Over 20 years and nine novels — most of them lovely, a few transcendent, all marred by lyrical excesses — Louise Erdrich has staked out her own Yoknapatawpha County on the Great Plains. Teeming with feuds, tragedies, and love stories that overlap, interlock, and span generations, hers is a rollicking self-contained world of drunks, priests, tramps, thugs, and small-town tradesmen, but above all, Plains Indians trying to cope with white encroachment. Characters pop up from novel to novel, sometimes as narrators, later as bit players, and each new book offers a fresh perspective on the whole.
In 1988’s ”Tracks,” Erdrich launched the epic of Fleur Pillager, a majestic young Ojibwe woman who attracted the wrong men, bore a child, and ultimately lost her cherished scrap of land. Her newest novel, Four Souls, begins where ”Tracks” left off in the 1920s, as Fleur sets out for Minneapolis in search of John James Mauser, the man she believes stole that land. Like a creature out of myth, she hacks her way through the brush, bathing in ditches, sleeping under carts, and boiling and devouring stray dogs in the single-minded pursuit of her quarry.
Fleur tracks Mauser to the mansion where he lives with his frigid wife, Placide (a vapid, simpering stereotype), and her smart, homely spinster sister, Polly. Mauser has recently been diagnosed with an illness related to ”a damming of the sperm,” but Fleur, who installs herself as a laundress in the house, soon takes care of that problem, using swamp tea, rough massages, and her innate sexual magnetism.
Erdrich, like Toni Morrison, tends to locate a higher wisdom in women living outside of conventional society. Gorgeous, earthy, and inscrutable, Fleur is one such romanticized figure, shrouded in a mystique that brings forth some of Erdrich’s most egregiously florid prose. ”Her face was sculpted of the fabulous dark side of a mirror. Or deep water. Or time…” How could any man resist? Mauser can’t. He divorces Placide and marries Fleur, who duly exacts her revenge — although not exactly in the way she had planned, and at a much higher price.
Fleur fascinates or obsesses everyone in the book, and clearly the author is besotted by her creation as well. But in fact, Fleur — a chilly, vengeful goddess — is far less interesting than Erdrich’s unglamorous, smaller-scale characters Nanapush and Margaret, whose story is loosely braided with Fleur’s. Nanapush, the ancient, good-hearted, dirty-minded Ojibwe jokester, has been living in bickering married bliss with the formidable grey-haired Margaret. Their feud — kicked off by Margaret’s fixation on acquiring linoleum for their cabin — brings some sparkle to an otherwise ponderously symbolic work, and their battle escalates into a funny, absurdist subplot of great originality and charm. While ”Four Souls” has none of the strength and sweep of last year’s ”Master Butchers Singing Club,” it is a welcome, if modest, new piece in the ever-expanding Erdrich saga.