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Book Reviews/Recensions

Elisabeth Bouzonviller, Louise Erdrich : Métissage et écriture, histoires d’Amérique

Léna Remy–Kovach
p. 141-142
Bibliographical reference

Louise Erdrich, Métissage et écriture, histoires d’Amérique, Centre d’Études sur les Langues et les Littératures Étrangères et Comparées (CELEC), Collection “Les Scripturales,” Publications de l’Université de Saint–Étienne, 2014, 277 p., ISBN 978–2–86272–666–3.

Full text

  • 1 In Hybridity: Forms and Figures in Literature and the Visual Arts, eds. Vanessa Guignery, Catheri (...)
  • 2 In Peuples Indigènes et Environnement/Indigenous Peoples and the Environment, 3, “La vie signifia (...)
  • 3 In The Memory of Nature in Aboriginal, Canadian and American Context, eds. Françoise Besson, Clai (...)

1Elisabeth Bouzonviller is a researcher and professor of English and American Literature at the University Jean Monnet of Saint–Étienne, France. She is a specialist in Francis Scott Fitzgerald and has published extensively on 20th century American writers such as Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. She recently started to look at American Indian literature, and especially Louise Erdrich, a critically and academically acclaimed contemporary Ojibwe writer (born 1954) from Minnesota. Bouzonviller’s recent publications on Erdrich include “Crack and Bricolage in Louise Erdrich’s The Antelope Wife, or the Art of Hybridity,”1 “Blizzard de formulaires officiels, ou la trace du mocassin à l’épreuve de la trace d’encre dans Tracks et Four Souls de Louise Erdrich”2 and “Plumes et pinceaux, la représentation autochtone dans Shadow Tag de Louise Erdrich.”3

2Her current focus on hybridity in Louise Erdrich’s novels is at the core of Métissage et écriture, histoires d’Amérique. She begins her analysis with the hybridity of the writer herself. She continues with a very detailed commentary on traditional oral storytelling and expands on Erdrich’s dynamics of weaving traditional oral storytelling in her written prose. Erdrich, who has Ojibwe as well as French and German ancestry, uses multiple hybrid and/or liminal narrators to tell their (hi)story. Bouzonviller concludes that the polyphony created by these multi–dimensional narratives leads to a re–telling of American history and is a way to finally give a voice to those who have long been silenced.

3Métissage et écriture starts with an overview of Native American literature, entitled “Tribal Literature” (my translation). While presenting foundational Native American writers such as D’Arcy McNickle, N. Scott Momaday, or Paula Gunn Allen, and explaining in what way they were influential for Erdrich’s writing, Bouzonviller is already focusing on hybridity. She frames her analysis by explaining how the field of Native American literature is itself very homogeneous and fluid, and therefore debunks previous scholarly attempts at classifying this category as unified or homogenous.

4This introduction is followed by three chapters: “Mixed storyteller” (“Conteuse métisse”), “An Other (hi)story of America” (“Une Autre histoire de l’Amérique”), and “Polyphony” (“Polyphonie”) (my translation). Starting with an extensive presentation of linguistic, racial, and cultural mixings in Erdrich’s writing, Bouzonviller anchors the characters and storylines of no less than sixteen novels within the multiple layers of storytelling. From Love Medicine (1984) to The Round House (2012), via The Crown of Columbus (1991), The Bingo Palace (1994), and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001), Erdrich intricately weaves multidimensional narrators and protagonists. With one exception, which is the issue of sexual violence against Indigenous women, Erdrich seldom offers direct political commentary. Nevertheless, the dozens of storylines for her hundreds of diverse, mixed, and never Manichean characters share the common pain of land theft. The intergenerational trauma inflicted upon generations of Ojibwe and Métis communities by land dispossession unravels from one novel to another and Bouzonviller unpacks this crucial conundrum with great detail. She goes from the characters’ personal stories to the (hi)stories of their communities and reaches a convincing analysis of Erdrich’s re–historicization.

5Métissage et écriture presents an extremely intricate study of mixing. Bouzonviller does not only unpack hybrid characters, narrators, and genres. She also constructs her book following a concentric structure, avoiding chronological analyses and instead going back and forth between layers of meaning. This mirrors Erdrich’s style, which itself combines Indigenous oral storytelling traditions with Western linearity. Bouzonviller discusses both the original English versions, their inclusion of Ojibwemowin (the Anishinaabe language) and the French translations, and goes as far as providing close reading analyses of linguistic patterns within short passages she selects as representative examples. She skillfully demonstrates how Erdrich’s fictional mixity opens Anishinaabe society to a new modernity, and provides them with the power of the written word to surmount the loss of their land. This newly discovered power gives way to the healing properties of laughter, which has been consistently characterized by Erdrich herself as “survival humor.” Bouzonviller finally gives a detailed literature review on Native humor and explains Erdrich’s use of satire and other humoristic devices as being the antithesis of the stereotypical stern Noble Savage imposed by Hollywood. She concludes with the purpose of laughter in the novels. The reader laughs, she says, but humor is there to help both the character and the reader face the horror of the events.

6The third chapter focuses on polyphony and explores the topics of gender and motherhood. Varied examples of female strength serve to assert Indigenous women as the keepers of ancestral knowledge. They embody the hope and future of their communities. Running metaphors of women’s needlework illustrate yet another type of fluidity and multiplicity. The writer and her characters, as Anishinaabe and women, weave and bead multiple threads of life, literally and metaphorically, and maintain lineages and social relationships. Parallels between Erdrich’s family, her characters’ families, matriarchy and Anishinaabe conceptions of kinship and community are treated with the same attention to detail to which the reader has grown accustomed. Studies of lexical fields, characters’ portrayal, and of the introduction of Ojibwemowin underline the importance of culture and identity, feeding back into Bouzonviller’s main focus of mixity and hybridity.

7Given the extensive and multidimensional analysis of the novels, it is surprising to have to wait halfway through the book for a mention of the trickster. It is a vital figure of Anishinaabe storytelling, narrative techniques, creation stories, and humor, which are all explored in the introduction and repeatedly mentioned. The prominent figure of Nanabozhoo is late to arrive. It only comes after other more minor examples of trickster figures in Erdrich’s novels. Moreover, Bouzonviller casually uses the problematic semantic field of myth to refer to Ojibwe creation stories, relegating them to the field of folklore, while paradoxically framing the steady presence of the storytellers Mooshum and Nanapush in multiple novels. This analysis only spans a few pages and is quickly concluded with citations from other specialists. The trickster returns later in a sub–chapter dedicated to the multiplicity of genders, but again it is only very briefly. Given that other elements which could only be brushed upon, namely the figure of the Windigo, nevertheless benefit from explanatory footnotes, the lack of analysis of the trickster figure can only be characterized as an oversight. This is especially puzzling given the degree of detail and the overall depth of Bouzonviller’s research throughout the book.

8The abundance of footnotes often turns to excess. The difficulty arises partly from having to provide original versions to all the French translated passages and at times it proves difficult to follow. However, the explanatory notes can also provide a reader interested in furthering their study with valuable bibliographical content. In addition, Bouzonviller’s own style can sometimes seem too convoluted. Regardless of these issues, the amount of detail in her demonstration is commendable. It is a must–read for francophone scholars, as well as students looking for insight into Louise Erdrich’s works as a whole, at a time when literary analyses too often focus only on one specific novel.

9Mixes, hybridity, and liminality are the clear focus of this book. They are studied extensively throughout sixteen of Erdrich’s novels and their French translations, as well as within excerpts and short instances of dialogue. The analyses are consistently punctuated with points of view from other scholars and writers, and Bouzonviller is careful to always include a plurality of Indigenous and women’s voices. The non–linear structure and care to always cycle back to the fluidity of Anishinaabe storytelling is admirable. Métissage et écriture is a very original analysis of the dynamism of Ojibwe literature. It is built on careful and detailed work and will surely become a staple of francophone scholarship on Louise Erdrich’s oeuvre.

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Notes

1 In Hybridity: Forms and Figures in Literature and the Visual Arts, eds. Vanessa Guignery, Catherine Pesso–Miquel, François Specq, Newcastle–upon–Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011.

2 In Peuples Indigènes et Environnement/Indigenous Peoples and the Environment, 3, “La vie signifiante”, Bordeaux, Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2013.

3 In The Memory of Nature in Aboriginal, Canadian and American Context, eds. Françoise Besson, Claire Omhovère, Héliane Ventura, Newcastle–upon–Tyne Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.

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References

Bibliographical reference

Léna Remy–Kovach, “Elisabeth Bouzonviller, Louise Erdrich : Métissage et écriture, histoires d’AmériqueRecherches anglaises et nord-américaines, 53 | 2020, 141-142.

Electronic reference

Léna Remy–Kovach, “Elisabeth Bouzonviller, Louise Erdrich : Métissage et écriture, histoires d’AmériqueRecherches anglaises et nord-américaines [Online], 53 | 2020, Online since 01 February 2024, connection on 21 June 2024. URL: http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/ranam/773; DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/ranam.773

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About the author

Léna Remy–Kovach

University of Freiburg

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Copyright

CC-BY-NC-SA-4.0

The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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