Authors: Louise Erdrich

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Ojibwe American author

June 7, 1954

Little Falls, Minnesota

Identity: American Indian (Chippewa)

Biography

Louise Erdrich is recognized as one of the most talented novelists of her generation. The subject matter of her work—the life of American Indians from roughly the beginning of the nineteenth century onward—had rarely been treated in contemporary literature at the outset of her literary career, bringing added significance to Erdrich’s exceptional skill as a writer of fiction. She was born Karen Louise Erdrich in Little Falls, Minnesota, in 1954, and was reared near the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota. The reservation provides the setting for Love Medicine (1984) and for several of her subsequent works. Her Chippewa mother and her German American father both worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Erdrich’s maternal grandparents lived on the reservation. She often visited them during her childhood.

Erdrich graduated from Dartmouth College, where she met her husband and collaborator, Michael Dorris. He, too, was part American Indian; he headed the Native American studies program at Dartmouth and became a published novelist and scholar of American Indian studies. Each acknowledged the other as an active collaborator in the writing of their novels. Erdrich also earned a master’s degree in creative writing from The Johns Hopkins University.

Erdrich’s novels employ multiple points of view to tell their stories. Her first four novels are interrelated, forming a tetralogy; characters appear or are referred to from novel to novel. The themes of all four focus on the struggle to create and maintain some semblance of joy and productivity in lives lived out against a backdrop of suffering, deprivation, and loss of culture. The order in which the novels were published is not the order in which the events occur. Tracks, published third, comes first in chronological order of events. The Beet Queen is second in both publication date and chronology of events. Love Medicine, published first, brings the characters closer to the present time, while The Bingo Palace concerns the most recent events. Tracks establishes the conflicts central to Erdrich’s body of work: the traditions and customs of American Indian culture as their practitioners struggle to preserve them; the tensions between men and women; the tremendous power of the Roman Catholic Church and the potential for disaster and cruelty when that power is abused; and the mysterious and finally inexplicable powers of the spirit, especially the power of love—sexual, paternal, familial.

The narrators of Tracks are Nanapush, a voice of ancient wisdom and modern confusion, and Pauline, a young woman confused by sexuality, the ancient Indian traditions, and the pull of Catholicism. The character around whom their point-counterpoint unfolding of events revolves is Fleur Pillager, lover, wife, mother, and fierce protector of all that she cherishes of the old ways and her present life. Fleur is believed to possess supernatural powers. She is the love of Eli Kashpaw’s life and mother of Lulu Lamartine. In Love Medicine, Lulu and Eli’s younger brother, Nector, are lovers. The novel deals with the conflict within Nector over his role in tribal affairs and his inability to resolve his personal life. He is married to Marie Lazarre, and they are the parents of many children, yet he cannot resist the pull of Lulu, his first love.

In The Beet Queen, the story focuses on a different family, the Adares. They are not American Indians, but they live near the same reservation that is the setting for the other novels. Karl and Mary Adare are orphaned when their mother abandons them. They flee to the family of her sister, who runs a butcher shop near the reservation in Argus, North Dakota. Eventually, Karl fathers a child by Celestine James, a mixed-blood Chippewa. That child, Dot Adare, is the beet queen of the title. She eventually marries Gerry Nanapush, the delinquent son of Lulu Lamartine, bringing the separate worlds of reservation and town together.

The Crown of Columbus is the only novel bearing the name of both Erdrich and Dorris. Published just before the five-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, it challenges readers’ expectations to find in it some final pronouncement about American Indians' encounter with Europe. Earlier preoccupation with reservation Indians gives way here to comic storytelling through two academics at Dartmouth: the Navajo Irish assistant professor of anthropology Vivian Twostar, in search of tenure, and her pompous colleague, full professor of English Roger Williams. Satirically stereotypical, both are obliged to deal with the Columbus legacy—he in a poetic tribute, she hoping to discredit the explorer. Incompatible as Vivian and Roger may seem, their romantic need for each other is unmistakable, and she carries his child. Her finding of clues about Columbus’s missing diary involves both in a high-jinks plot that playfully explores various kinds and dimensions of discovery. Readers may discover that backward-looking dogma about Indian-white relations is less fascinating and less honest than day-to-day contact among diverse modern Americans.

A “new and expanded version” of Love Medicine was issued in 1993. Some critics questioned the need for changes to the original text; others found that the five new sections bridge gaps and create a more coherent and readable novel.

The Bingo Palace is peopled with characters familiar to readers of Erdrich’s earlier novels. Lipsha Morrissey and Lyman Lamartine move to the forefront, sharing the narration, accompanied by a chorus of reservation figures new and old. Lipsha is the son of imprisoned activist Gerry Nanapush and of June Morrissey, who died early in Love Medicine. Contending with knowledge that June tried to drown him as a child, Lipsha is an able but mixed-up late adolescent, stumbling through menial occupations, lacking purpose. Lyman is his apparent opposite, a go-getting achiever unsatisfied by his latest coup as manager of the tribal casino. Both men fix their interest on Shawnee Ray Toose. Drawn emotionally toward Lipsha, she is attracted by Lyman’s success but wary of his ambitions’ effects on the community. The mother of Lyman’s son, Shawnee Ray gathers strength from her traditions and steers a course between and away from both men. Though daunted by his rival’s clout, Lipsha works for Lyman at the casino, where chance intervenes more than once to alter his life. Fate proves complex in various lives here, its comic twists and turns generating constant questions. To her credit, Erdrich allows these questions to evade her novel’s poetically coherent web.

Although they had successful careers and seemed to have a solid marriage, Erdrich and Dorris separated in 1996 and were undergoing divorce proceedings when Dorris committed suicide in April 1997. It later became public that Dorris was under investigation for child abuse and that he had attempted suicide two weeks prior to his death. In an interview with The New York Times, Erdrich explained that Dorris had suffered from depression throughout the marriage.

Erdrich’s next novel, The Antelope Wife, takes place in Minnesota. Young cavalry private Scranton Roy is sent to put down an Indian uprising but mistakenly attacks an Ojibwe village. Realizing his error, he rescues a baby, whom he nurses with his own miraculous milk and raises to adulthood. The infant’s grieving mother marries a man named Showano and gives birth to twin girls. Her twin granddaughters Zosie and Mary Showano become the wife and the lover of Scranton Roy’s grandson and the two mothers of Rozina Roy Whiteheart Reads, herself the mother of twin daughters. Rozina wants to leave her husband Richard for Minneapolis baker Frank Showano. Although Erdrich completed the novel just before Dorris’s death, her account of the unhappy marriage between Rozina and her suicidal husband is eerie.

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse returns to the inhabitants of the same reservation as Erdrich’s first four novels. Father Damien Modeste has lived among the Ojibwe as their spiritual guide for more than eighty years. As the novel opens, the old priest is writing a letter to the pope regarding miracles attributed to the late Sister Leopolda. Erdrich then reveals that Father Damien is actually Agnes DeWitt, also known as Sister Cecilia, a former nun posing as a Roman Catholic priest.

This part of the narrative takes place in 1996. The story then oscillates back and forth between the present and the past, beginning in 1910, where the reader learns how a young novice nun finds her way into the priesthood. Erdrich further complicates the text by interweaving additional narratives. In the past, the scheming old man Nanapush uses stories to achieve his own ends. In the present, Father Jude Miller comes to the reservation to investigate the miracles credited to Sister Leopolda.

In the past, Pauline Puyat (the future Sister Leopolda) frightens Kashpaw’s horses during a religious procession, and Kashpaw and his deranged wife, Quill, are mortally injured. The dying Kashpaw predicts the influenza epidemic that will soon decimate the tribe. Quill’s and Kashpaw’s daughter, Mary, is sent to live with Napoleon Morrissey, who sexually abuses her. His murder is the mystery that overshadows the remainder of the book and figures prominently in Jude Miller’s investigation.

Critics have considered Erdrich a first-class writer since the publication of Love Medicine. They often cite the importance of her treatment of a subject relatively ignored by American novelists and of her style. Her style is usually described as lyrical and poetic. Her work is harshly realistic in its depiction of the difficult lives of American Indians throughout US history, but it is also profoundly moving in its belief in the healing powers of love and connection, in the dignity of human effort.

While still a young writer, Erdrich began to receive enormous praise and notice. She has earned numerous awards, including the American Academy of Poets Prize, the Nelson Algren Fiction Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Prize, the Sue Kauffman Prize, the O. Henry Prize, the National Magazine Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Rough Rider Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction. Her novel The Round House received the National Book Award for fiction and LaRose earned the National Book Critics' Circle Award for fiction. Erdrich has been a best-selling author, and her work has been translated and published in several foreign editions. In addition to her novels, she has published poems, short stories, essays, children’s books, and introductions. Her work has been frequently anthologized, is taught in colleges and schools, and is the subject of scholarly study in numerous dissertations and academic journals.

Author Works Long Fiction: Love Medicine, 1984, revised and expanded edition 1993 The Beet Queen, 1986 Tracks, 1988 The Crown of Columbus, 1991 (with Michael Dorris) The Bingo Palace, 1994 Tales of Burning Love, 1996 The Antelope Wife, 1998 The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, 2001 The Master Butchers Singing Club, 2003 Four Souls, 2004 The Painted Drum, 2005 The Plague of Doves, 2008 Shadow Tag, 2010 The Round House, 2012 LaRose, 2016 Short Fiction: “The Red Convertible,” 1981 “Scales,” 1982 “The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” 1982 “American Horse,” 1983 “Destiny,” 1985 “Saint Marie,” 1985 “Fleur,” 1987 “Snares,” 1987 “Matchimanito,” 1988 The Red Convertible: Collected and New Stories, 2009 Poetry: Jacklight, 1984 Baptism of Desire, 1989 Original Fire: Selected and New Poems, 2003 Nonfiction: The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year, 1995 Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, 2003 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Grandmother’s Pigeon, 1996 (illustrated by Jim LaMarche) The Birchbark House, 1999 The Range Eternal, 2002 The Game of Silence, 2005 The Porcupine Year, 2008 Chickadee, 2012 Makoons, 2016 Bibliography Bak, Hans. “Circles Blaze in Ordinary Days.” Native American Women in Literature and Culture, edited by Susan Castillo and Victor M. P. Da Rosa, Fernando Pessoa UP, 1997. Bak writes an extensive analysis of the Jacklight poems and sees Erdrich’s first book of poetry as having a different appeal from Baptism of Desire. He terms that appeal its “hybrid” or “amphibious” quality in that Erdrich draws upon both aspects of her heritage, the German American and the Chippewa. Beidler, Peter G., and Gay Barton. A Reader’s Guide to the Novels of Louise Erdrich. U of Missouri P, 1999. An informative handbook for students of Erdrich. Brehm, Victoria. “The Metamorphoses of an Ojibwa Manido.” American Literature, vol. 68, 1996, pp. 677–706. This article traces the evolution of the legendary Ojibwa water monster Micipijiu (Misshepeshu), with a fascinating section on the symbolism and significance of the monster in Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Tracks, and The Bingo Palace. Bruchac, Joseph. “Whatever Is Really Yours: An Interview with Louise Erdrich.” Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. U of Arizona P, 1987. Erdrich discusses her poetry in particular but also her inspirations for her stories and her philosophy on what makes a good story. She explains how the characters and their stories are formed as well. Chavkin, Allan, editor. The Chippewa Landscape of Louise Erdrich. U of Alabama P, 1998. Collects original essays focusing on Erdrich’s writings that are rooted in the Chippewa experience. Premier scholars of Native American literature investigate narrative structure, signs of ethnicity, the notions of luck and chance in Erdrich’s narrative cosmology, and her use of comedy in exploring American Indians’ tragic past. Chavkin, Allan, and Nancy Feyl, editors. Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. UP of Mississippi, 1994. This is a collection of twenty-five interviews with the couple and includes an interview with Joseph Bruchac. Coltelli, Laura. Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak U of Nebraska P, 1990. Erdrich and Michael Dorris discuss their collaborations with each other, their stories, novels, and poems, and their views on American Indian literature. They explain how a number of Erdrich’s short stories are the genesis for her novels and how they create the connections between short and long fiction. Davis, Rocío G. “Identity in Community in Ethnic Short Story Cycles: Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place.” Ethnicity and the American Short Story, edited by Julia Brown., Garland, 1997. Discusses how Erdrich’s Love Medicine is in fact a cycle of short stories. Suggests that each chapter is a story with a different narrator, but the narrators’ voices combine to present a communal protagonist. An interesting concept and a useful way of understanding the stories as they stand on their own. Erdrich, Louise. Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, edited by Allan Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin, UP of Mississippi, 1994. Erdrich discusses her work. Ferguson, Suzanne. “The Short Stories of Louise Erdrich’s Novels.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 33, 1996, pp. 541–55. An excellent discussion of four short stories—“Saint Marie,” “Scales,” “Fleur,” and “Snares”—and how they were modified when they became chapters in the novels. Ferguson also argues that alone the short stories should be read differently than when they are presented as chapters in a novel. This is a good article for clarifying the differences between the short stories and their counterpart chapters in the novels. Hafen, Jane P. “Sacramental Language: Ritual in the Poetry of Louise Erdrich.” Great Plains Quarterly, vol. 16, 1996, pp. 147–55. Hafen, a Taos Pueblo Indian, examines Erdrich’s books of poetry together. In them, she finds evidence of the oral culture and a blending of rituals from the Chippewa and European American religious traditions. Erdrich’s poetry reveals her individual voice and personal experience while at the same time connecting to the rituals of her mixed-blood heritage. Halliday, Lisa. "Louise Erdrich, the Art of Fiction No. 208." The Paris Review, 2010, www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6055/louise-erdrich-the-art-of-fiction-no-208-louise-erdrich. Accessed 6 Apr. 2017. This article features a brief biography of Erdrich and an interview with the author in which she discusses some of the inspiration for her writing. Ludlow, Jeannie. “Working (in) the In-Between: Poetry, Criticism, Interrogation, and Interruption.” Studies in American Indian Literature, vol. 6, 1994, pp. 24–42. Ludlow writes a sophisticated literary analysis of Joy Harjo’s “The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window” and Erdrich’s “Lady in the Pink Mustang” from Jacklight. She finds Erdrich’s poem potentially more empowering. McGrath, Charles. "Louise Erdrich on Her New Novel, 'LaRose,' and the Psychic Territory of Native Americans." The New York Times, 6 May 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/05/07/books/louise-erdrich-on-her-new-novel-larose-and-the-psychic-territory-of-native-americans.html. Accessed 6 Apr. 2017. This article describes Erdrich's ownership of the Minneapolis bookstore Birchbark Books and discusses the shared setting of her novels The Plague of Doves, The Round House, and LaRose. Rebein, Robert. Hicks, Tribes and Dirty Realists: American Fiction After Postmodernism. UP of Kentucky, 2001. An assertion that gritty realism has gained ascendancy over metafiction in American writing. Examines the works of Dorothy Allison, Annie Proux, Thomas McGuane, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, and Louise Erdrich. Smith, Jeanne Rosier. Writing Tricksters: Mythic Gambols in American Ethnic Literature. U of California P, 1997. A thorough examination of ethnic trickster figures as they appear in the work of Erdrich, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Toni Morrison. Chapter 3 explores the trickster characteristics of Old Nanapush, Gerry Nanapush, Lipsha Morrissey, Fleur Pillager, and others. Stone, Brad. “Scenes from a Marriage: Louise Erdrich’s New Novel—and Her Life.” Newsweek, vol. 131, no. 12, 1998, p. 69. Discusses Erdrich’s The Antelope Wife and the suicide of her husband Michael Dorris. Stookey, Lorena Laura. Louise Erdrich: A Critical Companion. Greenwood Press, 1999. A good study of Erdrich’s works. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Wong, Hertha Dawn. Louise Erdrich’s “Love Medicine”: A Casebook. Oxford UP, 1999. Presents documents relating to the historical importance of Love Medicine, representative critical essays, and excerpts from several interviews with Erdrich and Michael Dorris.

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