Louise Erdrich Biography

Louise Erdrich is one of America’s most celebrated Native American authors. Born in 1954, she grew up in North Dakota, where her parents were teachers at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Erdrich's father is German, and her mother is Ojibwa and French. Her writing often reflects the struggle to claim a distinct identity in her multicultural world. Frequently, Erdrich’s novels deal with the cyclical nature of time, an important concept to many Native Americans. Her characters often include a “trickster,” a mischievous troublemaker who makes appearances in native folktales. Before her solo success, Erdrich collaborated with her husband on children’s books. Some of her best-known novels include Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, and The Antelope Wife.

Facts and Trivia

  • Erdrich comes from a long line of storytellers. In a 1991 interview in Writer’s Digest, she said, “The people in our families made everything into a story. They love to tell a good story. People just sit and the stories start coming, one after another.”
  • Louise Erdrich was in the first coeducational class at Dartmouth College in 1972. While at Dartmouth, Erdrich met and married professor Michael Dorris. The two remained married for many years but divorced in 1997. Sadly, Dorris committed suicide the following year.
  • Erdrich says that she revises all of her work extensively and sometimes uses old journals to get ideas for her writing.
  • Two of Erdrich’s most ardent admirers are Toni Morrison and Philip Roth. Of the novel Love Medicine, Morrison said, “The beauty of Love Medicine saves us from being devastated by its power.” Philip Roth has said her work is filled with “originality, authority, tenderness, and pitiless wild wit.”
  • Erdrich has won several O. Henry Awards for her short stories, and several have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories anthologies.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1788

Article abstract: A poet and novelist of Chippewa and German descent, Erdrich has become one of the most important authors writing Native American fiction in the late twentieth century.

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Early Life

Louise Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, across the Red River from Wahpeton, North Dakota, the small town that later served as a model for Erdrich’s fictional town of Argus. Her father, Ralph Erdrich, was a German immigrant; her mother, Rita Journeau Erdrich, was a three-quarters Chippewa. Both her parents were employed by the Wahpeton Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. Louise grew up in Wahpeton, the oldest of seven children, and was exposed to the cultures of both her parents. Maintaining a close bond with her German Catholic grandmother, she was also on familiar ground with her extended Chippewa family on the Turtle Mountain reservation. Her maternal grandfather was a tribal chairman there, and the North Dakota plains reservation eventually became the setting for much of Louise’s fiction.

Erdrich later claimed that she had never given serious attention to her Native American background while growing up, had never thought about “what was Native American and what wasn’t.” In 1972, she entered Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and majored in creative writing. Her parents had encouraged her interest in writing since her childhood, binding her stories into homemade books. At Dartmouth, she began to garner awards for her poetry and stories. After her graduation from Dartmouth she worked a variety of odd jobs, compiling a personal archive of experiences for use in her writing. While pursuing her M.A. at The Johns Hopkins University, which she earned in 1979, she composed many of the poems that would be collected in her first published book. Jacklight (1984) received critical praise, but it was her short stories, appearing in literary magazines, that produced a sense of anticipation among literary critics. “The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” set on the reservation and centering on the death of June Kashpaw, won first prize in the Nelson Algren fiction competition in 1982. Introducing the various members of the Kashpaw, Lamartine, and Nanapush families, this story became the starting place for a number of related novels reaching back in history as far as 1912.

Erdrich’s marriage to Michael Dorris in 1981 coincided with her burgeoning interest in her Chippewa heritage. Dorris, who had been a professor in the Native American studies program at Dartmouth, shared Erdrich’s writing ambitions and a similar ethnic background. He had previously adopted a son, whose struggle with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) led Dorris to write The Broken Cord (1989). Dorris adopted two more children; Erdrich adopted all three of Dorris’ children, and together Erdrich and Dorris produced three more. Until his death in 1997, Dorris and Erdrich collaborated on their writing and campaigned together against the increasing incidence of FAS

Life’s Work

When Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine first appeared in 1984, two of its stories had already been honored: “Scales,” which was anthologized in Best American Short Stories, 1983 (1983); and the 1982 Nelson Algren competition winner, “The World’s Greatest Fisherman.” “Saint Marie” was later selected for Prize Stories 1985: The O. Henry Awards (1985). Among the awards Erdrich received for Love Medicine are the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Award for Fiction. Erdrich was immediately hailed as an original and powerful talent, and her second novel, The Beet Queen (1986), confirmed her place among important contemporary authors.

Native American fiction began to rise with the cream of twentieth century American literature with the publication of N. Scott Momaday’s A House Made of Dawn (1969). Readers, primed perhaps by the Magical Realism of Gabriel García Márquez and the “boom” writers of Latin America, appeared ready for the transcendent storytelling of such writers as Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, Gerald Vizenor, and Sherman Alexie. Silko’s Ceremony (1977) and Almanac of the Dead (1991), and Vizenor’s Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles (1990; originally published as Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart, 1978) not only appeared on best-seller lists but also demanded the attention of critics and scholars.

A distinctive yet difficult element of Erdrich’s fiction for which she has been criticized is the apparent disjointedness of her narratives: cross-cutting points of view, circular plotting, jarring shifts in time. Casual, linear reading produces an impression of a beautifully written but incoherent patchwork of short stories. A more careful approach reveals a deliberate and artful weaving of tales, all related—some more distantly than others—but all essential to the whole.

While Love Medicine dealt with the extended family of the Kashpaws on the reservation, The Beet Queen told the somewhat more tightly plotted story of the Adares: siblings Mary and Karl (who, in one of the most memorable scenes in American literature, are left amid an expectant crowd as their mother unexpectedly flies away with a stunt pilot), and Karl’s daughter Dot. Dot is the intersection at which the worlds of the white Adares and Erdrich’s Chippewas overlap. Celestine, Karl’s lover and Dot’s mother, is half-sister to Russell Kashpaw; Gerry Nanapush is the adult Dot’s lover.

Tracks appeared in 1988, continuing the histories of characters begun in the two previous works. The action in this novel is concentrated in the years 1912 through 1924, though its repercussions travel backward through Love Medicine and The Beet Queen (and forward through time), filling in crucial details and enriching the entire saga. A full, vibrant, and complex picture of the Matchimanito reservation, its inhabitants and neighbors, emerges; Erdrich brings into flower a mature and many-branched family tree. Nanapush and Pauline Puyat alternate their narratives, each revealing from strikingly different perspectives the life of Fleur Pillager, an alluring and mystical figure who calls Nanapush “uncle” and loves Eli Kashpaw. It is the descendants of Pillager, Nanapush, and Eli that people Erdrich’s Matchimanito.

In 1993, Henry Holt issued an expanded edition of Love Medicine that included five new sections. Erdrich believed that the new stories belonged with the earlier work. Then in 1994, she released The Bingo Palace, bringing the latest generation of her characters to adulthood.

The web of characters Erdrich spins is dizzying in its complexity. An enthusiastic reader would be well advised to map out the relationships in order to appreciate fully the varying perspectives that characters have of one another. Lulu Nanapush Lamartine, for example, is the daughter of Fleur and Eli. She has eight children, each with a different father. She is also the love interest of her uncle Nector, rival to Marie Lazarre, and grandmother to Lipshaw Morrisey. She appears as an infant in Tracks and as a middle-aged woman in The Bingo Palace. Her son Gerry is the lover of both June Kashpaw (Lulu’s half-sister) and Dot Adare. Gerry’s son Lipshaw becomes the rival of his uncle Lymon (another of Lulu’s sons).

It is easy to draw comparisons between Erdrich’s fictional community and William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Erdrich herself has named Faulkner as an influence. Matchimanito is based on Turtle Mountain reservation, where Erdrich spent much of her youth; the off-reservation town of Argus is a re-creation of her hometown of Wahpeton. The complicated family network that binds her fiction into a comprehensive whole is certainly inspired by the author’s own Chippewa relatives. Her familiarity with the more sinister aspects of Catholic mysticism and the dangers posed by its mingling with Indian superstition appears especially in the dark, twisted reasoning of Pauline, the fanatic nun and nemesis of Fleur.

The themes raised in Erdrich’s fiction are universal: the value and potency of hope and love and the importance of home and family. The issues that illustrate these themes stem from the condition of Native Americans in the twentieth century. The reservation is a blighted residue left over from previous centuries of decline, a place of concentrated despair; yet it is also a community where ties among members are strong and the connection of its people to the land is ancient and sacred. Poverty, alcoholism, abandoned or distorted faith are balanced against self-worth, endurance, and love.

Erdrich’s plots also involve a variety of contemporary issues, including the erosion of land rights; the education of children in both the government schools (in which Indian children endured forced assimilation and the attempted erasure of their own language and culture) and in the wilds; tribal politics; religious conflict; generational conflict; and intermarriage.

Summary

Louise Erdrich’s contribution to the canon of Native American literature is an important one. In addition to giving expression to the trauma of the Chippewa experience, she has presented the lives of American Indians not as defeated but as determined and vital. She has also brought to the storytelling tradition a literary artistry that is both challenging and refreshingly original. Critical opinion, however, does not confine Erdrich to the narrow category of Indian writer. She is unquestionably among the most important novelists of the twentieth century.

In addition to her fiction she also published works of poetry and folktales, including Baptism of Desire (1989). A rewarding collaborative relationship with Michael Dorris resulted in other works of fiction, including A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987) and The Crown of Columbus (1991), as well as Dorris’ autobiographical work The Broken Cord.

Erdrich and Dorris’ campaign against fetal alcohol syndrome, which afflicts many reservation children because of the high rate of alcoholism among Native Americans, helped to draw the nation’s attention to the dangerous effects of alcohol on fetuses. Legislation was eventually passed requiring the posting of warnings to pregnant women anywhere liquor is sold.

Bibliography

Owens, Louise. “Acts of Recovery: The American Indian Novel in the ’80s.” Western American Literature 1 (May 22, 1987): 53-57. Places Erdrich within a survey of Native American authors. Dated but useful.

Rainwater, Catherine. “Reading Between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich.” American Literature 62 (September, 1990): 405-422. Explores the thematic and chronological structure employed by Erdrich in her first three novels. Rainwater emphasizes the conflicting messages found in these narratives and discusses Erdrich’s use of narative devices.

Sergi, Jennifer. “Storytelling: Tradition and Preservation in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks.” World Literature Today 66 (Spring, 1992): 279-283. Focusing on Tracks, this article discusses the ways in which Erdrich builds her multilayered narrative, drawing on the centrality of collective memory in tribal tradition.

Towery, Margie. “Continuity and Connection: Characters in Louise Erdrich’s Fiction.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 16 (1992): 99-122. A welcome companion to Erdrich’s Matchimanito novels. Towery provides a genealogy of the characters and discusses their lives and relations.

Wong, Hertha D. “An Interview with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris.” North Dakota Quarterly 55 (Winter, 1987): 196-218. A comprehensive interview with Erdrich and her husband. The two discuss their collaborative methods, the origins of their fiction, and their academic activities as well as their personal lives.

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