Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 597

Writers have been known to extend trilogies and tetralogies, to change their vision of completeness, but it looks as if Erdrich is serious in closing out her tetralogy on Chippewa life with The Bingo Palace. While Love Medicine (1984), The Beet Queen (1986), and Tracks (1988) have some characters that occur in more than one novel, Erdrich in The Bingo Palace brings back characters from all previous books when possible in the flesh; when not, in memory or dream fantasy. The novel closest to The Bingo Palace is Love Medicine (please see separate entry); Lipsha Morrissey is a major character in the latest novel, but Lyman Lamartine, Albertine Johnson, Marie Kashpaw, Lulu Lamartine, Gerry Nanapush, June Morrissey, and Zelda Kashpaw reprise their roles from the earlier novel. Fleur Pillager from Tracks in her nineties is a real, a ghostly, and a mythic presence in this closing novel, while Dot Adare is remembered in The Bingo Palace from her roles in The Beet Queen and Love Medicine and Russell Kashpaw of The Beet Queen has a casual role in Erdrich's latest major work as a tattooer with back problems. In addition, Erdrich makes an effort to summarize actions from earlier novels in The Bingo Palace. The book is loaded with artfully presented exposition. Since the four books together present imaginatively approximately a century of tribal history, readers can expect some interpretation of where the tribe is going, what is likely to happen to these people collectively. Erdrich has even employed in several chapters a community voice, a first person plural, to give readers a greater sense of this group.

Of course, since The Bingo Palace is a novel, this collective interpretation is largely measured in individual lives — Lipsha's primarily, but also Gerry's, Lyman's, Lulu's, Albertine's, Zelda's, and Shawnee Ray's. For the male characters, there is tragedy and disappointment; for the female characters, hope. Naturally, the dilemmas of reservation life and that of the larger white world are present in The Bingo Palace, as they have been in earlier novels of the tetralogy. Among the female characters, success in white standards seems to pull Albertine to medical school and Shawnee Ray to college, while Lulu is led off triumphant in shackles as a Native American revolutionary attempting to reclaim tribal lands, and Zelda discovers her white success and religion hollow, joining a Chippewa man (who has led a traditional life) she refused in marriage thirty years before. Lipsha, with his Huckleberry Finn charm, innocence, and appeal, dies in a snowstorm trying to assist his father's escape from federal authorities, while Gerry, whose body is unrecovered in the novel's action, is no doubt dead from the same storm as well. Problems of justice and dilemmas of personal success and family and tribal loyalty seem to destroy the prominent male characters of The Bingo Palace — Lyman succeeds in building his casino, but the price is community land and embezzlement of his nephew's money. Success leads in his case to moral failure. The personal loyalty, the love of family and tribe that Gerry but particularly Lipsha has, leads to their deaths. They achieve an ethical success at the expense of personal failure and their very lives. While the female characters experience the same tragic dilemma, they seem to balance better the terms of difference and choice in their lives. Lipsha's death, a tragic loss of potential for the tribe, determines the structure of feeling that is the novel. The relative success of the female characters, even the optimistic wrangling of Fleur and Lulu to increase tribal lands, does not balance the pain of his loss.

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