Louise Erdrich Erdrich, Louise (Feminism in Literature) - Essay

Introduction

(Feminism in Literature)

In her fiction and poetry, Erdrich draws upon her Chippewa heritage to examine complex familial and sexual relationships among midwestern Native Americans, along with their conflicts with white communities.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Erdrich was born June 7, 1954, in Little Falls, Minnesota, and grew up near the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota, the setting for her first novel Love Medicine (1984). Both her parents—her father was German-born and her mother French Ojibwe—worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Erdrich often visited her maternal grandparents on the Chippewa Reservation, where her grandfather was the tribal chairman.

In 1972, while attending Dartmouth College, Erdrich met her future husband and literary collaborator, anthropologist Michael Dorris, who is also part Indian and who heads the Native American studies program at Dartmouth. After graduation in 1976, Erdrich returned to North Dakota and held a variety of jobs. She soon returned to school to study creative writing, earning her master's degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1979. She went on to become a writer-in-residence at Dartmouth, and married Dorris in 1981. Dorris had three children from a previous relationship, and he and Erdrich have since had three children of their own. The couple collaborated on many of their works. They separated in 1995, and Dorris committed suicide in 1997. Erdrich lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she owns a bookstore.

MAJOR WORKS

Erdrich's first published volume, Jacklight (1984), is a collection of poetry that garnered praise for infusing ordinary American westerners and everyday situations with mythic qualities. Her first novel Love Medicine (1984), for which Erdrich won the National Book Critics Circle Award, gathers fourteen interconnected stories that are related by seven different members of the Kashpaw and Lamartine families of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa community.

In The Beet Queen (1986) Erdrich continued her portrait of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa but shifted her focus to the community outside the reservation. In this novel a woman orphaned in childhood settles into middle-age in the small fictional town of Argus, North Dakota, while her brother, a traveling salesman, repeats the familial pattern of manipulation and abandonment before fathering Dot, a character in Love Medicine.

In Erdrich's third novel, Tracks (1988), a Chippewa elder and an abusive young woman of white and Indian heritage relate the exploits of Fleur Pillager, a destructive yet magical woman who is an ancestor of several characters from Love Medicine. The Bingo Palace (1994) is set in a reservation bingo hall and again concerns the conflicted identities of women on the reservation. The Antelope Wife (1998), published shortly after Michael Dorris's suicide, features a mysterious woman known as the Antelope Wife. Set in contemporary Minneapolis, the novel is deeply mythic yet maintains its roots in real, everyday life. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001) tells the story of Father Damien Modeste, a priest who has served the people of the remote reservation Little No Horse for fifty years and who is, in fact, a woman.

The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003) again includes characters from Erdrich's earlier novels, but primarily concerns Fidelis Waldvogel, a German soldier who returns from World War I to marry his best friend's pregnant widow, Eva. The couple move to Argus, North Dakota to set up a butcher shop. The locals they befriend there become the center of the story, including Delphine Watzka and her traveling vaudeville act.

In addition to her novels and poetry, Erdrich has published, among other works, The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year (1995), a nonfiction account of the birth and first year of one of her children; and two novels for children, The Birchbark House (1999) and The Range Eternal (2002).

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Erdrich's evocation of a particular American region through multiple narrative voices and striking imagery has prompted comparison to William Faulkner's creation of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. While her work is sometimes faulted for seeming contrived, most critics find her storytelling compelling and her narration lyrical. Of particular interest to feminist studies is Erdrich's use of Native American mythology in creating her female characters, who are seen as complex and mysterious yet believable.

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

Imagination (textbook) 1980

Jacklight (poetry) 1984

Love Medicine (novel) 1984; expanded edition, 1993

The Beet Queen (novel) 1986

Tracks (novel) 1988

Baptism of Desire (poetry) 1989

The Crown of Columbus [with Michael Dorris] (novel) 1991

The Bingo Palace (novel) 1994

The Falcon: A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner (nonfiction) 1994

The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year (memoir) 1995

Grandmother's Pigeon (children's book) 1996

Tales of Burning Love (novel) 1996

The Antelope Wife (novel) 1998

The Birchbark House (juvenile novel) 1999

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (novel) 2001

The Range Eternal (juvenile novel) 2002

The Master Butchers Singing Club (novel) 2003

Four Souls (novel) 2004

Primary Sources

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Erdrich, Louise. “Women’s Work.” In The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year, pp. 42-7. New York: Harper Perennial, 1995.

In the following essay, originally published in Harper’s magazine, Erdrich describes the experience of labor and birth.

Rocking, breathing, groaning, mouthing circles of distress, laughing, whistling, pounding, wavering, digging, pulling, pushing—labor is the most involuntary work we do. My body gallops to these rhythms. I’m along for the ride, at times in some control and at others dragged along as if foot-caught in a stirrup. I don’t have much to do at first but breathe, accept ice chips, make jokes—in fear and pain my family makes jokes, that’s how we deal with what we can’t change, how we show our courage.

Even though I am a writer and have practiced my craft for years, and have experienced two natural childbirths and an epidural-assisted childbirth, I find women’s labor extremely difficult to describe. In the first place, there are all sorts of labor and no “correct” way to do it. I bow to the power and grandeur of those who insist on natural childbirth, but I find the pieties that often attend the process irritating. I am all for pain relief or caesareans when women want and need these procedures. Enduring pain in itself doesn’t make one a better person, though if your mind is prepared, pain of this sort—a meaningful and determined pain based on ardor and potential joy—can be deeply instructive, can change your life.

Perhaps there is no adequate description for something that happens with such full-on physical force, but the problem inherent to birth narratives is also historical—women haven’t had a voice or education, or have been overwhelmed, unconscious, stifled, just plain worn out or worse, ill to the death. Although every birth is a story, there are only so many outcomes possible. Birth is dictated to the consciousness by the conscious body. There are certain frustrations in approaching such an event, a drama in which the body stars and not the fiction-making mind. In a certain way, I’m jealous. I want to control the tale. I can’t—therein lies the conflict that drives this plot in the first place. I have to trust this body—a thing inherently bound to betray me, an unreliable conveyance, a passion-driven cab that tries its best to let me off in bad neighborhoods, an adolescent that rebels against my better self, that eats erratically and sleeps too much, that grows another human with my grudging admiration, a sensation grabber, unpenitent, remorseless, amoral.

Birth is intensely spiritual and physical all at once. The contractions do not stop. There is no giving up this physical prayer. The person who experiences birth with the closest degree of awareness is the mother—but not only am I physically programmed to forget the experience to some degree (our brains “extinct” fear, we are all programmed to forget pain over...

(The entire section is 1251 words.)

Annette Van Dyke (Essay Date 1999)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Van Dyke, Annette. “Of Vision Quests and Spirit Guardians: Female Power in the Novels of Louise Erdrich.” In The Chippewa Landscape of Louise Erdrich, edited by Allan Chavkin, pp. 130-43. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.

In the following essay, Van Dyke assesses female power in Erdrich’s novels, specifically in terms of Chippewa tradition.

When Native American women are thought of at all, and in the annals of American history that is seldom, two images come to mind: that of the exotic princess, guide and benefactor of white men—a good Indian—and that of squaw—a kind of savage beast of burden,...

(The entire section is 5184 words.)

Title Commentary

(Feminism in Literature)

LAURA E. TANNER (ESSAY DATE 1994)

SOURCE: Tanner, Laura E. “‘Known in the Brain and Known in the Flesh’: Gender, Race, and the Vulnerable Body in Tracks.” In Intimate Violence: Reading Rape and Torture in Twentieth-Century Fiction, pp. 115-41. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

In the following essay, Tanner discusses the double implications of gender and race in Erdrich’s portrayal of rape in her novelTracks.

Rape begins, like many other forms of violence, with the painful confrontation of two bodies; more importantly, however, its dynamics originate out of two...

(The entire section is 15678 words.)

Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)

Criticism

Castillo, Susan. "Women Aging into Power: Fictional Representations of Power and Authority in Louise Erdrich's Female Characters." Studies in American Indian Literatures 8, no. 4 (winter 1996): 13-20.

Examines Erdrich's portrayal of powerful women in her characters Marie and Zelda.

Cornell, Daniel. "Woman Looking: Revis(ion)ing Pauline's Subject Position in Louise Erdrich's Tracks." Studies in American Indian Literatures 4, no. 1 (spring 1992): 49-64.

Understands the character Pauline's "experience of feminine desire" to be "mastered...

(The entire section is 389 words.)