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Summary: Chapter 9: The Big Good-bye—Part 1

Aunt Clemence throws a party for Mooshum’s 112th birthday. Mooshum and Grandma Thunder exchange stories of their past sexual prowess, and Mooshum accidentally sets his hair on fire when he blows out the candles. Music and dancing go on for hours. Joe sees Sonja wearing an expensive new shirt and cowboy boots. Cappy sneaks off to meet Zelia. Joe goes home. His parents come in and go to their room together, and Joe feels safe. 

The authorities trace the baby whom Curtis Yeltow has tried to adopt, and Geraldine identifies Mayla Wolfskin as the child’s mother. Now that she knows the baby is safe, Geraldine reveals the identity of the attacker: Linden Lark. Joe’s parents return to Bismarck to pursue the case while Joe stays with his aunt and uncle. One day, when Clemence and Edward are away from home, Sonja comes over with a birthday present for Mooshum: a strip act. Joe insists that Sonja let him watch, threatening to tell people about the money if she refuses. Sonja’s act is cheap and weird, but it captivates both Mooshum and Joe. After Sonja dances, she lashes out at Joe for being as bad as all other men.

Summary: Chapter 9: The Big Good-bye—Part 2

Cappy confides to Joe that he and Zelia had sex in the church basement. Joe goes home, and when he hears Geraldine screaming, he knows that Linden Lark has been let off. In a rage, Joe berates his father and accuses him of wasting his life. Judge Coutts tries to explain the long-term goal: to establish Native American jurisdiction over their own lands. Joe leaves in disgust. 

Later, Cappy confesses to Father Travis that he had sex in the church basement, and Father Travis responds with rage. Cappy runs for his life, with Father Travis on his heels. The whole community turns out to watch their race. Cappy gets away, but barely. The race immediately becomes legend, with Mooshum adding memories of another legendary race from his own youth. Whitey tells the family that Sonja has left him. Joe tells Cappy about the doll and the money. They go to the place where Joe and Sonja buried their bank passbooks. He discovers that Sonja left him $200 in cash and $10,000 in the bank for his college education, but she has taken off with the rest of the money. Joe splits the $200 with Cappy.

Analysis: Chapter 9: The Big Good-bye—Part 1 & Part 2

This chapter continues the examination of women, sex, and sexual violence. At the party for Mooshum’s birthday, Joe listens to his elders describe their past sexual experiences. Although the elders describe mostly positive encounters, Joe soon realizes that it is not always so simple. Sonja’s gift for Mooshum, a strip dance, becomes Joe’s first sexual encounter. But the encounter isn’t exactly consensual. The only reason Joe is able to watch Sonja’s dance is because he threatens to blackmail her over the money found in the doll. Both Mooshum and the young Joe are hypnotized by her dance, but afterwards Sonja expresses her rage. She has treated Joe in a maternal way ever since she first laid eyes on him and she thinks of him as a son. But here Joe changed the relationship by not only lusting after her but by violating her wishes. Sonja’s experiences being mistreated by men runs back decades, and now Joe shows that he is just as capable of sexual violence as the men in Sonja’s past—even Joe is capable of misogyny. But Joe’s introspection afterwards signals that hopefully he can internalize what he has done and never repeat this kind of violence again. Meanwhile, Sonja’s exit from the narrative at the end of the chapter allows for her to escape the violence inflicted upon her by Whitey and to a lesser extent Joe. Her newfound financial freedom, while possibly fleeting, allows for a respite from the toxic men in her life.

Erdrich uses the bulk of this chapter to further develop the theme of law and justice in accordance with the reservation. As Joe’s parents finally go upstairs together again, his narration notes that they enter their bedroom in a way that they had always done before the attack. He feels safe and wishes that things would stay the same and never change. But Geraldine’s attacker, now identified as Linden Lark, is released from jail and Joe’s family is once again shaken. The legal justice which Joe and his family have believed in for his entire life utterly fails them. Joe’s rage is notably directed at his father because Judge Coutts stands in for the laws of the land and their failures at finding justice for Geraldine and therefore the entire reservation. More literally, the law can’t keep Linden in jail due to technicalities. Joe challenges his father for wasting his life through his devotion to the law. But Judge Coutts responds quite memorably by using an old, moldy casserole studded with cutlery as a metaphor. His metaphor signals that the justice system on the reservation is a complicated structure based on bad and unfair decisions. But he hopes that he can improve things for the future. Joe’s journey in finding justice has been thwarted by a system as rotten as the casserole, and thus the system steeps the reservation in the very oppression that shaped it. Joe may be disgusted, but Judge Coutts’s argument that the system must be changed from the inside is compelling.