Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Louise Erdrich, of German American and Chippewa descent, was already a highly acclaimed writer when The Beet Queen appeared. Her 1984 collection of poetry Jacklight had won high praise. In that same year, her first noel, Love Medicine, received the National Book Critics Circle best fiction award, the Sue Kaufman Prize for best first novel, and many other awards. The second volume of her planned quartet of novels, The Beet Queen, came out two years later; it was followed by a third, Tracks, in 1988.

Erdrich’s novels are all circular rather than linear, and several of the characters reappear, although new ones are also introduced. Each book stands alone as a novel but each gains from a reading of the others, since a reader familiar with the series is better able to trace the tangled relationships of the characters. In a broad sense, the novels chronicle the struggles of Native Americans to survive and maintain their fragmented and mixed culture.

Erdrich’s work can be seen as part of a flowering of Native American literature that goes back to 1969, when N. Scott Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize for A House Made of Dawn. Erdrich herself attributes this new literature to the generally improved conditions among Native Americans, and she describes herself as one who has benefited from Bureau of Indian Affairs money and education. Majoring in English and creative writing at Dartmouth, she later received her master’s degree from the writing program at The Johns Hopkins University. Although she mentions William Faulkner as an influence, the whole literary canon has left its traces on her work. One important connection with Faulkner is her strong sense of place, which for her is the plains area of North Dakota—a region that is as much a presence in her novels as are her characters.