This book is for ‘thinking readers’ and might I also suggest it is for those who have suffered or worked with trauma. The author is masterful with her inclusion of trauma characteristics like ‘stillness’ into the narrative.

Stillness encompasses the state of calm and emotional quietude which many of us quest to obtain. Yet, for the trauma survivor there can also be a ‘desperate and shocking stillness.’  It is a paradox. One involving the brain’s default mode network (DMN). Usually, this brain network only becomes active when our minds are at rest and not focused on the outside world.

However, when the amygdala is hyperactive ‘stillness’ may lead to ‘a flood of self-critical thoughts, rumination, and worry’ or it may emerge when a person is overwhelmed with the information, decisions or emotions to be processed or when the brain is flooded with cortisol, making it impossible to think or act.

Along with her use of concepts such as stillness I loved the cleverness of this author’s main characters – him a crack snipper in the war and she described as ‘her royal obstinacy’. They were a butcher who traded in death and slaughter and Delphine with the alcoholic father and a stomach of steel, hard enough to balance a set of chairs and a man on. Both were curiously strange and trauma appropriate.

I adored the moment when the main character – Fidelis the butcher – showed a way through his desperate ‘stillness’ and rote butchering tasks via a sow who was unready for the sharp blade of his knife. It was like she talked a tender language or begged to live an alternative destiny, through him. Similarly, with his son trapped under a mound of earth and the boards perilously close to giving, the ‘Cyprian felt the shock and fear communicate itself through Fidelis’s body.’

The Cyprian ‘had a benchmark where he encountered the first level of his fear, and he knew he could get beyond that initial sick drop of his guts by thinking only of one breath, the next, then the next. His son meanwhile was left with a stare so ‘calm and unflinching’ Delphine couldn’t meet his eyes. ‘Then one day she understood that his stare was only the mysterious regard of a newborn baby, and she let him be.’

Some other sentences also resonated with me (and the trauma experience). ‘Then the person was hauled away, or died, or retreated, and it was just the two of them again. Odd women out. Unique girls. Strange.’ Isn’t that how it always happens for the trauma survivor? Or ‘I didn’t want to face the moment when Delphine had to get up and leave him alone in the place where so often, he’d slept unconscious but that now, fully aware, occupied in a virgin state of shame?’ For me this was another masterful reference to a waking up (temporary or permanent) from the trauma state.

But does Louise Erdrich give the reader a way out? She writes so poetically about the neuroscience of resilience, using clever characters, symbol and metaphor, but does she allow the reader, and her characters, to regain a sense of agency and control?

Of course, she does but we might not like to hear it!

In the final pages she says of Fidelis and Delphine ‘it would seem for months afterward that there had been a great collision, that two glaciers had through slow force smashed together, at last and buckled.’ It is only then that she addresses the root of their ‘stillness’.

It concerns the desperate pain of two sides of one family fighting against each other and where it is normal for ‘black plumes to rise from the mouths of the singing butchers.’ And a world where a newborn was delivered by a ghost.

These are the types of places where ‘not a single note is ever lost, and no song is original.’ This is the kind of place where I needed to go to resolve my own ‘stillness’.

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