Erdrich, Louise 1954—

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Date: 1996
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Biography; Critical essay
Length: 12,284 words

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About this Person
Born: June 07, 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Writer
Other Names: Erdrich, Karen Louise
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Page 259

Louise Erdrich 1954—


LOUISE ERDRICH FEELS compelled to tell the stories of Native Americans; she gives witness to the endurance of Chippewa people. The sheer chance of being a survivor herself, considering the millions who were here in the beginning and the very, very few who survived into the 1920s, drives her storytelling. As we listen to the many storytellers in Erdrich’s North Dakota cycle of novels that have come to us since the publication of Love Medicine (1984), we try to reconcile the tangled polyphony of speakers. She interconnects the lives of Chippewa families—Kashpaws, Pillagers, Lazarres, Lamartines, Morrisseys, Tooses, and Nanapushes—and their immigrant-descendant, off-reservation neighbors—Adares, Jameses, and Kozkas.

The story of the families begins with Tracks (1988), which covers the years 1912 to 1924; continues with Love Medicine (1984), which extends the story from 1934 to 1984; and brings the details of the Chippewa families up to what we presume to be the present time in The Bingo Palace (1994). This last novel in the originally proposed quartet has no dates designated for the chapters, as her three previous novels do. Approximating the span of Love Medicine, The Beet Queen (1988) chronicles the lives of mixed bloods and whites in the town of Argus during the years 1932 to 1972. Although she has no particular recommendation for the reader concerning the order in which to read the four novels, the story lines begin in Tracks, which, she declared in an interview with Nancy Feyl Chavkin and Allan Chavkin, “was the first manuscript I finished, the form of all else, still a tangle.”

One of her four novels, Love Medicine, was revised and expanded in 1993 to clarify events and relationships, in the process making more defined links to Tracks and the later The Bingo Palace, which, Erdrich declares, “just intervened, proposed itself, took over.” Together, these three narratives move events forward over three generations, beginning with Nanapush, survivor of the consumption epidemic of 1912, and ending with Lipsha Morrissey, his descendant through Nanapush’s named granddaughter Lulu Lamartine, leaning into the future, an unknown path opening before him. In Love Medicine, there is also an indication of a fourth generation with Howard Kashpaw, son of Lynette and King. Thus, instead of the promised quartet of novels, there is actually a trilogy plus a fourth book, The Beet Queen. However, Erdrich says she does not know “when these books will begin and end,” thus leaving the story lines open for continuance. She also has published two volumes of poetry, Jacklight (1984) and Baptism of Desire (1989).

Numerous short stories have become chapters in the novels, there have been occasional essays, and the first full-length work of nonfiction, The Page 260  |  Top of ArticleBlue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year, appeared in 1995. With her husband, Michael Dorris, a collaborator in all her work, Erdrich wrote Crown of Columbus (1991) and Route Two (1991). Earlier, Erdrich and Dorris had published several short stories under the name Milou North.

When asked the themes of her last narrative, The Bingo Palace, Erdrich responded by noting what she considers the usual: “anxiety, money, chance, obsessed love, age, small griefs, failed friendship, self-denial, repressed sexual ardor.” To a great extent, all her novels deal with these irritations of life. However, the deeper underlying issues of origin, place, connections to others, adaptability, and vision are the ones that continue to impress themselves on the reader’s consciousness. They provoke a desire to interpret events in the lives of tribal people and become involved in their meaning. Like the oral storyteller’s audience, readers become cocreators of the text, invited to that role by the many voices, each telling his or her own version of the story. One of the major themes in Erdrich’s fiction concerns personal identity within family and tribal structures. Memory, language, trickster energy, and humor contribute to survival of her characters, who testify to the continuance of Chippewa people. To convey the realities of shifting and dwindling communities within and outside tribal culture, Erdrich invents narrative strategies that involve narrators and readers in interpretive dialogue, resulting in new understandings of the effects of the loss of community among both Indians and whites. Slim chances of survival and fragile threads of human endurance continue to amaze the reader of Erdrich’s fiction.

Louise Erdrich declares Chippewa, French, Scottish, and German ancestry. An enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band, she connects to the people and the place of her beginnings: the Turtle Mountain Reservation, which is located in north-central North Dakota near the Canadian border. This reservation becomes the epicenter of the three novels that chronicle Chippewa family sagas, and it also figures, to a lesser extent, in The Beet Queen. Born on June 7, 1954, in Little Falls, Minnesota, Erdrich grew up in a family of nine— mother, Rita Joanne Gourneau, father, Ralph Louis Erdrich, and seven children—in Wahpeton, North Dakota, in a house that belonged to the government. Her parents were employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Wahpeton Indian School, where her grandfather had been educated. Erdrich’s mother and grandparents, Patrick and Mary Gourneau, are from the Turtle Mountain Reservation. The Turtle Mountains cover about four hundred square miles on both sides of the border between the United States and Canada. The land that is not hilly is covered with water. There are at least thirty lakes of various sizes on the thirty-four thousand acres of reservation land, and many marshes. It is, therefore, not surprising that sloughs figure importantly in the terrain of Erdrich’s novels. Water imagery predominates in Love Medicine.

Although she has never lived on the reservation, Erdrich has visited there often, and she has chosen to identify with her Chippewa origin. She uses the term “Chippewa” to refer to her people; however, the original woodland people were known as Anishinaabeg. In the nineteenth century these tribal people were often referred to as Ojibwa or Ojibway. Gerald Vizenor points out that the designations “Chippewa” and “Ojibwa” are colonial names for the original people.

Erdrich is also a member of the white community by blood and education. In 1972 she was one of the first female students admitted to Dartmouth College, which was then developing its Native American Program. Her husband, Michael Dorris, was a faculty member there and later became the founder and director of the Native American Studies Program. Erdrich graduated from Dartmouth in 1976 with a Page 261  |  Top of Articledegree in English and creative writing, and obtained a master’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University in 1979. She and Dorris were married on October 10, 1981.

Erdrich notes the dual citizenship of the individual who lives in the Anglo culture and at the same time remains connected to Indian identity. In an interview with Joseph Bruchac, she commented on the quest for background that is so much a part of her experience: “One of the characteristics of being a mixed-blood is searching. You look back and say, ‘Who am I from?’ You must question. You must make certain choices. You’re able to. And it’s a blessing and a curse. All of our searches involve trying to discover where we are from.” Erdrich brings her mixed background into her characters’ lives, creating the most significant narratives from the basic need to know who and where they came from.

In Love Medicine, the heart of the family sagas, understanding one’s origin becomes problematic. Lipsha Morrissey has been told his mother tried to drown him in the slough, and his efforts to deal with the uncertainty of his beginnings obscure his ability to find a place for himself in life. Marie Kashpaw, who has raised Lipsha and whom he calls Grandma, says she saved him from his mother’s attempts to drown him, but she doesn’t identify Lipsha’s mother. It remains for his other grandmother, Lulu Lamartine, to reveal that Lipsha is the son of June Kashpaw and Lulu’s son, Gerry Nanapush, and to soothe Lipsha’s worry about his mother’s intent: “June was just real upset about the whole thing. Your Grandma Kashpaw took you on because the truth is she had a fond spot for June, just like she’s got one for you.” When Lipsha asks Lulu if his mother tried to drown him, she tries to divert his attention to the important information about his parentage. Lulu attributes Lipsha’s oddness to his confusion about where he came from: “You never knew who you were. That’s one reason why I told you. I thought it was a knowledge that could make or break you.” Knowing who you are and where you come from persists as a major theme in Erdrich’s novels.

In The Bingo Palace, Lipsha tries to hold on to the belief that he was given to Grandma Kashpaw by “a mother who was beautiful but too wild to have raised a boy on her own.” But Marie’s daughter Zelda, who was brought up with June, makes sure Lipsha knows all the terrible details, how she saw June “slinging a little bundle into the slough.” She describes how she made three or four dives before she finally located the gunnysack and her subsequent discovery that it contained Lipsha: “I opened that sack once I was out of the woods. I cried when I saw it was a baby! When you saw me you blinked your eyes wide and then you smiled.” Worse than anything else, Lipsha can’t dismiss Zelda’s account as inventive. The hurt of his mother’s action haunts him. Despite the whisky that Zelda has consumed at the bar where he works, Lipsha suspects that Zelda’s version of his past is not embroidered, and he fights to forgive June. Lipsha persists in unraveling his family’s secrets to satisfy himself and to prove his identity for the bureaucracy. He needs to obtain a band card, “proof-positive self-identification, a complicated thing in Indian Country.” Lipsha observes that the dominant culture’s bureaucratic requirements work against Indian self-actualization. Lipsha only knows his identity through his grandmothers, Marie and Lulu. Without government acceptance of his identity, his enrollment, and consequently his entitlements, elude him. The security of knowing a mother’s love eludes him, too. His romantic pursuit of Shawnee Ray Toose in The Bingo Palace is in part a search for a mother. Without a full and clear understanding of origin, Erdrich’s characters seem condemned to search; and in that sense, wholeness eludes Lipsha, as it does so many of the characters in her work.

One character who does know where he came Page 262  |  Top of Articlefrom is Nanapush, who shares the storytelling with Pauline Puyat in Tracks. He presents his legacy in his father’s words: “‘Nanapush. That’s what you’ll be called. Because it’s got to do with trickery and living in the bush. Because it’s got to do with something a girl can’t resist. The first Nanapush stole fire. You will steal hearts.’” For white readers, his name takes on mythic proportions in its identification with Prometheus, the fire stealer from Greek mythology. For Indian readers, and especially for the Chippewa audience, the reference to trickery signifies that Nanapush is a descendant of Naanabozho, who, Gerald Vizenor tells us (in Interior Landscapes, “Measuring My Blood”), was “the first tribal trickster on the earth. He was comic, a part of the natural world, a spiritual balance in a comic drama, and so he must continue in his stories.” Encoded in Nanapush’s name is his identity as energy source and stabilizing agent in the lives he touches. He passes his name on to Fleur’s child, Lulu, in the ritual of baptism, and in doing so, he ensures the continuance of his own name and adds more ambiguity to Lulu’s paternal origin. The uncertainty of the gang rape that Pauline reported when she came back from Argus and the equal uncertainty of Eli as father of Fleur’s child fade with the emergence of the name Nanapush. There is no doubt that Fleur was raped, according to Pauline’s report, but the account is clouded by Pauline’s unreliability as a witness.

In Tracks, Fleur, who has survived the consumption epidemic with Nanapush, knows her origin, but according to Nanapush, she and her cousin Moses, the only remaining Pillagers, have suffered the loss of family to the point where it is not clear whether they are in the land of the living or “the other place, boundless, where the dead sit talking, see too much, and regard the living as fools.” Fleur’s understanding of her origin is obscured by the spirits of her dead family: “She was too young and had no stories or depth of life to rely upon. All she had was raw power, and the names of the dead that filled her…. Ogimaakwe, Boss Woman, his wife. Asasaweminikwesens, Chokecherry Girl. Bineshii, Small Bird, also known as Josette. And the last, the boy Ombaashi, He Is Lifted By Wind.” The names of dead relatives alone cannot sustain Fleur; yet, like Nanapush, Fleur is a survivor. She is linked to him because he saved her from death by starvation when her family died from the illness called consumption, the dreaded tuberculosis, as deadly as the smallpox that preceded it. The historical reality of the tremendous loss of Indian lives by epidemics takes on human proportions in Tracks.

Like Nanapush, Fleur is linked to the traditional tribal ways, but she turns her knowledge into an occult power that Nanapush considers dangerous. She identifies with the animal and spirit world and the land around Lake Matchimanito, but when her power is threatened, she retreats further into the region surrounding the lake where, Nanapush tells Eli Kashpaw, “The leaves speak a cold language that overfills your brain. You want to lie down. You want to never get up.” Nanapush connects Fleur to the wildness and witchery of Lake Matchimanito. Fleur’s power enchants Eli, who begs Nanapush for sexual knowledge so that he can be a pleasing lover to Fleur. Fleur’s sexuality, unrepressed and lavish as the vegetation surrounding the lake, is reported to be linked to Misshepeshu, the water monster, the devil who wants strong and daring young girls.

Tracks’ second narrator, Pauline Puyat, denied her origin by asking her father to send her to Argus, where she hoped to erase her identity as a mixed blood: “I wanted to be like my mother, who showed her half-white. I wanted to be like my grandfather, pure Canadian.” Wanting to learn the lacemaking trade from the nuns, Pauline begs her father to send her to his sister Regina, whose husband works in a butcher shop, Page 263  |  Top of ArticleKozka’s Meats. Instead of learning “to thread the bobbins and spools,” she sweeps the floors of the butcher shop and cares for Regina’s son Russell as she watches Fleur, who also has come to Argus and has been hired at the butcher shop. Fleur’s strength and power to attract men provoke Pauline’s understanding of her own thin body and impoverished sexuality. Pauline’s repressed sexuality stands in contrast to Fleur’s extravagant supply.

Pauline’s identity is compromised by her disconnection from her people, but even her rejection of her identity as a mixed blood is somewhat ambiguous, for she learns that her family moved away from the reservation while she worked in Argus. There is an implication that she has been left behind, a castaway, and so she becomes an apprentice to Bernadette Morrissey, helping prepare bodies of the dead, “death’s bony whore.” In a delusion, Pauline hears Christ asking her to bring more souls, and she responds in a frenzy of zeal. She gives up her baby, conceived in the raw union with Napoleon Morrissey, Bernadette’s brother, and enters the convent: “I have no family,… I am alone and have no land. Where else would I go but to the nuns?” Pauline will become a handmaiden of God, having strangled the devil with rosary beads: “Eventually, it took on the physical form of Napoleon Morrissey.” In a final act of defilement, Pauline desecrates herself physically and spiritually, allowing the blame for Napoleon’s death to be assigned to Fleur.

In Love Medicine, Marie Lazarre, bastard child of Pauline, rejects her origin, too, but she is able to choose another option besides the church. In this case, sheer ambition counts enough to override the evil she came from and the evil of the convent. Marie confronts the crazed nun, Sister Leopolda, who is actually her own mother. (Sister Leopolda is the name Pauline took when she entered the convent.) Brought up by the Lazares, Marie despises her foster mother, who is a drunk, and her foster father. She selects Nector Kashpaw as her route to identity, although he considers her “a skinny white girl from a family so low you cannot even think they are in the same class as Kashpaws.” Marie’s will and her humanity link her to the family she creates with Nector as well as to Lucille, her sister in the foster family of Lazares, whom she rejects. Her feeling for Lucille influences Marie to take Lucille’s daughter June into her own family and to raise her as one of her own children; later she takes June’s son Lipsha when June rejects him. Marie is strongly identified as a mother-woman by her actions within the family, and she is strongly connected to other females of the tribe. In the expanded version of Love Medicine, Marie is coached through the difficult birth of her last child by Rushes Bear (Margaret Kashpaw) and Fleur Pillager. Marie’s use of the old Cree language to express her need to be taken by labor contractions (babaumawaebigowin) as a boat would be borne by waves identifies her as a traditional Indian woman.

Origin becomes a source of sadness for Lyman Lamartine, one of Lulu’s nine offspring by different fathers. He is ambivalent about knowing that he is the son of Nector Kashpaw. “I don’t really want to know,” he tells Lulu. Part of Lyman’s identity went with his brother Henry Jr., a severely traumatized Vietnam veteran, when he drove their red Oldsmobile convertible into the Red River and drowned.

In her revision of Love Medicine, Erdrich makes clear the importance of the relationship between origin and identity, particularly with regard to Lyman. The addition of the chapter “The Tomahawk Factory” provides important insights into Lyman’s character, especially the inheriting of Nector’s business sense, and it also paves the way for Lyman’s role as developer of gaming enterprises in The Bingo Palace. Lyman’s origin and his connection to the tribe are trivialized in his discovery of identity through a U.S. Department Page 264  |  Top of Articleof the Treasury 1099 form, which jolts him out of his alcohol- and drug-induced stupor into existence. Filing his income tax return brings him his identity: “I was becoming legitimate, rising from the heap.” Heightening the irony of becoming a person by filling out a form is Lyman’s discovery that his box number had been mistakenly typed on a form that belonged to someone else. Lyman quickly joins the bureaucracy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and in this role must deal with his mother, Lulu, and Marie as they battle over authority and territory in the souvenir factory. In an outburst of anger, Marie identifies Nector as Lyman’s father before the assembled workers, prompting bedlam on the assembly line; insults and beads fly through the air, and eventually Anishinabe Enterprises is destroyed. The additional chapter “Lyman’s Luck” paves the way for Lyman’s future, based on greed and luck —a gambling casino—in The Bingo Palace. Still, Lyman hurts when he remembers that Nector had never acknowledged him as a son. When Lyman thinks about it, there is nagging irritation in Lipsha’s being given Nector’s ceremonial pipe. Eventually Lyman makes a commodity of the sacred piece by buying it from Lipsha.

Albertine Johnson’s knowledge of her origin comes through the uncommitted motherhood of her mother, Zelda, and through photos of her soldier father displayed in her mother’s house: “All I knew of him was pictures, blond, bleak, and doomed to wander, perhaps as much by Mama’s rage at her downfall as by the uniform.” Her name is a feminine version of Albert, a link to her mother’s “repressed history,” for Albertine bears the name of Xavier Albert Toose, the boyfriend Zelda resisted but never relinquished. Albertine’s father is dismissed as a mistake by Zelda: “Never marry a Swedish is my rule.” In The Bingo Palace, Albertine seeks her identity in a ceremony conducted, ironically, by Xavier Toose. She takes the traditional name of Four Soul, a woman “sunk deep in the scattered records of the Pillagers, into the slim and strange substance of the times and names.” Albertine must search for an origin from the listing of names of those Chippewa who “in that first decade when people, squeezed westward, starving, came to the reservation to receive rations and then allotted land.” Four Soul is the ancestor of Fleur; Albertine’s traditional naming connects the lines of Kash-paws and Pillagers in a new tangle. With this naming, Erdrich resurrects the anguish of Chippewa people pushed out of their original land in the forced migration of the tribe.

In The Beet Queen, Mary Adare disconnects from her origin by willing herself to forget the loss of her mother, Adelaide, and her brothers: “I’d lost trust in the past. They were part of a fading pattern that was beyond understanding, and brought me no comfort.” The mother’s abandonment of her family causes Mary to develop an oddness that she recognizes in herself: “I said things too suddenly. I was pigheaded, bitter, moody, and had fits of unreasonable anger.” Mary understands that her mother’s flight from the Minneapolis Fairgrounds, the loss of her baby brother to a stranger, and the separation from Karl when the boxcar stops in Argus had affected her, creating a compulsion to clutch people to her, particularly Celestine James and her daughter, Dot Adare. Mary is condemned by her past to be a misfit.

Wallace Pfef, Celestine’s neighbor, who helps to deliver Dot, connects his origin to a vegetable, the “raw white beet,” that grew in the great Ruhr Valley from which his people came. The restlessness of the immigrant resonates in Wallace Pfef’s family: “In America, we moved often, complaining that something was not quite right.” Pfef finally settles down in Argus to belong to the “Chamber of Commerce, Sugar Beet Promoters, Optimists, Knights of Columbus, park board, and other organizations too numerous to mention.” Wallace substitutes fraternal groups for family connections, and, for public consumption, Page 265  |  Top of Articlehe substitutes a picture of a woman bought at a Minnesota farm auction for a relationship with another human being. The picture serves to satisfy the curiosity of Argus residents who might wonder about his lack of interest in women. Wallace’s identity as a homosexual would have placed him on the fringe of midwestern society in the 1930s; his identity as agriculture promoter would place him in the solid center. Sexually repressed, Wallace channels his energy into helping to parent Dot, another outlet to compensate for Karl Adare’s sexual rejection of him. The fields of beets lead to the agribusiness of sugar refineries, and the North Dakota landscape of flowering beets fills Wallace Pfef’s vision of the prairie.

For Erdrich the prairie with its vast space of land and sky is a homeplace that is imaged in her writing. The endless North Dakota fields of corn, wheat, soybeans, and flax viewed from her childhood home in Wahpeton are always in her mind’s eye, directing her attention to the space above, as she noted in “Where I Ought to Be”: “I often see this edge of town—the sky and its towering and shifting formations of clouds, that beautiful lighted emptiness—when I am writing.”

Ten years later, in her home in the hills of New Hampshire, Erdrich’s intense longing for the space of sky had not lessened. She wrote in The Blue Jay’s Dance: “I want the clean line, the simple line, the clouds marching over it in feathered masses. I suffer from horizon sickness.” The great nostalgia for open space, which she considers “both romantically German and pragmatically Ojibwa,” informs Erdrich’s writing. In the years between 1985, the date of her observation about the longing for place, and The Blue Jay’s Dance in 1995, there has been no lessening of her identification with the Great Plains as home. Adapting to New England has meant substituting trees for sky; she says she has grown accustomed to the roaring of “thousands and millions of leaves brushing and touching one another,” making do with a new landscape, finding a new way to be at home, far from the open space of North Dakota.

Space in Erdrich’s novels can be liberating or threatening, and sometimes both at once. In Love Medicine, the vast space of the prairie means death for June Kashpaw. She moves across open fields, headed for home after the empty encounter with the mud engineer, Andy. Turning away from the dull orange glow of the oil town of Williston, North Dakota, June keeps going although, as her niece Albertine Johnson says later, “the heaviness in the air, the smell in the clouds,” would have told her that a snowstorm was coming. June’s death from exposure to cold on the prairie could represent a deliberate decision to end a life that was marked early on by abuse. Lucille Lazarre, in her alcoholic stupor, inflicts physical abuse, and her boyfriend, Leonard, rapes June.

The ambiguity surrounding June’s decision to head for home in a snowstorm despite having a bus ticket, which remains throughout Love Medicine, suddenly comes clear in the chapter “June’s Luck” in The Bingo Palace. The impossibility of escaping from the past erupts in June’s flight into a space where she can escape from pain that rang everywhere:

Then she was so small she was just a burning dot, a flung star moving, speeding through the blackness, the air, faster and faster and with no letup until she finally escaped into a part of her mind, where she made one promise before she went out. Nobody ever hold me again.

June’s entire life turns on that promise. She cannot be held, as her husband, Gordie, knows, nor can she hold anyone else, as her son Lipsha struggles to understand. Lipsha learns that we hurt others as we have been hurt, that his mother’s attempts to drown him represent a circular pattern: “I know that she did the same that was done to her—a young girl left out to live on the woods Page 266  |  Top of Articleand survive on pine sap and leaves and buried roots.” The reader, knowing the truth of June’s past—that she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend—can fill in the space of Lipsha’s incomplete understanding. The reasons for June’s inability to connect to others are fully understood by the reader but only partially understood by Lipsha.

In Love Medicine, June’s turning toward home suggests flight from the oppression that has followed her unrelentingly, but it also allows for the possibility of renewal. The Easter season and the egg imagery contribute to the understanding of her transformation. Though she perishes in the cold of a prairie storm that left more snow than it had in forty years, “June walked over it like water and came home.” In a transcendence of body, June’s spirit comes home to the reservation.

In another flight into space, Adelaide Adare in The Beet Queen turns away from her family, scattering her children—Mary, Karl, and a new baby, whom she had refused to name—in all directions. Wandering into the Orphans’ Picnic, having had to leave their home when the man who supported them died in a grain-loading accident, the family comes to the grandstand where the Great Omar offers rides to those who want to take a chance, and Adelaide chooses to be one of them. Mary, who has been left to care for her brothers, cannot watch the plane’s maneuvers but is alerted to catastrophe by the ever decreasing sound of the plane’s engine: “By the time I dared look into the sky, The Great Omar was flying steadily away from the fairgrounds with my mother.” In an image reminiscent of June’s self-reducing to a burning dot, the orphaned children’s pain is represented by the airplane as a white dot, blending into the pale blue sky and vanishing. In retribution, Mary constructs a scene in which Omar, with fuel supply dwindling, must lighten the load of his plane and pushes Adelaide overboard to save himself. In Mary’s fantasy, Adelaide falls through the awful cold, but Mary is unrelenting: “I had no love for her. That is why, by morning, I allowed her to hit the earth.”

In another leap through space, Karl Adare jumps from the boxcar after his encounter with Giles St. Ambrose and is released into a life of passive helplessness. Rescued by Fleur and nursed back to health, he is brought to the reservation and then to the convent, where the nuns take charge of him; they send him to Minneapolis, to the orphanage on the grounds of which he had been left by his mother. Karl’s flight brings him back full circle. He is sent to the seminary, but his days as a priest are marked by rendezvous with “thin hard hoboes who had slept in the bushes.” Karl is a bisexual, and his relationship with Celestine James produces Dot, but he can never accept the role of father. Ungrounded so many times in his life, Karl is perpetually traveling in his car, living the life of a salesman always on the road.

In The Bingo Palace, Redford, Shawnee Ray Toose’s son, experiences the sky threatening him with a frightening premonition of disaster. It comes in the form of a “large thing made of metal with many barbed hooks, points, and drag chains on it, something like Grandma Zelda’s potato peeler, only a giant one that rolled out of the sky, scraping clouds down with it and jabbing or crushing everyone that lay in its path on the ground.” Left by his mother with his aunts, Mary Fred and Tammy Toose, Redford had been shocked awake by the terrible dream, which is translated into reality by the arrival of Zelda with a tribal police officer and a social worker, with papers to take Redford from his mother’s sisters. Mary Fred delivers a blow with a butterfly buckle to Officer Pukwan’s chin; in turn, she is knocked out by the butt of Pukwan’s gun as she leaps into the air, then falls as if she had been running into the earth.

Flight to doom is countered by a flight that heightens self-knowledge in Dot Adare’s ascent Page 267  |  Top of Articleinto the sky over the Argus fairgrounds. Her flight into space in the crop duster’s plane begins as an impulsive escape from the smothering attention of would-be parents and her election as queen of the Beet Festival, contrived by Wallace Pfef. Outraged by his engineering her crowning as the queen of Argus’ Beet Queen Festival, Dot soars into space in the crop duster’s plane, where she becomes sick from the motion and shock of the dizzying distance from earth, and begs to be returned to land. When the pilot lands, Dot is surprised to find that no one has remained to find out what has become of her except her mother, Celestine, whom she sees as if for the first time: “Her skin is rough. Her whole face seems magnetized, like ore. Her deep brown eyes are circled with dark skin, but full of eagerness. In her eyes I see the force of her love.” In returning to her mother, who waits for her on the ground, Dot sees the constancy of her mother’s love amid the wreckage of her turbulent adolescence.

Despite tragic occurrences, Erdrich’s novels are not tragedies. Somewhere between the edge of tragic events and annihilation there is a thin margin of survival where comedy erupts. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Erdrich notes that the one universal thing about Native Americans, tribe to tribe, may be survival humor. She explains that Indians have developed a humor that allows them to live with the most difficult events in their lives: “You have to be able to poke fun at people who are dominating your life and your family.” In the underseam of life, sometimes reduced to a narrow space of existence, Indians must poke fun at themselves, too: “If we took ourselves too seriously in any way, I feel we would be overwhelmed.” Twisting and turning on the borderline between two cultures, Indians choose humor as a way to endure.

In Love Medicine, the humor of language and situation that is rooted in human vanity seems to overflow in Nector Kashpaw, son of Margaret, husband of Marie, and lover of Lulu. Signed up for a movie right out of school in Flandreau, the Indian boarding school where he first met Lulu, he is to play the part of an Indian who falls off a horse and dies. His experience reinforces the popular conception of Indians initiated by General Custer and generally adopted by whites: the only good Indian is a dead Indian. Although he ultimately rejects that role, Nector says the offers keep coming to him. He is selected to model for a rich old woman who persuades him to forget his dignity: “I was paid by this woman a round two hundred dollars for standing stock still in a diaper.” The resulting painting, The Plunge of the Brave, hanging in the State Capitol in Bismarck, officially expresses the dominant culture’s view of Indians. It shows Nector “jumping off a cliff, naked of course, down into a rocky river. Certain death.” Either way, movies or painting, Nector represents dead Indians. The painting becomes a kind of symbol for Indians as well. Lulu purchases a copy of the painting for her new apartment at the Senior Citizens, noting that everyone owned it, “whether they liked Kashpaw and wanted to venerate his youth, or did not like him and therefore made fun of his naked leap.” The painting evokes widely varying attitudes, and comes to symbolize both white and Indian ambivalence.

Nector’s offers ultimately teach him something. Out of humiliation comes the determination to survive. Nector vows to fool that pitiful old woman who painted his death in the plunge down to the rock-strewn stream: “I’d hold my breath when I hit and let the current pull me toward the surface, around jagged rocks. I wouldn’t fight it, and in that way I’d get to shore,” he imagines. Nector survives by letting the current take him where it will. He can handle only one thing at a time. He wants to sit against a tree and watch the cows, but he is drawn into tribal politics without his intention: “I had to speed where I was took.” There is both humor and pathos in Nector’s situation, split as he is between Lulu and Marie.

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There is tender humor with an ironic turn in Nector’s first encounter with Marie. In the comedy of a chance meeting, Nector loses his way, weakened by her “tight plush acceptance, graceful movements, little jabs that lead me underneath her skirt where she is slick, warm, silk.” On his way to the convent, where he hopes to sell the two geese he and Eli have shot, Nector dreams of Lulu and his plans for meeting her that night. When Marie comes down the hill straight from her duel with Leopolda, her fork-stabbed hand wrapped in a pillowcase emblazoned with the initials SHC, and into Nector’s path, he challenges her. His hasty observation of Marie leads him to think she must have stolen the sisters’ linen, and he wonders, ironically, what else she may have hidden beneath her skirt. His calculations are way off. He misreads the signs of Marie’s flight from the convent. Trapped by his desire to earn a possible reward from the nuns for returning stolen goods, perhaps a chalice, from Marie Lazarre, “the youngest daughter of horse-thieving drunks,” Nector is caught by Marie, whose wounded hand he cannot let go. In their sexual encounter on the hill, in full view of the convent, Nector is bound to Marie. His plans to buy the French-style wedding band for Lulu are thwarted.

There is human comedy as well in Nector’s midlife crisis. He contemplates the passing of time, the accumulation of babies that he and Marie have produced and taken in: “Seventeen Years of married life and come-and-go children.” Suddenly aware of a diminishing self, Nector begins to think of Lulu. Enlisting her help to deliver commodity butter on the reservation, Nector is out-maneuvered once again by a woman. Lulu drives him up to the lookout in her Nash Ambassador Custom automobile, complete with air conditioning, where they resume a relationship broken off years before by Nector’s marriage to Marie. Nector, “middle-aged butter mover,” has somehow been transformed into “the young hard-muscled man who thrilled and sparked her so long ago,” and not entirely by his own intent.

The love medicine of the Chippewa provides another humorous instance of human vanity in the hands of Lipsha Morrissey. In an interview with Jan George, Erdrich says that humor is a tribal trademark: “The Chippewa have the best sense of humor of any group of people I’ve ever known.” In the depiction of Lipsha as the wise fool, Erdrich creates the would-be trickster, the trickster gone off the trickster’s tangent, an even more ridiculous version of the mythical trickster.

Lipsha, like the original trickster from Chippewa myth, Naanabozho, who was cared for by his grandmother, Nokomis, is raised by his foster grandmother, Marie. As the son of Gerry Nanapush, he inherits the tricky heart that keeps him out of military service, but as modern version of trickster, Lipsha loses the touch. Many times he tries to use the gifts that he believes have come down to him but fails to carry out his healing power. In his practice of love medicine, he tries to bring Marie and Nector back together with the frozen heart of a turkey bought from the Red Owl grocery store and blessed by himself at the holy water font at the convent. When Nector chokes on the cooked heart and Marie collapses from the shock of Nector’s death, Lipsha begins to gain an understanding of love, and comforts his grandmother by reassuring her that Nector loved her “over time and distance,” but he died so quickly he never got the chance to tell her. Though his grandmother doesn’t believe his explanation, she does believe in Lipsha. In that way Lipsha regains some belief in himself.

In The Bingo Palace, joining with Lyman Lamartine, Lipsha participates in a secularized version of the vision quest that parodies the sacred. His visions consist of Big Macs and the retreat of the Chippewa to their beginnings: “In my mind’s eye I see us Chippewa jumping back into the Big Shell that spawned us.” He dreams of eluding Lyman, he and Shawnee Ray and Redford sailing Page 269  |  Top of Articleoff in the shell, leaving Lyman, contender for Shawnee’s affection and also Redford’s father, to watch until they disappear into space. Alternating between bouts of loneliness and movie scenes replayed in his head, Lipsha ends his vision quest visited by a skunk that shuts down his senses and sends Xavier Toose, his instructor in the quest, into attacks of laughter.

Trickster prevails in all cultures. In the myths of the Chippewa, Manobozho is the chief trickster. His name has many variants—Naanabozho, Nanapush, Nanabush, and Wenebojo, to name a few. There are literally hundreds of stories about him. He is a complex being who was the youngest son of the union of Epingishmook, the West, and a virgin mother named Winonah. Left an orphan, he was brought up by his grandmother, Nokomis. According to Basil Johnston, Nanapush could be both foolish and wise; he was a teacher who instructed in the art of healing, and he possessed the greatest of human virtues: kindness. Although known as a peacemaker, he also has an evil side, being capable of deceit, trickery, and lewdness. Trickster can change shape, cross existing borders, and subvert existing systems. Erdrich incorporates the idea of trickster in several of her characters, Nanapush in Tracks being the most obvious. Gerry Nanapush, his grandson through Lulu, and Lulu herself qualify for trickster status as well.

According to Lulu, Gerry’s delicate energy and capacity to change his shape testify that he is a Nanapush man, the son of trickster—whom she identifies as Old Man Pillager, her mother’s cousin Moses—although he bears the name of Nanapush, self-appointed grandfather to Lulu, to whom he gave his name in baptism. As trickster, master subverter of systems, Gerry will not be contained in a white man’s jail. Over and over again he breaks out of prison. According to Albertine, “He boasted that no steel or concrete shit-barn could hold a Chippewa, and he had eellike properties in spite of his enormous size.” Myth springs up around Gerry. Once he had squirmed into a six-foot-thick prison wall and vanished. In true trickster fashion, Gerry rubs his belly for luck and escapes, appearing at Dot Adare’s door, giving her a less than lucky assignment: “Hiding a six-foot-plus, two-hundred-and-fifty-pound Indian in the middle of a town that doesn’t like Indians in the first place isn’t easy.” In another escape, he folds himself into the trunk of the Firebird bought by King with June’s life-insurance money, and is rescued by Lipsha as his breath is about to give out.

Trickster’s appetite is notoriously voracious. Gerry follows the pattern as he consumes “stacks of pork chops, whole fryers, thick steaks,” tossing the bones out the window, heedless of the neighbors, who eventually complain and bring the law to his door. In her daydreams, Albertine pictures Dot and Gerry in Dot’s trailer house, both hungry: “Heads swaying, clasped hands swinging between them like hooded trunks, they moved through the kitchen feeding casually from boxes and bags on the counters, like ponderous animals alone in the forest.”

Possessing trickster’s sexual prowess, Gerry manages to have sexual relations with Dot in a far corner of a state prison visiting room, away from the closed-circuit television camera’s lens: “Through a hole ripped in her pantyhose and a hole ripped in Gerry’s jeans they somehow managed to join and, miraculously, to conceive.” Albertine imagines the two of them in the trailer settling themselves on Dot’s king-size bed: “They rubbed together, locking and unlocking their parts. They set the trailer rocking on its cement-block-and-plywood foundation and the tremors spread, causing cups to fall, plates to shatter in the china hutches of their more established neighbors.” The baby that comes of their union feeds voraciously, too, nursing for hours, refusing to be satisfied with pacifiers.

Like trickster, Gerry has a penchant for getting Page 270  |  Top of Articleinto trouble. When he is caught on the Pine Ridge Reservation, he resists arrest, shooting and killing a state trooper. He is sent to the control unit of the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, “where no touching is allowed, where the voice is carried by phone, glances meet through sheets of Plexiglas, and no children will ever be engendered.” Still, Gerry always manages to escape, usually when he is being transferred to another institution.

Constantly defying social order, in The Bingo Palace Gerry finds the trickster’s luck again when, with some weighty assistance from Lulu’s influence on the tribe, he is transferred from Illinois to a maximum-security prison in Minnesota. He survives a plane crash during a snowstorm, and even sends a call for assistance to his son, Lipsha, who steals a getaway car with him. In the chase over the snow, reminiscent of the snowstorm in which June had perished, Gerry, following a vision of June in her blue Firebird, leaves the road. Lipsha watches his father go to June: “It isn’t that he doesn’t care for me, I know that, it’s just that his own want is too deep to resist.” In this case, trickster escapes myth and enters the realm of human need.

Gerry’s mother, Lulu, as female trickster and strong woman, possesses personal power and transcends conventional expectations. In the traditional dance and trill that she exhibits for the news cameras, Lulu demonstrates that she knows how to subvert the system. She leads the federal marshals first one way and then another as they question her about where her son has gone. Having taken him over the Canadian border, Lulu feigns confusion and memory loss, even fainting, proving more than a match for the investigators, who “spent a long time questioning a fish in the river, they spent a longer time talking to a turtle in its shell, they tried to intimidate a female badger guarding the mouth of its den and then, to fool an old lady coyote who trotted wide of the marks her pups had left.” In true trickster fashion, Lulu leads first one way and then another, finally triumphing in gained time that allows Gerry to make his escape and in her victorious show of ceremony in a grand exit in full Chippewa regalia.

Lulu’s independence of mind and body resonates in a poem from Jacklight, “The Lady in the Pink Mustang.” Like the lady in the pink Mustang, Lulu has established a place for herself where she can move in either direction:

  She is always at that place, seen from behind,
  motionless, torn forward, living in a zone
  all her own. It is like she has burned right through time,
  the brand, the mark, owning the woman who bears it.

Lulu owns herself in her relationships with assorted husbands and lovers. Lulu explains in Love Medicine that she “was in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms.”

Lulu is as audacious as the blue jay, in The Blue Jay’s Dance, that defies the attacking hawk, continuing to dance, “hopping forward, hornpiping up and down with tiny leaps, all of its feathers on end to increase its size.” Fierce and shrieking, the jay amazes and confuses the hawk into a puzzled retreat. In a similar outrage, in Love Medicine, Lulu confronts the tribe as business interests move to take her land. She threatens to name all the fathers of her children unless she is granted her home and the land it stands on. When the house is burned, Lulu and her boys camp out on the land until the tribe builds a government crackerbox house for them on a “strip of land rightfully repurchased from a white farmer.” In their common defiance, Lulu, the blue jay, and the Chippewa face the enemy and endure. In refusing to move from her land, Lulu reminds the reader of the U.S. government policy that sent Chippewas from east of the Great Lakes westward to the prairie in the 1800s.

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Erdrich’s women are powerful. Some, like Marie Kashpaw, turn experience into helping and healing—themselves and others; others, like her daughter Zelda, resist experience and defer healing. There is transforming energy in Marie’s raising a family of five children, molding Nector into tribal chairman, and proving to the world that she has risen above the “dirty” Lazarres from whom she came. Marie knows evil, for she has faced it in the drunken lives of her mother and father and in the fraud of Sister Leopolda. She meets evil in what happened to her sister’s child, June, who came to her hardly able to stand up, “starved bones, a shank of black strings,” a creature of the woods who “had sucked on pine sap and grazed grass and nipped buds like a deer.”

In Love Medicine, Marie’s ambition takes her first to the convent, where she intends to be worshiped by the nuns: “I’d be carved in pure gold. With ruby lips. And my toenails would be little pink ocean shells, which they would have to stoop down off their high horse to kiss.” Escaping from Leopolda with a burned back and a pierced hand, Marie uses that experience to mold Nector into tribal chairman. Peeling potatoes, scrubbing floors, and churning butter, Marie plots Nector’s future, relying on her own strength: “I don’t pray. When I was young, I vowed I never would be caught begging God. If I want something I get it for myself.” In claiming a respected role for herself in the community, Marie has transformed herself from a “dirty” Lazarre into a proud mother and the wife of a tribal official. In the process of self-transformation, she has learned to empathize. Even though she has barely enough to feed her children, she takes in June, just as she would later take in June’s son, Lipsha. She can feel pity for Leopolda although it is mixed with a need to prove that she has not been condemned to the life of raising Indian brats that Leopolda had predicted.

As Marie helps others to survive, she too gets past the hurt of being left by Nector for Lulu. When Zelda brings her the note Nector left under the sugar jar, telling her he loves Lulu, Marie feels powerless, not even recognizing her own response, which is so far beyond anger. She describes a feeling of transcendence, of not being in her own body. Then she regains herself by falling back on potato peeling—“enough … to feed every man, woman, child of the Chippewas”—and floor waxing. Marie steps away from the sting, overcoming the hurt of being abandoned. In her vision of herself she is still Marie, Star of the Sea. She would be there intact when they stripped the wax off her floor! Returning the note to the table, this time placing it under the salt, Marie lets Nector wonder about her reaction to his announcement of love for Lulu. Did she get the note? Does she know? Marie never tells. She uses what she learned from her experience with Leopolda: “I put my hand through what scared him. I held it out there for him. And when he took it with all the strength of his arms, I pulled him in.”

In The Bingo Palace, although Marie’s daughter Zelda has inherited her mother’s energy, it is without transforming power. Lipsha dreads the single-minded control that he feels surrounding him in Zelda’s presence: “When women age into their power, no wind can upset them, no hand turn aside their knowledge; no fact can deflect their point of view. It is like that with the woman I was raised to think of as sister and call aunt in respect.” Zelda, who needs outlets for her enormous supply of energy, turns her talents to engineering the marriage of Lyman Lamartine and Shawnee Ray Toose. She insinuates herself into their lives by caring for their son, Redford. Lipsha knows that he figures in Zelda’s calculations as a device to get the wedding date moved up. He is to be the designated third element—a catalyst that will bring about the union of Shawnee Ray and Lyman. Any excess energy Zelda has, she expends caring for Redford, making sure he does Page 272  |  Top of Articlenot go back to Shawnee’s sisters, whom she considers unfit to raise children.

Zelda has cultivated a history of goodness that begins with giving up Xavier Toose, whom she had resisted despite loving him “with a secret unkilled feeling stronger than acids, unquenched, a coal fire set inside of her and running through each vein with a steady heat.” Lighting candles to the saints to help her overcome her passion for Xavier Toose, Zelda refused him regularly in order to save herself for a white man who would take her away from the reservation to the city. She diverted the energy containing her passion to marry Swede Johnson, from off reservation. Their child Albertine arrived prematurely, and Swede went AWOL from the army, never to be seen again. Repressing her sexuality, Zelda subsequently channeled her energy into good works to build a public reputation. She intended never to be subject to love.

Remembering the fire that her father, Nector, started at Lulu’s house, Zelda vows to exist without love “in the dark cell of her body.” Reminiscent of the crazed self-mortification of Pauline in Tracks, she becomes “capable of denying herself everything tender, unspoken, sweet, generous, and desperate.” And after thirty years’ abstinence from feeling, Zelda feels desire rock her body, desire that drives her to Xavier Toose.

Albertine, child of Zelda’s loveless marriage, bears the scars of her mother’s life. She understands that she will need enormous support from a husband or lover because she has been emotionally deprived. Restlessly ambitious, Albertine finds power in learning to heal in the way that she herself needs healing. Deciding to become a doctor has enabled Albertine to gain perspective on her own experience. She remembers crawling under the quilts of her mother’s bed but never daring to “grab her tight.” Once, running away from home to the city, Albertine lay in bed with a man she hated; later she comes to realize “that the desperation with which she gave in to his touch has been no more than a child’s wish to crawl closer to the side of her mother.” Albertine uses her knowledge of her own need to point out the needs of others. She reminds her mother of Shawnee’s right to arrange her life as she wishes—to go back to school and take Redford with her. She lets Lipsha know that he must straighten out his own life before he involves Shawnee in it.

Mothering is an important issue in Erdrich’s life and her art. She and Michael Dorris have three daughters and they have adopted three children as well, according to her “Dedication and Household Map” in The Blue Jay’s Dance. Erdrich is very concerned with what it means to be a parent, and this book is intended to add to her daughters’ memories. She considers mothering “a subtle art whose rhythm we collect and learn, as much from one another as from instinct.” Mothers collectively form a sacred alliance—a group that identifies the struggle common to all mothers. Outwardly they look secure in their knowledge of mothering, but as she talks with other mothers, Erdrich comes to recognize her own daily task of hanging on “to the tiger tail of children’s, husband’s, parents’, and siblings’ lives while at the same time saving a little core of self in our own, just enough to live by.”

One measure of women’s power in Erdrich’s novels is expressed in the capacity to mother. Denied or misdirected sexual energy results in unsuccessful mothering. For example, Zelda’s passionless life draws out Albertine’s need. Pauline Puyat’s loveless union with Napoleon Morrissey brings forth Marie, a daughter whom she finds repulsive and whom she gives to someone else to raise.

In The Bingo Palace, June could not be a mother to him, Lipsha reasons, because her own pain was too deep. As he contemplates how he was saved from drowning, he reaches back to the darkness in the bottom of the slough, where he Page 273  |  Top of Articlefeels his mother’s touch and connects with the truth of her action in releasing him to the water.

Pain comes to us from deep back, from where it grew in the human body. Pain sucks more pain into it, we don’t know why. It lives, and we harbor its weight. When the worst comes, we will not act the opposite. We will do what we were taught, we who learnt our lessons in the dead light. We pass them on. We hurt, and hurt others, in a circular motion.

June, denied love by her own mother, has refused Marie’s mother love; she chooses instead to live with Eli, who could chew the pine sap, as she had done. She cannot give emotionally to her husband, Gordie, or to her sons, Lipsha and King. The hurt is passed on.

Fleur’s mothering loses strength when she fears her personal power has dried up. She sends Lulu away to boarding school, an act that alienates daughter from mother. Lulu laments her loss of a mother: “I never grew from the curve of my mother’s arms. I still wanted to anchor myself against her. But she had tore herself away from the run of my life like a riverbank. She had vanished, a great surrounding shore, leaving me to spill out alone.” As she becomes more like Fleur, her need for her grows, especially when Nector begins to look at her. In the search for a mother, Lulu goes to Moses Pillager, Fleur’s cousin, from whom she learns both the bitterness and the sweetness of love. Still, the rift between Lulu and Fleur never heals, the price of leaving a child retold to Lulu by Nanapush in Tracks.

Despite not being mothered, both Marie and Lulu know how to be mothers. Brought into the world by cooking spoons and quickly given over to Bernadette Morrissey, who turns her over to the Lazarres, Marie raises her own children, laments the ones that die, and takes in Lipsha and June. She becomes the solid rock, the matriarch of an expanding family. Although Lulu’s boys are not the center of her life, she keeps them together on her plot of land, watches them grow up, and is proud of them.

In The Beet Queen mothering is foregrounded in the contrast between a woman who has been mothered successfully and one who has been abandoned by her mother. Celestine James speaks of her mother’s dying early and being cared for by her older sister Isabel, who supports Celestine and her brother Russell until she “married into a Sioux family and moved down to South Dakota.” Celestine is able to raise Dot, devoting time and energy to her care despite the trying circumstance of dealing with Mary Adare, a motherless woman who wants to intervene in Dot’s upbringing.

In Erdrich’s novels, women become mothers to other women through the common experience of birthing. The power they hold over life establishes a strong kinship among women. Margaret Kashpaw’s offices at Lulu’s birth secure a bond with Fleur, whose delivery of Lulu is precipitated by the sudden appearance of a bear. The suggestion is that Margaret earned her traditional name, Rushes Bear, by confronting the bear face-to-face, thereby linking her to the power of the natural world. In the expanded version of Love Medicine, female connections empower and comfort Marie as she gives birth to her last child assisted by Margaret and Fleur, whose knowledge of the old medicines is needed to help direct Marie’s difficult labor. Women adapt to each other’s need in Erdrich’s novels.

Adapting successfully means finding a new way to live without giving up the self, but it can also mean giving up the self. In Tracks, Nanapush survives disease and starvation by talking, by telling a story. When he was the last one of his family left during the year of the sickness, he kept talking: “Death could not get a word in edgewise, grew discouraged, and traveled on.” So he joins with Fleur and Margaret, putting together a family from the remnants of families. He thinks like animals; he can track deer back to where they were born. He coaches Eli in the hunt for deer and in the pursuit of Fleur. He survives the invasion of the land around Lake Matchimanito Page 274  |  Top of Articlebecause he accepts the fact that the land will be sold. He understands the transience of power:

Power dies, power goes under and gutters out, un-graspable. It is momentary, quick of flight and liable to deceive. As soon as you rely on the possession it is gone. Forget that it ever existed, and it returns. I never made the mistake of thinking that I owned my own strength, that was my secret. And so I never was alone in my failures. I was never to blame entirely when all was lost, when my desperate cures had no effect on the suffering of those I loved.

Like Nanapush, whom she calls Uncle, Lulu survives because she has the same transcending power. In Love Medicine, she admits to crying the only tears that she would ever cry in her life on the school bus that took her away from the reservation. Lulu understands the encumbrances of the body: “How come we’ve got these bodies? They are frail supports for what we feel. There are times I get so hemmed in by my arms and legs I look forward to getting past them. As though death will set me free like a traveling cloud.” Lulu is able to transcend the past in her relationship with Marie. She discovers the way another woman feels for the first time. In bathing Lulu’s eyes with drops, Marie puts the tears back. They mourn Nector together.

Critical appraisal of Erdrich’s work has ranged from open acceptance of its innovative form and testament to the Chippewa tribal people to guarded concern about narrative method and suspicion regarding the further marginalization of Native Americans. With its multiple-narrator format, Love Medicine is considered by many reviewers to be strongly connected to the oral tradition of storytelling. The multivoiced structure and the involvement of the reader in reconciling the often competing versions of the stories have stimulated considerable critical response. In its departure from the pattern of other contemporary Native American novels, Love Medicine has been noted for its concentration on community gossip instead of on the oral tradition and ritual associated with novels like N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. Instability of family, a dominant theme in both Love Medicine and The Beet Queen, begins in Tracks. The fluctuation of the term “family” is considered by Linda Ainsworth to be an apt metaphor for Love Medicine, and it is perpetuated in the novels that follow.

There are both speaking and nonspeaking voices in Erdrich’s novels. Named narrators alternate with unidentified third-person narrators, and, in the case of The Bingo Palace, a community chorus. Stories change as tellers change. There are no narrators privileged to tell an authentic version of the story. Time is not always chronological; events loop around and fall back on themselves in unpredictable patterns. The novels speak to each other; the reader must play a role in the connecting of story lines. In the expanded version of Love Medicine, Erdrich forges the links that align events and develop character to bring the novels to the status of epic.

Tracks employs a dual narrator structure and a linear chronology. Nanapush and Pauline challenge one another’s authority, leaving the reader to piece the story together. They agree only on what they have seen of the crazed behavior of creatures driven to the edge of life. Nanapush describes the buffalo dwindling, feeding on each other’s flesh, and Pauline reports the same behavior in human beings crowding the new road of death, their numbers dwindling from influenza and consumption. They agree on the decimation of the tribe.

Love Medicine in its first version has seven named narrators: Marie, Nector, Albertine, Lulu, Lyman, Lipsha, and Howard Kashpaw. An unnamed teller recounts the story of June’s death in the opening chapter. Another objective narrator Page 275  |  Top of Articletells the story of Lulu’s eight sons. The middle chapter, “A Bridge,” relates Albertine and Henry Lamartine’s meetings in Fargo, and in the chapter “Crown of Thorns,” another third-person narrator chronicles Gordie Kashpaw’s hallucinations about his wife, June. All the narrators contribute some information about June, but Marie Kashpaw, Gordie, Albertine, and Lipsha are the most concerned about the meaning of her life and her place in the family.

In the revision of Love Medicine (1993), Erdrich clarified the chain of events that occurred when Nector met Marie on her way down the hill from the convent. She did not intend that their sexual encounter be interpreted as a rape, as some readers had done. When Marie tells Nector that she has had better, Nector’s words indicate that no force has been used: “I know that isn’t true because we haven’t done anything yet. She just doesn’t know what comes next.”

There are four new chapters in the expanded version, each of which helps to make needed connections among the novels. “The Island,” narrated by Lulu, gives her reaction to Marie’s marriage to Nector, and her return to the reservation from boarding school. In a section added to “The Beads,” Marie becomes connected to Rushes Bear when she assists at the birth of Marie’s last child. Marie’s role as mother is further developed in “Resurrection,” in which she deals with Gordie’s advanced alcoholic hallucinating. This chapter also provides a sense of the futility of Gordie and June’s marriage. The chapters “The Tomahawk Factory” and “Lyman’s Luck” give more dimension to Lyman’s character, especially with regard to his devastation at his brother’s death, and also set up his role as gambling entrepreneur in The Bingo Palace.

There is a more definite pattern to the narrative structure in The Beet Queen, in that the chapters are narrated by the main characters in the first person and their narrations are followed by a neutral consciousness that has gained entry into the consciousness of each character. The novel begins with a third-person account of Mary and Karl’s separation on a cold spring morning in 1932, followed by Mary’s full first-person account of how the family was left by Adelaide. Establishing the pattern of narration, the third part of the 1932 chapter is related by an impersonal third-person narrator who tells what happened to Karl when he was cut loose from the family. In this way a community of voices speak as one and as individuals.

In a departure from the alternating narrator pattern, The Bingo Palace contains ten chapters narrated by Lipsha Morrissey. There is a community chorus that speaks in the first person plural, and there is an account of the fortunes of Lyman, Fleur, June, Gerry, Albertine, Shawnee, Zelda, and Redford, as well as Lulu, rendered by an omniscient narrator. The novel begins and ends with the community voices, undesignated in time.

Louise Erdrich resists being labeled a Native American writer although she declares in an interview with Hertha Wong that it is very important to her “to be known as having been from the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and from North Dakota.” Whether she writes about Indians or their white neighbors, Erdrich strives to depict human transcendence in all four novels as well as in her nonfiction. She is concerned about showing that tribal culture endures in new forms even as Indians are pushed to the margins of society by the dominant culture. Community voices join to tell the remembered stories. The loss of tribal land chronicled in Tracks has not diminished personal identity and human connections. That human beings endure despite holocaust is the overriding message in all of Erdrich’s work.

Trickster goes on defying social order just as he did in Ojibwa myth. Mothers succeed and fail as they have always done. For every June and Adelaide, there is a Marie and Celestine. The absurdity of existence spills over in the trials of Page 276  |  Top of ArticleLipsha, the wise fool. Through it all, Indians have not been annihilated—that is Erdrich’s message of hope.

Selected Bibliography



Love Medicine. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984. New and exp. ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1993.

The Beet Queen. New York: Henry Holt, 1986.

Trach. New York: Henry Holt, 1988.

The Crown of Columbus. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Written with Michael Dorris.

Route Two. Northridge, Cal.: Lord John Press, 1991. Written with Michael Dorris.

The Bingo Palace. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.


Imagination. Westerville, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1981.

“Where I Ought to Be: A Writer’s Sense of Place.” New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1985, pp. 1, 23–24.

The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.


Jacklight. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984.

Baptism of Desire. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.



Ainsworth, Linda. Review of Love Medicine. Studies in American Indian Literatures, 9:24–29 (Winter 1985).

Banks, Russell. “Border Country.” Review of The Beet Queen. Nation, November 1, 1986, pp. 460463.

Bennett, Sarah. Review of The Bingo Palace. Studies in American Indian Literatures, 6:83–88 (Fall 1994).

———. Review of Love Medicine: New and Expanded Version. Studies in American Indian Literatures, 7:112–118 (Spring 1995).

Bruckner, D. J. R. Review of Love Medicine. New York Times, December 20, 1984, C21.

Jahner, Elaine. Review of Love Medicine. Parabola: The Magazine of Myth and Tradition, 10:96, 98, 100 (Summer 1985).

———. Review of Jacklight. Studies In American Indian Literatures, 9:29–34 (Winter 1985).

Kinney, Jeanne. Review of Love Medicine. Best Sellers, 44:324–325 (December 1984).

Lewis, Robert W. Review of Love Medicine. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 9, no. 4:113–116(1985).

Messud, Claire. “Redeeming the Tribe.” A Review of The Bingo Palace. Times Literary Supplement, June 17, 1994, p. 23.

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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1381700022