This story — the first one of these I’ve done, I believe, to be Literary Upstart-eligible at under 1,500 words — will take less time to read than most of my posts, and is much, much better, so go read it, and then come back and make the jump and let’s talk about it.
So the heavily symbolic nature of this story lends itself to plenty of analyses and interpretations, and it’s something very much working out. I’m not sure I have enough grounding in the particular milieus Erdrich is working in to hazard a reading — a more educated annotator than I could might be able to pin down the history and resonances of all this, of the I-guess-dying-out-in-the-19th century tradition of the Fat Man’s Race, the Catholicism, the suspicions of witchcraft, the Blue Devil, the types of food and nature of labor and family and even the names. Or maybe the story is deliberately unmoored, I dunno. In any case, it’s an enormously engrossing parable (if that’s what it is).
But a lot comes through regardless, especially in the framing of the story as something a grandmother tells her granddaughter. For one thing, we get a sense of how myth can merge with memory, so that the world can seem a richer, stranger place, its supernatural elements taken as a given part of it. It’s also a case study in oral cultures — the story is partly indulgent reminiscence, partly moral (and sexual) instruction, and partly an impressing of worldview.
I guess what I’m saying is that the content of the story is almost less important than the implications of the way it’s structured — the blending of folklore with living memory — and the way it’s told. Not for nuthin, Erdrich has always written about, sometimes from within, Native American cultures, and so the importance in her writing of ways of telling takes on a particularly anthropological importance. Though that’s not to reduce this story to the level of demonstration or presentation, more accurate to say that it suggests the continued vitality of ways of telling that don’t necessarily occur to us.