Four Souls by Louise Erdrich
Author: Louise Erdrich
Reader: Anna Fields
Short Review: Four Souls is a belated sequel to Tracks, and thus the continuation of the story of Fleur Pillager—one of the recurrent characters in Erdrich’s series of novels that follow an Ojibwe tribe. Read starkly and beautifully by Anna Fields, the plot is intricate and engrossing, the characters clear and interesting, and Erdrich’s writing is precise and energized. The story follows Fleur Pillager as she seeks revenge against a man who stole and then destroyed her land.
Long Review: This book centers around a character who never speaks her own story to us. Instead, several characters describe Fleur’s actions and possible motivations to us. We have their guesses about her decisions and feelings. “Four Souls” was Fleur’s mother’s name, and it’s the name Fleur takes for herself at the outset of the story. The name allows her to be ruthless when she needs, loving when she needs, and to somehow retain some kernel of her self throughout.
Fields must speak in the voices of multiple narrators throughout her reading of this work, and she does a beautiful job. Nanapush, who opens the novel, is a tribal elder and Fleur’s grandfather. John James Mauser is the developer and real estate magnate Fleur seeks to destroy. Polly Elizabeth is Mauser’s sister-in-law and Fleur’s employer. Margaret Kashpaw is Nanapush’s sharp-tongued wife. Nanapush and Polly Elizabeth do most of the speaking in the novel, and Fields switches deftly between their voices. I was very happy with Fields’ narration, but I can imagine that some people would be annoyed by her reading of Nanapush. Her natural speaking voice isn’t particularly deep, so her timbre doesn’t sound naturally male when she voices him. To my ear, Field’s performance as Margaret erases any qualms I might have about her voicing Nanapush.
I think Erdrich’s work translates particularly well to audio format because she is so interested in story-telling itself. Nanapush returns to novel after novel to play the roll of chief storyteller. He is Erdrich’s recurrent personification of the oral tradition, and he serves her well. In one of his most important lines, Nanapush asserts their tribal need to maintain Ojibwe land:
“When I look at the scope and drift of our history, I see that we have come out of it with something, at least. This scrap of earth. This ishkonigan. This left over. We’ve got this and as long as we can hold on to it we will be some sort of people.”
It’s the need to maintain that scrap of land that sets Fleur on her initial quest, and that dedication to conservation is one of the things that draws readers to Erdrich and to Native American fiction in general. Erdrich refuses to fall back on stereotypes about Native connections to the Earth, though, and emphasizes real, practical reasons Nanapush and the other residents of Little No Horse want to retain their land and language. Fleur fights for herself and for her people, and also seems to fight against wanton development in general. For tree-hugging dirt-worshippers like me, that’s quite a compelling story in and of itself. Intertwining it with stories of love and betrayal and self-sacrifice just makes it richer and more sustaining.