Major themes

Traditional beliefs vs. Christianity

A major theme in Tracks is the tension between traditional Anishinaabe culture and beliefs and the Westernizing influence of white, Christian America. This clash can clearly be seen in the two characters of Fleur and Pauline; as Michelle R. Hessler writes, “Fleur upholds the traditions of her ancestors and attempts to save their land from the rapid advance of white civilization, whereas Pauline enters a cloister, denies her Native American heritage, and brings death and destruction to the reservation.”[1]

Unreliable narratives

Contradictions, lies, and “double-voiced-ness” have also been identified as major themes in Tracks. Nanapush is a critical character in the tension between the Anishinaabe and the whites because of his trickster qualities and ability to navigate both sides of the conflict through talking. Gross points out that Nanapush’s association with the mythical figure Nanabozho help him to survive by enabling him to adapt white culture to his own traditions and interests, writing “it is the tricksters who survive to build a new world on the ashes of the old.”[2]

Hughes further expands on this notion by commenting on Nanapush’s duplicitous speech, which, “like that of the prophet or the trickster, works simultaneously to undermine the power of the privileged oppressor and to appeal for his or her re-alignment on the side of the oppressed.”[3]

As the plot unfolds, Nanapush is able to use his gift of speech to negotiate with government representatives on behalf of his people, but he often tells contradictory stories and even outright lies. Similarly, Nanapush and Pauline’s narratives when compared are both unreliable and often contradictory. DePriest also points out that, while Fleur is obviously the central character in the book, she does not get to narrate her own story. Fleur must battle two fronts - not only the external conflict of white America that threatens to take away her ancestral land, but also internal betrayals from her own people – but her story is told at a distance by Nanapush and Pauline, both of whom are unreliable narrators.[4]

Hauntings and Madness

Fleur has been described as “one of the most haunting presences in contemporary American literature”[5] and Tracks is also characterized by the theme of haunting. Fleur is described as having mystical, shamanistic powers and at one point even travels to the spirit world to negotiate for the life of her second child. Several references are made to the manitou (including Misshepeshu, the lake spirit who is said to be a guardian of the pillager family) and the windigo. For instance, in the first chapter of the novel, Nanapush describes his and Fleur’s descent into grief at the loss of so many of their people to consumption, saying “We had gone half windigo. I learned later that this was common, that there were many of our people who died in this manner, of the invisible sickness. There were those who could not swallow another bite of food because the names of their dead anchored their tongues.” Their grief is characterized as a gripping depression, verging on madness. Madness itself is also a motif in the novel – manifesting most notably in the characters of Pauline (with her masochistic self-mortification methods) and Fleur (particularly following the death of her second child.) Beidler also notes that madness is associated with the characters’ emotional distress at the destruction of their environment by the white logging company.[6]

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