Pauline, a second narrator, tells of the first time Fleur drowned as a child. She is saved by two men who later disappear. When Fleur is fifteen, she drowns again, but no one will touch her. A man finds her washed up on shore and notices she is still breathing. Much later, the man drowns in his own bathtub. After this, despite Fleur’s beauty, men steer clear of her, certain that Misshepeshu, the lake monster, wants her for himself. Pauline shares the warnings that mothers give to little girls to beware the charms of the lake monster.
Pauline, the second narrator, records her own story on paper (a generally Western medium of communication) in contrast to Nanapush’s oral storytelling. Fleur’s relationship with the lake is relayed by Pauline, a woman who supposedly is devoutly Christian, having disavowed her Native beliefs. This is important to note, as it suggests that Pauline is not as distanced from her roots as she would like.
Out in the woods alone, Fleur is thought to have gone mad, wearing men’s clothing, studying the ancient traditions of medicine, and turning into a bear, leaving behind tracks that match a bear’s claws. Some members of the tribe believe that Fleur should be forced to leave the reservation, but none are brave enough to tell her so. As they finally get up the nerve, Fleur leaves the reservation herself, heading to the nearby town of Argus.
Fleur’s tie to bears as a symbol of her family line is introduced here, showing her strength and tenacity in surviving alone in the wild. The tribe is so intimidated by her tie to the physical world and the way that she can seemingly manipulate the Manitous, or life force spirits in the woods, that they want to ask her to leave. They fear the evil they believe they know, in the form of their own culture, more than the overwhelmingly destructive threat of white culture that they don’t know.
Fleur walks to the small town of three hundred people, drawn by the thin steeple of the Catholic church. She begins working at the butcher shop owned by Pete Kozka. Her coworkers are three men: Lily Veddar, Tor Grunewald, and Dutch James. Pauline’s Aunt Regina has remarried to Dutch James, though he hasn’t adopted her son Russell.
The Catholic Church stands in as the most notable entity in town, that which lures the Anishinabe people to white civilization. Fleur’s employment in the butcher shop, a masculine job in white culture, shows the way she brings her unique identity even to her pursuits in town.
Pauline reveals that she asked her father to be sent south to live in the town so that she might learn to make lace from the nuns. Instead, she is taken in by her extended family and learns that they are mixed-blood. Her father warns her that living in town will fade her native ways, which she has already begun rejecting, speaking only English and opting out of the traditions he attempts to teach her. In town, Pauline takes a job sweeping the shop and caring for Russell rather than learning to make lace.
Pauline has begun to reject her heritage even while still living on the reservation, and when her father calls out that this trend will only continue to a greater degree if she leaves, she is unconcerned. Though Pauline professes that she wants to go immediately to the convent, instead she lives with her half-Native family first, evidence that Pauline might not be as completely distanced from her heritage as she believes she is.
Pauline recognizes that Russell is industrious, while she herself falls into daydreams of what her life might be like if she were more like the white girls she sees in town. While she is living with her Aunt Regina, Pauline learns that many of her family members have died on the reservation, and that there is not enough labor to bury the bodies properly, so many are hoisted into trees instead, a thought that haunts Pauline.
Pauline sees herself as a passive figure, wanting the wealth of the white girls around her, while recognizing that her male cousin has more ambition. Pauline’s image of her family’s bodies hoisted into trees and the way it disturbs her could fuel her desire to convert away from the Native faith and toward Catholicism, which insists on burying bodies far out of sight.
Pauline admires Fleur, who refuses to tell Pauline about what happened in the time of the sickness on the reservation, claiming that it’s possible some of Pauline’s family moved north to avoid the sickness. At fifteen, Pauline feels she is invisible to the customers and men in the shop, and uses this fact to spy on everyone. She bears witness to the jokes the men tell, and what they do to Fleur. Fleur works in “a ramshackle board building, part killing shed, part store,” next to the huge refrigerated storage locker. Fleur works alongside another woman named Fritzie, cutting the meat. Fleur is not as invisible to men as Pauline, and she treats Pauline’s little cousin Russell sweetly.
Fleur’s treatment of Pauline shows that she can tell Pauline might not be strong enough to accept the truth about what has happened to her family. Pauline’s invisibility to men, presumably because of her plainness, is used as a skill that allows her to observe people unnoticed. Pauline alludes to something bad that happens to Fleur, though we don’t yet know what that is. Fleur and Fritzie’s skill in making fine cuts to the meat is a translation of traditionally white feminine skills (fine hand work) into a more masculine medium (butchering meat).
Sometimes the men stay at the locker after closing to make dinner together and play poker or cribbage, but they rarely talk. Fleur’s card-playing catches their attention even more than her looks. The men are surprised when Fleur sits down to play with them, and Lily’s dog snaps at Fleur, but immediately recoils. Pauline and Russell hide to watch what will happen, but Fleur knows the children are there and shines a bright wolf-like grin at them. Fleur asks Pauline to give her the eight cents she earns weekly, and Pauline hands over her coins.
Fleur’s card-playing is an example of a woman displaying a skill typically seen as masculine in white Western culture. Lily’s dog responds to Fleur instinctually in a way that mirrors the men’s true feelings, barking to try to intimidate her, but then recoiling in fear (also showing Fleur’s connection to the natural world yet again). The men are politer on the surface, though, and invite Fleur to join them, assuming she’ll make a fool of herself. Fleur’s wolf-like grin will return throughout the book in moments where she seeks to threaten or show her dominance.
Fleur plays steadily, but the men know she can’t bluff. Pauline goes to sleep on a mound of sawdust, and when she wakes up, the men and Fleur are still playing. Eventually the game ends and Fleur tucks Pauline and Russell into a closet to sleep. The game continues the next night, and Fleur gives Pauline her money back “five times over,” while Fleur keeps the rest of the dollar she has won for her stake in the next games.
Fleur’s commitment to honesty and honor comes through in her inability to lie to the others about the cards in her hand. Pauline benefits from Fleur’s gambling, and Fleur displays generosity in repaying Pauline much more than she lent Fleur and also showing her care in tucking her and Russell in, so they won’t be punished for secretly watching the game.
Each night for a week, Fleur wins exactly one dollar, and the men bristle at her consistency. They wonder at how she has never won with anything above a straight. They have trouble believing that a woman could be smart enough to play cards, but stupid enough to cheat for only a dollar a night. Each night Fleur retires to bathe in the slaughterhouse tub and sleep in the unused smokehouse, which Fritzie has allowed her secret access to, in addition to the gift of a black umbrella.
The men are skeptical of Fleur’s ability to play cards so well that she wins exactly the same amount each night. The fact that Fleur only ever wins with low cards seems to indicate that Fleur might be using some sort of magic to ensure her wins, or it might be a strategic choice to improve her chances and divert the suspicions she knows they will form, as she is used to being mistrusted in her community. Fritzie’s interest is evidence of the care and support women can provide to other women, not only on the reservation, but also in town. The black umbrella will return as an important symbol of protection throughout the book.
Pauline becomes Fleur’s shadow, copying her every move. In August, Pete and Fritzie head north to escape the heat. Fleur has won thirty dollars in thirty days. On a day that’s so hot only Fleur can stand to work, the men wait for her to finish so they might play a game with her. They up the ante to a dollar, and Fleur loses, but they allow her to keep playing until she wins. They continue playing until the pot holds all their money, and then Fleur wins the hand fair and square. Lily slams his dog into the table in fury. Fleur gathers her winnings, and Lily demands another round, but Fleur leaves the table to feed the hog. The men linger around the table, drinking and silently planning their revenge.
The men have waited for Pete and Fritzie to be out of town to seek their revenge on Fleur. It is as though they are looking for a concrete reason to punish Fleur, and so they up the stakes to an amount that seems punishable, as Fleur had only been winning in relatively small increments before. Fleur’s refusal to play another round after winning the men’s money shows that this was perhaps her plan all along, to gain their trust and then win as much money as she could to ensure she could return to her life on Matchimanito.
When the men leave the table, Pauline drags Russell with her to follow them. Lily follows Fleur into the hog pen, trapping her, and she dumps a bucket of slop on him. He pushes her against the fence and her winnings spill out of her dress. Fleur escapes into the yard, but Lily follows. The sow attacks Lily and they struggle. The other men chase Fleur to the smokehouse. Russell tries to stop Dutch in his pursuit of Fleur, but Dutch throws the boy off. Pauline closes her eyes and puts her hands on her ears to block out Fleur’s voice calling to Pauline and Russell to save her.
While Pauline acts as Fleur’s shadow, following her after the game, shadows are passive rather than active, and so Pauline takes no action to deter the men from attacking Fleur. On the contrary, Russell attempts to appeal to Dutch, his stepfather of sorts, trying to convince him to leave Fleur alone. This builds on the way Pauline has identified Russell as being more proactive than her. Notably, Pauline covers her ears as Fleur calls for her—this seems to be a kind of “original sin” that leads to the break between Pauline and the rest of the Anishinabe, particularly Fleur and those close to her.
The next morning Fleur is gone, and the men are all hungover. Russell is beside himself, blaming himself for what happened to Fleur, and goes outside to brood. Stepping outside to call Russell indoors, Pauline can see that a tornado is gathering. When she steps back inside, the men have all disappeared inside the lockers. The building is trembling. Pauline and Russell, panicked, scream for Fleur, Regina, Dutch—“any of them”—when suddenly everything goes totally still. The door of the locker remains shut, and a dog can be heard barking inside. Pauline and Russell hear “a cry building in the wind,” and a gust of wind slams them into the wall of the shed. Outside, they tumble through the air, witnessing a herd of cattle, a lit candle, and various other objects flying by in the tornado. The town of Argus is “turned upside down, smashed, thoroughly wrecked.”
The weather is assumed to be the effect of Fleur’s wrath, induced by the tribal spirits with whom Fleur remains closely aligned. The awareness with which Pauline is able to register the objects flying around her even while she tumbles through the air suggests exaggeration or magic, evidence of Pauline’s predilection for lying, or the generally surreal nature of the book’s action. The reader is made to wonder how a candle might remain lit while flying through the air.
Days later, people in the town begin to look for the men who worked in the butcher shop. Much of the town is damaged, but a surprising amount remains intact, and seemingly no one has been harmed. Kozka’s Meats has been completely destroyed, though Pete and Fritzie’s living quarters remain undisturbed.
The fact that no one went looking for Tor and Lily is understandable, as they both live alone, but Pauline calls out Aunt Regina’s lack of interest in Dutch’s whereabouts as suspect, as though her aunt might have wanted to be rid of her companion. The fact that the site of abuse and assault is destroyed but Pete and Fritzie’s living quarters remain intact shows that Pete and Fritzie are not to blame for any of the wrong that has been done (at least in Fleur’s mind, if Fleur is indeed the cause of this destruction).
When Pete and Fritzie return from their time away, Fritzie asks after Fleur, whom no one knows the whereabouts of, and the other men, and that is when the town realizes they are missing. A search party hunts through the wreckage, eventually uncovering the meat locker, which was locked from the outside. Pete, Fritzie, Pauline, and Russell enter to find the men, dead, huddled around a card game. When the bodies are pulled out, it’s determined that Dutch James is still alive.
The townspeople assume Fleur is to blame for the meat locker being locked from the outside, as there is no one else they can imagine having done such a thing. Though Dutch is assumed dead, he is ultimately found alive, suggesting that he was perhaps less to blame for the harm that was done to Fleur than the other men. The fact that the men are huddled around a card game bears importance later in the book, when a similar game is played in the afterlife. It also suggests the reason for their horrific fate—the cards they played with Fleur.
Pauline leaves Argus. Fleur has moved back to Matchimanito. Pauline says she is the only one to visit Fleur at her home. She says she went to help Fleur give birth to a child in the spring, a child who people argue over the parentage of: fathered in the smokehouse, or by the Agent, or by the lake monster Misshepeshu. The child (Lulu) smiles in her sleep, perhaps because she knows people argue over her story—but the story is different every time, and no one knows the true version.
Pauline’s nature as a liar is illustrated here in the fact that she says she is the only one to visit Fleur at home on the reservation, when we later learn this is not to be the case at all. The gossipy nature of community and the fear of Fleur’s power is called out in the community’s speculation over the origin of her pregnancy. Lulu, who has not yet been an active character, is described as mischievous and knowing even as a baby, aware that there is power in her uncertain origin.