Buy The Antelope Wife at Amazon.com.
For a biography of Erdrich, try this page at Center for Great Plains Studies. It links to bibliographies of Erdrich's works and of scholarship as well. An excellent collection of web resources can be found at The Internet Public Library. Another good resource is The Modern American Poetry page at the University of Illinois.