Louise Erdrich’s Poem “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” Essay Sample
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Louise Erdrich’s Poem “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” Essay Sample
1.Home’s the place we head for in our sleep.
2. Boxcars stumbling north in dreams
3. don’t wait for us. We catch them on the run.
4. The rails, old lacerations that we love,
5. shoot parallel across the face and break
6. just under Turtle Mountains. Riding scars
7. you can’t get lost. Home is the place they cross.
8. The lame guard strikes a match and makes the dark
9. less tolerant. We watch through cracks in boards
10. as the land starts rolling, rolling till it hurts
11. to be here, cold in regulation clothes.
12. We know the sheriff’s waiting at midrun
13. to take us back. His car is dumb and warm.
14. The highway doesn’t rock, it only hums
15. like a wing of long insults. The worn-down welts
16. of ancient punishments lead back and forth.
17. All runaways wear dresses, long green ones,
18. the color you would think shame was. We scrub
19. the sidewalks down because it’s shameful work.
20. Our brushes cut the stone in watered arcs
21. and in the soak frail outlines shiver clear
22. a moment, things us kids pressed on the dark
23. face before it hardened, pale, remembering
24. delicate old injuries, the spines of names and leaves.
Louise Erdrich’s poem “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” reads like a short story of Native American children dreaming of past experiences in their quest to return home and their failure to do so. This particular poem is made up of three short poems that could stand on their own; however, they are joined together as one. The first stanza describes the path to freedom the children must take. The second stanza shows the reader where the children are caught and their return trip to the boarding school. The third stanza explores the punishments and memories the runaways must endure after their escapade.
In the very first line of the first stanza, the poem speaker says, “Home’s the place we head for in our sleep” (1). This one sentence sets up the reader with an explanation that the poem is going to take place in the dreams of an individual thinking about a faraway home that is missed.
“Boxcars stumbling north in dreams / don’t wait for us” (2-3) talks about a train passing by heading north that does not stop for passengers, especially those individuals that must sneak a ride in boxcars that seem to ride unsteady on the rails they journey upon.
The following sentence, “We catch them on the run” (3), means the runaways must plan their breakout at just the correct moment. The train does not stop to pick up passengers. The runaways must time their escape so they will be near a location where the train passes by at a slow-enough speed so they can run alongside and jump into the moving boxcars.
The next sentence, “The rails, old lacerations that we love / shoot parallel across the face and break / just under Turtle Mountains” (4-6) can be broken down into three parts. The first part speaks of the railroad tracks representing a blemish on the landscape the children have grown up with. Even though they hate the rails for what they stand for, the children have come to love them because they represent the path and direction that points toward home. The subsequent parts talk of the rails heading across the landscape in the direction of the mountains. Just before they reach the base of the mountains, the rails make a sudden turn, allowing Turtle Mountain to overlook the rails and the path toward home.
“Riding scars / you can’t get lost” (6-7) speaks of children traveling in boxcars that ride the rails. If these rails are followed by other runaways, they act like a compass pointing the course one wants to journey.
The last sentence of the first stanza states, “Home is the place they cross” (7). This one sentence pulls the entire first stanza together and gives it meaning. We now know that the railroad tracks pass near their home. The children only need to be carried in the boxcars that ride the rails that scar the landscape in order to journey home.
The second stanza explores the children’s return to the boarding school. “The lame guard strikes a match and makes the dark / less tolerant” (8-9). The runaway children see a lame gentleman guarding the railyard strike a match, probably for a smoke, as the boxcars they are riding in pass by. The light from the striking match makes the darkness less extreme and in so doing lightens the darkness the runaways are hiding in.
“We watch through the cracks in boards / as the land starts rolling, rolling till it hurts / to be here, cold in regulation clothes” (9-11). In the initial part of this sentence, the runaways are talking about peering through the slats that make up the walls of the boxcars, watching the landscape pass by outside. If one has a narrow enough view, it almost feels like one is standing still, and the landscape is rolling past like ocean swells passing by a ship at sea. The center part of this sentence describes how the rolling landscape affects the motion of the boxcars and in turn transmits vibrations to the bodies of the runaways, causing almost too much pain to stand. The final part of the sentence describes how chilled the runaways feel and how much they miss their native clothes. The garments they have been issued do not keep them comfortable in their current environment of the boxcars traveling through the dark cold night.
At the midpoint of the second stanza, the runaways know from past experiences their freedom will soon come to an end, and they will be returned to the boarding school at about the halfway point of their journey. The next sentence reveals this: “We know the sheriff’s waiting at midrun / to take us back” (12-13).
Even though the runaways wish to return home, they know the coldness they are feeling will come to an end soon. The next sentence states, “His car is dumb and warm” (13). Although the sheriff’s car is incapable of coherent thought, the warmth it puts out and the comfort it provides are a welcome change from the misery the runaways have been experiencing on the journey home.
“The highway doesn’t rock, it only hums / like a wing of long insults” (14-15) describes the variation between riding a boxcar along rails and riding in a car down the road. The ride in the car, unlike the ride in the boxcar, does not sway back and forth, but is smooth; the humming sound coming from the tires creates a tranquil effect. However this smoothing sound the children hear while riding in the sheriff’s car is also like verbal abuse the runaways feel for having failed in their quest to return home.
“The worn-down welts / of ancient punishments lead back and forth” (15-16) has a double meaning of sorts. The cracks in the highway that have been repaired over the years and have been worn down from the constant tread of tires over its surface are a reminder of the lashings the runaways have received as punishments for past deeds and the healed welts that lead to and fro on their bare backs.
In the third stanza the children reminiscence regarding their lives after being returned to the boarding school. “All runaways wear dresses, long green ones, / the color you would think shame was” (17-18). As part of their punishment, the children who have been caught and returned to the boarding school are forced to wear long green dresses. Although someone from outside their group may think the color would embarrass them, instead the color pulls the group of runaways together as a team. It shows to the others that at least they have tried to return home.
“We scrub / the sidewalks down because it’s shameful work” (18-19). The runaways can only feel disgrace in front of others by having to scour the very ground they all walk upon. And upon this ground has been built an unyielding stone path. For the society they all come from this situation presents a double disgrace, first covering the ground with an unyielding stone path and second by having to scrub this path clean.
“Our brushes cut the stone in watered arcs / and in the soak frail outlines shiver clear / a moment, things us kids pressed on the dark / face before it hardened, pale, remembering / delicate old injuries, the spines of names and leaves” (20-24). The poem speaker uses this last sentence to pull together the complete poem of past memories and punishments. It is a remembrance and reflections the children see of injuries that still hurt.
As can be clearly seen, Louise Erdrich’s poem “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” is a three part-structure, each part building upon the previous. The first describes the children’s escape and journey, the second recounts there capture and return, and the third speaks of punishments and reflections of the runaways. Although this is a poem of past adventures, it speaks of dreams and reads like a short story.
Erdrich, Louise. “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 8th ed. Eds. X.J.Kennedy, Dana Gioia. New York: Longman, 2002. 1192-93.