The Bingo Palace (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Though the center of The Bingo Palace is Lipsha Morrissey’s pursuit of Shawnee Toose, this novel is much more than a love story. Lipsha makes essentially the same discoveries about love that several of Louise Erdrich’s characters make in the novel that precedes it chronologically, Love Medicine (1984; expanded edition, 1993). He discovers that love is the essential medicine, the power that binds humanity together in the face of death. When, at the end of the novel, Lipsha faces death as an adult for the first time, he realizes fully that the human response is to hold on to others, to comfort and protect and receive comfort and protection. On his journey to this realization, when he comprehends the finality of death, he is urgently impelled to love the world, all of creation, without qualification or hesitation. In this novel, however, Erdrich’s main efforts go into creating the rich and complex context within which Lipsha’s courtship and learning take place. The meanings of the novel emerge from the interactions of Lipsha’s self-discovery and lessons in love with his and the reader’s growing understanding of the tribal and familial web within which he lives.
Though The Bingo Palace is not significantly more difficult than Love Medicine, Erdrich takes chances and makes demands on the reader that caused problems for early reviewers, most of whom found the novel lacking in unity. Slow, patient reading and rereading make the novel’s problems fairly clear and reveal why Erdrich took chances that would force readers to make extra effort. A main problem is that the novel appears unresolved, as if it demanded a sequel. Several important questions seem unanswered at the novel’s close.
One unresolved question is the meaning of the message that brings Lipsha home to the reservation. The book opens with Lipsha’s grandmother, Lulu Nanapush, stealing an out-of-date wanted poster for her son, Gerry, who is in prison, and mailing a copy to Lipsha, who—in disgrace—is living outside the reservation in Fargo, shoveling beet sugar at a processing mill. The book then proceeds through twenty-seven chapters, narrated alternately by Lipsha, a tribal voice, and a more general narrative voice. Lipsha and the tribe interpret Lulu’s mailing as a message, but no one is quite sure what it means. Lipsha sees it as a call to return home and to change his life. It may be that Lulu wants to rescue Shawnee from the manipulative Zelda Kashpaw. Or it may be that as a tribal leader, she wants Lipsha to move seriously toward succeeding Fleur Pillager in traditional medicine. It turns out that Lipsha is positioned well to help his father when he escapes from prison. This escape and Lulu’s response to authorities who come to question her help to further her political aims for the tribe. Lipsha’s adventures with his father lead to advances toward all these other possibilities. Perhaps Lulu’s intentions included all of them, or perhaps she simply wanted her grandson back with the tribe, free of the empty materialism that threatens him in the “white” world, but she does not say.
This question is resolved in part when one notices the parallels between Lipsha and his great-grandmother, Fleur. Each has miraculously escaped death by drowning; each has lived with some success outside the reservation and brought back something of value; each is noted for and thought to be connected with catastrophes that occur when they are near—though as Lipsha remarks, people tend not to notice the positive events that might be attributed to Fleur. Lipsha has a healing touch, though it deserts him when he is driven to try to profit by it.
Though he is young and seemingly maladroit, Lipsha is a person to whom things happen. Often these things are ridiculous and humiliating, as when—on a vision quest—his vision takes the form of a skunk that sprays him after speaking to him. Whatever Lulu is thinking when she calls him home, she understands that Lipsha, like Fleur, is a center of power. If he returns home, things will happen, and strange as they may appear, she believes that they will be good for Lipsha and for the Chippewa. She has learned in the past what Gerry realizes when the airplane transporting him between prisons crashes, setting him free: What looks like chance and disorder in human life is always part of a pattern too large to be comprehended.
Another unresolved question concerns the new Bingo Palace. Lipsha’s half-uncle Lyman Lamartine has developed a plan to...
(The entire section is 1856 words.)
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