Nanapush finds Lulu passed out outside Margaret’s cabin. Lulu is so frozen that she can say only that something is wrong with Fleur. Margaret wraps her in warmed blankets. The snow outside has obscured any trail or typical landmarks. Lulu had become lost, and suffered more because she’d worn her thin, fancy shoes. Margaret curses Eli for buying them and tries to burn them. Margaret instructs Nanapush on how to warm Lulu, and then runs to the Matchimanito cabin. Lulu struggles against Nanapush’s embrace as she thaws. Nanapush talks all night to try to keep Lulu calm.
The story backtracks a bit when it transitions to Nanapush’s perspective and we learn that Margaret did not arrive sooner because Lulu became lost and hypothermic in the snow on the way to tell them that Fleur needed help. Nanapush takes on the feminine caregiving role for Lulu in the same way he cared for Fleur years before. The shoes are seen as a cause of Lulu’s condition, indicating the danger of white culture in the context of reservation life.
Father Damien arrives with the off-reservation doctor, and with butter to spread on Lulu’s frostbitten skin. The doctor examines Lulu and gives her Laudanum, and says he must take Lulu to his office because one of her feet is entirely frozen. Nanapush refuses her being taken away, because he knows the doctor won’t be able to save Lulu, even though he isn’t certain he can save her either. The doctor storms off, and Lulu wakes to give Nanapush a secret look.
Father Damien thinks that Western medicine is necessary to help heal Lulu, but Nanapush distrusts the doctor, believing that Lulu will suffer under non-native care. Nanapush reads the look that Lulu gives him as affirmation. Though Nanapush is often grateful to Father Damien, this is a case where Nanapush refuses Father Damien’s suggestion that Western ways are superior to Native traditions.
Nanapush nurses Lulu for days in Margaret’s cabin, though Fleur, trapped in her own cabin by the weather and her weakness, begs for her, convinced Lulu is dead. On the first warm day, Nanapush takes Lulu to Fleur on a toboggan, the same way he saved the sick Fleur years ago.
Nanapush serves the more traditionally feminine role of nurse to Lulu. Fleur, overcome with the grief of having lost her baby, wants to see proof that Lulu is alive, but neither is well enough to travel. Fleur believes they might be keeping Lulu’s death a secret from her so that she might recover.
When Nanapush arrives at the cabin, Fleur looks ragged and sick, and lurches toward Lulu on the sled. The black umbrella has been propped in the tree where the baby’s body was placed, to protect it from the elements. Upon seeing Lulu and knowing the baby’s body is protected in the tree, Fleur awakens to her senses, and tends to Lulu’s needs. Later Fleur dreams of a place where a deer might exist that they could hunt for meat, but when Eli tries to find the animal, he comes home empty-handed.
Grief has turned Fleur into a zombie-like figure, but once she knows her baby’s body is protected by the umbrella Fritzie had given her and that Lulu is alive, she takes up her responsibilities once more. This also reflects the game she played with the dead gamblers—she lost her baby, but saved Lulu. Fleur dreams of how she can provide for her family, but Eli is unable to use the same knowledge to act as provider, showing Fleur’s special connection to spirits and dreams.
The next day, Fleur cuts a hole in the ice of the lake to fish. Eli wrestles her home and tends the line himself, but catches only a tiny perch. That night, Fleur sings a foreign song until Nanapush urges her to sleep. None of her sung prayers cause the appearance of the food they need though. Instead, government wagons appear with commodities, and someone must go to town to register for the rations with the Agent. All are reluctant to be the one to go.
Fleur is too weak to hunt, but she tries to fish. Eli attempts to take over for her so she can continue her recovery, but even at home Fleur tries to act, praying for food. None of this works, though, perhaps showing perhaps that even Fleur’s spiritual power is not enough to provide for the family in the wake of the devastation caused by white civilization. Embarrassingly, they must accept government help if they are to survive.
Margaret volunteers to go and leaves the cabin for town. She returns with Father Damien, who has a pack of provisions for the family. Nanapush greets the priest, and Father Damien shows them a map of the land on the reservation and the large fees due on their land before summer. Father Damien refuses food, but he sits with the family through their silence, contemplating the map together. Margaret worries over the way the Morrissey land threatens her own, but Nanapush can see that the real threat is that of the lumberjacks and bankers. Fleur believes no one would try to collect Pillager land, but Margaret knows that times have changed.
Margaret’s willingness to go to town and interact with the Agent is being established here. Father Damien’s attempt to assist in the situation is also appreciated by the residents of the Pillager cabin, but he has also arrived with the bad news that it will be very difficult for the three families to keep their land. He is being kind in that he doesn’t eat with the family, aware that they have fewer provisions than he does back at the Church. Fleur is unaware of how modern society no longer respects tradition and spiritual power as law.
Nanapush tells Father Damien that the government can’t tax their parcels of land because they are in trust, but the priest and Nector know different, saying that if they don’t pay, the land will be auctioned off. Father Damien says that some people want to build a fishing lodge on the lake, but that they might trade for another allotment. Nanapush says they will have to raise the money to save their land. Father Damien suggests gathering and selling cranberry bark to a tonic dealer, and they take advantage of this opportunity each time the dealer comes to town. The odor of the bark sticks to all of them, signifying “salvation and betrayal.” The rustling bark keeps them awake at night, mimicking the sound of dollar bills.
Even Nanapush is not educated in the current laws, but Father Damien and Nector are. Father Damien provides a generous suggestion in how the family might earn enough money to save their land, and they accept his advice, though they feel guilt at stripping the bark off all of the trees. At the same time, they feel both relief at the growing likelihood they will be able to save their land, and also anger at the way that white civilization has betrayed them and how they have been forced to betray nature in turn.
Eli goes to town to get the last of the supplies due to them, but Nanapush knows they are giving up some of their independence in accepting them. He notes, too, that Fleur has changed. She is less straightforward, and is eager to cover the fear caused by having lost one child and almost losing another. Nanapush tells her to go to the lake to pray to her helpers, but she goes to sleep in the bed instead.
Nanapush is embarrassed by the way they’re giving up their independence in accepting assistance from the government, and would rather rely wholly on what the land can provide them. Fleur’s power and bravery have decreased because of all she has lost, and now she seems to distrust how much good the Manitou spirits can do.
Nanapush thinks of the wisdom he would pass onto Fleur if she would listen. After much thought, he tells Fleur that he has never believed himself fully responsible for his power or for his failures, but says that Fleur believes she is too powerful to be responsible for others’ failures. Nanapush tells her that keeping the land is not entirely her responsibility, and neither was keeping the baby alive. Fleur turns away from this information.
Nanapush tries to rebuild Fleur’s confidence, believing that they need her power to survive. He thinks that if he takes some pressure off of her and helps her realize that she is not to blame for all that has gone or could go wrong, then she will reassume her relationship with the spirits that have protected her all her life, but Fleur’s confidence is of the all-or-nothing variety, and she refuses Nanapush’s nuanced advice.
News comes from town. Pauline has taken her vows. Sophie and Clarence Morrissey have married their cousins, the Lazarres. Sophie’s Lazarre has six children from a previous marriage, in which he was believed to have murdered his wife. The new families take over Bernadette’s house, and Bernadette brings baby Marie and Philomena to live in town, where she takes a job working for the Agent, though it’s clear she has consumption.
The Morrisseys and Lazarres force even Bernadette, their blood relative, out of her home. These families show a shortsightedness in the partners they choose and the way they go about their business. Bernadette fully converts to the side of the white man in taking work in the Agent’s office, a position that allows her to have greater control over the livelihood of the Pillagers and Kashpaws.
Nanapush tells Lulu that Napoleon was driven to drink again by the new relatives in the house. He tells Lulu that people get the grandchildren they deserve, and draws attention to who Lulu’s grandchildren might be if she marries a Morrissey, as she would like to do.
Though Lulu is not Nanapush’s biological grandchild, he does view her as his family, and thinks he is lucky to have her as his own. Here it is revealed that Nanapush’s purpose in telling this story is not only to pass on the history of their families to Lulu, but also to convince her to be smart in who she decides to marry (and suggesting an entire life for the present-day Lulu outside the bounds of the novel).
One day, Nanapush and Nector go to the Morrissey farm as Napoleon is butchering his last cow. Clarence tells them to stand back and they’ll throw them the guts. Nanapush reminds them how they spared Clarence’s life, and says the Morrisseys owe them half the cow at least. Clarence butchers them a small portion and Nanapush registers how the Morrissey place has fallen into disrepair. More of the same follows in the years after, according to Nanapush, the Morrisseys’ record books and livestock growing unkempt as they focus on breeding with one another.
Nanapush’s concern for the downward spiral of the Morrissey clan is confirmed when he visits to ask for a share of their butchered cow meat. Nanapush is critical of the Morrissey clan for their carnal interests and the way they allow these urges to overpower the other skills and actions necessary to support themselves. All of this is provided as proof to Lulu of the reasons a Morrissey is not a fit partner for her.
Fish swarm to the surface of the lake in late winter, and the residents of the Pillager cabin catch the fish through holes in the ice. They can eat more now that they are catching their own, and Nanapush is again interested in Margaret romantically. They make love, and Nanapush says they should build a house on the Pillager land for themselves. Margaret assures Nanapush that they’ll get the money together to save both the Kashpaw and Pillager family allotments. It’s revealed that Nanapush’s land has already been lost— he mentions that his land had only been empty for a month when it was overtaken by a pack of the growing Lazarre clan.
The residents of the Pillager clan are in a better position for survival with the government-provided provisions and the fish that are now plentiful in the lake. Nanapush, perhaps sensing that paying off both allotments is only delaying the inevitable and that they’ll need assistance from the younger family members as they continue to age, suggests that they all live on the Pillager land. Margaret is too proud to give up her stake, though, reluctant to let the Morrisseys and Lazarres take over the cabin she so loves—and this reluctance foreshadows events to come.
Father Damien visits to tell how he stumbled upon a naked, dead baby in the snow, and how all the others in the house the child belonged to were blind drunk. He tells Nanapush he should step forward and involve himself in the government to prevent further tragedies like this, but Nanapush can tell the goal of the government is simply to further control the Indians. Father Damien begins to talk as Nanapush has taught him, not allowing Nanapush to get a word in, and Nanapush gives in. Father Damien writes a letter to the government recommending Nanapush for a government position, but the letter goes unanswered by the new secretary to the Agent: Bernadette.
Father Damien can see the writing on the wall: the tribe’s numbers are dwindling, and the half-natives are falling prey to the temptations of white civilization. They need a strong leader to help them regain control of their lives. Nanapush is reluctant to take part in this way, fearful that he’ll become a mere puppet of the government. Father Damien cleverly uses Nanapush’s methods of persuasion to break the old man down, but Bernadette is a barrier to Nanapush taking any sort of power because she knows he will not act in favor of the Morrissey family.
Nanapush says that after Fleur lost her other baby, she became more protective of Lulu. Margaret asks Fleur to let Lulu have some freedom now. Nanapush identifies with Fleur’s reaction to losing a child, but he knows Margaret does not understand because she has not experienced this tragedy. Still, Nanapush thinks he should go to Moses to get a medicine to allow Fleur to detach from Lulu. Nanapush brings gifts to Moses and they devise a plan.
Having lost his entire family, Nanapush is able to sympathize with Fleur’s urge to keep Lulu close, but he fears they may lose their land soon, and can already see the value of allowing Lulu to be educated and cared for at a government boarding school if that is the case. Margaret, despite having birthed many children, was lucky never to lose a single one, either in infancy or in the consumption epidemic, and so she is less understanding of Fleur’s attachment to Lulu—a more typically masculine response to parenting.
Two days later, Moses approaches the Pillager cabin carrying two drums. Nanapush mixes yarrow with another ingredient he won’t name, a concoction he dreamed of. The potion allows him to reach into boiling pots to pull out meat or to reach into human bodies to pull out the names haunting a person, as he did when he was mourning his family so that he might survive his grief. As they prepare the fire and stew, Pauline approaches the tent they’ve built, and Fleur and Margaret arrive, too.
Nanapush relies on Moses’s help in finding a way to loosen Fleur’s hold on Lulu. In the same way that Fleur dreams of the things she needs to survive, so does Nanapush, drawing comparisons between magical physical actions one might take and also more spiritual gestures to be performed. Though she was not invited, Pauline continues to visit the cabin in the hopes of converting more of the tribe to Catholicism.
Nanapush pulls some meat from the boiling pot with his hands and gives it to Fleur to eat. Pauline approaches the pot, and Margaret tries to quietly nudge her out of the tent so that Fleur might continue her cure, but Pauline says she has been sent to prove Christ’s ways. Pauline plunges her hands, unprotected, into the boiling pot and holds them there, until she finally screams and withdraws, running back to town.
Pauline is so confident in her abilities and her faith that she believes anything Nanapush might be able to, she must also be able to do. In her attempt to prove herself, though, she in fact makes a fool of herself and receives no divine intervention to protect her, making Nanapush’s beliefs seem far more credible than Pauline’s.
Afterward Fleur seems improved, but Nanapush isn’t sure if it’s his cure that helped her or the money that they finally gather together just after the deadline. All of the family contributes every cent they have, and then Father Damien adds the last necessary quarter. They have just enough for both the Pillager and Kashpaw land. Nector volunteers to take the money to town, and then they are all so relieved that none of them think it odd that Nector and Margaret spend a significant amount of time away.
Though Nanapush hoped the ritual he performed with Moses might be what cured Fleur, he realizes that it might be the more practical fact that they earned the money they needed to save their land. Father Damien contributes to their effort, and Margaret again shows a willingness to go deal with the Agent in town. The relief they all feel then blinds them to possible further threats.