Joe describes Mooshum’s childhood, beginning with his conception during a berry-picking camp and his birth during the 1885 siege of Batoche. As a child, Mooshum and his Métis family had to leave behind their home and their lands after Louis Riel, a leader of the Métis resistance movement in Canada, was sentenced to death. Mooshum and his family crossed the border into the United States, where the Chippewa community took them in. As Mooshum grew up in Minnesota, he lost his Métis characteristics and wholeheartedly adopted Chippewa culture. In the early days on the reservation, food was scarce, so Mooshum now celebrates his birthday every year lavishly.
As Joe describes Mooshum’s family story, it is clear how profoundly Mooshum’s life was affected by oppressive governmental acts against Native people. The fact that the Chippewa community took Mooshum’s family in gives another, much older example of how the Chippewa community has a fluid attitude towards who belongs in their community, and how they are likely to adopt stray people into their families and lives.
This year, at his annual party, Mooshum sits outside with Grandma Ignatia and Joe. Mooshum and Grandma Ignatia banter raunchily about sex and their former lovers. Grandma Ignatia asks Mooshum if he was faithful to his wife, and Mooshum says he was, “to a point.” Ignatia then remembers that Mooshum had a son out of wedlock. Joe is surprised, realizing that this means that Joe has another uncle. Grandma Ignatia names the son, who Joe only ever knew as a friend of Whitey’s. Joe remarks that this story always surprises white people but that other Native people have similar stories.
As Joe becomes accidentally privy to the fact that he has a half-uncle because of Mooshum’s infidelity, Grandma Ignatia’s revelation shows another example of how families on the reservation, rather than being primarily nuclear, are often much more complicated, giving the people in the community a fluid sense of who belongs to and is responsible to whom—a marked difference from most white Americans.
More people join them outside. Clemence and Edward take pictures as Joe’s cousins Joseph and Evey carry the cake to Mooshum. Mooshum tries to blow out the candles, but cake catches fire, which then catches onto Mooshum’s hair. Edward, thinking fast, dumps a pitcher of lemonade onto Mooshum’s head, extinguishing the flames. Joe takes Mooshum inside, where Clemence cuts away the burnt hair.
In this humorous moment, Mooshum, who is extremely elderly and disoriented, fails to blow out his candles before they catch the cake on fire. As the plot of the book has become more and more dire with the implication of Mayla’s death, this moment provides some well-timed comic relief.
Joe sits with Mooshum, who is smiling widely at the excitement. Joe knows that the party will go on into the night and that his friends will be there soon. Mooshum falls asleep but wakes up immediately when Sonja enters the room. She is wearing a new outfit that Joe finds extremely attractive, and which Joe knows she bought with the doll money. As Sonja and Mooshum whisper and laugh, Joe goes outside.
In retrospect, Sonja and Mooshum are obviously plotting Sonja’s birthday-gift strip dance. Joe leaves, seeming to be angry at Sonja for using the doll money to buy clothes, and also presumably still uncomfortable about the abuse that happened at Whitey’s house.
Joe sees his parents and his friends’ parents sitting outside, but does not see Zack, Angus, or Cappy, so he gets on his bike and leaves to find them. Near the church, Joe finds Zack and Angus, who tell him that Cappy and Zelia have a date in the graveyard that night. Joe, Zack, and Angus all ride back to the party, where people have started to dance. The boys sneakily drink beers until late, when Joe rides his bike home. Joe hears his parents come in after him and go into their bedroom together, making Joe feel that everything is “safe and good.”
Joe, Zack, and Angus discuss Cappy’s date with Zelia, seeming to feel both happy for Cappy and jealous of his romantic success. Joe enjoys the party, which almost the entire community partakes in. Perhaps due to the fact that Geraldine’s attacker is in custody, Geraldine feels comfortable with Bazil sleeping in their bed, making Joe happy and relieved.
The next morning, Joe is preoccupied with making sure that Geraldine’s attacker will be brought to justice so that everything can go back to normal in his life. Joe asks Bazil again who the attacker is, and Bazil again refuses to answer. Joe asks if Geraldine knows there is a possibility that the attacker will walk free. Bazil says no, and tells Joe not to say anything for fear of setting Geraldine back. Joe asks one more time who the attacker is. Finally, Bazil opens a drawer in his desk and pulls out a mug shot of Linden Lark. Joe tells Bazil that he saw Linden at Whitey’s before he was taken into custody.
After the party, Joe feels even more committed to ensuring that Geraldine’s attacker is locked up for good. Finally, Bazil actually reveals to Joe that, as he suspected, Linden Lark was the perpetrator. Geraldine’s marked change in behavior with her attacker in custody suggests the real affect that the justice system can have in protecting victims and allowing them to resume relatively normal lives.
Bazil puts the mug shot away again and says he thinks Linden is aware that they will not have a strong case against him. Bazil compares Linden to his great-uncle, who Bazil tells Joe was among the men who lynched Chippewa men several generations ago, giving the Hanging Tree its name. Joe tells Bazil that they will bring Linden to justice no matter what, but Bazil does not respond.
When Bazil mentions how one of Linden Lark’s ancestors lynched several Chippewa men several generations ago, his comments suggest that Linden’s violence is part of a larger legacy of white violence against the Chippewa community that has gone unchanged over generations.
Bazil tells Joe that since Grace’s death Linden has been living in her house, which was searched after he was arrested. Nothing significant was found. The police connected that the child that Curtis Yeltow wanted to adopt was Mayla’s child. Social workers claimed to have found the baby in a Goodwill with a note pinned to its jacket saying that the baby’s parents were dead. Geraldine then identified her as Mayla’s baby. Following Geraldine’s identification of the child, she returns to work, swamped with new applications and satisfied that the baby is safe. The child is placed with Mayla’s parents. Geraldine finally shows law enforcement the file that Mayla had asked for. Bazil and Geraldine go to Bismarck to work on the case, so Joe stays with Clemence and Edward.
As Bazil describes the connections that have been made in the case between Curtis Yeltow, Mayla’s former employer, and Mayla’s child, Yeltow’s involvement becomes even more suspicious. Again, although Yeltow does not actually appear in the book, Erdrich uses him to explore the politics of outside adoption of Native children, which is a very touchy issue in many Native communities, and to explore the ways in which white politicians interact with and often knowingly disadvantage Native communities.
Joe sleeps in the same room as Mooshum. He wakes up in the middle of the night to Mooshum telling a new story. It is titled “The Round House,” and it resumes where the story entitled “Akii” left off. Mooshum begins by explaining that wiindigoos can sometimes by cured without murder. After Nanapush saw how easily his relatives would have killed his mother, he resolved to be nothing like them. The buffalo woman told Nanapush that people would one day think of him as a wise man. Nanapush looks into his mind and sees the image of the round house. The buffalo woman tells him that Chippewa people formed their communities around buffalo and doodem in the past, and now the round house will serve the same function as the buffalo did by representing the buffalo’s body. Mooshum says that he was young when the round house was built according to Nanapush’s instructions. Mooshum suddenly stops talking, rolls over, and snores. Joe thinks about the round house, poring over what it represents and how he can only see “a shadow of that way of life.”
Although Mooshum’s stories plant the idea of wiindigoo justice in Joe’s head, they also suggest multiple problems with it, including the danger of carrying wiindigoo justice out rashly and without having fully considered the consequences. Mooshum also suggests ways to rid a community of a wiindigoo without murdering someone. All this casts doubt on Joe’s later choice to kill Linden Lark, since it suggests that Joe may have had other options, even within the wiindigoo justice system. Meanwhile, Joe’s comment about the round house representing “a shadow” of an older way of life suggests that, although Joe participates in cultural activities, he feels somewhat disconnected from older Chippewa tradition.
After Joe has been at Clemence and Edward’s house for a few days, his aunt and uncle take a trip to get a new freezer. When Joe wakes up, only Mooshum is in the house. Joe asks Mooshum what he wants to do that day, and Mooshum tells Joe to go off on his own. Joe, suspecting something is up, refuses to go. Mooshum, exasperated, tells Joe to go fetch him his whiskey from where Clemence keeps it in the kitchen cabinet. Joe is reaching into the cabinet when Sonja appears at the door. Joe, thinking Sonja has been spending more of the doll money, tells Sonja assertively that they are going to give back the money. Sonja brushes Joe off. Mooshum stumbles into the room, takes the whiskey from Joe, and steers Sonja toward the bedroom. Joe follows them into the bedroom. Sonja tells Joe that he has to leave because she is there to give Mooshum a “grown-up gift.” Joe hesitates. Sonja asks him again to leave as she takes her stripping costume out of her bag. Joe tells Sonja he is not leaving and sits on the bed with Mooshum.
In this scene, it quickly becomes clear that Sonja and Mooshum have been plotting for Sonja to give Mooshum a lap dance as a birthday gift, which seems to have been discussed during the party when Mooshum and Sonja were whispering and giggling. Joe, whose sexual interest in Sonja has been made abundantly clear, insists on staying for the strip tease. This choice marks a change in Joe’s maturity level. Whereas until this point Joe has only entertained sexual fantasies and masturbated, watching Sonja’s strip dance is Joe’s first real sexual encounter, even though it is a contactless and coerced one. This shift marks part of Joe’s transition from childhood to adult manhood.
Sonja gets angry, and Joe tells Sonja that if she doesn’t let him stay, he will tell Whitey about the money they hid. Sonja is shocked and then becomes extremely sad. She asks Joe “really?” Joe grabs Mooshum’s whiskey bottle and takes a swig. Sonja tells Joe that if he says anything about this she will cut off his genitals, and that she’s not “momming” him anymore. Sonja puts a tape player on the floor and instructs them to turn the music on when she comes back, then goes to dress in the bathroom. When Sonja reemerges in her costume, Joe hits play. Joe admires Sonja as she dances. She slowly removes her clothes as Joe and Mooshum pass the whiskey bottle back and forth. When Sonja gets the opportunity, she kicks Joe or whips him with her belt. Sonja removes her bra to reveal her breasts, her nipples covered in tassels. She straddles Mooshum and tells him happy birthday.
Sonja, however, vehemently disagrees that Joe should stay and watch the strip tease. When Joe threatens to blackmail her if she does not let him stay, Sonja becomes extremely angry. Sonja’s comment that she will no longer be “momming” Joe reflects the fact that, thanks to the fluidity of Chippewa families, Sonja essentially acted as Joe’s surrogate mother during the height of Geraldine’s mental distress. As Sonja dances, she clearly does not forget her anger towards Joe, trying to hurt Joe throughout the dance in order to express her upset and anger.
Mooshum, thrilled and overwhelmed, stops breathing. Sonja lifts him onto his cot and checks for his heartbeat. Once it is clear that Mooshum is alive, Sonja dresses. When she comes out of the bathroom, she drops the bag with her stripper outfit at Joe’s feet and tells him angrily to masturbate in it, then throws a tassel at his face. Joe apologizes, but Sonja tells him she doesn’t care about his apology. Sonja tells Joe about her upbringing, saying that her mother was a prostitute who got beat up and took drugs. Sonja says that she got stuck in stripping, and then when Whitey fell in love with her, she knew he would never marry her because she was not worth marrying. Joe had thought that Whitey and Sonja were married, and Sonja tells him that they actually are not.
After Joe’s insincere apology, Sonja describes her life story in brief, discussing a childhood and young adulthood that was intensely colored by her own mother’s abuse by men. The fact that Sonja’s mother was also abused implies that patterns of domestic violence can be trans-generational, rather than just problems centered on individuals. Sonja’s story shows how, while there are extreme examples of gendered violence like Geraldine’s rape, many women also experience other forms of mistreatment throughout their lives.
Sonja asks angrily if she treated Joe well, and he says yes. Sonja says that she knew all along he was looking at her breasts, and then tells him to look at them up close, where Joe sees a white scar. Sonja says that her manager gave her that scar with a razor. Joe starts to cry, and Sonja tells him to cry all he wants because “lots of men cry after they do something nasty to a woman.” Sonja says she thought of him as a son, but now knows he is just another bad man. Sonja leaves and Joe sits with Mooshum for a long time. Joe feels guilty about his choice to blackmail Sonja and watch her strip, but he also enjoyed it.
Joe’s insistence on staying for the strip tease signals his desire for sexual maturity, and his manipulation of Sonja in order to do so signifies his initiation into adult manhood specifically, which is defined in part (at least according to Sonja) by the manipulation and mistreatment of women. Sonja clearly sees Joe, who has revealed his lack of respect for Sonja in this moment, as similar to the many men who have hurt her over the years.
Joe sees one of the tassels that Sonja wore on the floor, picks it up, and puts it in his pocket. Joe, narrating from the present, says that as a married adult, he still keeps Sonja’s tassel in his dresser drawer and his wife has never noticed. Her tassel serves as a reminder of how poorly he treated Sonja and how he wants to be better than that.
Joe, meanwhile, seems to take Sonja’s comments to heart, and says he kept Sonja’s tassel as a reminder of the cruelty towards women that he is capable of and does not want to ever again act on.
Joe goes to Cappy’s house, where he finds Cappy slumped in a lawn chair. When Joe greets Cappy, Cappy tells Joe that Zelia returned to her hometown. Cappy then divulges that they did “everything” in the graveyard the night of Mooshum’s birthday, and now he is heartbroken that she is gone. Cappy tells Joe that he wants to get Zelia’s name tattooed to his chest, but Joe talks him into waiting until he gains more chest muscle. Joe leaves when Doe comes out and tells Cappy to chop wood.
Cappy’s description of his pining for Zelia contrasts sharply with Joe’s manipulation of Sonja in the prior scene, as Cappy describes a mutually loving (albeit comically immature) relationship rather than a coercive one. By putting the scenes successively, Erdrich highlights how Joe’s pursuit of Sonja is both inappropriate and unusual.
Joe heads toward home, hoping to avoid Sonja, but then decides to take his bike to the hills behind the hospital, where he rides fast down the hill over and over. When Joe finally goes home, he is standing outside when he hears Geraldine scream. Bazil comes outside to smoke a cigarette and sees Joe standing there. Joe guesses that law enforcement was not able to charge Linden Lark with the crime. Bazil says nothing, and Joe becomes furious, mocking his father and telling him he has no authority as a judge. Joe goes inside to see Geraldine, who greets him in an empty voice.
As Joe reacts to the news that Linden Lark has not been charged, he becomes extremely angry at his father, despite the fact that Bazil is not actually in control of the decision. Bazil seems, in Joe’s mind, to be standing in for the entire justice system and the injustices within it. Joe’s rage toward his father represents an adolescent impulse to imagine one’s parents as the ultimate authorities, and a desire to separate oneself from them when it’s revealed that their power is actually limited.
Bazil comes back inside and leads Geraldine upstairs. When he comes back down, Joe implores Bazil not to leave her alone, but Bazil ignores him. Joe asks Bazil why he “bothers,” presumably in reference to Bazil’s commitment to justice on the reservation. In response, Bazil takes a moldy casserole out of the back of the fridge and tells Joe he will illustrate it for him. Bazil stacks silverware on top of the casserole in a precariously balanced sculpture, and tells him it is “Indian Law.” He points to the rotting casserole at the bottom and tells Joe that Indian Law is based on the United States stealing Native land, a tradition rooted in one old court decision that framed Native people as inferior savages.
In this memorable response to Joe’s outburst, Bazil demonstrates why he is so committed to the justice system even though it is often such frustrating, unfruitful work. Bazil uses a rotting, half-frozen casserole to represent the case law affecting Native sovereignty, reflecting the fact that most of those decisions, as Bazil states, were “rotten,” highly discriminatory, and racist. Bazil links all of these to one land control decision, showing how closely linked land is to Native oppression.
Joe realizes that each utensil represents a separate court decision that monumentally impacted Native rights. Bazil tells Joe that the rotten decision he most wants to get rid of is Oliphant v. Suquamish, which took away the right to prosecute non-Native people for crimes on reservation land. When Joe asks again why Bazil continues to work in law, Bazil rearranges the cutlery into a separate solid structure. Bazil explains that they represent the decisions that he and other tribal judges try to make to “build a solid base for their sovereignty.” Bazil feels that one day the decisions he made, however small, will allow for important steps toward Native autonomy.
Notably, even though some of these cases, like Oliphant v. Suquamish (1978), were decided long after the original land grabs and relegations that shaped Native reservations in the first place, they are still focused on land jurisdiction disputes. As Bazil describes his intention to build a basis for Native sovereignty through a series of smaller decisions, Erdrich brings up the possibility of using the system in order to reform the system, rather than reforming it from the outside.
The narrative cuts to Joe and Cappy biking over the hills behind the hospital, both trying to blow off steam. Cappy tells Joe about a letter he received from Zelia and says that he needs to get a stamp for the letter he wrote in response. The boys bike to the post office, where Linda is working. Linda tells Joe she made him banana bread, but Joe turns his back on her and walks out. When Cappy emerges from the office, he is holding banana bread for Joe from Linda. The boys go to Angus’s house, where Angus tells them his aunt is making them go to confession. Joe gives Angus the banana bread to eat. The three boys bike to the church, where Joe assumes that he and Cappy will wait for Angus outside. Cappy, however decides to confess too. This disturbs Joe and Angus. Angus tries to get Cappy to go swim instead, but Cappy insists on going. Joe goes in with them and finds that the church is nearly empty. Cappy and Angus sit in a pew and pray, then Angus confesses first.
When Joe turns his back on Linda, who has done nothing wrong, the reader gets a sense of how Joe displaces the anger he harbors over what happened to his mother onto other people, like Bazil or Linda, because he is furious that Linden is not being punished. Next, in a highly humorous episode, Cappy decides to confess, to Angus and Joe’s surprise and horror. Throughout the book’s beginning, Cappy maintains a snarky, skeptical attitude towards both Chippewa religious practices and Catholicism, so it is surprising to everyone, including the reader, to see Cappy so earnestly determined to go to confession (and suggests that his youthful love for Zelia is also bound up in a new appreciation for her religion).
Cappy goes into the confession booth after Angus, and at first all is well, but then Father Travis and Cappy both burst out of the booth. Cappy runs and Father Travis tries to catch him, chasing him around the church. Cappy makes it outside and runs down the dirt road with Father Travis in hot pursuit. Father Travis chases Cappy around Whitey’s gas station, the grocery store, through the graveyard, and back to the church playground. Cappy starts to run toward Angus and Joe, ready to jump on his bike, when Father Travis grabs Cappy and lifts him up. The boys assume that Cappy confessed to having sex with Zelia in the church basement. Joe implores Father Travis to let Cappy down, telling him Cappy came to him for help. Father Travis throws Cappy to the ground and the boys jump on their bikes and speed off.
Although Cappy seems to have taken confession seriously, his honesty does not go over well, ending with a furious Father Travis chasing Cappy around town for having had sex with Zelia on the church’s sacred ground. Although Cappy wants to take religion more seriously for Zelia’s sake (since Zelia is highly religious), he lacks any understanding of how offensive it is that he had sex in a church. On the other hand, Father Travis is a priest, but he clearly has a very unpriestly temper problem. Erdrich parodies the entire confession process in this hilarious moment.
Later, at Clemence’s house, Joe asks what Cappy was thinking when he told Father Travis about having sex in the church basement. Cappy says he was remembering their conversation with Father Travis about girls on the night he caught them spying. Joe says he could have talked to his dad or to Randall, but Cappy grins. Mooshum, having heard the story, compliments Father Travis’s running abilities as he eats lunch.
When asked about why he told Father Travis about Zelia, Cappy refers to their earlier conversation with Father Travis, in which Father Travis told them not to date “sluts.” Cappy seems to have genuinely wanted to talk with someone about Zelia, but his grin suggests that he also wanted to push Father Travis’s buttons.
Mooshum then tells the boys about when he outran a wiindigoo named Liver-Eating Johnson. Some Blackfeet warriors had caught Liver-Eating Johnson and planned to take him to the Crow Indians to be brought to justice. Mooshum, who was there when it happened, threatened the prisoner, and then Mooshum and the Blackfeet men left Liver-Eating Johnson bound to a tree with rawhide while they sat by the fire. Liver-Eating Johnson tried to bite through the ties but failed and went to sleep. While he slept, the men dabbed something on his eyes to make them cross and went searching for a centipede to sting him and make his hands swell. When the men returned, Liver-Eating Johnson’s rawhide binds had been chewed through and he had escaped.
Mooshum again tells a story about a wiindigoo, though this time it is not in his sleep. Although it is not made explicit why Liver-Eating Johnson was punished as a wiindigoo, Mooshum describes some profoundly cruel treatment on the part of the man’s Native imprisoners. Unlike in the Nanapush story, which takes the question of who deserves punishment and what that punishment should be very seriously, Mooshum seems to be unconcerned by the extremely cruel punishments that he and his friends inflicted.
When Mooshum finishes his story, he changes the subject to Sonja. Clemence tells Joe that Sonja left Whitey yesterday while he was at the gas station, with a note that said she would never come back. Joe is overwhelmed by this news and tells Cappy they need to leave. They say goodbye and bike away. After riding for a while, they arrive at the Hanging Tree where Sonja had buried the bank passbooks. Joe tells Cappy about finding the money and hiding it, and then about how Whitey beat Sonja up. Cappy suggests that they dig up the passbooks, and when they do, the boys find two hundred dollars, a note stating that the cash is for Joe to get the shoes he wanted, and a passbook for a ten thousand dollar savings account for college. The note also tells Joe to treat his mother well and informs him that Sonja is going to start a new life with the money she took. Cappy and Joe ride back to Joe’s house, where Cappy says goodbye. In the kitchen, Joe, Geraldine, and Bazil all eat together, not speaking about Linden.
When Joe finds out that Sonja left Whitey, he feels a burst of complicated emotions. Notably, although Sonja says that she is going to start a new life with the money, it seems unlikely that she will actually be able to do that, because since Joe found the doll money, Sonja has been using it to buy things like diamond earrings and new jeans rather than saving for a new life away men who abuse her. Still, the fact that the money allows Sonja to at least take some time away from Whitey speaks to the importance of financial independence in allowing women to escape toxic situations.