Albertine Johnson is 15 years old and is running away from home. She rides the cramped bus to Fargo and steps off into the busy bus station. Albertine is officially out of money and doesn’t have a plan. She sits alone in the bus station, staring at the clock, looking for something to tell her what to do. She has come here for a reason, but she can’t remember what that reason is.
While Erdrich does not explicitly state why, Albertine elsewhere alludes to a strained relationship with her mother; however, Albertine’s desire to become a doctor and her aversion to traditional marriage suggests their disagreement stems from Albertine’s refusal to adhere to traditional notions of womanhood.
A man suddenly appears, and he seems to be just what Albertine is looking for, and while she doesn’t know it, she is just what the man is looking for as well. Albertine thinks he looks like a soldier, and like a Native American, so she decides to follow him. She follows him outside into the cold and keeps a safe distance as he walks down the street.
Albertine and the man—soon to be revealed as Henry, Jr.—are, in a sense, looking for each other because they are both Native Americans in an overwhelmingly white society. More specifically, Albertine and Henry, Jr. are from the same tribe, which again underscores the importance of tribal connection in Native culture.
The man, Henry Lamartine, Jr., knows that the girl is following him. She isn’t exactly pretty, and she looks like “jailbait,” but he is still curious. As Henry walks, his body aches. He has so much shrapnel stuck in his body that he set off the metal detector at the airport. He turns to face the girl and learns that she is Albertine Johnson, one of the Kashpaws from back home on the reservation. Albertine knows him as well, she discovers, and tells Henry that she knows his brother, Lyman.
Henry, Jr. thinks that Albertine looks like “jailbait” because she is so young, but that doesn’t deter him. Henry is just getting back from Vietnam, where he was a prisoner of war, and he sees Albertine as a badly needed human connection—one that also happens to be closely connected to home and family, especially since Albertine is technically Henry, Jr.’s brother’s cousin.
Henry and Albertine find a bar and drink for most of the evening, and then they find a nearby hotel. When they arrive, President Nixon is on the television behind the desk. Henry signs them in as Mr. and Mrs. Howdy Doody, and the desk clerk suspects they are just looking for a place to “shack up” for the night, but he doesn’t want to get involved. In the room, Albertine goes into the bathroom, and Henry sits thinking about her. He has been in Vietnam and hasn’t seen Native American woman in a while. As he thinks about Albertine, he sees her as an Asian women he had encountered in Vietnam. She was on the ground looking up at him with eyes like a Chippewa and was bleeding badly from a bayonet wound.
The desk clerk can obviously see that Albertine is much younger than Henry, and since he believes they are there to “shack up,” he clearly thinks sex is involved, yet he says nothing. He never asks if Albertine is okay, and even though Albertine isn’t in any serious danger, the novel implies that her sexual encounter with Henry is, at the very least, inappropriate. For all the clerk knows or cares, Albertine could be in serious trouble, yet he says nothing, which speaks directly to the vulnerability of women in potentially dangerous or violent situations.
Albertine comes out of the bathroom, and Henry asks her if she wants to go to bed. He promises not to touch her (he’s too drunk anyhow, he says), and she agrees. Henry leaves the light on as he gets into bed, and Albertine props herself up on her elbow, staring at him. She starts to unbutton her shirt, and he helps. Before long, they are both naked and Henry is on top of her. Once it is over, Albertine rolls over as far away from him as possible and goes to sleep.
Henry is obviously suffering from posttraumatic stress after the war. He must leave the light on to sleep, and he sees dead Asian girls reflected in Albertine. The fact that Albertine rolls far away from Henry after they have sex suggests that she is ashamed or otherwise uncomfortable with what they have done. While this sexual encounter is consensual, Erdrich implies that Albertine, in her youth, has still been taken advantage of.
The next morning, Albertine wakes up and is unsure of where she is, but then she feels the ache between her legs and remembers. She looks to Henry and is just about to say his name when she touches him gently on the back. He wakes up instantly, screaming violently, and Albertine jumps from the bed, crossing her arms over her face. Shaking, in a moment of terror, Albertine removes her arms from her face and discovers that Henry is weeping.
Again, Henry is clearly suffering deep psychological trauma from the war. Albertine catches him off guard, and when she does, he responds violently. Henry’s weeping suggests not only that he is traumatized by war, but that he is also ashamed that he has treated Albertine in such a way. In addition to Henry’s violent wakeup, the ache between Albertine’s legs implies that their sex was quite violent as well.