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Thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts and his family live on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. At the start of the novel, Joe helps his father, Judge Bazil Coutts, dig out seedlings that have sprouted in their house’s foundation. Joe’s mother, Geraldine, a tribal enrollment specialist, has gone to her office to pick up a file. Later, Joe reads a book on Native American law that belongs to his father. When Joe’s mother fails to return, Joe and his father borrow a car to look for her. She drives by them looking upset, so they turn around and follow her home. They find Geraldine sitting in her car, covered with vomit and blood and smelling of gasoline. Joe holds her as Judge Coutts drives to the hospital.
At the hospital, Geraldine tries to reassure Joe, but he sees that she’s severely wounded. A state trooper, a local police officer, and a tribal police officer must all interview Geraldine because no one knows whether the crime happened on Native American land—and the location must be identified in order to establish whether federal, state, or Native American officers have jurisdiction over the case. Aunt Clemence, Geraldine’s sister, explains to Joe that his mother has been raped.
The theme of sexual violence against Native American women is firmly established in this opening chapter. Geraldine’s routine errand back to her office results in catastrophic violence, and the scene in which Joe and Judge Coutts find her establishes the dark, uncomfortable realities surrounding the issue. The violent imagery and the use of vomit, blood, and a palpable scent of gasoline in the scene suggests that Geraldine had been beaten, threatened, and raped. This type of violence is especially prominent against Native American women in the United States, and legal systems across the country have failed to effectively prosecute these crimes and address the damage done to the victims and their families. Erdrich, a member of the Ojibwe tribe at the center of this novel, brings the theme to the fore and highlights an issue steeped in reality.
Erdrich introduces the theme of tribal land, law, and justice in this opening chapter by establishing the novel’s core conflict. Joe wants to solve the mystery of who attacked his mother, and he wants to find justice against her attacker. The mystery begins as a slight, ordinary concern: where is Geraldine when Joe and his father expect her to arrive at home? But Erdrich transforms this into a much darker and disturbing question when Joe learns that his mother has been attacked and raped. The fact that where is such an important question surrounding Geraldine’s attack indicates that the balance between federal and tribal legal systems is flawed, and this will serve as an aggravation of the theme as the novel progresses. However, this chapter also reveals that Joe narrates this story from far in the future. Down the line he will become a lawyer, and therefore he has not given up on the legal system. Juxtapositions between the laws of Joe’s native lands, the futility of the existing legal system, and the fleeting nature of justice will play a prominent role as the mystery unfolds.