In a 1985 essay titled “Where I Ought to Be: A Writer’s Sense of Place,” Erdrich wrote that the essence of her writing emerges from her attachment to a specific locale: North Dakota, the site of a Chippewa reservation and of the neighboring white communities founded by European immigrants. In this essay, Erdrich defines her mission as a writer by comparing it with the function of a traditional storyteller in tribal cultures like the Native American Ojibwe:In a tribal view of the world, where one place has been inhabited for generations, the landscape becomes enlivened by a sense of group and family history. Unlike most writers, a traditional storyteller fixes listeners in an unchanging landscape combined of myth and reality. People and place are inseparable.
Although three-eighths Chippewa, Erdrich has not aspired to become precisely this kind of traditional storyteller. She realizes only too keenly that the tribal view in its pure form is no longer tenable for American Indians because the “unchanging” relationship of Indian people and landscape, of myth and reality, has been destroyed by the massive dislocations and changes brought by European settlement and nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century “progress.” On the other hand, Erdrich’s writing creates a neotribal view by dramatizing the intricate relatedness of people and place in her North Dakota locale. The central paradox of her work is that, though her characters often feel disconnected and isolated, the works themselves reveal how deeply interrelated these people are with their North Dakota homeland, the landscape and the spirits that inhabit it, as well as with other Native people, contemporaries and ancestors.
Erdrich reveals this relatedness by her precise use of setting. Virtually every poem and story gains effectiveness from the way details of location, season, time of day, and weather reflect the emotional state or social situation of her characters. The often extreme elements of the North Dakota environment—its flat plains and dense forests; its marshes and lakes; its scalding, dry summers and frigid, snowy winters; its rivers that vacillate between raging spring torrents and late summer trickles—all function dramatically in Erdrich’s work.
Animals are another feature of North Dakota locale that Erdrich uses to dramatize relationships among humans and of humans with their environments. In traditional Indian myths and folk tales, animals and humans are often closely related—even interchangeable. Erdrich’s poetry repeatedly draws on this aspect of Indian literary heritage in individual figures of speech and as the narrative basis for entire poems. For example, Erdrich sets the poem “A Love Medicine” on a night when the Red River reaches flood stage; she describes her sister Theresa, a young woman seeking sexual experience who is oblivious to possible disaster, in this way:
Theresa goes out in green halter and chainsthat glitter at her throat.This dragonfly, my sister,she belongs more than Ito this night of rising water.
Erdrich’s presentation of animals and the supernatural in her fiction is more complex than in her poetry and is related to the unusual mixture of realism and exaggeration in her fiction. Rather than boldly asserting the metaphoric or mystical connections of animals and people, as she does in poetry, her stories and novels generally begin by establishing a realistic base of recognizably ordinary people, settings, and actions. As her tales develop, these people become involved in events and perceptions that appear to the reader quite extraordinary—exaggerated in ways that may seem deluded or mystical, grotesque or magical, comic or tragic, or some strange mixture of these.
The chapter (or story) titled “Love Medicine” in Erdrich’s first novel richly illustrates this mixture of realism and exaggeration as well as other characteristic features of her fiction. In this story, the young man Lipsha Morrissey begins by reflecting on how mundane his life has been: “I never really done much with my life, I suppose. I never had a television.” Under pressure from his grandmother, Marie Lazarre Kashpaw, who wants to rein in her husband’s straying affections, Lipsha tries to concoct a love potion based on the hearts of Canadian geese—birds that mate for life. The story develops comically as Lipsha fails to shoot down the wild geese he thinks he needs and instead substitutes turkey hearts that he buys in a supermarket. The story takes a grotesque, tragicomic turn when Marie’s suspicious and reluctant husband, Nector, chokes to death on a turkey heart that Marie nags him into eating.
The story leaves the reader wondering how to interpret Nector’s death. Is it evidence of the power of traditional Indian spiritualism, an ironic punishment of Marie for trying to trick her husband into loving her, or mere monstrous bad luck? As so often in her fiction, Erdrich withholds authorial comment that would provide a direct or conclusive answer to the often supernatural mysteries she presents. Instead, she relies on a first-person or, occasionally, third-person limited point of view. She concentrates on dramatizing what the characters think and feel about the mysteries in their lives. In “Love Medicine,” Lipsha and Marie share a sense of guilt over Nector’s death until, in another surprising twist, his ghost returns to visit them. Lipsha’s interpretation of this event is so moving and profound that it seems a more meaningful act of “love medicine” than the supernatural magic he had failed to perform earlier:Love medicine ain’t what brings him back to you, Grandma. No, it’s something else. He loved you over time and distance, but he went off so quick he never got the chance to tell you how he loves you, how he doesn’t blame you, how he understands. It’s true feeling, not no magic. No supermarket heart could have brung him back.
One other element of Erdrich’s fiction often praised by critics is her poetic, often lyrical style. Erdrich intensifies many moments through aptly chosen images or figures of speech, yet she is also a master at drawing such poetically heightened language from her characters’ experience. For example, in “Love Medicine,” after Lipsha has encountered the spirit of his dead grandfather, he compares life to a kind of clothing that he knows well:Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart’s position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won’t ever come by such a bargain again.
Erdrich often ends her stories with a lyrical flourish, a series of images that extends feelings and themes in vivid, though sometimes oblique and unexpected ways. At the conclusion of “Love Medicine,” Lipsha decides to pick some dandelions as a way of reconnecting his life with the forces of nature. Rather than ending the story with clear narrative sentences that neatly tie up a conclusion, Erdrich ends with a curious series of sentence fragments, images of what Lipsha sees that invite interpretation like lines in a poem: “The spiked leaves full of bitter mother’s milk. A buried root. A nuisance people dig up and throw in the sun to wither. A globe of frail seeds that’s indestructible.”
First published: 1984 (collected in Jacklight, 1984)
Type of work: Poem
In the harsh glare of “jacklight,” animals emerge from the woods and beckon hunters to follow them back into a realm of mystery.
“Jacklight,” the opening and title poem in Erdrich’s first book of verse, is a haunting dramatization of male-female and of white-Indian relations. The poem begins with an epigraph citing that “the same Chippewa word is used both for flirting and for hunting game,” so that the encounter between hunters and animals enacted in the poem is also an allegory for sexual gamesmanship between men and women. The title refers to an artificial light, such as a flashlight, used in hunting or fishing at night. This detail, along with a number of others, suggests that the poem is also an allegory of an encounter between white and Indian cultures. Erdrich does not indicate whether the male hunters in the poem are white or Indian, but in either case their equipment and character traits clearly suggest aggressive and exploitative aspects of white culture.
The poem begins not with the hunters going into the woods, but with the animals coming out—perhaps because of their curiosity, flirtatiousness, or trusting openness:
We have come to the edge of the woods,out of brown grass where we slept, unseen,out of knotted twigs, out of leaves creaked shut,out of hiding.
In these lines and throughout the poem, Erdrich’s use of assonance and consonance (such as “Out of brown” and “knotted twigs”) and of parallel syntax (such as the repetition of “out of”) creates a charged atmosphere that suggests repeated, ritualistic behavior.
The harsh assaultiveness of males and of white culture is portrayed in the beams of the jacklights, which “clenched to a fist of light that pointed,/ searched out, divided us.” The perverse power of this jacklight, in contrast with the powers of nature, is such that the animals (or females, or Indians) are compelled into separating from their group. Although the animals in the poem smell many repulsive aspects of the hunters (“the raw steel of their gun barrels,” “their tongues of sour barley,” “the itch underneath the caked guts on their clothes”), they do not retreat. Erdrich seems to be suggesting that women (if they want to have husbands) and Indians (if they want to avoid total destruction by the advancing white culture) have no choice but to deal with such brutishness.
In the last two stanzas, however, the animals declare that it is time for some concessions:
We have come here too long.It is their turn now,their turn to follow us. Listen,they put down their equipment.It is useless in the tall brush.And now they take the first steps, not knowinghow deep the woods are and lightless.
For the male who is in search of a female, or the white in confrontation with an Indian, or the reader who may be white or male and about to enter the world of a female Indian poet, there must be a willingness to deal with complexities and mysteries for which their “equipment” or preconceptions are inadequate. Yet Erdrich’s readers may also be assured that though “the woods” of her poetry may seem “deep” and at times “lightless,” they always contain authentic rewards of feeling and experience.
First published: 1984 (revised and expanded, 1993)
Type of work: Novel
In the years from 1934 to 1984, members of five Chippewa and mixed-blood families struggle to attain a sense of belonging through love, religion, home, and family.
Love Medicine is both the title and the main thematic thread that ties fourteen diverse short stories into a novel. Although it refers specifically to traditional Indian magic in one story, in a broader sense “love medicine” refers to the different kinds of spiritual power that enable Erdrich’s Chippewa and mixed-blood characters to transcend—however momentarily—the grim circumstances of their lives. Trapped on their shrinking reservation by racism and poverty, plagued by alcoholism, disintegrating families, and violence, some of Erdrich’s characters nevertheless discover forms of “love medicine” that can help to sustain them.
The opening story, “The World’s Greatest Fishermen,” begins with an episode of “love medicine” corrupted and thwarted. In 1981, June Kashpaw, once a woman of striking beauty and feisty spirit, has sunk to the level of picking up men in an oil boomtown. At first she hopes a man she meets will be “different” from others who have used and discarded her, then tries to walk to the reservation through a snowstorm. June fails in those last attempts to attain love and home, two goals she and other characters will seek throughout the novel. Although she appears only briefly in this and in one other story, June Kashpaw is central to the novel because she embodies the potential power of spirit and love in ways that impress and haunt the other characters.
Part 2 of “The World’s Greatest Fishermen” introduces many other major characters of Love Medicine, when June’s relatives gather together several months after her death. Several characters seem sympathetic because of their closeness to June and their kind treatment of one another. Albertine Johnson, who narrates the story and remembers her Aunt June lovingly, has gone through a wild phase of her own and is now a nursing student. Eli Kashpaw, Albertine’s great-uncle who was largely responsible for raising June, is a tough and sharp-minded old man who has maintained a traditional Chippewa existence as a hunter and fisherman. Lipsha Morrissey, who, though he seems not to know it, is June’s illegitimate son, a sensitive, self-educated young man who acts warmly toward Albertine.
In contrast to these characters, others appear flawed or unsympathetic according to Albertine, who would like to feel her family pulling together after June’s death. Zelda and Aurelia, Albertine’s gossipy mother and aunt, host the family gathering but do little to make Albertine feel at home. Albertine admires “Grandpa,” Zelda’s father Nector Kashpaw, for having once been an effective tribal chairman, but Nector has become so senile that Albertine cannot communicate with him. Gordie Kashpaw, the husband whom June left, is a pleasant fellow but a hapless drunk. In marked opposition to Lipsha, June’s legitimate son King is a volatile bully. Although King gains some sympathy when he voices his grief over his mother’s death, his horrifying acts of violence—abusing his wife, Lynette, battering his new car, smashing the pies prepared for the family dinner—leave Albertine and readers with a dismayed sense of a family in shambles.
Love Medicine then moves back in time from 1981, and its stories proceed in chronological order from 1934 to 1984, presenting ten earlier episodes in the lives of the Kashpaws and related families and three later episodes that follow the events in “The World’s Greatest...
(The entire section is 6178 words.)
SOURCE: "Border Country," in The Nation, Vol. 243, No. 14, November 1, 1986, pp. 460-63.
[In the following review, Banks asserts that The Beet Queen, in its best sections, rivals the novels of Charles Dickens in socially conscious storytelling.]
The Beet Queen is a Dickensian story, an angry comedy about abandonment and survival, pluck and luck (ambition and coincidence), common sense and pretension, and wise children and foolish adults. The book is structured in an almost classical manner. It opens with a sudden, unpredictable disaster that tosses an ordered world into terrible disarray. It then follows the paths of the half-dozen affected lives through three generations of small triumphs and reversals, long digressions and quick returns, until at last, in a ceremonial event that reunites and reorders the scattered elements of the tale into symmetrical, benign relations, it circles back to where it began, with everything the same only different—which in classical comedy, as in Dickens, is almost always the point. It's a form that in the hands of lesser artists than Louise Erdrich often affirms the status quo and lends itself to sentimentality. When, however, the story is played against a view of history in which decent folks are victimized not by their dopey and amusing gullibility but by economic and social forces too powerful to overcome with wile or guile, then the story has a divine rage, and one sees the radical power of the old form renewed.
The story of The Beet Queen is the story of the entwined fates of three generations of women whose men orbit around them like distant planets, necessary to the system as a whole but taking all their heat and most of their momentum from the women at the center. The book is divided into sixteen chapters narrated by the main characters and covering four decades in the lives of Mary Adare, one of the most memorable women in recent American fiction; her beleaguered mother, Adelaide; her narcissistic cousin, Sita Kozka; her lifelong friend, the half-Chippewa Celestine James; and Celestine's daughter, Dot. There are three men of note—Mary's older brother Karl, who fathers Dot; Dot's godfather, Wallace Pfef; and Celestine's half brother Russell Kashpaw, a shattered war hero. There is also Omar, a barnstorming stunt pilot, who, in the opening chapter, flies off with Adelaide, permitting her to abandon her three children on the fairgrounds below. This is the desperate, sad act that initiates the tangled actions of the book.
Several minor characters from the author's first novel, Love Medicine, pop up in The Beet Queen, and the setting is essentially the same as in that book—the flat, sparsely populated farm country where eastern North Dakota turns into western Minnesota, the literal and figurative border country where Chippewa tribal lands and lives grind against the land and lives of small-time white farmers, who in turn are swallowed by agribusiness. Erdrich sets her fiction squarely in the tense zone where races, cultures, languages, technologies and classes clash and overlap. Like most good fiction writers, she lives year-round in border country.
The Beet Queen is the second of a projected quartet of books dealing with the same cluster of families and events. Love Medicine, widely praised for its energy, inventiveness and compassion, was focused more directly on the lives of the Indians, and might for that reason seem more explicitly political than its successor. Yet it's evident...