Fleur Pillager is a symbol of female sexuality and mystique throughout Erdrich’s Chippewa saga. She draws the great practitioner of old Chippewa ways, Eli Kashpaw, to court her; she is rumored to have sexual relations with the water spirit Misshepeshu; she retains some form of magical and sexual power from the spirits; and her daughter Lulu becomes a great matriarch of the Turtle Mountain Reservation, having eight children all by different fathers. Fleur’s sexuality refuses to conform to white American notions of an attractive woman.
Even her name, which combines the French word for “flower” with the English word that means taking spoils by force, seems to be a contradiction within early twentieth-century American society, incorporating both the male model of ruthlessness with the female model of beauty and frailty.
“Fleur,” a story that had been in Erdrich’s mind and in draft form on paper for many years, is the first chronological appearance of this fascinating and nonconformist character. It describes Fleur’s connection to traditional Chippewa ideas about sexuality, it suggests that she wields a magical power over men, and it explores the nature of her strengths and vulnerabilities. One purpose of this essay, therefore, is to explore ideas about femininity that Fleur expresses and represents as they are developed in this story that introduces her.
As much as it is about Fleur and her Chippewa sexuality, however, “Fleur” is also about the narrator Pauline, who becomes another of Erdrich’s most important figures in the Chippewa saga. After giving birth to the other matriarch of the Turtle Mountain Reservation, Marie Lazarre Kashpaw, Pauline abandons her and transforms into a sadistic, halfcrazy nun. Later (as related in Love Medicine she becomes locked in a vicious battle with her daughter, although Marie does not know that Pauline, now Sister Leopolda, is actually her mother. Like Fleur, the development of Pauline’s guilt-ridden, timid, obsessively Christian sexuality (or repression of her sexuality) has its roots in the story of her experience in Argus, where she is shown to be almost the direct opposite of Fleur at the same time as the two young women share a mysterious bond. This essay highlights Pauline’s role in the story and in some of the central themes of Erdrich’s saga, therefore, paying particular attention to the relationship between Fleur and Pauline. Because it tells of the beginning of this relationship, “Fleur” is, in a way, an origin or source of Erdrich’s profound and longstanding exploration of competing ideas of female power and sexuality. Tracks , Pauline and Fleur fight a kind of battle between Christianity and Chippewa mysticism that is full of sexual overtones. In Love Medicine , the daughters of Pauline and Fleur carry on an intense, lifelong conflict that is as much about their own sexualities and sources of power as it is about the fact that they are in love with the same man. In the end, however, they have a reconciliation of sorts that emphasizes the feminine bond between the nagging, jealous, industrious Marie and the sensual, manipulative, and seductive Lulu.
This bond can perhaps best be described as a bond of power. Despite the rampant sexism and violence against them, by both white and Native American men, it is important to note that, in “Fleur” and throughout Erdrich’s saga, the women actually run the show. Although men rape Fleur and demean Pauline, the two Chippewa women (and both are Chippewa despite Pauline’s later denial of her half-Chippewa heritage) laugh last in Argus. Their victory over the men, in which they reduce Lily to a pig in the mud and freeze all three men in the meat locker like the animals they are, is best understood as a triumph of female power. Even Fritzie participates in this drama, bringing Pete away from the struggle just like she brings him away from the lewd masochistic table talk: by her wifely control over his speech and actions. Fritzie also reveals herself to have power over men by refusing to allow the meat locker to be broken open in the search for Tor, Lily, and Dutch. Indeed, it is significant that Fritzie, not Pete, makes the decision that protecting their “investment” is more important than the possibility (if a very small one) of saving the men’s lives. Each of these three women has developed her own avenue to power, and for all of them this power is somehow related to sexuality. For Fritzie, her power is a function of her exclusive control over her husband as a sexual object; he is not allowed to discuss other women or even read anything but the Bible. Accordingly, she sees the frozen, locked up meats—an overt metaphor for men and male sexuality since they are being punished for their rape of Fleur—as her investment and postpones the opening of the locker that has become their grave.
The fact that Fleur’s power is sexual is even more overt, beginning with her association of Misshepeshu, Fleur’s water spirit and possible husband. Fleur’s mysterious communion with the waterman is developed throughout Tracks , but it begins in the first paragraphs of “Fleur,” when Misshepeshu is described as a “devil . . . love-hungry with desire and maddened for the touch of young girls, the strong and daring especially, the ones like Fleur.” This sexual creature is associated with Fleur’s magical powers and “ways we shouldn’t talk about,” and he is subtly invoked again at the height of Fleur’s sexual desirability, on the night the men rape her. That night, described as “drenched” in a tight-fitting green dress that “wrapped her like a transparent sheet,” a “skin of lakeweed,” Fleur stands in steam and paddles skulls in a vat, her sexual power drawn from wetness, the lake, and Misshepeshu. Fleur’s power does not seem to diminish because the men rape her; even if she has nothing to do with their deaths, she escapes with their money and, as is clear from the subsequent events in Tracks , continues to wield power over men, including Eli Kashpaw.
Pauline, on the other hand, at first seems to have no power at all, let alone sexual power. She is completely ignored by men and observes them while being invisible to them. She disappears by becoming “part of the walls” of Kozka’s Meats. Unlike Fleur’s dress, Pauline’s “dress hung loose,” her “back was already curved, an old woman’s,” and the men “never saw [her].” Pauline’s only power seems to be that she “knew everything, what the men said when no one was around, and what they did to Fleur,” and it is from this knowledge that she gains the power to kill the men, including her stepfather. There are two key aspects to Pauline’s character and her revenge over the three men that are crucial to understanding the nature of her power over others.
First, there is the fact that Pauline is an almost omniscient narrator. Pauline is able to manipulate the reader’s understanding of Fleur and of the story by framing the events to make it appear that Fleur has killed the men with her magical or spiritual powers, when in fact Pauline is the one who locks them in the meat locker. Because she is able to lurk at the periphery without drawing the attention, interest, or violence of the men that Pauline is able to maintain control over the narrative and discover how to kill the men. Second, the power Pauline assumes is based on her feelings for Fleur and these feelings seem, at least in part, sexual. Pauline gains the courage and motivation to kill the men because she wants Their victory over the men, in which they reduce Lily to a pig in the mud and freeze all three men in the meat locker like the animals they are, is best understood as a triumph of female power.” to avenge Fleur’s rape and because she feels very strongly about Fleur herself. Pauline feels a complex host of emotions towards Fleur, from guilt that she did not help Fleur when she was raped, to admiration for her boldness, to jealousy of her charms and powers, to sexual attraction to her.
Pauline’s emphasis on Fleur’s good looks, intrigue with the stories of Fleur’s connection to Chippewa spirits that she has denied in herself, and fascination with Fleur’s great powers to the point that Pauline blames her for the deaths of the men she has killed herself, all suggest her attraction to Fleur, though she would never admit this to herself. In “Fleur,” therefore, Erdrich develops one of the central points that will resonate throughout her saga: that women establish their power by using their sexuality and communion with other women. Pauline’s mix of jealousy, fear, and attraction to Fleur, like their daughters’ intense lifelong battle, culminates in a kind of reconciliation and mutual understanding. While the rest of her family dislikes and despises Pauline, Fleur retains a certain closeness towards her that, as Erdrich reveals in “Fleur,” comes from their bond of female power. Whether it is Fleur’s aggressive and outward sexual power or Pauline’s introverted and repressed homosexual desire, this communal female power, a formidable force that underlies Erdrich’s entire saga of Chippewa life, is drawn from female sexuality.
Scott Trudell, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Louise Erdrich, Published by Gale Group, 2010