Joe retrospectively states that when he was an adolescent, he had three friends, and one of them, Cappy, is now dead. Joe still carries around a black stone that Cappy gave him for comfort after his mother’s rape. Joe then resumes his narrative. Geraldine, now returned from the hospital, sends Joe back to school for the last two weeks of class before summer. Joe describes how he and his three friends (Cappy, Angus, and Zack) are inseparable. Cappy lives with his older brother, Randall, and his father, Doe, who works as a janitor and as the on-and-off tribe chairman. Zack’s family is composed of his mother and his stepfather, Vince Madwesin, who is the tribal police officer. Angus’s family is “hardcore poor” and Aunt Star heads his run-down household.
Here Joe alludes to Cappy’s death, which, although stated here, is not explicitly linked to the plot of Joe’s narrative until later, when it cements Joe’s transition into adulthood—but the early mention here means that Cappy is meant to be seen as a tragic character from the start. Joe’s descriptions of his friends’ families, meanwhile, showcase how Joe’s community is full of non-nuclear families— aunts taking care of nephews, single fathers, stepparents— a fact that, rather than making the community more disparate, makes it even more tightly knit by allowing for people to be easily taken into families they are not related to.
Cappy walks Joe home after Joe’s first day back to school. Though they normally spend time at one another’s houses after school, Cappy does not stay over. Bazil is at his office, preparing for a leave of absence to care for Geraldine. When Joe tries to open the door to his house, he notices with surprise that it is locked. Joe gets the spare key and quietly enters the house. Normally, Geraldine would not yet be home, so Joe could have the whole house to himself. Joe realizes that everything is different now, though. He feels that the air in the house is flat, because no one has cooked since Geraldine’s assault. Joe goes to the kitchen and pours himself a glass of milk, then takes a sip and, realizing it is sour, pours it back out.
Even though Geraldine has returned from the hospital and Joe has returned to school, Joe’s life is far from normal again when he goes home to find the door locked. Due to Geraldine’s post-traumatic stress, the entire household, which once revolved around her actions, feels utterly foreign to Joe. In this moment and throughout the book, like when Joe uproots the saplings from the house’s foundation, Joe’s house stands in for his entire domestic and family life, which is so altered after Geraldine’s attack.
Joe feels a “tremendous hush” in the house and runs up to his parent’s bedroom to see his mother. Joe throws himself down on the bed next to Geraldine. Geraldine, who had been sleeping heavily, wakes up and hits Joe in the face. Geraldine then realizes he is Joe. Joe, not wanting Geraldine to know she hurt him, tells Geraldine that the milk is sour. Geraldine panics about the idea of going to the grocery store, so Joe offers to bike to Whitey’s gas station and buy more milk. Geraldine, relieved, gives Joe money, slurring as she speaks because of her sleep medication.
When Geraldine hits Joe, her actions constitute the exact opposite of what Joe would expect from his mother, who is normally so loving towards him. Joe, having intended to go to Geraldine for comfort, sees that his mother is no longer able to provide him with that. Geraldine’s surprise at her own reaction to Joe suggests that violence, by instilling fear in the people who suffer from it, can beget further violence.
Joe rides his bike to his uncle Whitey’s gas station, where Sonja, Whitey’s wife, is working behind the counter. Sonja looks up from counting Slim Jims, sees Joe, and gives him a big hug. As Sonja hugs Joe, the feeling of Sonja’s breasts turns Joe on. Joe then picks out his groceries. When he tries to pay for them, Sonja refuses his money. Sonja asks how Geraldine is, and Joe, who is still disturbed by how his mother hit him, responds that she is “not good.” Sonja tells Joe that they will bring Pearl, their watchdog, to Joe’s house.
Here the reader is introduced to Sonja, Joe’s aunt and his major adolescent crush. While Joe and Sonja have a close friendship, Joe’s sexual interest in Sonja is apparent from their first interaction, when Joe describes being turned on by Sonja’s breasts. Joe displays an adolescent sexuality here that only becomes more intense over the course of the book.
After Sonja brings Pearl over, Joe complains to Bazil over dinner that Pearl is too old to play fetch. Geraldine is upstairs in her room, having declined to eat. Bazil explains that they need a watchdog because Geraldine’s attacker is still at large. According to Bazil, the attacker dropped a book of matches from the local golf course at the crime scene, so they have narrowed their search to golfers. Joe asks why the man dropped the matches, and Bazil tells Joe that he was trying to light them. Joe begins to tear up. After a moment, Bazil looks up from his food and informs Joe that, after the attacker failed to light the matches, he went in search of a new box. Bazil smiles and tells Joe that Geraldine then used the spare key Bazil had stashed under her car’s frame to escape. She ran to the car, got the spare key, locked herself inside, and drove away as the attacker ran towards her.
As Bazil and Joe discuss Geraldine’s attack, Joe is overwhelmed by the reality of the brutality towards his mother. He begins to tear up as his father tells him about the matches, but does not articulate or mentally acknowledge any understanding that the rapist tried to burn his mother alive. Joe, whose tears seem to indicate that he recognizes what happened on some level, is perhaps unable to confront the reality of his mother’s suffering because of his juvenile state. At this early stage of the novel, Joe is not yet comfortable absorbing the reality of such violence.
Bazil tells Joe they aren’t sure whether the attacker is still after Geraldine, or whether the attacker is Native, white, or local. Joe explains to the reader how the government identifies Native people, stating that they look at personal history, then at blood quantum (what percentage of their genetics are from which tribes). Joe calls “being an Indian” a “tangle of red tape.” Joe also says, however, that Native people recognize one another intuitively, without any paperwork.
As Joe explains the process that the government uses for establishing whether someone is Native or not, his description of Native identity as a “a tangle of red tape” reflects how, when considered from an official legal standpoint, just being Native, like the rest of the government’s Native law, is a confusing and messy process.
One night, Bazil decides to cook dinner. Joe goes to get a pie from Clemence for dessert. At Clemence’s house, Whitey, Mooshum, and Clemence are sitting around drinking iced tea. Clemence, who is caring for Mooshum in his old age, will no longer let him drink whiskey. Clemence leaves the room to check on the baking pies and Joe sits with the men while they discuss whether they think Geraldine’s rapist was Native or not. Clemence reenters the room, silencing the conversation with a glance. Mooshum complains about not being allowed to drink whiskey, so Clemence goes into the kitchen and pours whiskey into shot glasses. Clemence drinks one herself, then angrily walks outside, surprising the men.
In this scene, as the men speculate and gossip about Geraldine’s rape (albeit from a compassionate and Geraldine-allied standpoint), Clemence becomes extremely angry. Clemence’s anger and the men’s obliviousness towards it suggest that Clemence feels either that the men should not be discussing Geraldine’s rape at all, or that they fail to talk about it in a useful way. Clemence’s anger implies that men fail to truly understand and meaningfully discuss how women experience gendered violence.
The men return to discussing the rape, but quickly stop when they remember Joe’s presence. Mooshum asks Whitey to tell him about “Red Sonja,” referring to Sonja’s old stripping persona, which clearly turns Mooshum on. Joe thinks of the picture of Sonja that Joe keeps in his closet for when he wants to masturbate. Clemence takes the pies out of the oven and then goes outside to smoke. Joe is surprised, as Clemence usually does not smoke. Whitey asks Joe how Geraldine is doing, and Joe tells him that she is coming out of her room that night for dinner. Mooshum warns Joe not to leave her alone too much.
Although Geraldine’s rape clearly enrages them, the men fail to see anything wrong with how they themselves treat women as they transition straight from hypothesizing about Geraldine’s rape to objectifying Sonja—showing a link between even more “harmless” examples of sexism and extreme gendered violence. Again, the reader gets a sense of Clemence’s disgust and anger from her actions (such as smoking), but she does not actually articulate these feelings openly to her relatives.
As Joe is walking home with the pie, Doe Lafournais pulls up in his car and offers to give Joe a ride. Joe shakes his head and tells Doe he will see him later, since he will be coming over to help with Randall’s sweat lodge. Joe arrives home and Bazil tells him to go wash up for dinner. After Joe washes his hands, Joe, Geraldine, and Bazil sit down in the dining room to eat the extremely unappealing stew that Bazil made. Geraldine, clearly upset by the effort of trying to act normal, struggles to eat the disgusting meal. Bazil asks if the stew is good, and in response Geraldine says she will start cooking again. Bazil tries to eat the stew but fails. Joe realizes that Bazil does know how to cook, but faked his lack of skill. Joe clears the dishes and Bazil hands out pie.
Bazil’s choice to fake his bad cooking reflects his desire to get Geraldine back to her former routine. Notably, although Bazil wants what’s best for Geraldine, he tries to help by manipulating her into acting like things are normal, rather than listening to her reasons for not being ready to resume her normal life. Bazil’s well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful attempts to make Geraldine recover show the discrepancy between the desires of women coping with trauma and the understandings of the men trying to help them.
After dinner, Joe goes to the Lafournais household to help Randall with his sweat lodge. Joe and Cappy are the “fire keepers,” meaning that they stoke the fire in exchange for food. Joe describes how he and Cappy had once roasted hot dogs in the fire and Randall was angry that they ruined its sacredness. Cappy and Joe joked around in response, infuriating Randall. When Joe arrives, Cappy has already made the fire and Randall has set up all the medicine and pipes inside. Randall’s friends arrive. As Randall is loading one of the pipes, he tells Joe he is going to pray for Joe’s family, which makes Joe feel uncomfortable. Cappy, noticing Joe’s discomfort, says that Randall prays for everyone, and he’s just interested in Ojibwe medicine in order to attract girls.
As Joe describes the difference between Joe and Cappy and Randall’s attitude toward the sweat lodge, it is clear that the younger boys take Chippewa traditions much less seriously than Randall does. As the book goes on, Joe becomes much more interested in Chippewa culture, while Cappy takes an increased interest in Catholicism. The hotdog controversy highlights how religion can be engaged with in a variety of different ways—some more serious than others—and that this range can cause conflict.
It is a hot night, and Joe feels envious of the guys going into the sweat lodge, since when they come out again everything will feel cool in comparison. Randall and his friends settle into the lodge and begin singing. Joe and Cappy go to the house to refill the water cooler and, as they are coming back, they hear an explosion. Randall and his friends, naked, all run out of the sweat lodge and then run toward the house in immense pain. In the house, they try to figure out what happened, and one of Randall’s friends speculates that Randall’s new Pueblo medicine caused the explosion. Randall sends Cappy to fetch the medicine from the lodge. Cappy returns with the jar and Randall tastes the powder inside. It is extremely spicy, and they realize that the powder is Pueblo hot pepper. When Randall put the medicine on the rocks along with several ladles of water, the powder vaporized, burning their lungs.
In this humorous moment, Randall and his friends, who profess to take religion so seriously, accidentally burn themselves with Pueblo pepper. Throughout the book, Erdrich portrays Randall with a marked ambivalence that Joe and Cappy share—he is a knowledgeable young man engaging with Chippewa culture in important ways that benefit the community, but he also sometimes does not seem to know what he’s doing when he organizes rituals (like with the pepper) and other times uses his religiosity mostly to try and impress girls. Through Randall Erdrich pokes fun at overtly devout faith, implying that it can often be at least partially for show.
Randall comes and sits next to Joe. He tells Joe that he saw a vision in the lodge as he was praying for Joe’s family. In it, a ghostly man was bending over and talking to Joe. Joe asks what he should do about it, and Randall tells him to talk to Mooshum, because he had a bad feeling about the vision.
Although Erdrich mocks aspects of religious piety, she also seems to profoundly respect genuine religious belief. Several of her characters even encounter real spirits—just as Randall does here.
The next week, Geraldine begins to cook again, and Bazil meets with the police to discuss the case’s progress. Bazil is concerned because Native rape cases often do not get prosecuted. On Friday, Bazil tells Joe he needs help cleaning his office, so Joe goes with him to sweep and tidy. As Joe and Bazil file papers in the archive room, Bazil pulls out some files to take home. This strikes Joe as unusual, because Bazil rarely brings works home. When they get back to the house, Bazil says he will wait to bring the files inside until after dinner, making Joe realize that Bazil does not want Geraldine to see them.
In this scene, as Joe and Bazil archive papers and select files to take home, Erdrich draws attention to the abundance of administrative work in Native law (she does elsewhere, too, like when Joe calls Nativeness a “tangle of red tape”). Unlike the romanticized version of law that Joe later admits to having imagined his father practicing, the reader sees here that the foundation of Native law is comprised of fairly boring and frustrating paperwork.
Bazil enters the house before Joe, and, as Joe walks in after him, he hears a crash and a cry. Joe goes to the kitchen and finds his mother with her back to the sink, shaking, and his father standing, arms reached out to her, a few feet away. Between them lies a smashed casserole. Joe realizes that Bazil came up behind Geraldine, putting his arms around her waist in a gesture of intimacy, and Geraldine, thinking he was an intruder, panicked, causing her to drop the casserole. Joe imagines that if this had happened before Geraldine’s attack, she would have enjoyed the loving embrace and they would have all had dinner together as normal. Instead, Geraldine goes silently upstairs and back into her room.
This poignant scene forces both Joe and the reader to acknowledge how profound Geraldine’s emotional scarring is after her attack. Evidentially, Bazil cannot adjust to Geraldine’s fragility, and by acting as if everything is normal, he accidentally triggers her fear. Although Bazil wants Geraldine’s life to return to normal, he seems unable to really understand the trauma she has faced. Like in other parts of the novel, Erdrich imply that men cannot fully process woman’s trauma from gendered violence.
After Geraldine closes the bedroom door, Bazil and Joe clean up the broken casserole together. Afterward, Bazil tells Joe to help him bring the files into the house, and the two of them unload the car. They go into Bazil’s study, where they read the files together. Bazil believes that the cases he selected may help them identify Geraldine’s attacker. During the next week, which is the last week of school, they study the files every night. Geraldine does not leave her room, so Joe sits and reads sad poems to her until she falls asleep. Often, Joe hears his mother crying.
By accidentally triggering her, Bazil sets Geraldine back significantly. Still, Bazil tries to aid his wife by focusing on getting legal justice—the field of Bazil’s expertise. Later, when Joe reads poems to his mother, Erdrich seems to be suggesting the healing power of literature and language, even if—or maybe especially because—those stories match one’s own sadness.