It opens with a young girl, who is stirring soup with her mother. They are creating soup from what is at hand, not using a recipe. "No two soups were ever the same." The one constant in all of these soups is The Range Eternal. That's the name of their blue enameled wood stove, the heart of their family and their home. The stove isn't just used for cooking - it also keeps them warm throughout the frigid North Dakota winters. The little girl sleeps as close to the stove's heat as she can at night. She does this not only to stay warm but also to stay safe from her fears. She believes that Windigo, the ice monster, lurks just outside her house. But she knows The Range Eternal will keep the family safe and protected.
The Range Eternal also creates pictures within its flames. Those flames invite the young girl into the past of the plains, when animals ran free on a different type of eternal range. Her family relies on this stove for everything for many years. It is a part of their family, for better or worse - with all the chores that go into getting the stove going each morning, and all winter long. Then, inevitably, electricity comes to their home. When electricity comes, then the Range Eternal is no longer needed, and is replaced. The young girl, now telling the story from her point of view as an adult and mother, yearns still for the Range Eternal, that "center of true warmth", until she find a stove of her own. She finds that it doesn't just warm her body, it warms her soul.
Erdrich's writing is incredibly poetic and evocative without sounding too sentimental. On the first page, when the girl and her Mama are making soup, the girl cuts onions. She marvels "As I cut the onions, I held a kitchen match between my teeth. I still don't know why, but the match stopped my tears." Of course, there is science behind the match trick, but that isn't the point. There is magic in that moment, and in that stove.
It is the same with The Range Eternal and the Windigo. The girl huddles in the dark, worrying about the ice monster at the door. But there is a protective heat that emanates from The Range Eternal, one that reassures the scared girl. She knows that "Those wind claws and ice teeth would melt away before I could be hurt." The stove looms over the little girl in the illustration, strong, tough, durable and fiery hot.
The stove unites her whole family with its work - her brothers split wood to feed The Range Eternal. In the freezing early dawn, her father gets up and starts to feed strips of birchbark into the stove to get the warmth going before the rest of the family rouses. The girl watches as the logs catch fire: "The roar of the heat was loud as wind, but warm. The night's fears seemed small." As the wood stove is carted away, the girl notes that it is "still gleaming from Mama's polishing cloth" - the loving care that Mama took to make sure the stove continued to support all of them. While the stove requires a lot of the family - chopping, feeding it, keeping the fire going at the right temperature for both heat and cooking - it gives back to the family too. When the stove is carted away, some of the work disappears too, which saves time and effort. But the routine of cleaning and maintaining The Range Eternal was part of their family structure.
This is a story about the girl's whole family and their relationships with each other and the stove, but the most beautiful passages are about the girl's mother. She cooks on that stove for every meal. She bakes potatoes for the children to keep in their pockets on their trek to school. In the mornings, the girl recalls that "by the time we got out of bed, Mama was standing at the stove. With one hand, she stirred the oatmeal smooth. The other sure hand reached for salt, sugar, sometimes raisins." Her mother is always at the stove, moving around it, working with it. The stove and her mother are the "center of true warmth" in their home and family.
The illustrations are dreamy, with large expanses of farmland and the North Dakota prairie. In the paintings, color swirls around the page - there are wisps of steam above the soup, and on the stormy Windigo-filled nights, the wind whips almost audibly around the family's house. The paintings are realistic, which is appropriate to the memoir style of the book. But there is a hint of nostalgia and a bit of magic in these paintings too. The stove is majestic and eternal, bright blue and shining silver.
The Range Eternal is a warm, gorgeous ode to a time that is not so long ago, and a reminder of the fact that we all sometimes need the warmth of our family and a bright blue stove.
The Range Eternal. Louise Erdrich; paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Hyperion Books for Children, 2002.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library