Books and islands in oji.., p.9
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       Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, p.9

           Louise Erdrich
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  Whatever Oberholtzer’s intentions were, I’m happy that his island is still filled with the books he pursued and acquired. Other than actual writing, the books a person leaves behind reflect most accurately the cast of that person’s mind. If his spirit is with the spirit family living on the island, as some believe, then I’m sure that Ober misses his chief treasures, but feels relieved that the collection is more or less intact. For his assemblage does reflect his character, as the best collections do, which is why it is so important that the heart of it be restored. His books on exploration, the great north of Canada and the Arctic, and his painstakingly procured works on Native American life, as well as the volumes of poetry he so loved and the works in German and the books on music, probably reflect as much as anyone can know of him.

  Ober and the Ojibwe

  One of the reasons, I think, that Ober so loved and was fascinated by the Ojibwe is that he loved the books in the people. He loved the oral tradition of storytelling, where the person becomes the book as in Fahrenheit 451. His Ojibwe name, Atisokan, means story. As Paybomibiness tells it, Oberholtzer was always entering a circle of Ojibwe asking eagerly, “Atisokan? Atisokan?” And so, as Ojibwe do, he was affectionately nicknamed. He recorded several stories but never did complete a collection, or indeed, write the books he meant to about the Ojibwe. He hadn’t, perhaps, the degree of passivity it takes to actually sit down and write a book. Or he hadn’t the patience, maybe, to sit down long at all. His phenomenally active life benefited his Ojibwe friends in many ways, not the least of which is in the area of conservation, and now, in the ongoing hospitality that the board of the Oberholtzer Foundation has shown toward Ojibwe people, Ojibwe writers and language teachers, storytellers. During this retreat to the island, for instance, I am able both to take notes for this book and to work with Keller Paap and Lisa LaRonge on details of the first book that our nascent publishing house, Birchbark Books, will publish. It is a book by an Ojibwe elder named Nawiigiizis, of Mille Lacs, Minnesota. Ober definitely would have added this book to his collection, and as I leave I promise to send it, and this one, too, up north to the island of books.



  * * *


  We’re going to make the drive straight down to the Cities without stopping, so I keep Kiizhikok awake throughout the last morning on the island, until we are on the road. To keep her eyes open just a little longer, I break out a toy called Alpha-Bug, who says, “hey, that tickles,” when she’s turned on. Press the Alpha-Bug’s feet and she says a letter and can also make the sound of the letter. You can even get her to say whole words, though not suggestive or swear words. My older daughters have discovered that Alpha-Bug won’t even say the word “sex.” How did they do that? These toys made with sound chips did not exist when my other children were young. Kiizhikok happily presses green plastic bug feet until twenty miles south of International Falls, when the letter D puts her to sleep.

  I have only been in sporadic phone contact with my daughters during this trip, which causes me great anxiety. I know they are fine—as they are teenagers they each have a life project they’re embarked on. One is making a film in London, one is studying in the Berkshires, one daughter is part of an international choir. Oddly, it has been easiest to talk to my daughter in London. I sat on a polished log chair at the one radio phone available on Ober’s island, and she stood at a phone booth just outside King’s College, using a phone card. We compared notes on food. She had found it best to frequent a Greek deli near the school instead of rely on cafeteria sandwiches made of mashed corn and chicken. I had found it best, in Canada, to rely on a trail mix heavy on dried fruit, except of course for the memorable lunch at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung and the food shared with Ojibwe food-lovers on Ober’s Island.

  Now, as I merge just past Cloquet, Minnesota, onto 35 South heading back to Minneapolis, the little cell phone I’ve taken, silent all along, makes a triumphant tootling sound at the end of its plug-in cord. I start dialing, and talk to my daughters from the road, check in with my household and with my bookstore people, with my sisters and parents. All of a sudden I am back in the web of connection.

  I am on the mainland, dry land, off the islands. Or so I think.


  We arrive. We return. Home is familiar and it is disorienting. For days, I’m not quite here and not quite there, but muddle around trying to enter the stream of my life. There is a sad discovery. The city forester has painted a blazing red ring and the letter A, sign of doom, around Old Stalwart’s trunk. This tree is much older than the house, and I’ve carefully had it treated with a protective fungicide every few years to discourage Dutch Elm disease. The treatment doesn’t always work. I knew that. But it’s like a friend of mine is stricken. The tree is the classic fluted shape and raises immense and graceful arms high above our three-story house. I love elm trees—grooved bark and sawtooth leaves and fluted silhouette. I think the Earth has chosen to praise the sky by growing this tree.

  Even I can see the flags, the stunted and dead leaves, the ailing branches, the signs. I stand outside with the tree, in a state of helplessness—there should be a word specifically for the feeling one has about the death of a tree. I think of photographing Old Stalwart, but I can’t bear to. Within days, the city tree crew arrives and saws off those long sweet limbs, lest the disease spread. I’m so sad I cannot look at the tree anymore, it hurts to see it maimed like that. A few more days pass and then the forester seals off the street, notches the rest of the tree, and fells the three-story-high stump onto the asphalt. I watch it go, with Kiizhikok, and feel the shock of its passage, a resounding shudder of the earth that tingles in our feet. That’s it. It is gone. This has been a warm winter and a record number of elms have succumbed, as the deep cold helps kill off the beetles that spread the sickness. As I am finishing this book, the city stump grinder arrives and by the end of the day his rotary blade has turned the rest of Old Stalwart into a pile of chips. It will be another hundred years, if the house survives this long, before a tree grown in its place tops the roofline and teases the sky.

  Reading Distance

  My happiness in being an older mother surprises me—though often worn out I don’t seem to mind my sleepy days. I know they quickly pass. Some changes are permanent, though, for instance my middle-aged vision. The first time I held Kiizhikok in my arms, just after she was born, I looked into her perfect face and realized that I couldn’t make out her features. I had to adjust her to my reading distance.

  It occurs to me, now, that I now do this constantly. If reading is taken to mean comprehending, I step back often. I focus; to my great relief, I have a little more patience. I have learned to appreciate as well as to fear the swift current of hours. Those first jagged months of ceaseless exhaustion passed like dreams, so quickly I feel I’ve flown in and out of clouds. Already she is making sense of things and I am making sense of her. At the same time, my oldest daughters are soon leaving for college. All this year I have found myself sorting through photographs as though to persuade myself that their childhoods have actually happened, that all of those years really occurred in fabulous particularity.

  Returning home, after a long anticipated trip, always does this to me. Time seems foreshortened, furiously spent, a blur. If, as Austerlitz says, time is by far the most artificial of all our inventions, then what am I living in, what is this force that holds me captive in its ineluctable continuance? As I still have Austerlitz to finish on my first night home, the book becomes a reassuring messenger from the near past, familiar now, a witness to my travels.

  Austerlitz doesn’t wear a watch, I am happy to read, considering one “a thoroughly mendacious object.” I don’t wear a watch either, unless forced by circumstance. He explains what I have never completely thought out about my hope of somehow resisting time through these little forms of protest. Austerlitz hopes, he says, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that he can turn back and go behin
d it and there find everything as it once was. I suppose that is the point of sifting through my shoeboxes of photographs. Perhaps that is the point of everything, this writing most of all.

  There is a surprise memory for me at the end of Austerlitz, one that simultaneously revives a forgotten person, a teacher of mine, and gives me an unexpected metaphor to use in understanding where we have been. The last pages of the book are about another book, a memoir by Dan Jacobson, a writer whose father, a Lithuanian rabbi, died in 1920 and caused his wife to decide to emigrate with her nine children to South Africa. They were the only people in his family who survived the Holocaust. Jacobson spent most of his childhood in the town of Kimberly, near the diamond mines, which were not fenced off and to the edge of which children ventured to look down into a depth of several thousand feet. As Dan Jacobson was my advisor during what seemed a very long term of study at University College, London, in 1976, I can almost see him describe how it was terrifying to see such emptiness open up a foot away from firm ground, to realize that there was no transition, only this dividing line, with ordinary life on one side and its unimaginable opposite on the other. The chasm into which no ray of light could penetrate, writes the narrator of Austerlitz, was Jacobson’s image of the vanished past of his family and his people which, as he knows, can never be brought up from those depths again.

  Dan Jacobson was a very kind man. I remember that as we talked, perhaps to set me at ease, for I was shy, he used to share chunks of the Cadbury bars he kept in his desk drawer—the kind in the purple wrapper, studded with chunks of nuts and raisins. How odd it seems now that he is with me in Minneapolis, and that I am nodding as I think, yes, it is as though when I look past a generation or into the past of Tobasonakwut’s world there is a lightlessness, too, for nine of every ten native people perished of European diseases, leaving only diminished and weakened people to encounter what came next—the aggressions of civilization including government policies and missionaries and residential schools. Yet, here, as I turn to Kiizhikok sprawled in sleep beside me, is a light.

  Wood Ticks

  A pure little light, I think, reaching over to touch her curls. That is when I find the wood tick. It is still on the move, not attached, which is good. I pluck it away and dispose of it and make certain there are no more. This one was probably carried in on a shirt or blanket. Suddenly, of course, I itch all over. I don’t know why they are so much worse than mosquitoes, for instance, but they are worse. Or maybe I just have a thing about them. Back on the island while eating lunch with Tobasonakwut, I plucked one off and made a shuddering noise. He opened the top layer of his sandwich and said, “throw him in.” When I was a child and visited my grandparents in the Turtle Mountains, we cousins had wood-tick contests at the end of the day, after playing in the woods. Any number under twenty was scorned. I remember one cousin winning one night with a grand total of fifty-six. In the full blush of their season I’ve seen them swarm toward you off willow branches—swarm slowly. That’s what’s so awful. Their tiny, blood-drawn, implacable lust.

  Up close, they are so small and neatly made. Of course, their true awfulness becomes apparent when they vampirize and grow big. Earlier this summer, about a week after bringing our dog back from a trip up north, Kiizhikok brought me a huge tick she’d found, fallen off the dog. She held it solemnly, pinched carefully between her thumb and first finger, her pinky crooked. Its legs, fine as copper hairs, waved hopelessly. I couldn’t breathe for the horror of it—the thing looked like a grape.

  Later on I described the moment to Pallas, who was dismissive. “Oh mom,” she said, “Kiizhikok’s much too intelligent to eat anything with legs that move.”

  Books. Why?

  I’ve been to the islands and back. I’ve seen a great many books and held in my hands several that would be set behind glass in the rare books rooms of university libraries. I’ve touched the rock paintings, and read a fragment of their stories. Part of the trip is always the return, the way it shakes off you, the washing of duffel bags of clothes, the tons of catalogs that have collected in the mailbox. The next day, tick free, but sad over the tree and still disoriented, I walk over to our bookstore, Birchbark Books, in Minneapolis. I started it with my daughters for idealistic reasons—the native community, the neighborhood, the chance to work on something worthy with my girls. But really, in my deepest heart, I wonder now if I started it to cure myself of an affliction of books.

  The door is blue because I love blue. It is an old door rescued from the knockdown of some haute bourgeois Minneapolis house. It’s beautiful. The window boxes, which I’ve planted with herbs and flowers, are overflowing now that it’s August. And here is one of my favorite people in the world, Mr. Brian Baxter, who manages and oversees the getting and selling of the books at Birchbark Books! Brian, ah Brian, who will read “The Barrel-Organ” or maybe Mean Soup or maybe from The Jungle Book out loud and with perfect drama. Brian is also afflicted by books, but manages his addiction by having lived and sold books all of his life and by keeping only a small portion, several thousand, of the books that have passed through his hands.

  Our store is pure comfort. Jelly beans, pretzels, and sour cherry bites are free. To create the store, we gutted a dentist’s office and brought unpeeled birch trees in to make a loft and birch boards to make floor-to-ceiling shelves. The store has good acoustics. We play our favorites in contemporary native music—from Black Lodge to Carlos Nakai’s native flute, and of course Primeaux and Mike’s peyote songs, perfect for reading and browsing. This bookstore looks like the inside of a cabin on Ober’s island. There is an old Catholic confessional against one wall, bought from a salvage company. There are easy chairs that I’ve plucked from neighborhood alley dumpsters or boulevards, where they’ve been left for the taking. I’ve had them upholstered in soft denim. I was delighted to walk in one morning to find a writer I much admire sitting in one of these chairs and frowning at the corrections on a final proof of his new book. I am often thrilled when I can sit in the bookstore audience and listen to Susan Power or Jim Northrup read from their work. Writers sign our back wall. Our bathroom is papered with poems. Our office is the former dentist’s closet where he prepared fillings and kept dank lunches in a trembling two-foot refrigerator. Now the office/closet is loaded with books and book orders and too many bills to pay, for there is always that, the costliness of any great love.

  There is sage, there is sweetgrass, there is red paint. This little bookstore is where I belong and where anyone can belong. It is a home for people who love books and a place that cannot be duplicated by any bookstore corporation—it is just too personal. It is an island, as lovingly itself as any in a lake. In our store, the greedy melancholy that Ober’s books inspired falls away. It is an excellent and cheering thing to have a flow of books around you, to see them as they enter, and then take the money from people’s hands as they disappear. They must be sold! Taken away! Get thee gone! Still, besides my daily visits, sometimes I come to the store at night. I love to be among the books and to fuss them into pleasant order, just the way I love moving plants around in my garden. One of our booksellers, watching me, says, “Oh, you’ve come to love the books again?” Being around books is only half about actual reading, after all. The other part is talking about books with other people, a rich topic, and yet another is enjoying their presence. Sitting in the bookstore half-light I feel a great contentment.

  Birchbark Books is just off Lake of the Isles. I didn’t even think about this before I left, but that’s it—the whole thing about islands and books. There really are two islands on Lake of the Isles and they are both wild islands, little places in the city where, from a canoe, I’ve seen great horned owls, black-crowned night-herons, arctic tern, dozens of black or painted turtles swirling off logs, and once a bald eagle. Maybe I live among the books and islands, and also must visit them in more remote places, because I’ve decided, in some deeply interior way unavailable to my conscious mind until I’ve started writing this book,
that I will order my life to deal with a hoary old cliché.

  This cliché has truly nagged at me. It is a question that I’ve asked myself periodically ever since I was nine years old. The question is: What book would you take to a desert island? I even have the question taped to the top of a cigar box on the bookstore counter, a request to customers to write their favorites on slips of paper, a way to find out about their tastes and discover titles that we’ve overlooked. What book would you take to a desert island—what a dismal thought! To have only one book to read over and over for years and years. Think of that miserable moment in the movie Cast Away when poor Tom Hanks opens a FedEx box and finds a videocassette. If only it had been a book! But which book should it have been? My solution is a dictionary. A dictionary would last and last. A dictionary would be a good thing to have arrived in that FedEx box. But even better to be like Oberholtzer and to store up 11,000. Or to be an Ojibwe raised on stories and to contain many books in mind. Or me, with a bookstore.

  Books. Why?

  So I can talk to other humans without having to meet them.

  Fear of boredom.

  So that I will never be alone.


  * * *

  Tobasonakwut, miigwech, kiizhawenimin. I would also like to thank everyone mentioned in these pages.

  To Ojibwe speakers and other experts—I tried my best to get it right and went over it all with Tobasonakwut, but there are probably mistakes that should be corrected. If so, they are mine.

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