Louise Erdrich 1954-
American poet, novelist, and author of memoirs and children's books.
The following entry presents criticism from 1985 to 1999 on Erdrich's life and works. See also, Louise Erdrich Literary Criticism and Love Medicine Criticism.
Erdrich is a poet and award-winning novelist whose works explore themes of family and personal survival and cultural continuity. The daughter of a German American father and an Ojibwe French mother, Erdrich populates her fiction with central characters drawn from both Native and non-Native cultures, and her poems reflect the unresolved tension of trying to preserve a minority cultural heritage in the face of the dominant white culture. Because it addresses universal concerns of motherhood and sisterhood as well as the unique life experiences of Native American women, Erdrich's work has garnered both praise and criticism for its wide appeal and lack of overt politicism.
Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, on June 7, 1954, and was raised as the oldest of seven children in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Her Ojibwe (Chippewa) grandfather was once the tribal head of the Turtle Mountain Reservation nearby, and her parents worked at a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Erdrich was a member of the freshman class at Dartmouth University in 1972, the year that women were first admitted as students. The university established its Native American studies department that year as well, and its first chairperson was anthropologist Michael Dorris. In a class taught by Dorris, who would later become her husband, Erdrich first began the cultural examination of her heritage that would later inspire her poetry and fiction, including Jacklight, her first volume of poetry, and the novel Love Medicine, both of which were published in 1984.
In 1978, Erdrich began a graduate program at Johns Hopkins University, and after completing a Master of Arts degree, she was invited to return to Dartmouth to give a poetry reading. Dorris attended the event, and they subsequently began a literary friendship that led first to professional collaboration and then to marriage in 1981. During the next decade and beyond, Dorris and Erdrich worked closely on all of their literary projects while raising a family that consisted of adopted and biological children. The collaborative partnership, revealed in more than two dozen interviews in Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris (1994), began to unravel during the mid-1990s. The couple separated in 1995, and Dorris committed suicide in 1997.
Since the publication of her second volume of poetry, Baptism of Desire, in 1989, Erdrich has focused primarily on writing long and short fiction, and in the late 1990s she began writing children's stories as well. While she continues to document the life experiences of full- and mixed-heritage Native American women in her novels, she has also adopted an interest in learning and preserving the language of the Ojibwe, known to its speakers as Anishinibe.
Erdrich's first volume of poetry, Jacklight, is based on works she first conceived as part of her master's degree studies. The poems of this collection comprise five general thematic groupings. These include poems that explore the conflict of Native and non-Native cultures; poems that celebrate family and the bonds of sisterhood; songs of love; autobiographical poems that bring to life characters from the poet's childhood; and poems that elicit the mythical, storytelling aspects of her Ojibwe heritage. One of the best-known poems of this collection is the frequently anthologized “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways”; another is “A Love Medicine,” the family and sisterhood themes of which also form the basis of her novel Love Medicine.
With her second poetry collection, Baptism of Desire, Erdrich draws deeply on her experience as a mother, caretaker, and life partner, noting that many of the poems were “written between the hours of two and four in the morning, a period of insomnia brought on by pregnancy.” The volume's title refers to a little-understood tenet of the Roman Catholic faith tradition in which Erdrich was raised; the poems embrace a complex spirituality born of the co-mingling yet conflicting religious traditions of her dual heritage. “Hydra,” which masterfully intertwines themes of myth, maternity, Native intuition, and Catholic theology, finds the poet speaking to both the child in her womb and the mythical serpent, likening herself to the biblical mothers Eve and Mary. The solitude of maternal wariness in the presence of sleeping children is evoked in “The Ritual.” Describing this collection, critic Carolyn Dunn wrote, “The ordinary and the extraordinary are woven into one seamless whole.”
Although she began her literary publishing career as a poet, Erdrich is best known for her fiction, which includes short stories written for periodicals and anthologies, and more than a half dozen novels. The earliest of these, Love Medicine, was first published in 1984 and released in an expanded edition in 1993. The next four, The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), The Bingo Palace (1994), and Tales of Burning Love (1996), continue the stories begun in the first novel of three interrelated families whose experiences span most of the twentieth century. Set in and around a reservation in a fictional North Dakota town, these novels reveal Native American families living in cultural conflict while simultaneously depicting the universal issues of family life that cross cultural boundaries.
The Antelope Wife, which appeared in 1998, was Erdrich's first major work published without the literary or editorial influence of Michael Dorris. The late 1990s also saw the publication of two children's books by Erdrich: Grandmother's Pigeon (1996), and The Birchbark House (1999). Her most recent novels include The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001) and The Master Butchers Singing Club (2002).
Most of the critical attention devoted to Erdrich's work has focused on her long fiction, especially the five interrelated novels; literary analysis of these works often praises Erdrich's intuitive narrative style and non-chronological portrayal of time. However, many of the cultural themes identified by reviewers of her novels—elements of Ojibwe mythology combined with aspects of Roman Catholic religious life; the depiction of women's relationships with loved ones and society as a whole; and portrayal of life experiences from both Native and non-Native perspectives—are also noted approvingly by reviewers of Erdrich's poetry. In a review of Jacklight, James McKenzie wrote that Erdrich's poetry “fills an important space in our evolving, collective knowledge of who we really are.” Praising Baptism of Desire, Helen Jaskoski wrote, “The language is rich, the imagery sometimes almost hallucinatory.”
Erdrich's literary approach to representing the Native American experience has been criticized on cultural and political grounds by some peers, including Leslie Marmon Silko. Silko's observation about the novel Love Medicine, for example, is that Erdrich does not accurately or fully address the political, psychological, or economic hardships endured by Native Americans in the dominant white culture. Other critics concur, however, that although Erdrich's unconventional use of narrative and descriptive language doesn't lend itself to overt political commentary, it fully communicates her deep concern for cultural preservation and continuity. As such, the universal appeal of her fiction and poetry is considered a strength, rather than a weakness, by such observers of her work.