Sunday, November 14, 2021

The Antelope Wife

Louise Erdrich
Completed 11/9/2021, Reviewed 11/9/2021
3 stars

This was a very tough book to read.  It has a disjointed and only slightly linear narrative.  It’s about a family of Ojibwa Native Americans over multiple generations and their relationships, myths, ancestors, and cultural struggles.  The prose is beautiful, but the book is simply hard to follow.  I started to get it about halfway through, but it took a lot of concentration.  It won the World Fantasy Award in 1999, although there is very little fantasy.  It’s more like magical realism, but even that is very tempered.

There isn’t much plot.  It’s more like a collection of stories surrounding a large family.  The book begins with a soldier fighting a tribe of Ojibwa, but deserting after killing a woman.  As he runs, he sees a dog running with a swaddled infant tied to its back.  He eventually befriends the dog and raises the child.  The child becomes an ancestor to the main characters.

Fast forward to the present.  In one scene, a trader kidnaps a woman who is part antelope.  He takes her as his wife but it soon becomes evident who the real captive is.  In another scene, we meet a family in chaos as the parents of twin girls begin separating.  In another, one of the twins moves to Minneapolis and works at a bakery owned by the man who had an affair with the twin’s mother.  She’s also searching the city for her grandmothers who also live there.  Another scene is told from the point of view of a dog, an Indian dog, who learns enough lessons to avoid being made into soup.  His name is Almost Soup.  

The prose, as I noted above, is wonderful.  Each story could almost be a standalone short piece.  Eventually, they all intertwine, but getting there is so difficult.  I was lost for a good part of the first half of the book.  Fortunately, one of the main characters, Cally, the twin who leaves for the city, does get a fair amount of narration time.  I did develop empathy for her about the same time I started to piece together who was related to whom and all the disjointed threads started to come together.  

From reading other reviews, these characters appear in other novels by Erdrich, so I might have been missing some character development and backstory.  But once I got it, it mostly made sense.  I really liked Cally and the grandmothers.  Their interactions had some humor to them.  I didn’t care for Cally’s mother.  She’s the type of person who continually makes bad choices and doesn’t get any redemption until the very end.  It was hard to read about the alcoholism of a couple of characters, particularly that of Cally’s father’s descent.  It’s not pretty and it its affect on the other characters is devastating to watch.

The whole myth of the antelope wife was kind of lost on me.  I didn’t see exactly how she related to the rest of the characters.  She appears throughout the book, but I don’t see how she affected everyone.  Mostly she brackets the book, the majority of the interaction with her taking place near the beginning of the book and near its end.  To me she was more of an observer than an influencer.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  The disjointed form was too much for me.  I didn’t like not being able to tell what the point of the book was for over half of it. It made it difficult to appreciate the prose.  I also struggle with this winning a fantasy award, as I didn’t think there was much.  I probably won’t get around to reading other books by her as most of the books about these characters are not considered fantasy at all.

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