My American Fantasy course, which I’m teaching for the first time, continues to open my eyes to how the genre works in the United States. I have been exploring the idea that there are two strains of American fantasy, that of L. Frank Baum and that of Edgar Allen Poe. Call them the light side and the dark side. Since teaching Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, however, I’m coming to think that there is a third strain, a Native American strain, that operates differently.
As I’ve noted in the past, the light and dark strains are coin sides of the same grappling with reality: Baum wants to banish shadows from his fantasy while Poe makes his home in those repressed shadows. Baum represents the tradition that stretches from John Winthrop’s “city on the hill” to Walt Disney, and in his view the power of positive thinking allows us to create the reality we want. We have but to believe hard enough. Poe, on the other hand, looks at what we must push under in order to believe that fantasy. In our political debates, I link those waving the flag of American exceptionalism with the Baum strain and those pointing out America’s sins with the Poe strain.
But in setting up this contrast, I leave out someone like Erdrich of the Anishinaabe people (the Chippewa tribe). While Baum and Poe are responding to Puritan Calvinism, the Age of Reason, and the industrial revolution—one either believes one can impose one’s will on the American landscape or acknowledges that there are dark forces that will invariably undermine human efforts—Erdrich draws on Indian myths and legends to create a world in which fantasy and reality bleed into each other.
Take the nature spirits, which impact life in some areas and not in others. The beautiful Fleur Pillager reportedly lies with Misshepeshu, the dark lake man, and this gives her terrifying powers, such as the ability to conjure up a tornados and to cast curses. Old man Nanapush, meanwhile, uses dream visions to guide hunters lost in the snow. But for Nanapush, this magic is just a tool that exists matter-of-factly alongside more plebeian tools.
To be sure, Erdrich’s magic resembles that of Baum and Poe in that it is circumscribed by western culture. Fleur’s powers ultimately cannot prevail against the white invasion, and her magic shares the same fate as the ancient deities described in (to cite two other books I am teaching) Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where the gods imported by the immigrants can’t stand up to television, the media, and the internet, and Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume, where Pan is vanquished by Christianity, the Enlightenment, and capitalism.
But there’s a difference. Fantasy for Erdrich is not the either/or proposition that it is for Poe, Baum, Gaiman, and Robbins, where it exists in opposition to rationality. Rather, her characters move seamlessly between the spirit world and the impinging white world, sometimes casting spells, sometimes borrowing white technology. They move in a similar way between their own gods and the Christian god, and Nanapush has a way of using Catholic rituals to meet his own ends. As a result, they find a way to survive what Chippewa scholar Lawrence Gross describes as the “Anishinaabe apocalypse” of disease and white land grabs. Their stories are, as Gross sees it, a way of resisting an oppressive social order. They provide “a treasure trove of possibility to be accessed when need be.”
Fantasy offers us a way to cut through the noise of modernity and the forces of repression to touch base with foundational truths. Erdrich offers us a powerful Native American fantasy to help us in this endeavor.