For as long as Nector Kashpaw can remember, he has had everything he ever wanted. He used to think that it was because he is Kashpaw, the final hereditary leaders of his North Dakota tribe, but he pretty much got what he wanted off the reservation too. He has always been handsome, and as a young man he was given roles in the movies in Hollywood. The only problem was the directors always wanted him to fall dead from a horse. A famous painter even painted his portrait once. The painting is called The Plunge of the Brave, and it hangs in the Bismarck state capital. It depicts a naked Native American (Nector) jumping to his death from a cliff to a rocky river below.
The Kashpaws are seen as near royalty on the reservation, as their family is one of the oldest, which again underscores the importance of family within Native culture. Ironically, Nector doesn’t get everything he wants, as he is never respected by white society. The representation of Native American people in popular culture (like in paintings and movies) is overwhelmingly negative and heavily stereotyped—just think of any early Western film in which white cowboys are attacked by “savage” Native Americans and forced to kill them. In this way, Erdrich points to popular culture as a means of perpetuating racist assumptions and beliefs in American society.
When Nector first saw The Plunge of the Brave, he thought of Custer’s saying—“the only good Indian is a dead Indian”—and he refused to die on those painted rocks. He would make it out of the painting. Each year at the government school, Nector was made to read Moby Dick, and he began to see the story as a metaphor for his circumstances. Just like Ishmael survived the great white whale, Nector was determined to get out of The Plunge of the Brave.
The painting is a metaphor for the oppression Nector is subjected to in America’s racist society, but Erdrich suggests that Nector can never get out of the painting—that is until he loses his memory. Nector’s use of Moby Dick as a metaphor for his circumstances also suggests that he will never be free, as Moby Dick is a product of white culture and further evidence of its profound influence on Nector’s life and Native identity.
Years before, Nector had fallen in love with Lulu Nanapush. She was just what he wanted, and they would sneak behind the dance house and kiss. Then, Nector met Marie, and it was all over. Even now, Nector doesn’t understand it. He went up the hill to sell two geese and came back down still holding the geese—and Marie’s hand.
The fact that Nector himself doesn’t understand his feelings for Marie speaks to the power of love medicine, which is symbolized by the geese (Lipsha later tries to conjure love medicine with geese hearts). Nector is inexplicably drawn to Marie by the power of love.
The years passed quickly and the children grew. Nector started drinking and “caught holy hell” from Marie for it. One day in 1952, Nector suddenly realized that his life was passing him by. He had done what was expected of him—married, had kids, even became the chairman of the tribe—but he felt as if the life had been “squeezed” from him. He began to think of Lulu. He had never really gotten over her, and the more miserable he became, the more he thought about her.
Marie’s anger described as “holy hell” again reflects the white, European influence of Christianity on Native life and culture, as does Nector’s alcoholism, since he presumably drinks to cope with the oppression and disappointment of his whitewashed society. Nector feels suffocated by his traditional marriage and life, and Lulu represents an escape from this stress.
On the hottest day in July of 1952, the reservation received an unexpected shipment of surplus butter. Nector suddenly found himself with 17 tons of melting butter and nowhere to store it. It had to be delivered quickly, but he would need air conditioning. Just then, Lulu drove by in her fancy custom car. Nector yelled to her, asking if her car had AC, and she agreed to help him deliver the butter. They hadn’t seen each other in years, and Lulu thought Nector looked old, but they made easy small talk. Near the end of the day, Nector asked Lulu to forgive him for the way he had treated her in the past, and they were suddenly locked in a passionate kiss, rolling around in melted butter.
Like several other characters—including Gerry and Lipsha, and Lyman and Henry, Jr.—Nector and Lulu are brought together because of a car. Gerry and Lipsha have the Firebird, Lyman and Henry, Jr. have the Oldsmobile, and here, Lulu and Nector have Lulu’s air-conditioned sedan. The ability of cars to bring characters together reflect the importance of cars in their lives, but cars are also more evidence of white culture and influence, which Erdrich argues is, by necessity, a major part of Native identity and existence.
Nector had a job as a night watchman at a local plant, and he worked five nights a week. On the sixth night, he would leave for work as usual, but he would go to Lulu’s instead. Their affair continued for five years, until Lulu became pregnant again. Nector didn’t know for sure the child was his, and he never asked (he suspected that Lulu saw other men, but what could he say about that when he was married himself?). The boy sure looked like a Kashpaw, though.
Nector’s son with Lulu, even though Nector never claims Lyman as his son, is another example of the deep connections between tribal families in Native culture. There is an interconnectedness between the Kashpaws and the Lamartines, even if they don’t acknowledge it, and Lyman Lamartine is proof of this.
Now, in 1957, Nector knows that Beverly Lamartine has been visiting Lulu as well, and Nector is insanely jealous, but he still can’t bring himself to leave Marie. Nector drives to the lake and strips naked. He submerges himself in the cool water and tries to forget about Lulu. Breaking the surface of the water, Nector is determined to get back to his life.
Nector’s cleansing dip in the lake carries religious connotations of baptism and rebirth, which aligns with Erdrich’s argument that Christianity is an unavoidable presence and influence on Native Americans in modernity.
In the meantime, an area redevelopment plan is presented to the tribal council. Lulu’s house is right in the middle of land the tribe wants to put a factory on, and since the Lamartines are squatting on the land, Lulu doesn’t technically own it. As Nector signs the eviction notice as the chairman of the tribe, he knows that he must get Lulu back. At home, Nector writes two letters—one to Marie, telling her he is leaving her for Lulu, and one to Lulu, confessing his undying love and intention to leave his wife—and then he sleeps like a baby.
The fact that Nector sleeps like a baby after unburdening his conscience about his feelings suggest that Nector actually loves Lulu more than Marie—even though he ultimately chooses to spend his life with Marie.
The next day, Nector wakes to find Marie has already left to run errands. He places her letter under the sugar bowl on the kitchen table and heads to Lulu’s house. It is obvious no one is home, so he lights a cigarette and waits. He takes Lulu’s letter from his pocket and reads it over and over again, thinking about Marie and the letter under the sugar bowl. Nector crumples Lulu’s letter and throws it to the ground, where it is inadvertently ignited by the lit end of a cigarette. Nector watches the letter burn, and while he doesn’t do anything to help it along, he doesn’t try to put it out either. Soon, Lulu’s entire house is engulfed in flames, and Nector knows there is nothing he can do to stop it.
When given time to consider it, Nector clearly rethinks his plan to leave Marie, which also aligns with Erdrich’s suggestion that love is complicated and often not confined to one person. Nector seems nearly incapable of making a decision between the two, and this also speaks to the power of love. On another note, the loss of Lulu’s land and house is a small-scale representation of what countless indigenous people have endured—the seizure of one’s land and home without legal recourse.