The Red Convertible

by Louise Erdrich

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Critical Overview

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‘‘The Red Convertible’’ serves as the second chapter of Erdrich's acclaimed debut novel, Love Medicine. Critics are impressed by the novel's presentation of modern Native-American life and of the diversity among people within a single culture. Louise Flavin of Critique remarks, "Erdrich's Love Medicine, while non-traditional in many ways, gives a compassionate, humanistic account of the lives of reservation Indians without glorifying their culture yet without demeaning them in their weaknesses and failure.’’ Erdrich (who is part Chippewa and part German-American) is regarded as a bridge between the Native-American experience and the white experience. In North Dakota Quarterly, James Ruppert observes:

Love Medicine is a dazzling, personal, intense novel of survivors who struggle to define their own identities and fates in a world of mystery and human frailty. In her writing Louise Erdrich both protects and celebrates this world. To assume effectively the roles of protector and celebrant, Erdrich must mediate between two conceptual frameworks, white and Native ... This dual vision allows her either to use one code to illuminate another, or to ignore one code and stay within another if she wishes. She can create value and meaning through a Native worldview or through a contemporary American worldview or both at the same time ... She is capable of satisfying two audiences at once, commenting on two cultural systems from a position of deep understanding and knowledge.

Consisting of fourteen stories, Love Medicine is told from seven different points of view. Some reviewers find the shifting narrative voices confusing. In fact, many critics contend that the book is not a novel at all but rather a loosely connected collection of short stories.

Still other critics cite Erdrich's use of multiple narrators as a strength of the book because diverse narrators (like Lyman) tell personal stories in their own unique ways, as in the Native-American oral tradition of storytelling. Roberta Rubenstein of Chicago Tribune Books writes, "Through lyrical language, vivid characterizations, and freshly minted images, the narrative masterfully sustains the illusion of oral stories.’’ She adds, ‘‘The medley of narrative voices resembles the medley of colors in an Indian rug pattern: Each heightens the contrast and amplifies the design as a whole.’’

Critics find the character Henry Lamartine, Jr., compelling. He is seen as a tragic figure who represents conflict between white culture and Native-American culture. According to Nora Barry and Mary Prescott of Critique, Henry embodies the ‘‘failure of the warrior tradition.’’ They explain:

Because Henry is denied the ritual catharsis of recounting his exploits when the warrior tradition of the past does not agree with the present reality of an untraditional war, his memories explode and destroy him.

Ruppert comments that from the white perspective, Henry's demise is understandable and foreseeable because his sense of reality has been shaken by the trauma of fighting in the war. From the Native-American perspective, however, Henry's inability to cope with life stems from the conflict between his experience and the Chippewa understanding of war, death, and honor. Ruppert explains that Henry has no passion about the war and no choice about how he will fight. Flavin notes, "He is less a victim of reservation life than of a war that is not of his own making. The Indian brave no longer fights for his own land and food but in a foreign war in which he has no stake.’’ Critics point to Henry and other characters in Love Medicine as symbols of the Native-American struggle to preserve their cultural richness in the face of a dominant, conflicting culture.

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Essays and Criticism