The Antelope Wife: Dark, sad, beautiful and funny

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The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich fantasy book reviews world fantasy awardThe Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich

In 1999, Louise Erdrich’s book The Antelope Wife won the World Fantasy Award. Erdrich is not a genre writer; she is firmly planted in literary territory, even if she and her husband did write romance novels under a pseudonym to pay the bills early in their marriage. The Antelope Wife is not a fantasy book. It is a beautiful, dark, sad, funny story, filled with magic and mythology, weaving Plains Indian and Ojibwa myths into a modern-day tale about a large and complicated family in 1990s Minnesota.

From the two cosmic twins who open the book, beading with dark and light, with milky white beads, the indigo beads and the dark red beads with white hearts, and whose threads and sinews comprise the lives of humans in the world, twins loom large in The Antelope Wife. We have several sets throughout the story, like the powerful and elusive grandmothers Zosie and Mary. Callie is a twin, the daughter of Rozin Roy and Richard Whiteheart Beads. Because of two incidents in her childhood, Callie is in a strange place; between worlds at several points in the story. Callie is a twin.

The book follows, loosely, three families; the Roys, the Shawanos and the Whiteheart Beads, over nearly one hundred years, shifting point of views and bringing in multiple voices including a dog named Almost Soup, who shares his wisdom of how to avoid the soup pot and other human-delivered dangers.

As I said, twins are a major theme, and even characters who aren’t twins and aren’t even brothers have stories that run in chorus, or at times in harmony or counterpoint. This is the case for Klaus Shawano, who steals an antelope woman from her family and brings her to the city, and Richard Whiteheart Beads, a con artist and trickster character whose selfishness trails pain and destruction in its wake.

Klaus’s story starts off much like the conventional “animal wife” folktale. He is a trader who travels to pow-wows and gatherings, and at one of these he sees four women whose otherworldly beauty takes his breath away. They are antelope women. He approaches them, charms them, and then drugs the mother and abducts her. This part of the story, narrated by Klaus, leads us on; we are caught up in the fairy tale, until with a thud we see that he has lured a woman into his van, drugged her with magic tea, and taken her hundreds of miles from her family. We never hear the wife’s side of this story because she doesn’t speak. The family calls her Sweetheart Calico, because that is the pattern of calico Klaus used to tie her up. She may even accept her fate and have some affection for Klaus (we only have his word for that), but Klaus is not happy in the marriage. Still, he won’t free her. When he contacts a man he respects as an elder and asks what he should do, the man says, “Give her back to us, you fool.” That’s an unambiguous message, but Klaus does not take it to heart. Sweetheart Calico is stranded in a city, the last place a being like her should ever be.

Whiteheart Beads, meanwhile, is the tribal chair, in charge of a lucrative tribal waste management company, handsome and dapper. He uses Klaus and Sweetheart Calico as a distraction, bringing them to the attention of a federal agency, while he hides the evidence of the toxic waste he has been dumping on the reservation. When Rozin says she is leaving him to be with her lover, Frank, who has cancer, Richard’s act of selfishness and drama rebounds on an innocent third party with tragic consequences. Klaus tells us that Whiteheart Beads is his enemy and he hates him, but the two of them stagger along the streets of Minneapolis, drinking Listerine to get a buzz, and enter the same rehab program at the same time. At the end of The Antelope Wife, Klaus tries, at least, to do the right thing, while Richard still flails around at the grand, flamboyant gesture, with tragic consequences once again.

Around Sweetheart Calico, the stories of the Roy and Whiteheart Beads women unfold. Erdrich is a master of the hilarious, the heartrending and the horrifying, sometimes all at the same time. It shouldn’t, for example, be funny when someone’s head gets run over by a lawnmower… but somehow, it is. And there is magic in the book, in the sense of the unexplained, and there is also potent magic that we all recognize, like when Callie is waiting on one of the grandmothers, who pulls out the most powerful magical artifact ever; the snap-purse:

Those rubber-banded snap purses. You see an old lady slowly draw one forth and you know are going to pay for her lunch and pay beyond that in ways more than money or time. An old lady. A snap purse with a broken snap. A rubber band. I remind you. No way you can spiritually afford to charge an old lady with a broken old snap purse who has, in her pride, saved and used to close it a blue rubber band off a bunch of broccoli she bought to aid her slow digestion. No way you can charge her a dime. Even if she points at the biggest, puffiest, creamiest, most expensive piece of cake in the case, you can’t charge her. 

Erdrich’s choice of story-telling, multiple points of view with many vignettes, creates an episodic feels and sometimes a disjointed one. It creates, in fact, a feeling of many voices in a family kitchen or around a picnic table, each person caught up in their own story. And there are several such scenes in the book, and they are brilliant.

The Antelope Wife is brilliant and funny. It’s dark and sad. Several times I had to put it down and make myself do a chore, or go for a walk, anything to counter the sadness. I always went back to it though. This is a classic American novel.


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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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One comment

  1. I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of this book until your wonderful review. Clearly, I need to go find a copy ASAP.

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