Synopses & Reviews
"The Antelope Wife" begins with a post-Civil War cavalry raid on an Indian village. Warned ahead of time by her deer relatives that the raid would come, the villager Blue Prairie Woman ties her baby girl onto the back of a dog, which then flees in terror. One of the soldiers, Scranton Roy, deserts the cavalry and chases after the baby. He catches her, suckles her himself, names her after his mother, Matilda, and raises her as his own daughter. Scranton eventually marries Matilda's teacher, and has with her a son he calls Augustus. Meanwhile, Blue Prairie Woman is impregnated by her human husband, a man named Shawano, and gives birth to two twin girls, Josephette (Zosie) and Mary, but soon deserts them to seek out her first-born. She finds Matilda and beckons to her, but almost immediately dies of a white man's disease. Before she dies, she renames her daughter Other Side of the Earth and arranges for her to be protected by a herd of antelope.
The novel then addresses the lives of modern-day descendants of Scranton Roy, Matilda, Augustus, and Zosie and Mary Shawano. The narrator and imaginative re-creator of those lives is Cally Whiteheart Beads Roy, descendant through various lines of several of those characters. Inevitably she is a central character in the story, though she focuses in her narration more on the life of her mother, Rozin. Central to The Antelope Wife is Rozin's stormy relationship with Cally's father, Richard Whiteheart Beads, and her delightful lover and eventual second husband, Frank Shawano. Also central to the novel is Sweetheart Calico, an antelope-related woman whom Klaus Shawano abducts and carries off to Minneapolis, where much of thepresent-day action of the novel takes place.
Some first-time readers will find "The Antelope Wife" to be somewhat experimental and confusing. It may help them to recall that Cally is less a conventional narrator than the imaginative re-creator of long-past events to which she has no direct access. She builds her story out of the interconnecting and sometimes contradictory stories she has heard, known about, or perhaps merely imagined may have happened to explain the history of events and characters who seem strange to her. For example, she knows Sweetheart Calico, a strange woman whose silence and unconventional actions suggest, to her namesake Cally, that she may be part antelope. It may be then, that to explain her modern-day actions, Cally re-creates for her an ancestry that goes back to Matilda, the child of Blue Prairie Woman and the original antelope wife, who had herself run with the deer after her mother's death. Similarly, the chapters narrated by a dog may make most sense as Cally's attempt to imagine what a canine narrator would say if it had the power of speech. On the first page, Cally announces that what she tells is "fading in the larger memory," and that she wants to tell it "that it not be lost." She tells us near the end that "I was sent here to understand and to report."
"The Antelope Wife" is finally a challenging and comic novel, not only in the sense that there is much humor in it, but also that the two unhappy wives, Sweetheart Calico and Rozin, both achieve happiness by gaining freedom from oppressively controlling husbands.
Topics for Discussion
1. How is Scranton Roy able to suckle a baby? What does his ability to do so suggest about Erdrich's view ofgender roles? How is Scranton's act different from Blue Prairie Woman's suckling of a puppy? Is Scranton's ability to lactate meant to be a realistic or a magical act? Are the male characters in this novel realistically portrayed, or are they, as one scholar has suggested, merely pasteboard cutout figures?
2. Does Erdrich give us enough information that we can reconstruct Cally's family tree sufficiently that we can see why she says, on page 110, " I am a Roy, a Whiteheart Beads, a Shawano by way of the Roy and Shawano proximity" ? Can we trace her back to Scranton Roy? To Blue Prairie Woman? To Josephette and Mary Shawano?
3. What is the effect of having Almost Soup narrate two of the chapters? Why, for example, does Erdrich have this dog in Chapter 9 tell the story of Cally's near-death? How would the story be different if Cally's mother Rozin had narrated that chapter? Is the dog narration part of a larger pattern of erasing the sharp boundaries between humans and other species? What do you make of the last sentence on page 73, that humans are " no more and no less important than the deer" ?
4. You will notice that Sweetheart Calico says almost nothing in the entire text. Why is that? When she finally does say something, what does she say, and why that? Why does Erdrich make her the " antelope wife" ?
5. Why do we have several sets of twins in the novel? What difference would it have made if all of those twins had been single births?
6. Interspersed throughout the novel are several phrases and sentences in other languages, particularly German and Ojibwa. Do they contribute in some way to the story?
7. Several motifs and images are repeated:broken teeth, cloth, sewing and beads, food and cooking, etc. Choose one and explain why Erdrich used it in The Antelope Wife.
8. What is the point of the blitzkuchen story? What seems to be the secret ingredient that Frank has been searching for?
9. On page 115, humor is said to be " an Indian's seventh sense." Is The Antelope Wife a humorous novel? Does it suggest in less direct ways that we should never take life so seriously that we forget to laugh? Why does Erdrich give us the humor of Chapter 7 (the story of Almost Soup's escape from the stew pot) immediately after the devastating story of Deanna's asphyxiation in Chapter 6?
10. On page 174, an unnamed uncle at the " Kamikaze wedding" states " We all got to suffer. That's love." Although he is speaking specifically to Richard, Cally's rejected father, is this statement meant more generally?
11. Erdrich could have written a simple novel. Why do you think she make it so complex? Is anything gained by having represented so many generations, races, tribes, species in one novel?
12. The Antelope Wife contains many references to the " pattern" made with the " beads." What larger patterns gradually emerge as the many lives and stories in the novel unfold and intertwine? On page 200, Cally says " Family stories repeat themselves in patterns and waves generation to generation, across bloods and time. Once the pattern is set we go on replicating it." What pattern or patterns are set and replicated? Does the novel suggest, fatalistically, that we can never break the patterns our past has set for us?
The Antelope Wife extends the branches of the families who populate Louise Erdrich's earlier novels, and once again, her unsentimental, unsparing writing captures the Native American sense of despair, magic, and humor. Rooted in myth and set in contemporary Minneapolis, this poetic and haunting story spans a century, at the center of which is a mysterious and graceful woman known as the Antelope Wife. Elusive, silent, and bearing a mystical link to nature, she embodies a complicated quest for love and survival that impacts lives in unpredictable ways. Her tale is an unforgettable tapestry of ancestry, fate, harrowing tragedy, and redemption, that seems at once modern and eternal.
One of America's most celebrated writers reconfirms her place as a foremost chronicler of the Native American experience with a powerful story capturing the sense of despair, destiny, and magic through three generations of a family.
“A fiercely imagined tale of love and loss, a story that manages to transform tragedy into comic redemption, sorrow into heroic survival.”
—New York Times
“[A] beguiling family saga….A captivating jigsaw puzzle of longing and loss whose pieces form an unforgettable image of contemporary Native American life.”
A New York Times bestselling author, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Louise Erdrich is an acclaimed chronicler of life and love, mystery and magic within the Native American community. A hauntingly beautiful story of a mysterious woman who enters the lives of two families and changes them forever, Erdrichs classic novel, The Antelope Wife, has enthralled readers for more than a decade with its powerful themes of fate and ancestry, tragedy and salvation. Now the acclaimed author of Shadow Tag and The Plague of Doves has radically revised this already masterful work, adding a new richness to the characters and story while bringing its major themes into sharper focus, as it ingeniously illuminates the effect of history on families and cultures, Ojibwe and white.
About the Author
Louise Erdrich is one of the most gifted, prolific, and challenging of contemporary Native American novelists. Born in 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota, she grew up mostly in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her parents taught at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. Her fiction reflects aspects of her mixed heritage: German through her father, and French and Ojibwa through her mother. She worked at various jobs, such as hoeing sugar beets, farm work, waitressing, short order cooking, lifeguarding, and construction work, before becoming a writer. She attended the Johns Hopkins creative writing program and received fellowships at the McDowell Colony and the Yaddo Colony. After she was named writer-in-residence at Dartmouth, she married professor Michael Dorris and raised several children, some of them adopted. She and Michael became a picture-book husband-and-wife writing team, though they wrote only one truly collaborative novel, The Crown of Columbus (1991).
The Antelope Wife was published in 1998, not long after her separation from Michael and his subsequent suicide. Some reviewers believed they saw in The Antelope Wife the anguish Erdrich must have felt as her marriage crumbled, but she has stated that she is unconscious of having mirrored any real-life events.
She is the author of four previous bestselling and award-winning novels, including Love Medicine; The Beet Queen; Tracks; and The Bingo Palace. She also has written two collections of poetry, Jacklight, and Baptism of Desire. Her fiction has been honored by the National Book Critics Circle (1984) and The Los Angeles Times (1985), and has been translated into fourteen languages.
Several of her short stories have been selected for O. Henry awards and for inclusion in the annual Best American Short Story anthologies. The Blue Jay's Dance, a memoir of motherhood, was her first nonfiction work, and her children's book, Grandmother's Pigeon, has been published by Hyperion Press. She lives in Minnesota with her children, who help her run a small independent bookstore called The Birchbark.