Louise Erdrich is known for developing realistic, well-rounded characters whose emotional evolution is subtle yet unmistakable. Her female characters in particular are flawed yet embody a sense of strength, usually dormant until the character is forced to draw upon it for either emotional or physical survival. In the short story ‘‘The Leap,’’ Anna is the quintessential feminist as she works within the confines of a patriarchal society and yet manages to exude a quiet, forceful strength that defines who she is and the quality of life she is willing to accept.
Although Erdrich’s story is set in an indeterminate time, she gives the reader hints of a general time frame. We know Anna is elderly at the beginning of the story and that she joined the circus in her early youth. We also know that the Flying Avalons and their circus traveled extensively through Europe before the war. The history of the traveling circus in America tells us that the circus reached its zenith in the years spanning the late nineteenth century through approximately the 1930s. By the time Anna meets her second husband, the narrator’s father, she is living in New York, and that is where the circus tragedy takes place. In all likelihood, the war Erdrich mentions is World War II (1939–1945). Anna is still in her childbearing years when she meets her second husband. Another clue as to general time frame comes when the narrator describes Anna’s underwear as ‘‘a tight bra of the heavy circular-stitched cotton women used to wear and step-in, lace-trimmed drawers.’’ This type of underwear was popular in the 1950s and early 1960s.
If this general time frame is accepted as accurate, a glancing knowledge of circus history is in order to understand the world in which Anna grew up. In her book The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top , Professor Janet Davis of the University of Texas explores the circus, once the most popular form of entertainment in the nation. Davis’s knowledge is featured in an article written by Kay Randall on the University of Texas Web site. According to ‘‘Under the Big Top,’’ women in the circus in the early 1900s were presented as sex objects, dressed scantily and yet performing incredible feats of strength and agility, such as aerial gymnastics or twirling around on horseback. And yet the promotional materials were more concerned with social norms of the day and emphasized the performer’s moral character. According to Davis, the advertisements stressed that ‘‘a young lady was traveling under the watchful eye of her father and liked nothing better than to stay home and bake cakes and knit in the evenings.’’
This near-schizophrenic portrayal of female circus performers would have demanded of them that they dress and behave in a repressed, ultrafeminine manner while at the same time perform with an agility and strength expected in men of that era. Anna lived in a man’s world and was presented in a way that focused on sex appeal, yet her livelihood depended upon skill and razorsharp accuracy. Even in her old age, her daughter describes her as possessing ‘‘catlike precision.’’
And so Anna spent her youth as a young woman trying to fit into a patriarchal mold, looking one way and performing in another. We are told she flirted with and kissed Harry as one half of a ‘‘romantic pair’’ whose lips were ‘‘never again to meet.’’ And yet when disaster struck and she had a split second to determine her own fate, Anna had the intelligence and forethought as well as the physical strength to turn away from her ill-fated husband and save her own life. It was a literal as well as a figurative leap, and one that set her on the next leg of her life’s journey, in which she would meet her future husband.
Anna’s leap resulted in scarred hands and the death of her unborn child. Taken together— and combined with the sudden horrific death of her husband and professional partner—these occurrences must have caused intense physical and emotional trauma and pain, but Anna dealt with them with great inner strength and perseverance. She knew her life with the circus, the only life with the only family she had ever known, was over, and she was faced with the immediate confinement to bed for more than a month. Such forced inactivity would have been difficult for a woman accustomed to consistent thrill and physical activity, but Anna faced her situation with the determination not to let boredom or depression overtake her.
Her antidote to the confinement was to learn to read and write, and it was her future husband who taught her. As he opened up a new world, flightless in the literal sense but full of travel and flight in the figurative sense, Anna took another leap of faith and allowed him into her heart. Falling in love was that second major leap in Anna’s life, and it was a risk that a weaker woman, one less sure of herself and her place in the world, would never have taken.
Anna’s staunch if unrecognized feminism, already displayed in the saving of her own life and her commitment to bettering herself through literacy, allowed her to choose the setting for the next stage of her life. As an orphan, her life was basically chosen for her. This time, she exerted her own desire and ‘‘insisted upon’’ building a life in a small New Hampshire town, in the rundown farmhouse her husband had inherited. He had not wanted to stay within the confines presented by a rural life, but Anna’s new husband loved her enough to agree to her demand, and the couple never left that house or that life.
In what the narrator considers the third time she owes her mother her existence, Anna’s determination and ability to think on her feet in times of extreme chaos allowed her to save her daughter’s life.
When it became clear to Anna that no fireman or volunteer was going to attempt to rescue her daughter, she instantly took matters into her own hands. When her husband’s fumbling fingers could not assist her, she again took action, tearing off her dress to stand nearly naked in front of her neighbors, firefighters, and strangers.
Within seconds, Anna assessed the obstacles and challenges posed by the only possible path of rescue and went about ascending the frozen tree and its fragile branches. After making an impossible leap to the rooftop, Anna hung by her heels and tapped on her daughter’s window, a plea to come inside. Despite the dire circumstances, Anna did not pound the windowpane. She did not rap on it. ‘‘She tapped on the window . . . it was the friendliest tap, a bit tentative, as if she were afraid she had arrived too early at a friend’s house.’’ Anna was confident in her mission; she did not need to further frighten her young daughter or add to the drama of the moment. Her self-confidence in her ability to save the girl kept her clear-headed and focused.
As Anna and her daughter wrapped around each other and fell through the air, the narrator realized the truth in something her mother had once told her: you can do many things while falling. And in those few seconds, the narrator had an epiphany: no matter how frenzied or confusing one’s life circumstances are at any given moment, fear is only what you make of it. It gets its power from you, and belief in yourself will kill that doubt faster than anything.
Anna started life alone and quite possibly timid. Her formative years were spent under the expectation that she would be strong and demure, appealing defiant, sexually inviting unavailable. It was a life of appearances and illusion, skill, and precision. In order for her to thrive in that world where others’ desires came first, she had to develop an inner fortitude, fueled by courage and nurtured with a sense of self-assurance and confidence. In the face of immeasurable loss and tragedy, Anna’s finely honed though subtle feminist attitude—the belief that she was strong and worthy and capable and in control of any situation—allowed her to flourish and thrive, and the last lines of the story indicate she has successfully passed down this idea to her daughter. ‘‘Then I forgot fear. I wrapped my hands around my mother’s hands. . . . I heard the beat of her heart in my ears, loud as thunder, long as the roll of drums.’’