Louise Erdrich is many things. The literary queen of the mixedbloods. The Faulkner of Indians. The Ojibwe beauty queen. She is also today’s birthday girl.
Erdrich was born on this day in 1954 into the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. She was born in Little Falls, Minnesota but was raised in North Dakota where many of her books also take place. Her first book Love Medicine established her style and content for the next several years: multi-generational narratives focused on several particular families on the same Ojibwe reservation.
Love Medicine sounds potentially like a horribly cheesy Native romance saga and the paperback edition I read had a horribly cheesy cover. While it is true that Erdrich writes about love, she is rarely sentimental. For me, she is one of few who can successfully communicate the insanity of love with prose that is daring, unexpected, and seamlessly connected to larger narratives of human experience.
Many people credit her heartbreaking prose to her tragically failed romantic relationship with Michael Dorris. Honestly, I’m not very interested in tracing their tortured affair through the male characters and broken families of her books. But I will say The Antelope Wife was the first book she wrote after their divorce and it is one of the most genuinely sad books I have ever read.
After I merged my being with Love Medicine and The Antelope Wife, I attempted Plague of Doves but set it aside after suffering the equivalent of a reading faint. Erdrich could probably write about a tree losing its bark and I would start bawling, but the multi-layered, multi-generational narratives started to wear on me. I mean you can only read so many of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels before you need to take a literary nap.
Returning to her now though I realize there are some odd ball books thrown into her oeuvre that I should give a chance, chief among them is The Master Butcher’s Singing Club a mystery story which focuses more on German immigrant culture though still involves enough characters to warrant a family tree in the front matter. Erdrich has taken some flack for her alleged lack of allegiance to Native communities, i.e. she acknowledges and writes about her European ancestry and that bothers people.But as with her writing on love and heartbreak and loss, her books with German immigrant culture come from an intensely honest desire to write all aspects of her self.
To a large degree, I think haters might be coming from a place of anxiety about what constitutes Native American literature and also a need to protect Indian identity. Second only to Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich is the cross-over success story of Native authors. Perhaps other Natives, authors in particular (cough, Leslie Marmon Silko, cough), fear losing the powerful message of Native identity found in her novels once she is thrown into the Oprah-approved, literary mainstream.
In this instance, I often compare her to Toni Morrison whose book Beloved is still I think one of the greatest literary expositions of the trauma of slavery in the black community. It may be a bestseller, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the truth. The same goes for Ms. Erdrich.
If anyone still doubts Erdrich’s support of Native peoples, her independent bookstore Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, MN, which is a big promoter of Native authors, artists, and community, should act as the proper slap in the face. If for some godforsaken reason I ever find myself in Minneapolis, it is on the top of my list of places to visit (along with everywhere The Replacements ever breathed on).
So, on this day of your birth, I offer my humble thanks to Louise Erdrich for refusing to be anything less than what she is. And what she is is a master creator, re-crafting the shipwreck of Indian and settler lives and encounters into structures as beautiful and complex as her life and person.