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.
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.
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).
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.