The Antelope Wife
The Antelope Wife is a novel of connections in which history, lust, contemporary urban Native American life, hand-me-down names, and legends, as well as sacred myth, combine. Set in Minneapolis, originally an important trading center and hunting ground, still a magnet for many native people from nearby reservations, the story goes back in time.
The novel begins with a soldier, who deserts the cavalry during a cruel raid on an Ojibwa village to chase a dog bearing on its back a baby on a cradle board strung with breathtaking blue beads. Generations later, a fast-talking trader kidnaps a silent and graceful woman from a powwow. In a haunting re-creation of a native tale, the woman is part antelope. Hunter and hunted change identities. The Antelope Wife changes people. Nothing is ever the same again for friends and family.
As Louise Erdrich’s magical novel The Antelope Wife opens, a cavalry soldier pursues a dog with an Ojibwa baby strapped to its back. For days he follows them through “the vast carcass of the world west of the Otter Tail River” until finally the dog allows him to approach and handle the child—a girl, not yet weaned, who latches onto his nipples until, miraculously, they begin to give milk. In another kind of novel, this might be a metaphor. But this is the fictional world of Louise Erdrich, where myth is woven deeply into the fabric of everyday life. A famous cake tastes of grief, joy, and the secret ingredient: fear. The tie that binds the antelope wife to her husband is, literally, the strip of sweetheart calico he used to yoke her hand to his. Legendary characters sew beads into colorful patterns, and these patterns become the design of the novel itself.
The Antelope Wife centers on the Roys and the Shawanos, two closely related Ojibwa families living in modern-day Gakahbekong, or Minneapolis. Urban Indians of mixed blood, they are “scattered like beads off a necklace and put back together in new patterns, new strings,” and Erdrich follows them through two failed marriages, a “kamikaze” wedding, and several tragic deaths. But the plot also loops and circles back, drawing in a 100-year-old murder, a burned Ojibwa village, a lost baby, several dead twins, and another baby nursed on father’s milk.
The familiar Erdrich themes are all here—love, family, history, and the complex ways these forces both bind and separate the generations, stitching them into patterns as complex as beadwork. At least initially, this swirl of characters, narratives, time lines, and connections can take a little getting used to; several of the story lines do not match up until the book’s conclusion. But in the end, Erdrich’s lovely, lyrical language prevails, and the reader succumbs to the book’s own dreamlike logic. As The Antelope Wife closes, Erdrich steps back to address readers directly for the first time, and the moment expands the book’s elaborate patterns well beyond the confines of its pages. “Who is beading us?” she asks. “Who are you and who am I, the beader or the bit of colored glass sewn onto the fabric of the earth?… We stand on tiptoe, trying to see over the edge, and only catch a glimpse of the next bead on the string, and the woman’s hand moving, one day, the next, and the needle flashing over the horizon.”—Mary Park, editor