Sunday, January 12, 2020

Just read: Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country

Louise Erdrich, Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country: Traveling Through the Land of My Ancestors. Harper Perennial, 2014.

My first book of the year. I picked it up at Brookline Booksmith from a table of sale books (there might still be some copies there if you hurry). I'm a weepy sort of reader anyway, but I never thought I'd get emotional over a brief description of a tree that was felled by a storm.

I bought the book because I'm teaching an online course in travel writing this semester. I bought it too late to make it required reading, but I quoted a portion of it in a letter to the students, where Erdrich describes a motel room that she and her infant daughter Kiizhikok stop at after they get back from spending time with friends and family outdoors in Ojibwe country (in northern Minnesota and southern Ontario):
The loneliness of roadside motels steals over me at once. Walking into my room, number 33, even with Kiizhikok’s presence to cushion me, the sadness soaks up through my feet. True, I might have dreams here, these places always inspire uneasy nights and sometimes spectacular and even numinous dreams. But they test my optimism. My thoughts go dreary. The door shows signs of having been forced open. I can still see the crowbar marks where a lock was jimmied. And oh dear, it is only replaced with a push-in knob that can be undone with a library card, or any stiff bit of plastic, I think, as I don’t suppose that someone intent on breaking into room 33 would use a library card. Or if they did, I wonder, dragging in one duffle and the diaper bag, plus Kiizhikok football-style, would it be a good sign or a bad sign? Would it be better to confront an ill-motivated intruder who was well read, or one indifferent to literature? 
I reign my thoughts in, get my bearings. There are touches. Although the bed sags and the pickle-green coverlet is pilly and suspicious looking, the transparent sheets are tight and clean. A strangely evocative fall foliage scene is set above the bed--hand painted! Signed with a jerky black squiggle. The bathroom shower has a paper sanitary mat picturing a perky mermaid, breasts hidden by coils of green hair. The terrifying stain in the center of the carpet is almost covered with a woven rug. As always, on car trips where I will surely encounter questionable bedcovers, I’ve brought my own quilt. There is a bedside lamp with a sixty-watt bulb, and once Kiizhikok is asleep I can read. (78)
I used that to introduce students to a "great tradition" in travel writing: describing one's iffy living quarters. I like a lot of things about these paragraphs, but one is the simple adjective "terrifying" to describe a stain in the carpet. It evokes so much without saying too much.

Of course, there's a lot more to recommend this book than a description of a motel room and a fallen tree, but I'll leave that discovery to the reader.

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