Tales of Burning Love

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

TALES OF BURNING LOVE, like LOVE MEDICINE, begins with June Kashpah’s death during a 1981 North Dakota blizzard. The man who married her in a questionable ceremony and then drunkenly let her walk into the blizzard was Jack Mauser. For fourteen years, this incident haunts Jack. He becomes a leading contractor in Fargo, but this success is built upon concealment of growing debt and his Chippewa heritage. When his fifth marriage and his business collapse, Jack and his four living wives are pushed to reorder their lives.

This story takes place mainly off the Chippewa reservation in the materialistic white world of Fargo; but this world proves to be much like the Chippewa world of the other novels. It is filled with miracles that point to trickster powers who teach through absurdity and suffering. Most characters seem blind to such forces until pushed to extremes of suffering. Then they experience humorous visions that are healing and painful. Jack’s second wife, Eleanor, visits with the recently dead Sister Leopolda while rolling across drifts in a blizzard wind. Jack finds forgiveness when a statue of Our Lady of the Wheat falls upon him.

TALES OF BURNING LOVE shares with the other North Dakota novels the conviction that the universe does not reveal how to love, but still requires truthful and faithful love; the only alternative to burning love is freezing death. The stories are new, however, rich in character and situation. This novel is a worthy continuation of the series.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, March 1, 1996, p. 1075.

Chicago Tribune. April 21, 1996, XIV, p. 1.

Library Journal. CXXI, April 15, 1996, p. 121.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 16, 1996, p. 3.

National Catholic Reporter. May 24, 1996, p. 21.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, May 12, 1996, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, February 19, 1996, p. 202.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXII, Autumn, 1996, p. 131.

The Wall Street Journal. April 24, 1996, p. A12.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, April 21, 1996, p. 3.

Tales of Burning Love

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

“We are conjured voiceless out of nothing and must return to an unknowing state. What happens in between is an uncontrolled dance, and what we ask for in love is no more than a momentary chance to get the steps right, to move in harmony until the music stops.” This is what Eleanor Schlick, Jack Mauser’s second wife, concludes on the last page of Tales of Burning Love. For her, this is a good conclusion, though this is to be expected from a thoughtful and educated white woman in late twentieth century, materialistic American culture. The Chippewa culture that is foregrounded in several of Louise Erdrich’s North Dakota novels remains in the background of Tales of Burning Love, but it is a criticizing presence, nonetheless. For Chippewa characters who also appear in previous works—Lipsha and June Morrissey, Dot and Gerry Nanapush, Sister Leopolda, and a few others—what happens in life probably is not an uncontrolled dance. For them the dance of life is no less mysterious or baffling, but almost always they are aware of ordering forces. Although most of the main characters are whites with little knowledge of the Chippewa worldview, still strange coincidences suggest that the daily lives even of unaware materialists are filled with miracle and probably watched over by supernatural powers with a sense of humor.

Eleanor’s main revelation comes when she is in danger of death by freezing. She and Jack Mauser’s three other living wives have spent the night confined together in Jack’s Explorer. She is expelled for the materialist crime of reducing to pure self-interest the lesbian love between Candice Pantamounty and Marlis Cook, Jack’s third and fourth wives. All the wives have met after Jack’s funeral to settle what to do with his remains. The remains consist of ashes and bones that really come from a side of beef, because Jack, in despair over the failure of his construction business and of his fifth marriage to Dot, has let it appear that he died when his house burned down on New Year’s Eve of 1994. The women end up stuck in a railroad underpass on the outskirts of Fargo, North Dakota in a blizzard at midnight. To keep from going to sleep and freezing to death, they tell each other the stories of how they fell in and out of love with Jack Mauser, the tales of burning love. Only Dot remains silent, though she has told most of her story earlier to Eleanor. Dot does not speak because sleeping in the back of the vehicle is a mysterious hitchhiker, who she knows is her first husband and—she now knows—her true love, Gerry Nanapush. He has escaped from prison, where he is serving two life sentences, the reasons for which are explained in Love Medicine.

The women have told their tales of burning love—this title phrase appears in The Beet Queen—and Eleanor, the only one who still would like to be married to Jack, tries to belittle Candice and Marlis, who have discovered each other through Jack and who are gradually adjusting to parenting together the child Marlis bore as a result of her very brief marriage. In revenge, Marlis lures Eleanor outside, then lets go of her hand in a gust of wind, sending her tumbling, almost flying, across the snow toward—it turns out—the Fargo airport. Lost and sure she is dying, Eleanor sees Sister Leopolda, whom she has been studying for a book on sainthood and whose death she and Jack witnessed the previous autumn at the convent of Our Lady of the Wheat. Sister Leopolda tells her that people stay in life because of their desires, and what Eleanor desires is “abiding rightness, an assurance of your course.” Although Eleanor is sure she must be hallucinating, still the vision proves healing; within a few months, she establishes a relationship with the resurrected Jack that is mutually satisfying if unconventional. They live apart, but meet frequently.

One of the novel’s themes is that the forms of loving relationships can vary greatly. Eleanor and Jack find that they are unable to live together even though their affection for each other is deep, so they find another arrangement, one in which Eleanor has a life of her own and does not feel erased by unspoken inner demands for complete subordination to Jack. Candice and Marlis discover their mutual love by accident, but once they accept it, they are surprised that they ever thought such a relationship could be perverse. Dot’s marriage to Gerry comes to seem unsatisfactory to her, especially when she is attracted to Jack. She...

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Literary Techniques

Where other novelists might agree with Aristotle that representative actions should be probable, Erdrich relishes including accidents into her works. During their trapeze act the main tent pole is struck by lightning, and Anna Shlick's first husband dies as the two are in the air; Jack is lying on a pedestal in convent grounds making love to Eleanor when Leopolda comes out to pray and does not sense or see him; Gerry is picked up as a hitchhiker during a snowstorm and is not recognized by his former wife; Jack leaves his plow and the road in the middle of the same storm and finds the stalled car with his son and Lipsha Morrissey in it in a field when he can barely see; and Leopolda is struck by lightning, killed and seemingly carried away. By no means is this list of improbable events complete, but rather than get disgusted with Erdrich as detective story readers would for these improbabilities, readers simply laugh. For Erdrich, fiction need not be more probable than life. John Irving would agree. In The World According to Garp (1978; see separate entry) his main character buys a house because an airplane crashed into it; accidents are regularly worked into his texts.

Erdrich likes to tease readers' expectations, sometimes with cliffhanger situations that end chapters, and other times with misleading feints of possibility. The identity of the hitchhiker that Dot picks up is not made clear for several chapters. Since it is probable that Jack would be out on the same night of the storm, the possibility that he could be the hitchhiker is present, making the wives' storytelling about Jack richer with comic irony. Even when the hitchhiker proves to be Gerry, the comic irony, so common in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, does not disappear. Jack's house fire is similar in character; it seems as if he dies, unable to escape the burning of his house in one chapter, and then several chapters later one sees him breaking through a window,...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

Tales of Burning Love can generate a good form and content discussion. The novel dramatizes many broken marriages. One would think that a dirge would be a more appropriate form for this book than the comic romance; however, comedy usually points to aberrations of social conduct, particularly if satiric targets of humor exist. Discussing the birth and death of each of the relationships would be a good way to begin. Dot, June, and Jack are either full-blooded Native Americans or what Erdrich calls breeds or mixed- bloods. Since Jack is the husband in each relationship, race might be a factor in the collapse of each relationship and should be explored.

1. The mock marriage of June Morrissey and Jack Mauser in the...

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Social Concerns

While love is not easy anywhere for anyone, the Native American heritage of Jack and Dot Mauser in Tales of Burning Love is a complicating factor. Jack imagines that the only reason to acknowledge his Native American heritage is if he is defeated in life, and so, like many African-Americans at the turn of the century, he spends much of the novel "passing," sometimes as a white contractor or a white singer. For Jack to achieve an integration that a lifetime of hopeless temporary fixes never provided, he needs to acknowledge his Indian mother, the foundation of his character and a clue to loving others, and even the rich land that he carelessly develops. To some extent Jack's uneasiness about his heritage helps precipitate the...

(The entire section is 833 words.)

Literary Precedents

Erdrich borrows forms from a number of writers. The comic romance, with its series of problems that are resolved and its marriage or marriages, can be seen in Shakespeare's comedies as well as Henry Fielding and Jane Austen. In Tales of Burning Love the marriages of Jack are among the main problems in the novel; one of his wives, Eleanor, is part of the solution, with a relationship to him like but not equal to a marriage.

William Faulkner's many novels and stories dealing with several centuries of his mythic Yoknapatawpha country serve as a model for what Erdrich has been doing in the series of books of which Tales of Burning Love is a part. Just as Faulkner's Hamlet (1940),The Town (1957),...

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Related Titles

Tales of Burning Love nearly matches the early 1990s time frame of Erdrich's The Bingo Palace. The same snow storm traps Lipsha in both novels and provides dual directions for the events that follow.

Dot was a comic heroine in The Beet Queen, and she was amusing in Love Medicine. Her role in Tales of Burning Love is similar to that of her earlier appearances, except that she is more a rounded character and less an aggressive force. Lyman Lamartine, the Native American businessman who rescues Jack in this novel, is more slick and tough than he was in The Bingo Palace and is far removed from the sympathetic observer of his brother's decline and suicide in Love Medicine....

(The entire section is 217 words.)