Eli arrives at Nanapush’s house with an offering of some provisions, in the hopes that Nanapush will take him in. Nanapush offers him some gopher stew, but Eli declines, sitting in silence. Nanapush looks through his mail, a new service provided to the reservation. Eli mutters to himself, and Nanapush tells Eli to tend to the fire. Eli pities himself aloud, and Nanapush tells him it might be better if he showed some remorse. Eli claims he was bewitched, but Nanapush warns him that Fleur will only think him weak if he uses that excuse.
Eli again makes an offering upon his arrival, following traditional customs. When Nanapush tells Eli to tend the fire, he means it both literally and figuratively. He is suggesting Eli cultivate his own strong feelings to use them productively toward atoning for his wrongs, rather than wasting energy on being angry or self-pitying.
Nanapush changes the subject to ask Eli what he will do with the cash he is offered for his land allotment, and Eli responds that he will spend it on liquor. Nanapush knows Eli is being dramatic, but he reminds him that if Eli sells his land, he’ll have nowhere to live.
Nanapush, having been reminded of the threat of government while looking at his mail, reminds Eli of the threat to his land, and tries to convince him that no amount of money is worth trading in the land. Eli’s petulant response shows he’s only trying to get a rise out of Nanapush, rather than thinking reasonably in this moment.
Eli eats the gopher stew and grimaces at the foul taste. He tells Nanapush that he wishes Fleur were a member of the church, because then he could simply ask for forgiveness.
In the absence of the game animals that once were reliable, the Native characters are forced to eat things like gopher stew.
Nanapush reflects on how the Anishinabe land is slowly being whittled down and sold, and how few of the tribespeople can read the papers that they sign with only a thumbprint or an “x.” Nanapush had worked as a government interpreter as a young man, until he told an Indian not to sign a treaty that would concentrate the Ojibwe people, and he was fired. Nanapush knows that Eli cannot understand the tribe’s current situation or history in the way that he does. He invites Eli to sleep on his floor tonight, but says that he should return home as soon as possible to be sure his family has enough food. Eli says Fleur knows how to fish in the ice, and that she’s a good shot besides.
Nanapush has a much clearer understanding of the threats the tribe is under because of his understanding written English, a skill that most of his fellow tribe members don’t possess. At his job he tried to provide guidance to the people he knew were accidentally making a decision they would later regret, but this gesture was not appreciated by the government. Nanapush is still old-fashioned enough to suggest a family needs to be provided for by the male, but Eli knows well enough that this is not the case with Fleur.
After six days of putting Eli up, Nanapush has had enough of Eli eating his cupboard bare. On the seventh day, Nanapush hands him his gun and Eli heads north. Nanapush checks his traps but finds nothing, and he ponders what he might do for food for the end of this long winter. He lies down and blackens his face with a piece of charcoal, and begins to pray. He has a vision of Eli’s tracks in the snow and knows that he is wandering around aimlessly. The sound of Nanapush’s prayer awakens Eli to the fact that the conditions are perfect for hunting moose. Eli returns to a spot where he had spotted some moose tracks and begins to follow a moose at a distance. Nanapush continues his song of prayer while Eli prepares his final approach.
The winter has lingered, and Nanapush has not been able to provide for himself via his usual method of trapping. He hopes that Eli will return with something for them to eat, and performs a ritual, imagining Eli and sending him strength. Nanapush’s song travels a distance far enough that Eli cannot be literally hearing it, but instead is hearing it in a more spiritual or magical way. Eli knows well the importance of following tracks, and listens in Nanapush’s song for guidance on what he should do, eventually tuning into his intuition about the land and realizing what the conditions of the earth are pointing to.
Nanapush mentally reminds Eli not to startle the moose because its adrenaline would sour the meat. When the animal lies down to rest after eating, Eli shoots it dead. Eli turns over the animal and slices its belly. He eats a small piece of its liver for strength and buries another piece of it in the snow as an offering. He saves the rest for Nanapush. Eli butchers the animal and ties as many of the pieces of meat to his body as he can, burying the rest in the snow or hoisting it into the trees. Eli walks back slowly, aware that if he walks quickly and begins to sweat he will die of hypothermia. Nanapush beats a drum to the rhythm of Eli’s footsteps to call him back.
Eli shows respect to the moose he is hunting in allowing the moose to finish eating and relax before shooting it, maintaining the quality of the meat and allowing the animal some peaceful final moments. Eli also shows respect for his elders in saving part of the liver, the most prized piece of meat, for Nanapush. Eli exhibits natural intelligence and knowledge of hunting and life in the wild in the way he brings back the meat in the freezing cold.
Nanapush meets Eli on his return, and removes the meat from his body—it has all frozen into Eli’s shape. Nanapush eats the liver Eli saved him, wraps him in a blanket, and places him near the stove to thaw. Nanapush prepares the kidneys and heart and feeds them to Eli and himself. Nanapush tells Eli he regards him as a son. Eli says that he knows he cannot stay away from Fleur. When he returned after the incident with Sophie, Fleur would not speak to him, touch him, or cook for him, and after three days of this, Eli finds himself more attracted to her than ever.
The way the meat of the moose is frozen in Eli’s shape serves as a reminder of the way humans, too, are meat and prey vulnerable to the natural world. Humans are an element of nature, instead of just a force acting on it, though this power balance can easily be tipped. Nanapush extends his sense of family, having lost his biological relatives, when he tells Eli that he thinks of him as his son. Eli, despite his hope that he could conquer his will, knows that Fleur’s power over him is stronger than his own self-control, and so he must find a way for her to take him back.
Eli tells Nanapush that one night Fleur slipped out of the cabin and Eli followed her to the lake. Fleur entered the icy water, but didn’t re-emerge. Eli jumped in to try to save her, but he couldn’t find her and gave up, falling asleep on the shore. When he woke up much later, Fleur emerged from the water. Eli is convinced that Fleur’s rejection of his advances is caused by her copulating with the lake monster Misshepeshu. Eli thinks Fleur is pregnant, but not by him.
Eli tells Nanapush a story that absolves him of the responsibility for Fleur’s rejection, blaming the lake monster rather than himself for her anger. His belief is so strong that he distrusts whether the child Fleur is pregnant with is his own. No longer enjoying the warm embrace of Fleur’s affection, Eli has adopted the fearful superstitions of Fleur that the other tribe members believe.
Nanapush tells Eli that he is foolish and ungrateful. Nanapush says that Eli must start over with Fleur to win her back, this time by humbling himself to her. Eli falls asleep and wakes up refreshed, trekking out twice to bring the rest of the moose meat to Fleur and collapsing under the weight of his burden. Fleur insults him, but Nanapush tells him this is a good sign.
Nanapush, the closest thing Eli has to a father, now advises him that to win back Fleur he must do the opposite of what Nanapush had previously counseled him to do, and Eli accepts his instructions, willing to sacrifice his masculinity to win back Fleur’s love. Fleur appears to take the bait, relishing in her power—and at least acknowledging Eli’s presence by insulting him.
Nanapush says the rift between the people of the tribe grows after the incident between Eli and Sophie, expanding to include the differing opinions about money and settlements. Nanapush, Margaret, and Lulu go to church, where Father Damien is happy to finally see Nanapush. At church Nanapush thinks about how he is more grateful for the old Manitous than for the Christian God, and Lulu dozes.
The rift Nanapush refers to is specific to the division between the Pillager/Kashpaw/ Nanapush tribe members and the Morrissey/Lazarre tribe members. The Morrisseys and Lazarres have been happy to capitalize on the ignorance of the other tribe members who have sold their land for very little, while the others have been trying only to save what little land they still possess. Nanapush, despite attending church, maintains his Native beliefs, and Lulu also shows little interest in Catholicism.
After mass they head home in the dark, and realize that Boy Lazarre and Clarence Morrissey are following them in the snow. The Lazarre and Morrissey families have recently come together over a land agreement with the lumber company. The two men pass them and Nanapush has a bad feeling. He tries to convince Margaret to turn around and go to his cabin, but she wants to go on to her own.
Nanapush knows that the ill will between the two factions of the tribe goes beyond disagreement about the land, and senses that the Morrisseys and Lazarres are not so honorable that they won’t enact physical revenge for Eli having dishonored Sophie, perhaps also addressing their issues with the sale of land in the process.
Boy and Clarence then jump out to grapple with Margaret and Nanapush, and Lulu runs off. Margaret bites Boy Lazarre, giving him a wound that will later kill him. Clarence wrestles Nanapush to the ground and knocks him half conscious, throwing him in a wheelbarrow to take him to the Morrissey barn. Nanapush regains consciousness tied to the center pole of the barn, and he sees Margaret tied to a stall. Nanapush tells the men to let them go, and says he won’t tell his cousin Pukwan. Nanapush lies, saying he’ll sign the papers if they let them go.
Boy and Clarence show no qualms about attacking two people significantly older than them, having discarded tribal respect for elders in an attempt to avenge the wrong done to their family. Nanapush is unable to protect Margaret with his physical prowess, but attempts to use his intelligence to outsmart the foolish men, promising to sign over the land if they’ll spare them their lives.
Nanapush realizes that this is not just about land, but about Clarence wanting to humiliate Margaret in the same way that Eli has humiliated his sister Sophie. Nanapush tries to discourage them from assaulting Margaret by lying and saying that she is like his wife, so they’ll have to kill him, too, which will only further anger Pukwan. Clarence says that Pukwan has gone to fight in the war, but Nanapush says he’ll return looking for the money Nanapush owes him. Clarence says that Pukwan is in favor of the sell-off. Nanapush warns them that any harm done to Margaret will be punished by Fleur’s cursing of men who do her wrong. Clarence appears skeptical, but it’s clear Boy believes.
Nanapush decides to lie in the service of trying to save both of their lives, a reasonable concession to make that doesn’t pose too great a threat to his honor. Nanapush continues to push the influence of the dangerous yet absent Pukwan, but the men insist they know better than Nanapush what Pukwan would want. Finally, as a last resort, Nanapush warns against the spiritual powers of Fleur, a reputation he isn’t necessarily committed to spreading.
Margaret taunts the men, saying, “Come near…Let me teach you how to die!” Margaret then sings a shrill death song. Clarence knocks out Nanapush. When Nanapush wakes up, he sees that Boy has sliced off Margaret’s braids and now shaves the rest of her scalp, careful not to shed a drop of blood. The men stuff the braids into Nanapush’s mouth as a gag.
Between the two, Margaret is more aggressive than Nanapush here, and calls back to the Native death song to try to intimidate the men, who are less aware of the traditions and thus might be more frightened by their mystery. The men shaving Margaret’s head has an echo of the practice of “scalping,” but the men do not go so far as to kill her, only dishonoring her in their actions.
When they are finally freed, Margaret calls out for Lulu, but they find her safe, sitting with Nector at Margaret’s house. The kids ask where Margaret’s hair is and Nanapush pulls it from his pocket, ashamed that he wasn’t able to prevent the men from cutting it. Margaret is happy he saved the braids. Nector vows to get revenge with Eli, but Eli is tending to his traps in an attempt to reconcile with Fleur. Margaret doesn’t shame Nanapush, but when she sees her reflection in her mirror, she vows to take a knife to the men. Nanapush admits having the same thought, telling Nector he’ll have to work with him instead of with Eli, and that they’ll need to find an old Anishinabe way to get their revenge.
Lulu showed instinctive smarts in running home when her grandparents were attacked. Nanapush shows a sensitivity in knowing that the braids would matter to Margaret even after they’ve been cut off her head. The entire family’s instinct for revenge, including Margaret, comes alive in this moment, but Nanapush takes charge, committing himself to doing so with more traditional methods that necessitate cunning rather than modern weapons or brute strength.
Nanapush thinks hard on how they’ll do it, eventually thinking of a plan when they return to Fleur’s cabin. Margaret tells Fleur what happened, and Fleur wordlessly shaves her own head in solidarity and then goes out hunting, not waiting “for night to cover her tracks.” Nanapush plans carefully, realizing he is now attracted to Margaret. “When I hunt,” he tells Nector, “I prefer to let my game catch itself.” He then reveals his plan to set snares which kill slowly and will allow Boy and Clarence to consider what they’ve done wrong. Nanapush cuts two of the end wires out of the church piano to use in the trap.
Nanapush is able to tap into the Anishinabe methods of revenge best when on Pillager land, the location most closely tied to their heritage. Fleur’s show of solidarity with the way the men have humiliated Margaret draws the two women closer together. Fleur also feels the need to prove her lack of intimidation by going out and hunting, even when the men might still pose a threat. Nanapush plans to force the men to acknowledge the dishonorable way they’ve acted, and Nanapush stealing the wire shows that he seeks his own individual way for the church to be useful in his life.
Fleur goes to town with her newly bald head, and Clarence and Boy run from her in fear. Fleur visits the Morrissey house, touching random items and sprinkling powder on the stove. Fleur then cuts off a hank of Clarence’s hair and chases Boy to the barn, where she cuts his hair, fingernails, and eyelashes into a square of flour sack. Afterward, Boy cries for days as an infection in the wound Margaret gave him climbs up his arm. Nanapush and Nector finally set the snare near Boy’s shack. They wait outside in the cold for hours, and Nector asks questions about the land and the associated fees. Finally, Clarence appears and steps right into the noose. His flailing legs just barely straddle the hole that’s been dug beneath the snare though, and so he remains precariously balanced and alive.
Clarence and Boy see Fleur’s bald head as a threat to their well-being, as it shows that she knows what they’ve done to Margaret and she will likely seek revenge. The fact that she willingly shaved her head also takes away the power of what they did to Margaret against her will. They are so afraid of Fleur that they believe her simple touch is a curse on the items in the Morrissey home. Her removal of their hair and nails is assumed to be for some sort of spell that will bring harm to them.
Nanapush and Nector reveal themselves to Clarence, but Nanapush can’t bring himself to kill him, and he and Nector walk away, leaving Clarence frozen in place. After Boy cuts Clarence from the tree, Clarence’s mouth droops on one side, a constant reminder of what happened. Nanapush buys Margaret a black hood that looks like a coal bucket, and they begin to warm to each other.
Clarence is left with a physical reminder on his body showing that Nanapush and Nector easily could have killed him, a mark of humiliation that all can see.
Father Damien asks if Nanapush and Margaret will marry, and Nanapush tries to shock him by saying they’re already having relations. Even so, Father Damien asks Nanapush to make a confession, and Nanapush isn’t shy with the details. Father Damien stops him and gives him his penance. Nanapush admits also to the attack on Clarence and tells the priest that he used the wire from the church’s piano to do it. Father Damien says the discord between the tribespeople must stop, and Nanapush offers to return the wire to him. At the trading post later, Nanapush and Fleur run into Boy, who, scared, steps backward into a row of traps set as demonstration, killing him.
Nanapush enjoys reacting against the conservative values of the church as a way of establishing himself as reluctant to convert wholeheartedly to their system of beliefs. The priest responds with composure until Nanapush goes so far as to reveal the real harm he almost caused, and draws a line where Nanapush’s wrongs are no longer a light-hearted joke. Even Father Damien can see that the conflicts within the tribe are aiding in the dissolution of the community.
Winter continues, but Nanapush’s traps remain empty, and they run out of moose meat. Margaret tries to convince Nanapush to live at her place because her cellar is full of preserved food, but Nanapush just tells her to go bring them back to his cabin. If she wants to continue their relationship, he says, she’ll need to feed him. Margaret points out the gaps in the log walls, and Nanapush tells her to stuff something in them. She then goes to open Nanapush’s third wife’s trunk, but he tries to stop her.
Though Margaret and Nanapush are finding some affection for one another, they are both stubborn and neither one will make a concession to move to the other’s home permanently. Margaret tries to reason with Nanapush, showing that his home is inferior in both its store of food and its construction, which Nanapush acknowledges good-naturedly, but Margaret goes too far when she opens Nanapush’s wife’s trunk, something he holds sacred.
Margaret runs outside with some of the items in the trunk, and Nanapush hears tearing. He goes outside, ready to beat Margaret for her transgressions, but sees that it’s her own skirt she is ripping. Margaret threatens him and Nanapush insults Margaret’s bald head, but realizes right away that her lack of hair actually gives her power because of the way she saved him that night. Margaret leaves, and Nanapush doesn’t see her for weeks.
Nanapush shows a sign of aggressive, misogynist tendencies that haven’t been displayed in the book up until this point, proving the importance of the trunk to him. This threat and his insult of her pushes Margaret to withhold her affection from Nanapush as punishment.
Nanapush becomes depressed in Margaret’s absence. He grows so weak he cannot stand, and has a dream he previously had at the time his family died. He imagines himself one tree among many, tall and strong, that topple at the firing of a single gunshot. Now, the tree weakens and bends toward the earth.
Nanapush’s identification with the trees that are being slowly cleared from the reservation land is a metaphor that continues throughout the book. Nanapush feels very closely tied to the earth, and the threats posed to his environment are clearly reflected in his body, especially when he is not bolstered by the presence of other tribe members.
When the snow thaws, it’s Margaret who wakes Nanapush with a spoonful of berries. Lulu is there too, with a new pair of patent leather shoes tied to her belt because they’re too fancy to wear. Eli had trapped a family of minks and sold the furs for the shoes, flour, a blanket, and bullets. Nanapush tells them not to waste food on him, and flirts with Margaret. They all live in Nanapush’s cabin together until the weather turns.
Margaret finally returns to Nanapush to save him a second time with the preserves she’d previously withheld from him. Lulu’s fancy shoes are a sign of her interest in white civilization, but her parents won’t allow her to wear them because they are impractical in their current life. Margaret agrees to live in Nanapush’s cabin only until he’s recovered.
Eli returns to Fleur and she accepts him back. People fish through the ice on the surface of Lake Matchimanito and hear cries of pleasure from within Fleur’s cabin, though no one ever emerges. The sounds of happiness bring hope to the people fishing on the lake.
When Fleur and Eli reunite, the other people around them are relieved, because they believe Fleur poses less of a threat to them when she is happy. The positive effect of the reunion is also seen in the reaction of the lake monster, who allows to the people to safely fish and provide for themselves as the winter ends.