Summary and Analysis
At the nunnery in Denver, the nuns take an instant liking to Clara, who tells them that she was raped by a mysterious stranger. They dislike Ida, who's pretending to be Clara's sister, and put her to work doing tedious chores. Ida is so busy with chores, and Clara is so sequestered by the nuns, that Ida doesn't even see Clara until after Clara gives birth (on August 10) to a baby girl. When Clara mentions that she's thinking of giving up the baby for adoption, Ida threatens to expose Clara to the nuns. Clara allows Ida to care for the baby. Ida and the baby, whom the nuns name Christine, return to the reservation; Clara stays in Denver.
When Ida and Christine return home, Ida learns from Father Hurlburt that Pauline is now living with a different family because her parents argue all the time. And Lecon is drinking heavily. He is disappointed that Clara didn't return with Ida and Christine.
Over the next two and a half years, Ida and her family cope with a newborn child in the home. Lecon is gone most of the week, and when he returns home on the weekends, he's drunk. The women get relief only when he again leaves for work on Sundays. Ida cares for Christine as best she can, noting that although Christine isn't pretty, she has a "quality . . . that made you look at her twice. She had no fear." But Ida has fear, fear that Clara will return and steal Christine away from her.
Over the years, Ida sequesters herself and Christine in the house. Their only regular visitor is Father Hurlburt, whom Ida comes to rely on for companionship.
Ida's worst fear occurs four years later, when Clara returns to the reservation. Ida is stunned when she realizes that Clara does intend to take Christine with her. Hoping that Clara will become bored with Christine and that she'll not want a misbehaved child to worry about, Ida intentionally tries to show Christine's worst behavior to Clara. But Clara has other plans: She wants to give Christine to a family that wants a little girl — for a price. Determined that she will never let go of Christine, Ida, with the help of Father Hurlburt, secretly gets legal papers that declare that Christine is her daughter. Clara is livid that she no longer has control of Christine and leaves the reservation.
Ida sees Clara only two more times in her life: at Lee's funeral and when Ida visits Clara in Indian Health Service Hospital in Seattle, when she forces Christine to visit the dying Clara, whom Christine doesn't know is her biological mother.
At the convent, Ida is treated as the less important, tagalong sister to Clara. "Me, I just backslid," Ida says of herself. Note that Ida becomes lazy, a stereotype of Indians that Ida assumes. The nuns' perception of Ida — "I was everything those nuns expected an Indian to be" — is false, but as Dorris has pointed out throughout the novel, perceptions are safety nets that people use to block out reality. Too often, if you perceive something to be true, then it becomes true in your mind. This type of thinking is exactly what the nuns have in terms of Ida, who allows them to believe that their stereotypes are true because she doesn't dispel them.
Ida's family relationship to Christine is complicated at best. Technically, Ida and Christine are first cousins, but because Ida's father is also Christine's father, Ida then is also Christine's half-sister. Given the ruse that Ida and Clara play on the nuns, Ida is also Aunt Ida. And then Ida becomes Christine's mother — at first, only emotionally, but ultimately legally.
Lecon's withdrawal from his family after Ida and Christine return home from Denver only increases our contempt for him. Pejoratively he comments, "Nothing but girls," in characterizing his family. Resorting to drinking liquor when home from work, which isn't often, he blames Ida for his unfortunate situation at home. "It was as if he forgot truth," Ida says at one point.
Ida takes pride in Christine's independent, fearless nature. No matter how Ida tries to steel herself from loving Christine, Christine makes emotional inroads into Ida's heart. Even though Ida insists that Christine call her "Aunt Ida" as a means to keep an emotional distance between the two for fear that Clara might return to claim Christine, "every time she said it, the feelings for her I couldn't help, the feelings that came from being the one she came to when she was hurt and the one who heard her prayers, the feelings I fought against, got flaked away." Ida is unable to resist an emotional attachment to Christine; she grows into motherhood.
Ida's battle against Clara for legal guardianship of Christine shows just how much Ida has become attached to Christine. With Father Hurlburt's help, she becomes Christine's mother not only emotionally but also legally. Although Christine never learns the truth about how Ida and Clara are really related to her, and although she seemingly rejects Ida as her mother, as readers we know the deep personal sacrifice that Ida makes for Christine. By not telling Christine about her past, Ida attempts to protect her and herself — ironically from each other, as though Christine's knowing the truth and Ida's having to defend her actions would be more painful than the combative relationship that the two women now share.
a large indulgence a large amount of money due for sins in order to shorten one's time of punishment in purgatory.
Old Crow a brand of whiskey.