The use of dual narratives in Louise Erdrich’s novel Tracks creates a feeling that the reader is being given two sides of the same story. It broadens the events mentioned from personal experience to communal experience, and in some cases re-enforces events described so that the reader knows what happened from two points of view. At the same time, however, it creates a sense of almost paranoia for the reader. Because of the personalities of each narrator, one tends to make us question the other.
In the third chapter, once both narrators, Nanapush and Pauline, have been established, Nanapush states flat out that Pauline lies.
This has two effects on the reader. The first, is that it makes us question the reliability of both narrators, and since Nanapush is first and proves to have a less eccentric take on the events, we almost immediately “take his word for it” that this is the narrative we are supposed to identify with as “the truth,” thus undermining Pauline’s narrative almost right away.
Another reason it appears we are to accept Nanapush’s narrative over Pauline’s is his reason for telling his story. He is not only telling his personal story, but is telling it to someone for a specific reason: to teach a lesson to Fleur’s daughter, Lulu. The moral he is trying to get across is to never marry a Morissey, and that Lulu should not resent her mother for abandoning her as a child, for she had good reason and possibly no other choice. Pauline’s narrative seems to be an inner monologue, justifying to herself her own actions and decisions in the events she has been involved in. It is possibly therapeutic, a way of absolving herself of guilt she seems to be steeped in.
Nanapush and Pauline have very different storytelling qualities, based on their own idiosyncrasies and personality traits. Nanapush’s narrative flows as though natural speech, with a very informal tone. His narrative is colored by sexual jokes and a confidence enough not to apologize for including the sex parts in his story to Lulu. He is self-confident, and sees himself as an important figure not only in his own life, but in the history of his people. He is very sure of himself and his actions. He views himself as the voice of his culture.
“My girl, I saw the passing of times you will never know. I guided the last buffalo hunt. I saw the last bear shot. I trapped the last beaver with a pelt of more than two years’ growth. I spoke aloud the words of the government treaty, and refused to sign the settlement papers that would take away our woods and lake. I axed the last birch that was older than I, and I saved the last Pillager. Fleur, the one you will not call mother.” (Tracks, Ch. 1, page 2)
Nanapush is very proud of his heritage, and like most older people, believes that the good times are well in the past. He is proud of his people and what they have accomplished. Although he seems ashamed and bitter at what his people have let themselves become, he still feels pride in who he his and his sense of community, even toward those whom he does not respect or like.
Pauline, on the other hand, has no pride in her people, in fact seems to detest everything that is not “white.” When she first leaves the reservation to go into the town of Argus, she leaves her past self behind and tries to forget to what culture she belongs to. However, once she is involved with the “white” world, she seems to loathe the people she becomes acquainted with as much as the people she has left behind. Once her narrative continues, she seems to have a distaste for everyone who is not herself. Her tone is haughty, and some time into her narrative she begins to view herself as a martyr. She is not sure of herself, however, and in some cases is conflicted in her memory as to whether or not she even performed actions she is remembering.
“It was Russell, I am sure, who first put his arms on the bar, thick iron that was made to slide along the wall and fall across the hasp and lock. He strained and shoved, too slight to move it into place, but he did not look to me for help. Sometimes, thinking back, I see my arms lift, my hands grasp, see myself dropping the beam into the metal grip. At other times, the moment is erased. But always I see Russell’s face the moment after, as he turned, as he ran for the door -- a peaceful look of complicit satisfaction.” (Tracks, Ch. 2, page 28)
In this passage, Pauline believes that Russell locked the men into the cooler, or cannot remember the incident at all. In a later chapter, she takes full responsibility for putting the bar on the door, proving her conflicting feelings on taking responsibility for her actions.
“I relived the whole thing over and over, that moment so clear before the storm. Every night when my arms lowered the beam, it was my will that bore the weight, let it drop into place -- not Russell’s and not Fleur’s.” (Tracks, Ch. 4, page 66)
Pauline seems to be justifying her actions throughout her history by telling herself she is absolved by God and that by choosing a new name and identity she will forget her guilt, but as she has done several times before, I do not believe that this will remove her guilt, for a person cannot forgive themselves until they take absolute responsibility for their own actions, which I do not believe Pauline is capable of doing.
Another principle characteristic that separates the two narratives is each narrator’s relationship to Fleur, who is a central figure in both of their stories. Nanapush’s relationship is very clear and positive, while Pauline’s, as well as everything else in her narrative, is conflicted and negative. Nanapush loves Fleur and considers her a daughter, and she loves him as well. He saved her life and she has returned the favor, but they also bring other good things into each other’s lives. There is no blame for negative events, however, neither blames each other for any bad occurrences they may have had. Fleur is the great heroine of Nanapush’s story. It seems that to him, Fleur represents the ancient ways of their people, and in some ways she tries to represent this herself. When they talk of the Turcot Lumber Company, Fleur is confident that the fear of the power of the Pillagers will deter them, but even Nanapush has realized otherwise, for he has seen too many things in his time.
“...Nector jumped in and said what poor Damien found difficult.
“If we don’t pay they’ll auction us off!”
Damien nodded, went on, ignoring Margaret’s shocked poke at her knowledgeable son.
‘Edgar Pukwan Jr. and the Agent control the choosing of the board who will decide who may bid on what foreclosed parcels, and where.’
‘They know better,’ Fleur said with confidence that seemed pitiful and false to me, though I had never before pitied Pillagers. “They won’t dare throw us off the shores of this lake,’ she promised.
Father Damien had already heard otherwise. ‘There’s some who want to build a fishing lodge,’ he said in a gentle voice. ‘They’re willing to trade for an allotment someplace else.’
Fleur refused to hear this, but I could not ignore it and digested this new betrayal in silence. My thoughts were everywhere, a swarm of gnats, a flock of arguments. Pillager land was not ordinary land to buy and sell. When that family came here, driven from the east, Misshepeshu had appeared because of the Old Man’s connection. But the water things was not a dog to follow at our heels.” (Tracks, Ch. 7, page 175)
Pauline’s relationship with Fleur is hard to pinpoint. In the very beginning, it seems that Pauline both fears and respects Fleur, until she is taken under Fleur’s wing, so to speak, when Fleur carries her to put her to sleep in a closet with old papers. After this, Pauline becomes obsessed with Fleur, because once Fleur has taken this act of notice of her, she never really notices her again, and Pauline resents her for it. Throughout her narrative, it seems that while Pauline loathes her heritage, she is increasingly obsessed with it because of Fleur. To Pauline, Fleur is the epitome of Native America culture, and Pauline both wants to be her and hates her. She is so conflicted in how she feels toward her that she cannot help but be drawn to her family to interfere. She feels that while Fleur is perfect, if she converts her from Paganism to Christianity, she will be absolved of her feelings for her, as she feels her guilt will be absolved by becoming someone else. Pauline’s main dream is to not be Pauline. In one scene, she has a vision that God appears before her and tells her that she is not really Native American, but white, and that she has been chosen to do His work.
“One night of deepest cold He sat in the moonlight, on the stove, and looked down at me and smiled in the spill of His radiance and explained. He said that I was not whom I had supposed. I was an orphan and my parents had died in grace, and also, despite my deceptive features, I was not one speck of Indian but wholly white. He Himself had dark hair although His eyes were blue as bottleglass, so I believed. I wept. When he came off the stove, his breath was warm against my cheeks. He pressed the tears away and told me I was chosen to serve.
Other things. I was forgiven of my daughter. I should forget her. He had an important plan for me, for which I must prepare, that I should find out the habits and hiding places of His enemy. It was only very slowly that this idea was revealed. Over time, as winter cut down more people and I was called from the convent to house after house where I prepared the newly dead, the details of His great need were given. I should not turn my back on Indians. I should go out among them, be still, and listen. There was a devil in the land, a shadow in the water, an apparition that filled their sight. There was no room for Him to dwell in so much as a crevice of their minds.” (Tracks, Ch. 6, page 137)
Pauline justifies her own hatred of her heritage by dreaming that God believes she is white, and puts off her responsibility toward her past actions on Fleur, and believes that if she converts Indians to Christianity, she will be absolved of all her own sins. To me, this just seems to be Pauline refusing to take responsibility and shifting the blame to someone else, so that she does not have to deal with the guilt. This does not work, however, for their is never a sense of resolution in Pauline’s narrative.
In relation to a community’s history, the dual narratives show not only different viewpoints, but conflicting viewpoints from within the society. History is not one-sided. Nanapush embraces his culture while Pauline pushes it away, and at the same time is drawn to it, and these differences in attitudes changes the way their stories are shaped. This is true of all cultures. People within cultures do not always accept their culture, and each person within a society feels differently about the society and its history. This method also portrays a more accurate picture of how people in the society relate to each other, as well as a deeper understanding of their history.