Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis (Open Access)


Colby College. English Dept.


Patricia A. Onion


Change is not only a theme of Louise Erdrich’s work, but the paramount theme. Critic John Purdy concurs, writing that “the characters who people her pages are immensely recognizable to an audience comprised of many cultures: they exhibit all the frailties and strengths, the failures and triumphs one would expect for humans who face what we all – as individuals, as cultures, and as species – must face: change” (Purdy, 8). What is this change, though? And, who is the agent of this change? Casual readers of Louise Erdrich’s works may not be aware that her characters are informed by a rich body of oral narratives concerning the Trickster: a wanderer who, motivated by food, shelter, sex, or amusement tricks animals and humans. Trickster is an important cultural hero, pan-tribally, who not only tricks, but transgresses, transforms, shape-changes, heals, and works magic. He exists liminally between the supernatural and the natural. He is ego-less and his actions transcend normative constructs of time and space. If modern man might say, Cogito ergo sum, Trickster would say Facio ergo sum – I do therefore I am. Most importantly, he initiates change, whether seen, symbolically, through his travels and shape-changing, or, literally, through great acts of destruction motivated by self-pity, greed, or revenge. However, through destruction, Trickster also initiates creation. Erdrich uses Trickster in her novels to overturn normative values of the novel: Erdrich prizes multivocal narration with polynomial characters. Trickster’s shape-changes are paralleled in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by “Father Damien,” who is neither a priest nor a man but rather a young woman who has also been called Agnes DeWitt and Sister Cecilia: evidencing that as people change their identities do too and this change warrants an explicit marker of that change. The shape-changes are paralleled in Four Souls by Fleur’s ability to save herself by casting out a soul that takes her fatal place. Readers have access to Fleur, like Badger’s Wenebojo, only by reported speech: challenging the notion that a modern novel ought to make the reader privy to all of the hero’s deeds and thoughts, with accompanying narration to help us evaluate those thoughts and actions. The range of behaviors and morality in Erdrich’s tricksters deconstructs our usual notion of the binary: that something must be one thing or another. This deconstruction is achieved by presenting characters who commit heroic acts and yet reminding the reader that these “heroes” are committing these acts by deception. John Jacob Mauser, the nefarious Trickster figure of many of Erdrich’s works, returns in Four Souls as a pitiable character challenging the convention of many Western-themed works: a hero acting against a villain with both characters very-definitely presented as one or the other. Mauser’s deception and theft is achieved by his superior knowledge of the paper world of land transfer – his downfall ultimately questions whether the rational, the written, or the permanent is, in fact, superior to family and blood ties, local knowledge, or intuition.


Tricksters in literature, Ojibwa Indians, Folklore Myth in literature, American fiction, Louise Erdrich