Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country: Traveling Through the Land of My Ancestors​

Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country: Traveling Through the Land of My Ancestors
Louise Erdrich
HarperPerennial (2014)
160 pages; $14.99

Reviewed by Victoria Blanco

Louise Erdrich’s Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country, first published in 2003 and reprinted in 2014 with a new cover designed by her daughter Aza Erdrich, mixes memoir, science writing, history, travelogue, and drawings to create a narrative that wanders and meditates with eloquent simplicity. The book begins with one particular connection that ends up leading Erdrich and her readers on an exploration: “My travels have become so focused on books and islands that the two have merged for me. Books, islands. Islands, books.” Erdrich writes and collects books, and islands are “incidental,” a “consequence of getting mixed up with people who live on lakes.”

When we meet Erdrch, she is forty-seven and has recently given birth to her daughter Kiizhikok. The father is an Ojibwe man living in southern Ontario, lake country. Seeking and receiving—or agency and fate—are at the heart of this narrative. But the book is not interested in exploring tension between the two; rather, it is a celebration of everything in life, both what is sought and what is given to us. We accompany Erdrich on a trip to southern Ontario to visit Kiizhikok’s father, explore islands, and see cave drawings by her Ojibwe ancestors. What Erdrich is given—stories and drawings by her ancestors, books, Kiizhikok—become gifts that she carries back to readers.

This is a joyful book, but it is also an inquisitive one. The book persistently asks “Books. Why?” The books are ongoing conversations; Erdrich takes them, along with Kiizhikok, as travel companions. “We have a lot of books in our house … The quantities and types of books are fluid, arriving like hysterical cousins in overnight shipping envelopes only to languish near the overflowing mail bench.” Islands are similarly all encompassing; islands contain stories and entire worlds. “So these islands, which I’m longing to read, are books in themselves.” Answers to her driving question shift; islands and books are simultaneously familiar and mysterious.

One of the narrative’s most touching elements is the presence of Kiizhikok, who provides stability and warmth. As Erdrich explores cave drawings by her Obijwe ancestors, Kiizhikok keeps the meditations from becoming too heady and steeped in what happened long, long ago. Kiizhikok wants to nurse. Now. At the most inconvenient times: in boats, late at night, at the beach, during a road trip. Erdrich buys her daughter plastic, noisy toys and they eat onion rings in a diner. It is clear Kiizhikok lightens Erdrich. She writes: “As I’m drifting away, I feel sorry for anyone else who is not falling asleep this way, holding onto her baby’s foot. The world is calm and clear. I wish for nothing. I am not nervous about the future. Her toes curl around my fingers. I could even stop writing books.” Here, action and stasis are in harmony. So peaceful is the gift of Kiizhikok that Erdrich can even contemplate giving up her own writing, an act by which she lives.

If we know a person by what they love, then we know Erdrich through her observations and meditations on books, islands, cave paintings, nature, and her baby. Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country invites us on Erdrich’s personal journey, but it also asks us to examine and make meaning in our own lives.

Victoria Blanco is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Minnesota.