Thursday, October 06, 2005

Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich

The author Louise Erdrich went on a spirit quest through the land of the Ojibwe, boating through Minnesota and Ontario, visiting islands in Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake. In her 1995 blue Windstar minivan, with her eighteen month old daughter, she left Minneapolis to seek out the literature of her tribes (Ojibwe and Caucasian) captured by the atisikan or eternal paint on the rocky islands and found in the collection of a special library of rare books on an isolated island. Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, a title in National Geographic’s The Literary Travel Series, is her account.

Though Erdrich is a modern woman who has forsworn smoking, she took tobacco to offer to the spirits, to strengthen her connection to the past by practicing its traditions. Her daughter enjoyed sprinkling the bits of tobacco from the bags before the ancient symbols. At very special places she also left food and ribbon shirts. She sought comfort and good fortune for herself and her daughters.

The author thought Ojibwemowin had become like Latin, a language of prayer, until she found on a previous trip the older people who speak it daily. Now she studies to learn the many verbs; two thirds of the vocabulary is descriptive verbs that need few adjectives. Erdrich says that the best speakers of the language are always creating new words; there are now words for computers, animals from other continents, and other ethnic groups; Asians are “the tea people” and Europeans are “frog people.”

A small foundation granted Erdrich an invitation to visit the island that was the home of Ernest Oberholtzer, who collected thousands of books and studied the Ojibwe and their language. Spending days thumbing through his vast and varied collection, she mused that children could learn much if they were given one school year devoted strictly to undirected reading; she would put children in libraries and let them discover literature for themselves.

The author has the book collecting addiction. Recently, as an antidote, she started an independent bookstore called Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. In the final chapter she discusses its operations and the joy she has arranging the displays when no one else is there.

Readers of Erdrich’s novels and book lovers in general should read this personal travel account, which reveals much about the author’s reading and literary culture.

Erdrich, Louise. Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2003. ISBN 0792257197

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