Chickadee by Louis Erdrich; Harper, 208 pages ($15.99). ?Ages 8 to 12.
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Louise Erdrich continues the story of 100 years in America of an Ojibwe family in this fascinating fourth installment of her marvelous Birchbark House series. This book is set in 1866, as a now-grown Omakayas and husband Animikiins leave the Lake of the Woods for a new life on the Great Plains.
Their children, 8-year-old twins Chickadee and Makoons, have never been separated. A prank played on a mean elderly man inspires terrible retribution, as the man's nasty grownup sons, Babiche and Batiste, kidnap Chickadee and carry him off to be their servant. (His duties include cooking dinner, a nasty stew or "bouyah" made of meat scraps and the occasional mouse plus mouse droppings.)
Chickadee's experience during his abduction includes a difficult journey to the Great Plains and an encounter with Catholic missionaries. The severe, unsympathetic nun who wants to trade Chickadee's warm clothing for "white man's" garb and cut off his braids is a vivid and uncomfortable reminder of Christians' attempts to make over Native American children.
Erdrich's lyrical writing ("the air had that iron edge of snow"), memorable characters and colorful evocation of their warm family life and the hardships of daily existence (a life-threatening assault by mosquitoes on the Great Plains is particularly horrifying) bring to vivid life this Native American story.
NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith; Penguin Press (416 pages, $26.95)
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"When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"
The question comes from a radical priest, hanged after England's 1381 Peasant Revolt. It's also both the epigraph to Zadie Smith's fourth novel and a question she explores in all of them, each of which maps the fault lines economic, racial and sexual dividing a city against itself.
Smith's latest marks a return to her native city; "NW" refers to a now-gentrifying area of London where she and the four main characters in this novel were raised.
Leah is a white, well-intentioned liberal in her mid-30s with a matching government job: distributing lottery proceeds to worthy charities. She is in a mixed-race marriage to a French-African hairdresser, who is intent on getting ahead and starting a family.
Leah's best friend since childhood is Natalie formerly Keisha an attorney who made it out of the projects where she and Leah were raised.
Felix is a 32-year-old auto mechanic, having shelved his dreams of making films after a long detour involving booze and drugs.
Lurking on the margins of these three individually presented stories is Nathan, the kid from the projects who is caught between nostalgic images of his onetime potential and the smalltime thug he has since become. Smith doesn't give him a distinct narrative; his role is to interrupt others' stories, in a novel that repeatedly undermines the fantasy that any of us can be the "sole author," as Natalie puts it, of our lives.
Such interruptions are going to frustrate those among Smith's readers who are looking for a reprise of "White Teeth" (2000) or particularly "On Beauty" (2005), outstanding novels that were fully invested in lyrical realism, with its commitment to rounded characters living richly appareled inner lives.
We get some of that vintage Smith in "NW," especially in the stories of Leah and of Felix, which together compose the first half of the novel.
But as Smith has made clear in recent essays, she has grown increasingly wary of a literary mode that helps us lose ourselves in fictional characters turned inward on themselves rather than finding ourselves through characters looking outward and interrogating us. Smith gives us one of these characters reminiscent of those we meet when reading Jennifer Egan or David Foster Wallace in Natalie, who dominates the novel's third and longest section.
Natalie stalks us through 185 terse and hyperconscious subchapters, each titled, that trace her development from a verb to a noun Smith's way of describing our movement from those who are still becoming to those who have already arrived. Or who think they've arrived. Smith seems unsure of how to move forward; the conclusions to both Natalie's story and "NW" are arbitrary and unsatisfying. Maybe that's the point, in a novel where recurring images of apple trees only serve to remind us that the gates to paradise closed a long time ago. Mike Fischer, McClatchy Newspapers