Great comments, Danville! Keep ???em coming! I especially like the arguments that some of you have made about the title of “The Bridge.” You’re right to see that chapter as about Albertine’s transition to womanhood, but I also agree with Robin that there’s more than one bridge being built here. Henry Jr.’s bar trick is building a bridge out of three knives interlapped so that they make “a bridge of knives suspended in air” between the two glasses. That’s a sharp, evocative image, and it also evokes the idea of these interlapped stories that connect past to present (as Robin notes) and one life to another.
While this is mostly Albertine’s story, it shifts point of view when they go back to the hotel room so that we’re seeing her through Henry Jr.’s eyes. That’s another kind of bridge, and then we get one more on p. 175, while they’re making love. Henry, suddenly sober, looks at Albertine closely, takes in her smells, and then thinks of “diving off a riverbank, a bridge.” The thought makes him close his eyes and see the whirling patterns of the water below, evoking his plunge into the river in the next section. I read this as Henry’s last attempt to build a bridge to someone else, his last chance to make it home across the river that surrounds the reservation, marking the divide between home and the white world that sent him to war and now offers him no way to recover from his wounds. But the bridge he builds is too fragile to carry the weight of all his emotional burdens, so he jumps.
The book is full of images of men jumping into rivers and being swept away. (For example, Nector’s “plunge of the brave” and the way he defines his life as being passively carried along by a powerful current.) It’s also full of images of the bridge that must be crossed to get home. Someone posted a good comment on my first post about the symbolism associated with cars in this book, and I have to confess that I find that final image of the red convertible sinking into the river, its headlights still searching through the dark water, really haunting. It carries a sense of loss, but also hints at a ghostly world beneath the water where the ghosts of the dead wait just beyond our sight. Drowning is a bad death in this book, because it leaves the spirit to wander, never making it to that great dance hall in the sky that Albertine pictures way back on p. 37.
Anyone tempted to connect all this water and drowning imagery to Nector’s stealing a copy of Moby Dick on p. 120? “Call me Ishmael,” he says to himself sometimes, and at other places he compares himself to Ahab. What do you think, Danville? Or how about you, Mount Vernon? Fredericktown? Don’t let Danville run away with this. Show us what you’ve got!
But I think all this imagery of bridges and cars also reflects one of the narrative strategies that Erdrich uses to shape the meaning of this book with such a delicate touch. She puts her metaphors into the minds of her characters, rather than simply tossing them out at us. It’s Marie, for example, who suddenly focuses on Sister Leopolda’s spoon in “Flesh and Blood,” seeing it as an image of their battle of wills:
I wanted that spoon because it was a hell-claw welded smooth. It was the iron poker that she’d marked me with, flattened. It had power. It was like her soul boiled down and poured in a mold and hardened. That was the shape of it. If I had that spoon I’d have her to stir in my pot. I’d have her to whack the bannock, fry the fish, lift out the smoking meat. Every time I held the spoon handle I’d know that she was nothing but a ghost, a black wind. I’d have here helpless in the scar of my palm.
Similarly, it’s Lyman who sees the red convertible as Henry Jr.’s salvation, taking the time to beat it up so that his brother can get angry at its condition and find meaning in his life again by fixing it. It’s Marie who thinks to switch the sugar and salt jars on her table when she puts Nector’s letter back, knowing that the uncertainty will both drive him crazy and reflect his own divided soul.
Reading this book isn’t simply an exercise in deciphering its meaning. We watch the characters build their own metaphors, which slowly connect like the knives in Henry Jr.’s bridge to create a web of meanings that holds all their lives together.