Today, in the last of this series on books about books, there is one final text that I'd like to discuss: Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country: Travelling Through the Land of My Ancestors by Native American author Louise Erdich.
All four of the previous volumes I've recommended have focused on stories for young people, so I wanted to be sure to include a biblio-memoir exploring an adult reading life. Other possibilities came to mind (My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Meade, Reading Lolita in Tejran by Azar Nafisi, The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin, all very good reads), but Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country had to be my choice. I've re-read this little gem of a book more than once since it's 2003 publication, and returned to it again during this pandemic year -- when the tale of Erdrich's travels through the wild lakes of Minnesota and Ontario was a perfect antidote to days confined to bed recovering from Long Covid.
Erdrich, for those who don't know already, is a very fine writer of adult novels, children's fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; she's won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award, the World Fantasy Award, and numerous other honors over her long career. A member the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, she has a mixed Chippewa/Ojibway, German, and French heritage -- all of which informs her writing in splendid ways. She is also the proprietor of Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore in Minneapolis specializing in Native American literature.
Erdrich begins Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country by explaining its premise:
"My travels have become so focused on books and islands that two have merged for me. Books, islands. Islands, books. Lake of the Woods in Ontario and Minnesota has 14,000 islands. Some of them are painted islands, the rocks bearing signs ranging from a few hundred to more than a thousand years old. So these islands, which I'm longing to read, are books in themselves. And then there is a special island on Rainy Lake that is home to thousands of rare books ranging from crumpling copies of Erasmus in the French and Heloise's letters to Abelard dated MDCCXXIII, to first editions of Mark Twain (signed) to a magnificent collection of ethnographic works on the Ojibwe that might help explain the book-islands of Lake of the Woods.
"I am not traveling alone. First my eighteen-month-old and still nursing daughter and I will pop over the Canada-U.S. border and visit Lake of the Woods and the lands of her namesake, her grandmother. Then we'll dip below the border and travel east to Rainy Lake. We'll put about a thousand miles on our car and several hundred on other people's boats. I'm forty-eight years old and I can't travel aimlessly. I always seem to have a question that I would like to answer. Increasingly, too, it is the same question. It is the question that has defined my life, and the question that most recently has resulted in the questionable enterprise of starting a bookstore. The question is: Books. Why? The islands are really incidental. I'm not much in favor of them. I grew up on the Great Plains. I'm a dry-land-for-hundreds-of-miles person, but I've gotten mixed up with people who live on lakes. And then these islands have begun to haunt me, especially the one with all of the books."
Her journey takes her through "the great mashkiig, or bog, between Red Lake and Lake of the Woods," rich in the traditional plants used by the Ojibwe for healing and sacred purposes, to a small island where Erdrich and little Kiizhikok watch otters play while waiting for the child's father to join them. Eventually Tobasonakwut arrives, packs them into a boat, and takes them into the wild world he'd know as a child growing up on the lake -- before the Canadian government removed his band of Ojibwe from the islands that were their home.
Carrying the reader along on her travels, Erdrich recounts this borderland's long history: the people who once lived there (indigenous and white) and the various ways their stories have come to us -- through oral transmission, through print, through ceremony, through rock paintings that are hundreds and thousands of years old. Erdrich reflects on the Ojibwe language, and on the daily conversation of water, wetlands, and weather. The lake's animals and birds tell stories, whispered into her young daughter's ears.
Parting ways with Tobasonakwut, Erdrich and Kiizhikok head for the island where Ernest Oberholtzer once lived, and where the enormous library he collected during his lifetime is housed. The island is now managed by a small foundation dedicated to preserving its fragile ecosystem and keeping Oberholtzer's vision alive. He was a close friend to the Ojibwe, Erdrich explains, and now "the foundation honors that relationship by allowing teachers and serious students of the language, as well as one or two Ojibwe writers, to visit on retreat."
Ernest Oberholtzer (1884-1977), known as Ober, was born in Iowa, educated at Harvard, but spent most of his adult life on Mallard Island in the Rainy Lake watershed: exploring, writing, and defending the ecology of the region against dams and industrialization. (To read more about his life, which was colorful and fascinating, go here.) Ober's book collection was legendary: idiosyncratic, extensive, and full of treasures, most of them preserved (or reclaimed) by the foundation and housed on the shelves where Ober left them. Erdrich's description of Mallard Island is delightful. Here's a brief taste:
"On reaching the island, I find I am the last to chose a place to stay. I'm thrilled to find that no one else has decided to sleep at Oberholtzer's house. Though each cabin has its own charm, I've always wanted to stay at Oberholtzer's. I want to stay among what I imagine must have been his favorite books. The foundation has tried to keep the feeling of Ober's world intact, and so the books that line the walls of his loft bedroom were pretty much the ones he chose to keep there, just hundreds out of more than 11,000 on the island. Heavy on Keats, I notice right off, as we enter. Volumes of both the poems and letters. Lots of Shakespeare. A gorgeously illustrated copy of Leaves of Grass....
"We convene to eat in an old 20th century cook's barge used by lumber companies to feed their crews as they ravaged the northern old-growth trees and floated the logs down to the sawmills. Ober had this cook's barge hauled to his island. An old bell signals meals. Original plates and dishes of every charm -- Depression glass, milk glass, porcelains, and sweet old flowery unmatched Royal Doulton china dishes -- crowd the open shelves. A cabin just out front of the cook's barge, hauled here too, was once a floating whorehouse, I am told. Now it houses a piano, and three neat beds. A child has written a sign, tacked to its wall, that advises visitors not to be alarmed if they see things they are unprepared to see -- like spirits. There is supposed to be a spirit family that inhabits this island.
"I'll tell you right off, I don't see hide nor hair of the spirits. But I can't speak for Kiizhikok, with her still open fontanel. They might be talking to her. Or singing her to sleep. Because she sleeps on this island, takes naps of an unprecedented length and then tumbles into sleep beside me as I read long into the night. There is a fever that overcomes a book-lover who has limited time to spend on Ober's island. A fever to read. Or at least to open the books. There is no question of finishing or even delving deeply. I have only days. Among the books, I feel what is almost a long swell of grief, of panic.
"Once the baby is asleep I vault over to Ober's shelves. I first wash and dry my hands -- I just have to. Really, I suppose I should be wearing gloves. Then with a kind of bingeing greed I start, taking one book off the shelves, sucking what I can of it in, replacing it. This goes on for as many hours as I can stand. C.K. Chesterton on William Blake. Ben Jonson's Works in Four Volumes, Oxford University, 1811. Where the Blue Begins by Christopher Morley, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, first edition and first printing. An 1851 copy of The House of the Seven Gables. And The Voyages of Peter Esprit Radisson, Being an Account of His Travels and Experiences Among the North American Indians. A wonderful volume, more recent than most, published in 1943 and transcribed from original manuscripts in the British Museum. I keep reading this last book until, late at night, the loons in full cry, my mosquito coil threading citronella smoke, I have to quit. Knowing I must be alert tomorrow to feed Kiizhikok, I force myself to sleep. But as I drift away with her foot in my hand, I am led to picture an alternate life.
"In my imagined life, there is an enchanted interlude. All children are given a year off from school to do nothing but read (I don't know if they'd actually like this, but in my fantasy my daughters are exquisitely happy). We come to this island. One year is given to me, also, to read. I am not allowed to write. I am forced to do nothing but absorb Oberholtzer's books. Every day, I pluck down stacks of books from the shelves upon shelves tacked up on every wall and level of each of the seven cabins on Ober's island. Slowly, I go through the stacks, reading here and there until I find the book of which I must read every word. Then I do read every word, beneath a very bright lamp. When my brain is stuffed, my daughters and I go swimming, play poker, or eat. Life consists of nothing else."
Jorge Luis Borges famously once said: "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library."
For me, Paradise might look a lot like Ober's island (minus the mosquitos), and I long to be able to go there and lose myself among his books. At least we can visit through Erdrich's words, and I urge you to give Books & Islands a try. It is insightful, spell-binding, packed with information, and enchants me anew every time I read it.
The art today is by Pat Kruse, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe in Wisconsin and a descendent of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota. Born into a family of birchbark artists, Kruse creates basketry, wall murals and more from birchbark, quill, deer sinew, and other traditional materials. His work can be found the permanent collections of the National Museum of the American Indian-Smithsonian (Washington D.C.), the Science Museum of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Historical Society, among others.
"A birchbarker for over thirty years," he writes, "I am greatly influenced by my mother. Using the skin of the birch tree I remake old-style Ojibwe baskets, sometimes decorating with dyed porcupine quills. I make 'birchbark paintings' using different colors of cut-out birchbark designs, or scrape designs on birchbark to tell stories. Like my ancestors, I harvest birchbark using techniques that do not kill the tree. Having respect for birchbark, I waste nothing."
To see more of Kruse's work, please visit his website.
Words: The passages above are from Books & Islands in Ojibway Country: Traveling Through the Lands of My Ancestors by Louise Erdrich (National Geographic Society, 2003; Perennial, 2014). All rights reserved by the author.
Pictures: The birchbark art above is by Pat Kruse; all rights reserved by the artist. The color photographs of Earnest Oberholtzen's island are by Rosemary Washington, from her lovely account of her Arts Residency on the island in 2017. All rights reserved by the photographer.