I read this book recently for the first time. But I finished it just before Sonia and others decided to do this book club reading of it. So, I had the advantage (disadvantage?) of just taking in the pure horror and joy of the book without the intellectual questions along for the ride. Its such good tale, isn’t it? I haven’t had enough time to digest this book to really contribute at a level that would be interesting substantively to Sonia or Hadley, so I’m going to just throw out two questions that their posts raised for me, and hope that they can stimulate some productive discussion Wednesday.
The most common thing that would overwhelm me every time I put this book down was this: ‘How did she get so far inside the head of a 13-year old boy’? It’s astounding. And then I would think, ‘How the hell do I know what it’s like inside the head of a 13-year old boy?” Nevermind a 13-year-old Anishnabek boy, from a reservation, in North Dakota, 30 years ago? Whose mother has just been violently raped? I am a white, settler law prof living in Toronto, raising two mixed-race children with another law prof, who is Black with roots in the West Indies. I live a long way away from Joe. In my job, I write about feminist epistemologies and experiential knowledge; I argue that all knowledge is local, and situated, and emerges from place. It is grounded in a material reality. In fact, what I’ve been reading lately about Anishnabeg epistemologies has reinforced these same ideas. Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair argues that Anishnabeg ideas of “knowing” are “active, experiential, and limited by past knowledge” .….What in the world could make me think I could judge whether Erdrich has this right? I know I can never know if the way she tells it comes close to the truth of what goes through a kid like Joe’s head. But anyway, I think she nailed it.
(p.s. Sinclair also says those ways of knowing are ‘expandable’.)
My first question: What if Joe was a daughter?
It’s more of a thought experiment, really. Maybe some of you have already tried this. I’m sure many of you will have ideas about it.
It was prompted by Sonia’s remark in the first post: “…at times I wondered at the peripheral nature of the women in this book…”, combined with Hadley’s really powerful argument, in her post, that a respectful treatment of the wetiko legal concept is important because it can help to restore dignity to people in Anishinabek communities who are acting on enduring felt obligations.
If Geraldine had a daughter, instead of a son, how would the felt obligations on that child have differed? Maybe not at all. But Sonia is right that in this book we learn a lot about how violence against women affects men. In fact, we learn most of it in the haunting first chapter – the most memorable for me (maybe because Professor Ruth Buchanan, who lent me her copy, handed it over with these words: “Do not start this book on the bus, or in the coffee shop”) . This first chapter manages, right from the start, to convey a sense of building dread in the boy and man picking treelets from the foundation of their house. The small seed that takes in the reader’s mind is one that comes to insist that if ‘Mom should be home by now’, then something must be really wrong. Allowed into Joe’s thoughts, we hear:
“Women don’t realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits. We absorb their comings and goings into our bodies, their rhythms into our bones. Our pulse is set to theirs, and as always on a weekend afternoon we were waiting for my mother to start us ticking away on the evening.
And so, you see, her absence stopped time”.
If any of the chapters of this book could be told the same as they were, if Joe had been a daughter, I most easily imagine it could be this one. And yet. Erdrich didn’t write, “Mom didn’t realize how much store we set on the regularity of her habits…”. She definitely has Joe putting himself in the “men” category firmly. Maybe he is doing this himself, because he’s 13. Maybe that’s all we’re supposed to take from this. But my sneaking suspicion is that we actually are supposed to take a cue that Joe and Bazil are going to be in this together, that the complex web of felt obligations that will weigh in on them and change the course of their lives, are related to their gender, somehow. The task of stopping the wetigo, as best as my limited understanding of Anishinabek stories can tell, can be placed on, or taken up by anyone, regardless of gender. I feel like the conversation over cheeseburgers between Geraldine and Joe, where she says that Lark is “eating them” and “must be stopped”, could have taken place between Geraldine and her daughter (in my thought experiment). But something about the way that Joe, and his gang of friends, approach this problem, at so many places in this book, makes it feel like at a least of part of what falls on him, is a result of his gender. This isn’t just about Joe’s interactions with Sonja. Of course it isn’t a simple story about men avenging women. Or women’s inherent ‘vulnerabilities’, as (other) Sonia has noted. And Joe clearly can’t accomplish it alone, as Hadley pointed out.
Anyway, I would love to hear any of you muse about the specific ways in which this story would have, might have, differed, if Joe had been a daughter. We all know it’s very complicated, the ways that gender and violence interact in families. Knowing stories, and being able to imagine other ones, maybe can help.
My second question: Why did Cappy have to Die?
This isn’t as much a thought-experiment, as a real honest question. Probably there is already an accepted and well-known literary explanation for this little piece of cruel and unexpected punishment. I am either too dense to get it, or too blinded by my pure love for Cappy. Bold. Spirited. Uncompromising. True.
Am I meant to think that this is one of the “human consequences” that will follow Joe forever, as a result of having taken a life? Or, am I meant to think that since Cappy must have been the one that actually killed Lark, Cappy had to die? Am I meant to get a signal that in killing Lark, Joe pedalled fast across the boundary from the free-wheeling days of teenaged summers and straight into cold, hard, ‘adulthood’? Do those of those with fuller understandings and experiences of Indigenous law accept this and think it makes sense? Does anyone have an interpretation that satisfies them? Maybe that’s the message I’m supposed to get. This justice, all justice, still leaves a deep, gaping wound.
 Sinclair, Niigaanwewidam James. In Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World Through Stories (edited by Jill Doerfler, Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark, Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, 2013).
Professor Dayna Nadine Scott joined Osgoode’s faculty in 2006 after completing a SSHRC Post-Doctoral Fellowship at McGill’s Faculty of Law and a Hauser Global Research Fellowship at NYU. She is cross-appointed with the Faculty of Environmental Studies. Professor Scott’s teaching is in administrative law, environmental law, risk regulation, and international environmental governance. She recently completed a SSHRC-funded research project in partnership with environmental justice activists from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, near Sarnia`s Chemical Valley, which tackled the issue of chronic pollution on an Ontario reserve. The project applied a critical, feminist perspective to the examination of law’s treatment of the “risks” of long-term, low-dose exposures to pollutants.