(Karen) Louise Erdrich Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Little Falls, Minnesota, 1954. Education: Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, B.A. 1976; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, M.A. 1977. Career: Visiting poetry teacher, North Dakota State Arts Council, 1977-78; creative writing teacher, Johns Hopkins University, 1978-79; visiting fellow, Dartmouth College, 1981. Member, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa. Awards: MacDowell fellowship, 1980; Yaddo fellowship, 1981; Nelson Algren award, for story, 1982; National Book Critics Circle award, 1984; Virginia Sully prize, 1984; Sue Kaufman award, 1984; Los Angeles Times Book award, 1985; Guggenheim fellowship, 1985.
Love Medicine. New York, Holt, 1984; London, Deutsch, 1985; revised and expanded edition, 1993.
The Beet Queen. New York, Holt, 1986; London, Hamish Hamilton, 1987.
Tracks. New York, Holt, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1988.
Crown of Columbus, with Michael Dorris. New York and London, Harper Collins, 1991.
The Bingo Palace. New York and London, Harper Collins, 1994.
The Bluejay's Dance. New York and London, Harper Collins, 1995.
Grandmother's Pigeon, illustrated by Jim LaMarche. New York, Hyperion Books for Children, 1996.
Tales of Burning Love. New York, HarperCollins, 1996.
The Antelope Wife. New York, HarperFlamingo, 1998.
The Birchbark House, with illustrations by the author. New York, Hyperion Books for Children, 1999.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Scales," in The Best American Short Stories 1983, edited by
Shannon Ravenel and Anne Tyler. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1983; as The Year's Best American Short Stories, London, Severn House, 1984.
"American Horse," in Earth Power Coming, edited by Simon J. Ortiz. Tsaile, Arizona, Navajo Community College Press, 1983.
"Destiny," in Atlantic (Boston), January 1985.
"Mister Argus," in Georgia Review (Athens), Summer 1985.
"Flesh and Blood," in Buying Time, edited by Scott Walker. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1985.
"Saint Marie," in Prize Stories 1985, edited by William Abrahams. New York, Doubleday, 1985.
"Fleur," in Prize Stories 1987, edited by William Abrahams. NewYork, Doubleday, 1987.
"Snares," in The Best American Short Stories 1988, edited byShannon Ravenel and Mark Helprin. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
"A Wedge of Shade," in Louder than Words, edited by WilliamShore. New York, Vintage, 1989.
"Crown of Thorns," in The Invisible Enemy, edited by Miriam Dow and Jennifer Regan. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1989.
"Matchimanito," in The Best of the West 2, edited by James Thomas and Denise Thomas. Layton, Utah, Peregrine Smith, 1989.
"The Bingo Van," in New Yorker, 19 February 1990.
"Happy Valentine's Day, Monsieur Ducharme," in Ladies' Home Journal (New York), February 1990.
"The Leap," in Harper's (New York), March 1990.
"Best Western," in Vogue (New York), May 1990.
"The Dress," in Mother Jones (San Francisco), July-August 1990.
"The Island," in Ms. (New York), January-February 1991.
Jacklight. New York, Holt, and London, Sphere, 1990.
Baptism of Desire. New York, Harper Collins, 1991.
Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, edited by Allan Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1994; The Broom Closet: Secret Meanings of Domesticity in Postfeminist Novels by Louise Erdrich, Mary Gordon, Toni Morrison, Marge Piercy, Jane Smiley, and Amy Tan by Jeannette Batz Cooperman. New York, Peter Lang, 1999; The Chippewa landscape of Louise Erdrich, edited by Allan Chavkin. Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1999; A Reader's Guide to the Novels of Louise Erdrich by Peter G. Beidler and Gay Barton. Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1999; Louise Erdrich: A Critical Companion by Lorena L. Stookey. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1999; The Gamefulness of American Postmodernism: John Barth and Louise Erdrich by Steven D. Scott. New York, Peter Lang, 2000.
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While it may seem that Americans might have recognized a Native American writer well before the end of the twentieth century, it was not until Louise Erdrich published her first novel, Love Medicine in 1984, to both critical and popular acclaim that a Native American writing about her heritage and the present condition of her people enjoyed so much notoriety and influence in that country's literature. Erdrich is a prolific writer, and from her novels more readers have begun to appreciate that contemporary Native Americans have important stories to tell that go beyond retelling their ancestors' rich creation myths and legends.
Most of Erdrich's novels have the same geographic center, a fictional Chippewa reservation in North Dakota. From this center characters appear and reappear in different books, and family lines cross and separate in deepening complexity much like an intricate braid or a beaded belt. Not only in the connected novels, but also in the totality of her oeuvre to date, Erdrich's accomplishment is that she is weaving a body of work that goes beyond portraying contemporary Native American life as descendants of a politically dominated people to explore the great universal questions—questions of identity, pattern versus randomness, and the meaning of life itself. As she writes at the end of The Antelope Wife, "Who is beading us?…Who are you and who am I, the beader or the bit of colored glass sewn onto the fabric of this earth?"
The connected novels include Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, Tracks, The Bingo Palace, and Tales of Burning Love. In Love Medicine, which first appeared in 1984 but was revised, expanded, and reissued in 1993, the reader meets not only members of three interconnecting families that will populate the later novels, the Kashpaws, the Lazarres, and Lulu Nanapush's extended family, but also Erdrich's style of making a whole out of seemingly random parts. The novel is comprised of short stories that set up this premise both structurally and in content. Plotlines thread and interweave. Among others, plots and subplots include the rivalry between Lulu Nanapush and Marie Lazarre for Nector Kashpay's love; Gerry Nanapush's relationships with June and Dot Adare; and Lipsha Morrissey's giving the raw turkey heart to Nector as love medicine. While the events occur from around 1900 to 1984, they do not always happen chronologically, and the disappearance and reappearance of characters and their relationships to other characters in different time periods often confuse readers until they reach the end of the book.
Events in The Beet Queen occur from 1932 to 1972 and are set in the mostly European-American community of Argus, North Dakota. This novel is another gathering of stories into chapters, but this time the focus is turned away from the reservation to life off of it in characters such as Dot Adare, who is part Chippewa but has few on-reservation experiences. Families are separated and unhappy and there is a sense of betrayal, abandonment, and loneliness.
The time period for Tracks, the third book in the connected series of novels, is 1912 to 1924 and is told by two alternating narrators: Nanapush, who survived the 1912 consumption epidemic, and Pauline Puyat, a mixed European/Native American who is ashamed of the Indian side of her heritage. Relationships and claims of identity are at stake in this novel.
The Bingo Palace brings the storylines to around the time of 1994-95, shortly after the end of Love Medicine chronologically. The primary plot is Lipsha's love for Shawnee Ray, which is made problematic by Shawnee Ray's uncertainty and a rivalry with Lipsha's boss, Lyman. In Tales of Burning Love, the time period is from 1962-95, and many of the elements center around Jack Mauser and his five wives.
As her body of work grows, Erdrich's fictional Chippewa Reservation centered around Matchimanito Lake in North Dakota is increasingly compared to William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. Both are imaginary regions of a real American landscape where mixing of the races has caused issues of identity and disconnection.
Some of the confusion readers experience in the connected books is supported by problems in consistency within the later novels. Using the revised Love Medicine as a reference point in studying the later novels, critics have since found discrepancies in facts, characterizations, geography, and time among the later books. Whether this is a sign that Erdrich's project became too ambitious and complex even for her to keep straight, or whether the discrepancies are intentional as an expression of randomness, or a signal by which to recognize unreliable narrators, or an echoing back to the lack of concern for facts in the oral tradition of storytelling, it should be noted that the inconsistencies are a facet of Erdrich's work in the connected novels that will undoubtedly be further studied and explored.
Erdrich appears to depart from the series with The Antelope Wife. This novel introduces a different set of families: the Roy family, the Shawango family, and the Whiteheart Beads. In this novel, Erdrich seems to be stretching the thread on which she has beaded her stories in the previous books. While in the previous books readers beheld animals that had human characteristics, in The Antelope Wife this connectedness is heightened to the point where people are actually descended from animals such as the deer and antelope. While genders cross in her earlier work, in this one a soldier suckles babies. One wonders if, perhaps, Erdrich is not attempting to explore the so-called circle of life from every possible direction.
With the publication of Birch House, a juvenile novel that is similar to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie but from a Native American perspective, Erdrich has embarked on yet another planned series of novels. This one promises to be an important, fruitful addition to the historical novel genre for children.
—Connie Ann Kirk
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