Michael Dorris Essay - Critical Essays

Dorris, Michael


Michael Dorris 1945–1997

American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and author of books for children.

One of the most renowned Native American writers, Dorris promoted understanding of the Native American community and awareness of its burdens through his award-winning books. The Broken Cord (1989), his best known and best-selling work, tells the story of his own adopted son's battle with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a debilitating consequence of excessive alcohol consumption during pregnancy that was found to be disproportionately common among Native Americans. Granted the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction and made into a television movie, The Broken Cord garnered widespread accolades for Dorris's intimate storytelling and statistical accuracy, and attracted international attention to the problem of FAS. Dorris collaborated with wife Louis Erdrich, also a noted author, to produce The Crown of Columbus (1991), a novel about Christopher Columbus and his impact on the contemporary world, particularly on Native America. Dorris's other novels, generally concentrating on the quest for an authentic Native identity, include the best-selling A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987), which relates the experience of Native American women across three generations, and the enthusiastically received Cloud Chamber (1997), which traces the mixed-blood paternal family lines of Rayona, a character from A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. In his fiction for young readers, Dorris explored notable historical events from a juvenile Native American perspective, including Columbus's arrival in America in Morning Girl (1992) and the first American Thanksgiving in Guests (1995).

In an interview with Rick Lyman shortly after Dorris's death, Erdrich, who married Dorris in 1981, reported that she had known he was suicidal "from the second year of our marriage." He fought a constant battle with depression, although to friends he never failed to present a facade of happiness. His second suicide attempt succeeded on April 11, 1997, shortly after he learned that he was the subject of an investigation for the possible sexual abuse of one or more of his children. At the time of his death, Dorris and Erdrich were in the process of divorcing. Erdrich declined to discuss the case, stating, "I don't agree with trying a man in the press after he is dead and judging him guilty or innocent." A number of Dorris's friends spoke out against the charges, citing Dorris's reputation as an outstanding father and advocate of children's rights. Douglas Foster, former editor of Mother Jones magazine, reported that Dorris had told him the charges were false but that he "didn't know how to fight without making things worse. And he had a realistic idea that no matter how baseless the allegations were, they were going to have a strong negative effect on his family and his work." Dorris held degrees from Georgetown University and Yale University and worked as a professor of English and anthropology at Dartmouth College. Perhaps his greatest achievement in the world of education was the Native American Studies department at Dartmouth, which he founded in 1972 and chaired until 1985. The Associated Press reported that Dartmouth President James Freedman said Dorris "was beloved by a generation of Dartmouth students, whose lives were touched with his humanity and his idealism. The Native American Studies program will stand as one of his enduring contributions to Dartmouth and to American higher education."

Principal Works

Native Americans: Five Hundred Years After (nonfiction) 1977
A Guide to Research on North American Indians [with Arlene B. Hirschfelder and Mary Gloyne Byler] (nonfiction) 1983
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (novel) 1987
The Broken Cord: A Family's On-Going Struggle with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (nonfiction) 1989; also published as The Broken Cord: A Father's Story, 1990
Route Two and Back [with Louise Erdrich] (travel memoir) 1991
The Crown of Columbus (novel) 1991
Morning Girl (young adult fiction) 1992
Rooms in the House of Stone (essays) 1993
Working Men (short stories) 1993
Paper Trail: Collected Essays, 1967–1992 (essays) 1994
Guests (young adult fiction) 1995
Cloud Chamber (novel) 1997
The Window (young adult fiction) 1997


Associated Press (obituary date 14 April 1997)

SOURCE: "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Author Michael Dorris Dies," in Associated Press, April 14, 1997.

[In the following obituary, the writer summarizes Dorris's literary achievements.]

Michael Dorris, who told the story of his adopted son's battle with fetal alcohol syndrome in his award-winning book The Broken Cord, has died, an apparent suicide, police said. He was 52.

The Concord [New Hampshire] Monitor reported that Dorris was found Friday afternoon in a motel room and said Dorris apparently suffocated himself using a plastic bag.

Police Lt. Paul Murphy confirmed the cause of death was apparent suicide, but would give no details.

Dorris and author Louise Erdrich, with whom he wrote the 1991 best-selling novel The Crown of Columbus, were divorcing.

Dorris, who held degrees from Georgetown and Yale universities, had been on leave as an English professor at Dartmouth College, where, as an anthropology professor, he founded the Native American Studies department in 1972 and headed it until 1985.

In 1971, Dorris, who was of part American Indian descent, became one of the first bachelors in the country allowed to adopt a child. He later adopted two more children, and had three more children after his 1981 marriage to Erdrich.

His adopted son Reynold, whom he called "Adam" in his book, was born on a Sioux reservation to a woman who eventually died of alcohol poisoning.

The Broken Cord, published in 1989, detailed Reynold's struggles with incurable mental handicaps caused by his birth mother's drinking. The book helped spread understanding of the problem of fetal alcohol syndrome and won a National Book Critics Circle award in the nonfiction category.

In a 1989 Associated Press interview, Dorris said that even as a young adult, Reynold lived in a group home and had to be reminded to bathe, change his clothes, even eat.

Writing the book, he said, did not prove "cathartic. One of the problems with this book is that it does not have an ending."

"It keeps going on. It's like constantly opening doors into a dark room."

Reynold has since died, and more heartbreak was in store for Dorris in 1995, when another adopted son, Jeffrey, stood trial on charges he used threats to try to get Dorris and his wife to give him $15,000 and publish a manuscript he wrote. Jeffrey Dorris was acquitted of one charge and a second was dismissed when jurors deadlocked.

Dorris' other nonfiction works include Native Americans: 500 Years After, A Guide to Research in Native American Studies and A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. His latest book, Cloud Chamber, a novel, was published earlier this year.

His wife wrote Love Medicine and other acclaimed novels about American Indians.

Dorris was working on a follow-up to The Broken Cord called Matter of Conscience, scheduled to be published in 1998. The book is about fetal alcohol effect, a slightly less debilitating disease than full-blown fetal alcohol syndrome.

Dartmouth President James Freedman said Dorris "was beloved by a generation of Dartmouth students, whose lives were touched with his humanity and idealism."

"The Native American Studies program … will stand as one of his enduring contributions to Dartmouth and to American higher education."

Dorris was to have started working as a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis on March 31, but canceled because of illness, said Leslie Cooney, coordinator of the English department's creative writing program.

Los Angeles Times (obituary date 15 April 1997)

SOURCE: "Michael Dorris; Chronicler of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome," in Los Angeles Times, April 15, 1997, p. A18.

[The following obituary focuses on the legacy of Dorris's life and works.]

Writer Michael Dorris, whose book about raising a brain-damaged child, The Broken Cord, brought international attention to the problem of fetal alcohol syndrome, has been found dead in a motel room, an apparent suicide, police said Monday.

Concord police said Dorris, 52, an author, anthropologist and founder of Dartmouth College's Native American Studies Program, apparently suffocated himself Friday with a plastic bag. An autopsy report is pending.

Dorris, who was married to best-selling novelist Louise Erdrich, co-wrote The Crown of Columbus with her in 1991 after a publisher agreed to pay the couple $1.5 million on the basis of a five-page outline.

Of Irish, French and American Indian ancestry, Dorris was the author of two novels, including the recently published Cloud Chamber, but was best known for The Broken Cord, his best-selling 1989 memoir of adopting an American Indian child who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome.

Dorris, who was one of the first unmarried American men to legally adopt a child, told the story of his son Reynold (using a pseudonym in the book), who suffered brain damage as a result of his mother's heavy drinking. The youth died at 23 in a car accident in 1992.

"You can't undo the past, you can't unwish someone's life, and that's the real tragedy here," Dorris told The Times shortly after the book was published. "It was years before we accepted the fact that [Reynold] was not going to change. You never want to accept that about a child, but he was always the little engine that couldn't get over the mountain, no matter how hard he tried."

Reflecting later on the youth's short life. Dorris wrote in an article for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "He lived for 23 years endured daily loneliness and confusion and hardship and frustration, and in all that time he never once did anything that was intentionally cruel or hurtful to another living creature.

"He was maddening in his inability to learn from experience, to grasp a larger picture. If only he had been able to learn how to cross the street in accordance with a green light."

Dorris' book drew international attention to the dangers children face if their mothers drink during pregnancy, and it led to moves in Congress to issue warnings about the risks.

The Georgetown- and Yale-educated Dorris adopted two other children, and had three more with Erdrich, whom he married in 1981. He had been working on a follow-up book to The Broken Cord, titled Matter of Conscience.

Rick Lyman (obituary date 15 April 1997)

SOURCE: An obituary for Michael Dorris, in The New York Times, April 15, 1997, p. B11.

[Below, Lyman recounts Dorris's literary career and personal life, noting his relationship with Erdrich, his academic colleagues, and professional associations.]

Michael Dorris, a prolific novelist, essayist, critic and educator who won the National Book Award in 1989 for The Broken Cord, about his adopted son's struggle with fetal alcohol syndrome, was found dead on Friday in a motel in Concord, N.H., where he had taken a room under an assumed name. He was 52.

Mr. Dorris was found in a room at the Brick Tower Motor Inn with a plastic bag over his head, the police said. Although the medical examiner's report was not to be completed until today, the police said he had apparently committed suicide. They said a note was found at the scene, but declined to give details.

Mr. Dorris's first success as a writer came with the publication of his first novel, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water in 1987. His greatest success, however, was A...

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Louis Owens (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Erdrich and Dorris's Mixed Bloods and Multiple Narratives," in his Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992, pp. 192-224.

[In the following excerpt of an essay devoted to Louise Erdrich's writings, Owens examines how Native American identity is constructed in Dorris's A Yellow Raft in Blue Water.]

Despite the importance of N. Scott Momaday's Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn in 1969, no American Indian author has achieved such immediate and enormous success as Louise Erdrich with her first novel, Love Medicine. A bestseller, Love...

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Reviews Of Dorris's Recent Works

Patricia Guthrie (review date 30 July 1989)

SOURCE: "Alcohol's Child: A Father Tells His Tale," in The New York Times Book Review, July 30, 1989, pp. 1, 20.

[In the following review, Guthrie asserts that "the alarming statistics and consequences of fetal alcohol syndrome are skillfully interwoven with the human story of one of its victims in The Broken Cord.]

In 1971, Michael Dorris, 26 years old and unmarried, was living in an isolated Indian community in Alaska, doing fieldwork for his doctorate in anthropology. Realizing that "in a world of 'we,' I was an 'I'" he decided that he wanted to be a father. Lacking a partner, Mr. Dorris decided to...

(The entire section is 8926 words.)

Further Reading


Lyman, Rick. "Troubling Death Brings Plea for Respect, not Sensation." New York Times (18 April 1997): A14.

Interview with Dorris's estranged wife, Louise Erdrich, who reveals that the author had battled with depression and suicidal thoughts for over a decade.

Streitfield, David. "Writer Was Suspected of Child Abuse." Washington Post (16 April 1997): D1.

Overview of Dorris's last years of life, including speculation as to the cause of his suicide and statements from friends defending him against child abuse charges.


(The entire section is 283 words.)