The Red Convertible

by Louise Erdrich

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Style and Technique

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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.

Historical Context

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American Involvement in the Vietnam War The Vietnam War lasted from 1959 to 1975, with the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front fighting the South Vietnamese and the United States military. The United States involvement stemmed from the belief that if Vietnam came under communist control, communism would quickly spread throughout Southeast Asia. In 1965, the first American troops were sent to South Vietnam to prevent the downfall of the government. More troops were sent to Vietnam over the following years despite the war's unpopularity at home. Demonstrations, sit-ins, and anti-war songs became common in 1960s America.

In 1968, Richard Nixon defeated Lyndon B. Johnson in the presidential election, promising peace with honor. He was unable to make progress in peace negotiations but won re-election in 1972. In January 1973, all participants in the Vietnam War signed the Treaty of Paris. Among the terms of the Treaty of Paris were the withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam (that occurred by the end of March) and a cease-fire.

The casualties were immense: three to four million Vietnamese lost their lives, close to two million Laotians and Cambodians were killed after these nations were drawn into the conflict, and over fifty-eight thousand Americans died. The war cost the United States well over $ 130 billion. Despite the terms of the treaty, conflict persisted in Vietnam, and, in 1975, it was unified under communism.

Chippewa Tribe The Chippewa originally settled in...

(This entire section contains 412 words.)

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a large area ranging from present-day Ontario and Quebec to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. This area expanded to include Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Dakotas. When European explorers and settlers came to America, the Chippewa formed fur-trading relationships with them. This trade led many Chippewas to the prairies, where they gradually adopted a lifestyle different from that of their woodland forebears. In Erdrich's Love Medicine, the Chippewa reservation is in North Dakota, making her characters descendents of the original tribe.

The Chippewa on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota were among the few Native American populations who asked that the government create a reservation for them. By 1960, close to seven thousand Chippewas lived there. Twenty years later, that number had decreased to about four thousand.

Life on Native-American reservations has traditionally been difficult. The land assigned to reservations is generally unfit for rich crop cultivation, unemployment is high, education is lacking, disease and alcoholism are ongoing problems, and communication between generations is made more difficult by the Americanized schooling received by youngsters. Still, progress made since the 1980s has improved conditions.

Literary Style

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First-Person Narrator ‘‘The Red Convertible’’ is told entirely in the first person from Lyman's point of view. He tells the reader about his brother, expressing the love and admiration he felt and his pain at being powerless to help him in the end. His voice is seemingly trustworthy and reliable, and he is unashamed of his sensitive and emotional nature. Not only does he remember exactly how he felt during each episode he relates, but he also describes his emotions openly to the reader. He recalls the excitement he felt at first seeing the red convertible: "The first time we saw it! ... There it was, parked, large as life. Really as if it was alive.’’ He remembers a moment of complete relaxation during his road trip with Henry: ‘‘I remember I laid under those trees and it was comfortable. So comfortable. The branches bent down all around me like a tent or a stable. And quiet, it was quiet.’’ Lyman also recalls the optimism he felt when he and Henry took the car for a drive after Henry fixed it. It was springtime after a snowy winter, and Lyman comments, "When everything starts changing, drying up, clearing off, you feel like your whole life is starting.’’

The only incident in which Lyman holds back from the reader is the one in which he lost his brother. He tells the reader that he saw his brother in the river and that he tried to rescue him, but he does not say how he felt. He describes running the car into the river after his brother, but he does not tell the reader how doing it made him feel. This sudden privacy makes Lyman seem realistic to the reader. As a first-person narrator, he retains the right to choose what to divulge and what not to. Because he is so forthcoming throughout the rest of the story, this emotional silence tells the reader that his feelings are too painful to share.

Symbolism Erdrich uses numerous symbols in ‘‘The Red Convertible'' to convey meaning and to communicate complex ideas. The title of the story points to the most fully developed symbol in the story, the car. The car is a complex symbol because its meaning changes as the story progresses. It represents the connection between Lyman and Henry. They buy it together on a mutual impulse, and then they take it on a summer-long road trip together. Twice Henry tries to give Lyman full ownership of the car, but Lyman refuses because the car symbolizes their union. In the end, the car is the literal vehicle that takes the brothers to the site of their tragic last meeting. Once Henry is dead, Lyman knows that he has lost his innocence and his connection to his brother, and, therefore, he has no use for the car.

Erdrich uses symbolism in other ways in the story. Susy has very long hair that she wears in buns. Until she lets her hair down, Lyman and Henry have no idea how extraordinary her hair is. Susy's hair symbolizes qualities people have that are visible but are not what they seem to be. This is important later when Henry returns from the war and is obviously disturbed, yet nobody is capable of understanding him because Henry refuses to make himself fully visible. The television Lyman buys for the family symbolizes the intrusion of the events of the world into their otherwise peaceful home on the reservation. Erdrich also uses the seasons to symbolize the characters' inner worlds. The brothers take a carefree road trip that lasts an entire summer. When the summer comes to an end, so do their innocent good times. Henry continues to be withdrawn as he fixes the car in the winter, but when spring comes, he seems renewed (if only temporarily).

Toward the end of the story, Lyman and Henry watch their beer cans as they throw them into the river. They watch to see how far the cans will float until they fill with water and sink. The river symbolizes the trials everyone endures in life, especially Henry. The story shows how much he was able to take from life before it dragged him under its current. This image also serves a dual purpose as symbolism and foreshadowing because it prefigures Henry's drowning.

Compare and Contrast

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1984: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is completed. Dedicated in 1982, the wall displays the names of over fifty-eight thousand Americans who died or were never recovered in the war. In 1983, a bronze statue of three soldiers—one white, one African American, and one Hispanic—is added.

Today: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial attracts thousand of visitors and veterans every year. The site has become a place of meditation and somber reflection.

1984: Organizations such as the American Indian Movement and the National Congress of American Indians work to improve economic conditions on reservations. In the late 1960s, unemployment on reservations reached 80 percent, but with new programs in place more tribal members are finding work. On many reservations, gaming (bingo, casinos, and so on) is the primary industry.

Today: Unemployment on reservations remains high, at 46 percent, and the poverty rate is 30 percent, the highest in the country. Although gaming revenues may give the impression that tribes are wealthy, only 184 of the 557 federally recognized tribes conduct these businesses, and many of them run only small operations.

1984: Veterans of the Vietnam War still struggle with their experiences eleven years after the war ends. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder range from mild depression and sleep disturbances to severe chronic depression and inability to work and maintain relationships. As the public becomes more educated about post-traumatic stress disorder, veterans are more able to find the help they need.

Today: Many veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War still struggle with Gulf War Syndrome. Symptoms include abdominal pain, insomnia, memory loss, blurred vision, and aching joints. In 1997, the government acknowledges that a toxic gas used during the conflict may have spread farther than was realized, possibly reaching hundreds of thousands of American troops.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Barry, Nora, and Mary Prescott, "The Triumph of the Brave: Love Medicine's Holistic Vision,’’ in Critique, Vol. 30, No. 2, Winter 1989, pp. 123-38.

Beidler, Peter G., ‘‘Erdrich, (Karen) Louise,’’ in Reference Guide to American Literature, St. James Press, 1994.

Flavin, Louise, ‘‘Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine: Loving over Time and Distance,'' in Critique, Vol. 31, No. 1, Fall 1989, pp. 55-64.

Jeffrey, David Lyle, ed., A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson, eds., ‘‘Louise Erdrich: Love Medicine,'' in Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them, Vol. 5, Gale Research, 1997.

Louise Erdrich's Tracks," in PMLA, Vol. 109, No. 5, October 1994, pp. 982-94.

Rheault, D'Arcy, The Circle of Life: Thoughts on Contemporary Native Life, York University, 1995, pp. 1—6.

Rubenstein, Roberta, "Louise Erdrich Revisits the Complex World of the Chippewa,’’ in Chicago Tribune Books, November 14, 1993, pp. 3, 11.

Ruppert, James, ‘‘Mediation and Multiple Narrative,’’ in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 4, Fall 1991, pp. 229-41.

Windling, Terry, ‘‘Sacred Springs and Other Water Lore,’’ in Realms of Fantasy, 1997, and at (July 3, 2001).

Further Reading Brende, Joel Osler, and E. R. Parson, Vietnam Veterans: The Road to Recovery, Perseus Publishing, 1985. Brende and Parson combine research and anecdotal information to provide an authoritative account of post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam veterans. This book is written to be more easily understood than other books on the subject, which are more clinical in language and tone.

Chavkin, Allan Richard, ed., The Chippewa Landscape of Louise Erdrich, University of Alabama Press, 1999. This book contains essays analyzing the relevance of Erdrich's Chippewa heritage to her fiction. Topics include Erdrich's expansion of Love Medicine and her role as a storyteller.

Coltelli, Laura, ed., Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak, University of Nebraska Press, 1990. Coltelli presents interviews with a wide range of writers whose heritage is at least partly Native American. Included is a twelve-page chapter about Erdrich and her husband.

Nelson, Elizabeth Hoffman, and Malcolm A. Nelson, eds., Telling the Stories: Essays on American Indian Literatures and Cultures, Peter Lang Publishing, 2001. Nelson and Nelson compile thirteen chapters exploring Native-American identity and the important role literature plays in communicating and preserving it. Some chapters relate first-hand experiences, and others assess the works of major Native-American authors, including Erdrich.


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Bruchac, Joseph. “Whatever Is Really Yours: An Interview with Louise Erdrich.” In Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Tucson: Sun Tracks and University of Arizona Press, 1987.

Coltelli, Laura. “Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris.” In Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Erdrich, Louise. “Where I Ought to Be: A Writer’s Sense of Place.” The New York Times Book Review 91 (July 28, 1985): 1, 23-24.

Erdrich, Louise. “The Writing Life: How a Writer’s Study Became a Thing with Feathers.” The Washington Post Book World, February 15, 2004, 13.

Hafen, P. Jane. Reading Louise Erdrich’s “Love Medicine.” Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 2003.

Meadows, Susannah. “North Dakota Rhapsody.” Newsweek 141, no. 8 (2003): 54.

Rifkind, Donna. “Natural Woman.” The Washington Post Book World, September 4, 2005, 5.

Sarris, Greg, et al., eds. Approaches to Teaching the Works of Louise Erdrich. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2004.

Stookey, Loreena Laura. Louise Erdrich: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.




Critical Essays