Style and Technique
A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Erdrich considers herself a storyteller first and a writer second. Love of storytelling, which grew out of tribal oral tradition, is a primary means of keeping Native American cultural values alive within the community. The first-person narrative technique Erdrich employs in “The Red Convertible” reflects her affinity for storytelling. She has often said that she “hears” her characters talking before writing dialogue. Lyman speaks in his own voice, which lends an immediacy and poignancy to the narrative. The first-person narration also allows Erdrich to convey the speech patterns of modern Native Americans and to portray the hardships of reservation life realistically.
In addition to Lyman’s first-person account, the fact that the story is told from his point of view is also a significant element of the narrative structure. Throughout most of the work, Lyman uses past tense when he recounts events and when he quotes himself, Susy, his mother, and Bonita. However when he quotes Henry, he always uses present tense, even if the action takes place in the past. Present tense is also used exclusively from the time the brothers arrive at the Red River to the end of the story. For Lyman, Henry does not exist in the past. Instead, Lyman’s loss of his brother is always fresh, like a wound that will not heal.
Finally, the red convertible itself serves as a narrative device to illustrate Henry’s changing mental state throughout the work. When Lyman and Henry first purchase the automobile, Lyman describes the car as “reposed” and “calm,” which reflects Henry’s personality at the beginning of the story. Later, after Lyman damages the car, Henry seems to recognize that the dented convertible is a physical reflection of his wounded psyche. In repairing the automobile, Henry is attempting to heal himself. When he fails to achieve the same state of wholeness as the car, he realizes that it is “no use,” and tries to give the convertible to Lyman. Lyman, who realizes that the car mirror Henry’s struggles, transfers complete ownership to Henry by sending it into the river after his brother drowns.