Louise Erdrich Essay - Erdrich, Louise (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Erdrich, Louise (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Louise Erdrich 1954–

American novelist, short story writer, poet, memoirist, children's fiction writer, and juvenile fiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Erdrich's career through 1996. See also, Love Medicine Criticism.

In her fiction and poetry, Erdrich draws upon her Chippewa heritage to examine complex familial and sexual relationships among midwestern Native Americans and their conflicts with white communities. Her eccentric characters attain mythic stature as they struggle to overcome isolation, abandonment, and exploitation. Jean Strouse has observed of Erdrich: "Her sure sense of the way people think and talk keeps it hard to remember she is making them all up, and her lithe, athletic prose makes wildly improbable events seem as natural as the weather."

Biographical Information

Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, in 1954. Both of her parents, Ralph and Rita Erdrich, worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Erdrich received her Bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College in 1976 and her Master's degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1977. In 1981 Erdrich married Michael Dorris, with whom she had six children (one of whom, Reynold Abel, died in 1991). A writer himself, Dorris frequently worked with Erdrich in developing stories until his death in 1997, and the two cowrote a novel, The Crown of Columbus (1991). Erdrich has taught poetry with the North Dakota State Arts Council and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and has been a visiting fellow at Dartmouth College. Her fiction has garnered a Nelson Algren Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a Los Angeles Times Book Award.

Major Works

Erdrich's first published volume, Jacklight (1984), is a collection of poems that garnered praise for infusing everyday situations with mythic qualities. Her first novel, Love Medicine (1984), for which she won the National Book Critics Circle Award, gathers fourteen interconnected stories related by seven different members of the Kashpaw and Lamartine families of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa community in North Dakota. In The Beet Queen (1986) Erdrich continued her portrait of Turtle Mountain Chippewa but shifted her focus to the community outside the reservation. In Tracks (1988) a Chippewa elder and an abusive young female of white and Indian heritage relate the exploits of Fleur Pillager, a destructive yet magical woman who is an ancestor of several characters from Love Medicine. Characters from the first three novels recur in The Bingo Palace (1994) and Tales of Burning Love (1996), which again use multiple narrators and elements of magical realism to tell the stories of those living on and around the Turtle Mountain reservation. In 1993 Erdrich published an expanded edition of Love Medicine, adding different perspectives on the original story and dealing with different members of the families and those surrounding them. In The Crown of Columbus (1991) Erdrich and her husband Michael Dorris discuss historical inaccuracies in the story of Christopher Columbus and the impact of these inaccuracies on native peoples. In The Blue Jay's Dance (1995) Erdrich covered more personal ground, writing about the effect of motherhood on her work and her relation to the world around her.

Critical Reception

While some critics find Erdrich's use of multiple narrators and her return to the same characters in different novels to be unnecessarily confusing and her use of mythic allusions and elements of magical realism to be contrived, most applaud her unflinching portrayal of contemporary Native American life. Many commentators note that the large number of influential Indian women in her fiction and her exploration of the disparities between institutional and indigenous history cements her as one of the most important voices in contemporary Native American literature.

Principal Works

Imagination (textbook) 1980
Jacklight (poetry) 1984
Love Medicine (novel) 1984; expanded edition, 1993
The Beet Queen (novel) 1986
Tracks (novel) 1988
Baptism of Desire (poetry) 1989
The Crown of Columbus [with Michael Dorris] (novel) 1991
The Bingo Palace (novel) 1994
The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year (memoir) 1995
Tales of Burning Love (novel) 1996
Grandmother's Pigeon (children's fiction) 1996
The Antelope Wife: A Novel (novel) 1998
The Birchbark House (juvenile fiction) 1999

Criticism

Peter Stitt (review date Winter 1984)

SOURCE: Review of Jacklight, in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, Winter 1984, pp. 863-64.

[In the following excerpt, Stitt examines the mythic patterns explored in Jacklight.]

In Jacklight, her first book, Louise Erdrich arrives at an understanding of the modern world by discovering patterns within the experience she studies—mythic patterns derived from her own Native American background. The poems are narrative in structure, benefiting from a strong sense of both place and character. The poem "Train," for example, expresses the sense of self which determines the speaker's progress through the world:

     Tunnels that the body strikes open in air.
     Bridges that shiver across
     every water I come to.
     And always the light
     I was born with, driving everything before it.

The basic metaphor is technological, of course, and explained by the poem's title. But the underlying definition of self, the idea that calls up the metaphor in the first place, is the same notion that determines the plot of Ruth Bebe Hill's novel Hanta-Yo.

Mythic narrative, character, and setting—the building blocks of much good fiction—are of course not enough for the making of good poetry. At her best, Louise Erdrich combines these...

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Russell Banks (review date 1 November 1986)

SOURCE: "Border Country," in The Nation, Vol. 243, No. 14, November 1, 1986, pp. 460-63.

[In the following review, Banks asserts that The Beet Queen, in its best sections, rivals the novels of Charles Dickens in socially conscious storytelling.]

The Beet Queen is a Dickensian story, an angry comedy about abandonment and survival, pluck and luck (ambition and coincidence), common sense and pretension, and wise children and foolish adults. The book is structured in an almost classical manner. It opens with a sudden, unpredictable disaster that tosses an ordered world into terrible disarray. It then follows the paths of the half-dozen affected lives through three generations of small triumphs and reversals, long digressions and quick returns, until at last, in a ceremonial event that reunites and reorders the scattered elements of the tale into symmetrical, benign relations, it circles back to where it began, with everything the same only different—which in classical comedy, as in Dickens, is almost always the point. It's a form that in the hands of lesser artists than Louise Erdrich often affirms the status quo and lends itself to sentimentality. When, however, the story is played against a view of history in which decent folks are victimized not by their dopey and amusing gullibility but by economic and social forces too powerful to overcome with wile or guile, then the story has a divine rage, and one sees the radical power of the old form renewed.

The story of The Beet Queen is the story of the entwined fates of three generations of women whose men orbit around them like distant planets, necessary to the system as a whole but taking all their heat and most of their momentum from the women at the center. The book is divided into sixteen chapters narrated by the main characters and covering four decades in the lives of Mary Adare, one of the most memorable women in recent American fiction; her beleaguered mother, Adelaide; her narcissistic cousin, Sita Kozka; her lifelong friend, the half-Chippewa Celestine James; and Celestine's daughter, Dot. There are three men of note—Mary's older brother Karl, who fathers Dot; Dot's godfather, Wallace Pfef; and Celestine's half brother Russell Kashpaw, a shattered war hero. There is also Omar, a barnstorming stunt pilot, who, in the opening chapter, flies off with Adelaide, permitting her to abandon her three children on the fairgrounds below. This is the desperate, sad act that initiates the tangled actions of the book.

Several minor characters from the author's first novel, Love Medicine, pop up in The Beet Queen, and the setting is essentially the same as in that book—the flat, sparsely populated farm country where eastern North Dakota turns into western Minnesota, the literal and figurative border country where Chippewa tribal lands and lives grind against the land and lives of small-time white farmers, who in turn are swallowed by agribusiness. Erdrich sets her fiction squarely in the tense zone where races, cultures, languages, technologies and classes clash and overlap. Like most good fiction writers, she lives year-round in border country.

The Beet Queen is the second of a projected quartet of books dealing with the same cluster of families and events. Love Medicine, widely praised for its energy, inventiveness and compassion, was focused more directly on the lives of the Indians, and might for that reason seem more explicitly political than its successor. Yet it's evident...

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Louise Erdrich with Joseph Bruchac (interview date 1987)

SOURCE: "Whatever Is Really Yours," in Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, Sun Tracks and the University of Arizona Press, 1987, pp. 73-86.

[In the following interview, Erdrich discusses her process of writing and storytelling and emphasizes the importance of her heritage in her work.]

It was a sunny day in New Hampshire when Louise Erdrich and her younger sister, Heidi Erdrich, a student in Creative Writing at Dartmouth, met me at the airport. We drove to the house her sister was subletting from Cleopatra Mathis, a poet and teacher at Dartmouth. Louise and I sat out on the back deck above a field where apple trees were swelling toward blossom,...

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Christopher Vecsey (review date 4 November 1988)

SOURCE: "Revenge of the Chippewa Witch," in Commonweal, Vol. CXV, No. 19, November 4, 1988, pp. 596-98.

[In the following review, Vecsey dispels possible criticism of Tracks as stereotypical and improbable, instead positing that the novel's mythic elements bring American Indian history to life.]

Tracks is Louise Erdrich's third novel of rural North Dakota. Love Medicine (1984) delineated a frayed line of Chippewa Indian lives in contemporary America. The Beet Queen (1986) portrayed a braid of their struggling, non-Indian neighbors of a generation or two ago. Both books were hung together by lyrical threads that highlighted and augmented the...

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Thomas Matchie (essay date Summer 1989)

SOURCE: "Love Medicine: A Female Moby Dick," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 478-91.

[In the following essay, Matchie outlines parallels between Love Medicine and Herman Melville's Moby Dick.]

Published in 1984, Love Medicine is about a tribe of Indians living in North Dakota. Its author, Louise Erdrich, is part Chippewa and in the book returns to her prairie roots for her literary materials. Recently, Erdrich published another work entitled Beet Queen, also about the Red River Valley, and some of the same characters appear in both novels. Love Medicine is different from so much of Native American...

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Annie Finch (review date Summer 1990)

SOURCE: "Poets of Our Time," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 5, No. 4, Summer, 1990, pp. 30-31.

[In the following excerpt, Finch praises most of Baptism of Desire but expresses reservations about the final section of the book, objecting to the comparative "ordinariness" of the poems there.]

These three books of poetry [Baptism of Desire by Erdrich, Green Age by Alicia Suskin Ostriker, and Toluca Street by Maxine Scates], written by three women coming from very different places as poets at the beginning of the end of our century, make a revealing cross-section. Louise Erdrich, a successful novelist who has written only one other book of poems,...

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James Ruppert (essay date Fall 1991)

SOURCE: "Mediation and Multiple Narrative in Love Medicine," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 4, Fall, 1991, pp. 229-41.

[In the following essay, Ruppert explains the ways in which Erdrich allows readers of Love Medicine, both Native and non-Native American, to experience the Native perspective in the text.]

Love Medicine is a dazzling, personal, intense novel of survivors who struggle to define their own identities and fates in a world of mystery and human frailty. In her writing, Louise Erdrich both protects and celebrates this world. To assume effectively the roles of protector and celebrant, Erdrich must mediate between two conceptual...

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John S. Slack (essay date Summer 1993)

SOURCE: "The Comic Savior: The Dominance of the Trickster in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 118-29.

[In the following essay, Slack contends that Love Medicine's loose structure as a novel is held tightly together by the recurring figure of the Trickster, represented by various characters.]

One complaint occasionally directed at Love Medicine is that it is really not a novel but rather a collection of short stories bound together loosely by a common set of characters inhabiting successive stories. The arguments for its misnomer include the book's lack of either a central protagonist or a...

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Roberta Rubenstein (review date 14 November 1993)

SOURCE: "Louise Erdrich Revisits the Complex World of the Chippewa," in Chicago Tribune Books, November 14, 1993, pp. 3, 11.

[In the following review, Rubenstein praises Erdrich's up-dated edition of Love Medicine.]

Louise Erdrich is not the first author to return to a previously published work of fiction to amend it. The most well-known of such revisers, Henry James, published altered versions of his stories and novels—often accompanied by eloquent prefaces explaining the revisions—years after their original publication. Presumably, writers tinker with works already in print because events continue to develop and characters continue to pursue the lives their...

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Sidner Larson (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "The Fragmentation of a Tribal People in Louise Erdrich's Tracks," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1993, pp. 1-13.

[In the following essay, Larson discusses Erdrich's depiction in Tracks of Native Americans' loss of land and cultural identity to white colonization.]

Louise Erdrich's novel Tracks deals with the years between 1912 and 1919, when the North Dakota Chippewa, or Anishinabe, as they call themselves, were coping with the effects of the General Allotment Act of 1887, the purpose of which was to divide tribally allotted lands among individual Indians so that these Indians could leave their nomadic,...

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Julie Tharp (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Women's Community and Survival in the Novels of Louise Erdrich," in Communication and Women's Friendships: Parallels and Intersections in Literature and Life, edited by Janet Doubler Ward and JoAnna Stephens Mink, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993, pp. 165-80.

[In the following essay, Tharp discusses the destruction of Indian women's power and identity through Anglo colonization and demonstrates how Erdrich's explores this phenomenon in her fiction.]

… The old women sit patiently in a circle, not speaking. Each set of eyes stares sharply into the air or the fire. Occasionally, a sigh is let loose from an open mouth. A...

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Lawrence Thornton (review date 16 January 1994)

SOURCE: "Gambling with Their Heritage," in New York Times Book Review, January 16, 1994, p. 7.

[In the following review, Thornton offers a positive appraisal of The Bingo Palace but expresses reservations about the novel's elements of magical realism.]

One of the dominant motifs in the fiction of American Indian writers is the vision quest, whose goal is the integration of inner and outer being through knowledge gleaned from nature. Louise Erdrich has explored this territory in Love Medicine, The Beet Queen and Tracks, and she revisits it in her moving new novel, The Bingo Palace. Set, like the others, on the North Dakota plains, this latest...

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Susan Meisenhelder (essay date January 1994)

SOURCE: "Race and Gender in Louise Erdrich's The Beet Queen," in Ariel, Vol. 25, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. 45-57.

[In the following essay, Meisenhelder argues that Erdrich addresses problems of race and gender in her portrayals of white women and men of color in The Beet Queen.]

To a number of reviewers and critics, Louise Erdrich's novel The Beet Queen is unusual in Native American literature because of its apparent silence on the issue of race. As Louis Owens has argued, the "excruciating quest for an Indian identity in late twentieth century American that haunts other fiction and poetry by Indian writers is simply not here." Certainly the most strident...

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Nancy J. Peterson (essay date October 1994)

SOURCE: "History, Postmodernism, and Louise Erdrich's Tracks," in PMLA, Vol. 109, No. 5, October, 1994, pp. 982-94.

[In the following essay, Peterson presents a poststructuralist interpretation of Tracks, noting in particular the novel's treatment of history as potentially fictive and relative.]

In a 1986 review of Louise Erdrich's second novel, The Beet Queen, Leslie Marmon Silko argues that Erdrich is more interested in the dazzling language and self-referentiality associated with postmodernism than in representing Native American oral traditions, communal experiences, or history. In Silko's view, the "self-referential writing" that Erdrich...

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Sue Halpern (review date 16 April 1995)

SOURCE: "Mother's Day," in New York Time Book Review, April 16, 1995, p. 14.

[In the following review, Halpern praises The Blue Jay's Dance for its realistic portrayal of early motherhood.]

I recently saw an ad for an instructional CD-ROM on "parenting, prenatal to preschool" whose contents I could only imagine: sage advice from professionals and video clips of children whose exemplary behavior—so different from one's own child's—sells the sequel. Louise Erdrich's first book of nonfiction, The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year, which is about being a parent, is nothing like that. Aside from a few recipes (lemon meringue pie, fennel and chicory salad,...

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Mark Childress (review date 12 May 1996)

SOURCE: "A Gathering of Widows," in New York Times, May 12, 1996, p. 10.

[In the following review, Childress praises Erdrich's storytelling and characterization in Tales of Burning Love.]

Louise Erdrich is attracted by the miraculous possibilities of love. Romantic love, religious ecstasy, the strange mixture of devotion and misunderstanding that runs through families—all are steeped together. The result is a rich and fragrant infusion.

Tales of Burning Love is her sixth novel (including The Crown of Columbus, written with her husband, Michael Dorris). The publisher says this book "extends the boundaries of her literary vision," but...

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Verlyn Klinkenborg (review date 16 June 1996)

SOURCE: "A Gulliver Shipwrecked on a Coast of Women," in Los Angeles Time Book Review, June 16, 1996, pp. 3, 13.

[In the following review, Klinkenborg praises Tales of Burning Love and conjectures that the book signals a fundamental change in Erdrich's writing.]

There has always been something fervent about Louise Erdrich's fiction. Her characters seem to burn with consciousness and desire in a difficult landscape, a place where isolation and hard weather and poverty clarify the nature of longing. The life she sets loose in her novels is so incendiary that it can only be contained, so it seems, within a shape that is nearly symbolic in purpose. If Erdrich were...

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Julie Barak (essay date Fall 1996)

SOURCE: "Blurs, Blends, Berdaches: Gender Mixing in the Novels of Louise Erdrich," in Studies in American Indian Literatures, Vol. 8, No. 3, Fall 1996, pp. 49-62.

[In the following essay, Barak discusses Erdrich's use of gender mixing in the Indian tradition of the figures of the berdache and the trickster.]

      We have come to the edge of the woods,
      out of brown grass where we slept, unseen,
      out of leaves creaked shut, out of our hiding.
      We have come here too long.
 
      It is their turn now,
      their turn to follow us....

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Thomas Matchie (essay date Fall 1996)

SOURCE: "Louise Erdrich's 'Scarlet Letter': Literary Continuity in Tales of Burning Love," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 4, Fall, 1996, pp. 113-23.

[In the following essay, Matchie discusses similarities between Tales of Burning Love and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.]

In an address on National Public Radio, Amy Tan said she would rather be recognized as an American author than classified among multi-cultural writers as Chinese American. Perhaps for some the same might be said of Louise Erdrich, "the foremost practitioner of Native American fiction." She is most often represented as a mixed-blood, and much of the critical analysis of...

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Susan Castillo (essay date Winter 1996)

SOURCE: "Women Aging into Power: Fictional Representations of Power and Authority in Louise Erdrich's Female Characters," in Studies in American Indian Literatures, Vol. 8, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 13-20.

[In the following essay, Castillo examines issues of women and power in Erdrich's novels.]

Some years ago, when I was casting around for a topic for my Ph.D. thesis, I was struck, as I read so-called canonical authors, by the number of female protagonists in American literature who come to unsavory or untimely ends. Heroines, particularly those who challenge prevailing social and cultural norms, are all too prone to every sort of disaster: they are either condemned to...

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