“Love Tea” and The Antelope Wife

Sarah Bahr
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

 

An antelope in South Africa. (verified free-to-use image)

Klaus Shawano’s abduction of the Ojibwe woman Sweetheart Calico in Louise Erdrich’s novel The Antelope Wife is hardly a congenial affair. He leads her to his van — nervous, not speaking — and gives her a cup of hot tea, which he refers to as “a sleep tea, a love tea.”1 After she drinks the tea, her attitude changes. “She sips the tea and looks at me with dreaming apprehension as though I’m a new thing on earth,” Erdrich writes. “Her eyes soften, her lips part. Suddenly, she leans back and falls hard asleep.”2 There is no doubt that, as Klaus claims, his brew is indeed a “sleep tea.” But is it also a “rape tea”?

Klaus begins his account with a disclaimer: “I can only say that for what happens next I have no adequate excuse.”3 He tells the reader that the way he wants Sweetheart Calico is “maybe desperate … maybe even wrong.” 4 His “love” is one-sided, yet he purports to understand what Sweetheart Calico wants — in his mind, him. His lust is “new … a way that wasn’t the way of the girls’ father.”5 He leads her to his van; plays soft music; gives her the tea; tells her everything will be alright. And, after drinking the tea, she drifts off to sleep.

The fact that Klaus, who otherwise justifies his actions in abducting the antelope wife as the product of love, can admit that he behaved maybe desperately, maybe even wrongly, is the reader’s clue that, yes, he was very much at fault. Why would he need to “excuse” his behavior if Sweetheart Calico was now a willing participant, a former target who had since become his lover?

Every element of the van scene reeks of compulsion and theft of free will. Klaus soothes the antelope wife in an unfamiliar environment by playing her music, reassuring her, pampering her, building a misplaced trust, and finally convincing her to drink the tea.

After incapacitating Sweetheart Calico, Klaus drives her to a North Dakota motel, where he effectively imprisons her. “I adore her. I’ll do anything for her,” he tells the reader. “Except let her go.”6 His beloved “dials and dials long-distance numbers” all day, trying to reach someone, anyone in Montana.7 “Weeping, weeping, she cries the whole day away,” he says.8 Yet her behavior changes dramatically — one moment “she’ll rage at me for days with her eyes, bare her teeth, stomp on my feet with her heeled boots if I get near enough to try for a kiss.”9 But then, just as quickly, “she’ll turn herself into the most loving companion.”10 What triggers this change? Is it an unspoken fact that Klaus is drugging Sweetheart Calico to keep her imprisoned?

After all, Klaus never takes responsibility for his role in her abduction. The blame for his actions lies with her, and her alone. “Her lying next to me in the deepest night, breathing quiet in love, in trust,” he says. “Her hand in mine, her wicked hoof.”11 It is not, in his mind, he who is wicked for abducting her — she was asking for it by being so irresistible. What else, he asks, was he supposed to do but claim her by any means necessary? Such colonial thinking hardly renders it implausible that he would resort to drugging her to subdue her. It is also significant that the brewing of the “sleep tea” is not a behavior unique to Klaus.12 He claims that “us Ojibwas have a few teas we brew for very special occasions. This is one. A sleep tea, a love tea.”13 If we can indeed read his brew as a “rape tea,” the prevalence of brewing it in Ojibwa society — at least, according to Klaus — would suggest a cultural tolerance for rape.14 Of course, the reader cannot take his claim that tea-brewing is so prevalent at face value, as he has hardly proven himself a reliable narrator as an interpreter of Sweetheart Calico’s feelings. But if Klaus is telling the truth, the Ojibwa practice raises a few questions.

Though the Ojibwa are a patrilineal society, the preparation of the “sleep tea” assigns Klaus a feminine role in the kitchen.15 Baking and cooking are coded as feminine acts in The Antelope Wife, from the “sugar-cookie baker” Frank being presented as “basically a pushover … [a] lover of little kids” and “look[ing] like he’ll cry every time a teary dough forms around his fingers” to a German prisoner, who, “bending with maternal care,” places a pan in the oven while cooking for his captors.16 Frank and the German prisoner are feminized as result of their culinary pursuits. Frank’s outpouring of womanly emotion is denigrated, while the German prisoner is presented as the “other” because his love for baking is “girly.”

The preparation of food is further feminized in Klaus’ account of the qualities Ojibwa men value in their wives. He says that other men, aware of how difficult a wife the fiercely independent Sweetheart Calico must be, “ask me, what was so fucking great about her? What did she do, in bed for instance, or what did she cook. Was it … a love way. A food.”17 In other words, was Sweetheart Calico such a good cook that her culinary deftness made up for any other matrimonial shortcomings? The fact that the men believe this could be the case speaks to not only the feminization of cooking among the Ojibwa, but how central command of the kitchen is to a woman’s identity.

So if Klaus’ brew is indeed a “rape tea,” what is the significance of Klaus utilizing a feminine element to exert masculine power over Sweetheart Calico? Does his method of choice soften the abduction? Make him feel less awful about his actions? When other men in the novel behave in feminine ways — notably, Scranton Roy nursing the child whose village he gutted and Richard Whiteheart prostrating himself before his wife as he begs her not to leave him — they are stripped of power. Scranton Roy’s masculinity is converted to womanly sustenance that empowers the breastfeeding child; Richard Whiteheart’s to groveling that empowers his wife to finally step out the door. But in Klaus’ case, it is he, not Sweetheart Calico, who is empowered by his brewing of the “rape tea.” He becomes an audacious abductor, rather than an emasculated pawn. By appropriating a feminine technique for his own selfish designs, Klaus claims power over his victim, a woman with “black eyes,” a “jagged grin,” teeth “broken and sharp as nails,” and a “frightful” smile.18 Because his wife is masculinized, he must resort to feminine methods to conquer her.

Just as Scranton Roy emasculates himself to produce milk for the child with a manly hunger who ferociously sucks his dry breast, and Richard Whiteheart pleads to his headstrong wife not to leave him, Klaus whips up a womanly brew to subdue his prize. While the technique works in the former and latter cases, even when it is ineffectual in Richard’s, the fact that Ojibwa men default to feminine behaviors when trying to counter masculinity in women suggests that, rather than Klaus attempting to appease his conscience or sanitize his abduction of Sweetheart Calico, he is behaving in a culturally sanctioned way.

Erdrich’s prose provides strong indications that Klaus’ “sleep tea” is actually a “rape tea.”19 By not acknowledging the abduction act explicitly beyond Klaus’ sanitized description of the affair as fueled by “love,” Erdrich emphasizes his colonial attitude and the justification he uses for his “maybe desperate, maybe wrong” techniques.20 And by couching his appropriation of a feminine element to exert masculine power as characteristic of Ojibwa men, she implicates an entire culture in tacit approval.

 

References

  1.  Louise Erdich, The Antelope Wife (New York City: HarperCollins, 1998), 29.
  2. Ibid., 28-29.
  3. Ibid., 28.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 30.
  7. Ibid., 31.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., 32.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 33.
  12. Ibid., 29.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 104; 136.
  17. Ibid., 154.
  18. Ibid., 105.
  19. Ibid., 29.
  20. Ibid., 28.

 


 

SARAH BAHR is a first-year student in the M.A. in English program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. She works as a reporter for The Indianapolis Star and has contributed to national and local publications including Forbes Travel Guide, USA Today, and Indianapolis Monthly magazine.

 

Spring 2019  |  Hektorama  |  Literary Essays