Louise Erdrich Biography

At a Glance

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.


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1788 words.)