Analysis of Louise Erdrich’s Novels

In a 1985 essay titled “Where I Ought to Be: A Writer’s Sense of Place,” Louise Erdrich (7 June 1954-) states that the essence of her writing emerges from her attachment to her North Dakota locale. The ways in which Erdrich brought this region to literary life have been favorably compared by critics to the methods and style of William Faulkner, who created the mythical Yoknapatawpha County out of his rich sense of rural Mississippi. Like Faulkner, Erdrich created a gallery of diverse characters spanning several generations, using multiple points of view and shifting time frames. Erdrich’s fiction further resembles Faulkner’s in that the experience of her characters includes a broad spectrum of experience “from the mundane to the miraculous,” as one critic put it. Erdrich’s stories generally begin with a realistic base of ordinary people, settings, and actions. As her tales develop, however, these people become involved in events and perceptions that strike the reader as quite extraordinary—as exaggerated or heightened in ways that may seem deluded or mystical, grotesque or magical, comic or tragic, or some strange mixture of these. Thus, one critic has described Erdrich as “a sorceress with language” whose lyrical style intensifies some of the most memorable scenes in contemporary American fiction.

Love Medicine
Erdrich’s first novel, Love Medicine, spans the years 1934-1984 in presenting members of five Chippewa and mixed-blood families, all struggling in different ways to attain a sense of belonging through love, religion, home, and family. The novel includes fourteen interwoven stories; though the title refers specifically to traditional Ojibwa magic in one story, in a broader sense “love medicine” refers to the different kinds of spiritual power that enable Erdrich’s Native American and mixedblood 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 a form of “love medicine” that helps to sustain them.

The opening story, “The World’s Greatest Fishermen,” begins with an episode of “love medicine” corrupted and thwarted. Though June Kashpaw was once a woman of striking beauty and feisty spirit, by 1981 she has sunk to the level of picking up men in an oil boomtown. However, June fails in her last attempts to attain two goals that other characters will also seek throughout the novel: love and home. However, though she appears only briefly in this and one other story, June Kashpaw is a central character in the novel, for 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 of the other major characters of Love Medicine, as June’s relatives gather several months after her death. On one hand, 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 granduncle, who was largely responsible for rearing 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, is a sensitive, self-educated young man who acts warmly toward Albertine. In contrast to these characters are others who are flawed or unsympathetic when seen through the eyes of Albertine, who would like to feel that her family is pulling together after June’s death. These less sympathetic characters include Zelda and Aurelia (Albertine’s gossipy mother and aunt), Nector Kashpaw (Albertine’s senile grandfather), and Gordon Kashpaw (the husband whom June left, a hapless drunk). Worst of all is June’s legitimate son King, a volatile bully. King’s horrifying acts of violence—abusing his wife Lynette, battering his new car, and smashing the pies prepared for the family dinner—leave Albertine in dismay with a family in shambles.

Love Medicine then shifts back in time from 1981, and its thirteen remaining stories proceed in chronological order from 1934 to 1984. “Saint Marie” concerns a mixed-blood girl, Marie Lazarre, who in 1934 enters Sacred Heart Convent and embarks on a violent love-hate relationship with Sister Leopolda. In “Wild Geese,” also set in 1934, Nector Kashpaw is infatuated with Lulu Nanapush, but his affections swerve unexpectedly when he encounters Marie Lazarre on the road outside her convent. By 1948, the time of “The Beads,” Marie has married Nector, had three children (Aurelia, Zelda, and Gordie), and agreed to rear her niece June. Nector, however, is drinking and philandering, and June, after almost committing suicide in a children’s hanging game, leaves to be brought up by Eli in the woods. “Lulu’s Boys,” set in 1957, reveals that the amorous Lulu Lamartine (née Nanapush) had married Henry Lamartine but bore eight sons by different fathers. Meanwhile, in “The Plunge of the Brave,” also set in 1957, Nector recalls the development of his five-year affair with Lulu and tries to leave his wife Marie for her, but the result is that he accidentally burns Lulu’s house to the ground.

The offspring of these Kashpaws and Lamartines also have their problems in later Love Medicine stories. In “A Bridge,” set in 1973, Albertine runs away from home and becomes the lover of Henry Lamartine, Jr., one of Lulu’s sons, a troubled Vietnam War veteran. “The Red Convertible,” set in 1974, also involves Henry, Jr., as Lyman Lamartine tries unsuccessfully to bring his brother out of the dark personality changes that Vietnam has wrought in him. On a lighter note, “Scales,” set in 1980, is a hilarious account of the romance between Dot Adare, an obese clerk at a truck weighing station, and Gerry Nanapush, one of Lulu’s sons who is a most unusual convict: enormously fat, amazingly proficient at escaping from jail, but totally inept at avoiding recapture. “A Crown of Thorns,” which overlaps with the time of “The World’s Greatest Fishermen” in 1981, traces the harrowing and bizarre decline of Gordie Kashpaw into alcoholism after June’s death.

Though in these earlier Love Medicine stories the positive powers of love and spirit are more often frustrated than fulfilled, in the last three stories several characters achieve breakthroughs that bring members of the different families together in moving and hopeful ways. In “Love Medicine,” set in 1982, Lipsha Morrissey reaches out lovingly to his grandmother Marie and to the ghosts of Nector and June. In “The Good Tears,” set in 1983, Lulu undergoes a serious eye operation and is cared for by Marie, who forgives her for being Nector’s longtime extramarital lover. Finally, in “Crossing theWater,” set in 1984, Lipsha helps his father, Gerry Nanapush, escape to Canada and comes to appreciate the rich heritage of love, spirit, and wiliness that he has inherited from his diverse patchwork of Chippewa relatives—especially from his grandmother Lulu, his great-aunt Marie, and his parents, June and Gerry.

The Beet Queen
InThe Beet Queen, her second novel, Erdrich shifts her main focus from the American Indian to the European-immigrant side of her background, and she creates in impressive detail the mythical town of Argus (modeled on Wahpeton, where she was reared, but located closer to the Ojibwa reservation) in the years 1932- 1972.

The opening scene of The Beet Queen, “The Branch,” dramatizes two contrasting approaches to life that many characters will enact throughout the novel. On a cold spring day in 1932, two orphans, Mary and Karl Adare, arrive by freight train in Argus. As they seek the way to the butcher shop owned by their Aunt Fritzie and Uncle Pete Kozka, Mary “trudge[s] solidly forward,” while Karl stops to embrace a tree that already has its spring blossoms. When they are attacked by a dog, Mary runs ahead, continuing her search for the butcher shop, while Karl runs back to hop the train once again. As the archetypal plodder of the novel, Mary continues to “trudge solidly forward” throughout; she is careful, determined, and self-reliant in pursuit of her goals. On the other hand, Karl is the principal dreamer—impressionable, prone to escapist impulses, and dependent on others to catch him when he falls.

The Adare family history shows how Karl is following a pattern set by his mother, Adelaide, while Mary grows in reaction against this pattern. Like Karl, Adelaide is physically beautiful but self-indulgent and impulsive. Driven to desperation by her hard luck in the early years of the Great Depression, Adelaide startles a fairground crowd by abandoning her three children (Mary, Karl, and an unnamed newborn son) to fly away with the Great Omar, an airplane stunt pilot.

A number of episodes gratify the reader with triumphs for Mary and comeuppances
for theIn Argus, Mary tangles with yet another beautiful, self-centered dreamer: her cousin Sita Kozka, who resents the attention that her parents, Pete and Fritzie, and her best friend, the mixed-blood Celestine James, pay to Mary. However, Mary prevails and carves a solid niche for herself among Pete, Fritzie, and Celestine, who, like Mary, believe in a strong work ethic and lack Sita’s pretentious airs.

A number of episodes gratify the reader with triumphs for Mary and comeuppances for the less sympathetic characters Karl, Adelaide, and Sita. Mary becomes famous for a miracle at her school (she falls and cracks the ice in the image of Jesus), gains Celestine as a close friend, and in time becomes manager of the Kozka butcher shop. By contrast, Karl becomes a drifter who finds only sordid momentary pleasure in his numerous affairs. Meanwhile, Adelaide marries Omar and settles in Florida, but she becomes moody and subject to violent rages. Similarly, Sita fails in her vainglorious attempts to become a model and to establish a fashionable French restaurant; she escapes her first marriage through divorce and becomes insane and suicidal during her second.

However, even as Erdrich charts the strange and sometimes grotesque downfalls of her flighty characters, she develops her more sympathetic ones in ways that suggest that the opposite approach to life does not guarantee happiness either. Mary is unsuccessful in her attempt to attract Russell Kashpaw (the half-brother of Celestine), and she develops into an exotically dressed eccentric who is obsessed with predicting the future and controlling others. Like Mary, Celestine James and Wallace Pfef are hardworking and successful in business, but their loneliness drives each of them to an ill-advised affair with Karl, and he causes each of them considerable grief. In addition, the union of Celestine and Karl results in the birth of Dot Adare (who grows up to be the ill-tempered lover of Gerry Nanapush in the Love Medicine story “Scales”); since Celestine, Mary, and Wallace all spoil the child, Dot turns out, in Wallace’s words, to have “all of her family’s worst qualities.” As a teenager, Dot herself comes to grief when she is mortified to learn that the well-meaning Wallace has rigged the election for Queen of the Argus Beet Festival so that she, an unpopular and ludicrously unlikely candidate, will win.

However, in addition to the defeats and disappointments that all the characters bear, Erdrich dramatizes the joy that they derive from life. The compensations of family and friendship—ephemeral and vulnerable as these may be—prove to be significant for all the characters at various times in the story, particularly at the end. The irrepressible vitality of these people, troublesome as they often are to one another, keeps the reader involved and entertained throughout the novel.

Tracks
Erdrich’s third novel, Tracks, is concentrated, intense, and mystical. It is the shortest, covers a time span of only twelve years, and alternates between only two first-person narrators. This compression serves the story well, for the human stakes are high. At first, and periodically throughout the novel, the Chippewa characters fear for their very survival, as smallpox, tuberculosis, severe winters, starvation, and feuds with mixed-blood families bring them close to extinction. Later in the novel, government taxes and political chicanery threaten the Chippewas’ ownership of family and tribal land. In response, Erdrich’s Chippewa characters use all the powers at their command—including the traditional mystical powers of the old ways—to try to survive and maintain their control over the land.

Nanapush, one of the novel’s two narrators, is an old Chippewa whom Erdrich names for the trickster rabbit in tribal mythology who repeatedly delivers the people from threatening monsters. In Tracks, Erdrich’s Nanapush often does credit to his mythological model, Nanabozho, by wielding the trickster rabbit’s powers of deliverance, wiliness, and humor. He saves Fleur Pillager, a seventeen-year-old girl who is the last but one of the Pillager clan, from starvation. Later he delivers young Eli Kashpaw from the sufferings of love by advising him how to win Fleur’s heart. Also, Nanapush is instrumental in saving the extended family that forms around Fleur, Eli, and himself. This family grows to five when Fleur gives birth to a daughter, Lulu, and Eli’s mother, Margaret Kashpaw, becomes Nanapush’s bedmate. As these five come close to starvation, Nanapush sends Eli out to hunt an elk; in one of the most extraordinary passages of the novel, Nanapush summons a power vision of Eli hunting that the old man imagines is guiding Eli to the kill. Nanapush also demonstrates the humor associated with his mythological model in his wry tone as a narrator, his sharp wit in conversation, and the tricks that he plays on his family’s mixed-blood antagonists: the Pukwans, Morrisseys, and Lazarres.

Foremost among these antagonists is the novel’s other narrator, Pauline Pukwan. A “skinny big-nosed girl with staring eyes,” Pauline circulates in Argus from the Kozkas’ butcher shop to the Sacred Heart Convent, and on the reservation from the Nanapush-Pillager-Kashpaw group to the Morrissey and Lazarre clans. At first attracted to Fleur by the beauty and sexual power that she herself lacks, Pauline later takes an envious revenge by concocting a love potion that seems to drive Fleur’s husband, Eli, and Sophie Morrissey to become lovers. Ironically, though one side of her believes in a Roman Catholic denial of her body, Pauline later gives birth out of wedlock to a girl named Marie, and at the end of her narrative Pauline enters the convent to become Sister Leopolda—the cruel nun who later torments her own daughter, Marie Lazarre, in Love Medicine.

Though Erdrich clearly feels passionately about the sufferings visited on her Chippewa characters in Tracks, she treats this politically charged material with her usual disciplined restraint. Her dispassionate, deadpan use of first-person narrators (never broken by authorial commentary) matches the understated, stoic attitude that Nanapush adopts toward the numerous waves of hardship and betrayal that the Chippewas must endure.

If in some ways Tracks seems to conclude with a feeling of fragmentation and defeat, in other ways it strikes positive notes of solidarity and survival, especially when considered in relation to Love Medicine and The Beet Queen. Fleur disappears, leaving her husband and daughter, but Nanapush uses his wiliness to become tribal chairman and then to retrieve Lulu from a distant boarding school. At the end, the reader is reminded that Nanapush has addressed his entire narrative to Lulu: The old man hopes that his story will persuade Lulu to embrace the memory of Fleur, “the one you will not call mother.” Further, the reader familiar with Love Medicine will realize how this young girl, who becomes Lulu Lamartine, carries on the supernaturally powerful sexuality of her mother Fleur and the wily talent for survival of Nanapush, the old man who gave her his name and reared her.

The Bingo Palace
The Bingo Palace takes place roughly ten years after the end of Love Medicine and follows several characters who were introduced in the first three novels. Primary among these is June Kashpaw’s luckless son Lipsha Morrissey, back on the reservation after a series of failed jobs. His uncle, shrewd businessman Lyman Lamartine, offers him a job at his bingo parlor as a part-time bartender and night watchman. After his dead mother June appears with bingo tickets that are destined to change his luck significantly, gentle Lipsha not only wins a prize van but also pockets more of Lyman’s money by continuing to win. A further complication in their relationship is Shawnee Ray Toose (Miss Little Shell), champion jingle-dress dancer, with whom Lipsha is promptly smitten, even though she has had a son by Lyman.

This loosely structured novel recounts Lipsha’s sweet but faltering courtship of Shawnee, who rebuffs both of her suitors; Lyman’s schemes to erect a splendid bingo palace on the last bit of Pillager land; and a joint vision quest that is serious for Lyman but comic for Lipsha, whose vision animal turns out to be a skunk that really sprays him. Lipsha has another abortive reunion with his father, escaped convict Gerry Nanapush, and is left stranded in a stolen car in a blizzard until his greatgrandmother Fleur Pillager steps in. Erdrich employs techniques of Magical Realism, as the dead speak and the lake monster Misshepeshu continues to strike terror into the hearts of all except the dauntless Fleur.

The Antelope Wife
Erdrich’s seventh novel, The Antelope Wife, shifts to a new set of characters and a new locale, Minnesota. A young cavalry private, Scranton Roy, is sent to quell an American Indian uprising but mistakenly attacks a neutral Ojibwa village. Realizing his error, he manages to rescue a baby whom he then nurses with his own miraculous milk and raises to adulthood. In this way the white Roy family begins a relationship that spans five generations with two Ojibwa families.

The infant’s grieving mother marries a man named Showano and bears twin girls. Her twin granddaughters Zosie and Mary Showano figure prominently as the wife and the lover of Scranton Roy’s grandson and as the two mothers of Rozina Roy Whiteheart Reads, herself the mother of twin daughters. Rozina wants to leave her husband Richard for a Minneapolis baker, Frank Showano. Although this novel was completed just before Michael Dorris’s death, it is uncomfortably prescient in its account of the unhappy marriage between Rozina and her suicidal husband.

This is a novel of repeated family patterns (lost mothers, lost daughters), emphasized by the linking imagery of the archetypal headings that introduce each section. In this subtle and seamless blending of Ojibwa myth with contemporary life, Magical Realism becomes even more pronounced. Frank Showano’s brother Klaus is nearly destroyed by his infatuation with a seductive, shape-shifting antelope woman. The windigo, a cannibal hunger spirit, is a very real presence and threat, while some chapters are narrated by a talking dog named Almost Soup. The Antelope Wife affirms the vitality of Ojibwa culture on and off the reservation.

If Louise Erdrich had been born two hundred years earlier, she might have become a traditional Ojibwa storyteller, whose tales would have reminded her listeners of their unchanging relationship to the land and to the mythic and legendary characters who inhabited it. Several generations removed from such a stable and undamaged culture, Erdrich nevertheless was able to create a richly neotribal view of people and place. Her novels testify to the profound interrelatedness of her characters— American Indian and white, contemporaries and ancestors—both with one another and with their midwestern homeland.

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
This 2001 novel plunges readers into the lifetime saga of Father Damien and his work among the Ojibwas on the Little No Horse reservation. A prologue, containing a 1996 letter to the pope from Father Damien, begins the book’s four-part narration by returning to 1910-1912. As in all Erdrich’s work, landscape plays a major role. “Eighty-some years previous, through a town that was to flourish and past a farm that would disappear, the river slid—all that happened began with that flow of water.” Novitiate Sister Cecelia, the former Agnes De Witt, is introduced as a young nun whose piano playing contains such emotion it disturbs her community and prompts her leaving. The arrangements she makes to live on a nearby farm catapult her into an adventure that will engulf her life. An accidental brush with petty criminals causes her common-law husband’s death and sets the stage for the rest of the novel. Themes of passionate devotion, religious life, individual will, and survival in the face of overwhelming odds are set in motion in part 1, “The Transfiguration of Agnes.” After a disastrous flood washes her out of her home, Agnes takes the role of Father Damien Modeste, a drowned priest whose body she finds. She walks onto Ojibwa land, and the novel’s main conceit is in place.

Throughout part 2, “The Deadly Conversions,” and part 3, “Memory and Suspicion,” Erdrich continues the technique of interspersing chapters about the aged priest’s daily routine and life in his parish with chapters about the past. In these sections Father Jude, an emissary from the Vatican, interacts with Father Damien and the parishioners that he has come to know and accept over the years. As Father Jude Miller investigates Sister Leopolda’s life and the miracles reported at Little No Horse, the novel incorporates earlier episodes between Father Damien, Nanapush, and Fleur Pillager as well as revealing the history of the Puyat clan and the tale of the Kashpaw wives, the drama of Mary Kashpaw in the convent kitchen and Lulu Pillager’s struggle with her mother, Fleur. Lulu’s hatred for Fleur takes root in these sections when she is sent to Indian Boarding School. To further complicate life, another priest arrives to help Father Damien, and this means sharing a living space—a huge difficulty for “Father” Damien. The two of them discover each other with a passion that cannot be contained.

Part 4, “The Passions,” gives both report and prophecy concerning Lulu Pillager, returned as a woman to the reservation. It contains Sister Leopolda’s final confession of a murder and her threat to unmask “Father” Damien to the authorities when they quarrel. Father Jude Miller begins his account of Leopolda’s passion and finds himself spending equal time thinking about Father Damien’s life as he writes. Father Damien, unwilling to be indefensible in death, plans his disappearance, and Mary Kashpaw helps him carry it out. Finally, it is the love that Father Damien shared with his Ojibwa flock that they and readers remember.

The Master Butchers Singing Club
This 2003 novel adds another family saga to those of the residents of Argus, North Dakota, whom Erdrich’s readers have been getting to know since the 1980’s. FidelisWaldvogel’s return fromWorldWar I in 1918 and his emigration from Germany in 1922 begin a narrative that moves through the development of small-town culture in the upper Midwest at the twentieth century’s beginning to the Great Depression; it culminates nine years after the end of WorldWar II.

Erdrich’s genius for metaphor is employed in her creation of chapter titles. For example, chapter three, “The Bones,” begins with Argus’s structure as a town; the framework of Fidelis’s life shifts when Eva arrives with “their” son; Fidelis opens a butcher shop which schedules his life through work; Cyprian and Delphine establish a fake marriage to mollify the townspeople; and Roy is found wallowing in filth and confusion. The chapter’s events allude to bones’ functions as support, and other chapter titles suggest metaphors for memory, time, and patterns of connection in human lives.

Early in the novel, Fidelis founds a singing club like the one he remembers in his German home, Ludwigsruhe, and the men begin weekly meetings to harmonize and socialize. Delphine struggles to negotiate the early childhood loss of her mother and the alcoholic incompetence of her father. Cyprian struggles with his homosexual desires. Confronting Cyprian after she discovers him in an encounter with a man, Delphine means to remind him of their one night of passion, but instead she asks, “How do you balance?” Delphine and Cyprian tour successfully with a vaudeville group and traveling circus until Delphine needs to return to Argus and quiet her worries about her father, Roy Watzka. Argus then becomes the backdrop for how the two couples struggle for equilibrium.

The couples’ lives mingle when Delphine begins to help out in the butcher shop. She is drawn into Eva’s kitchen for coffee the first day that she comes to the shop as a customer, and in that room, she senses the domestic tranquillity she had longed for. Eva becomes fatally stricken with cancer, and Delphine nurses her friend through a painful death. All the while she and Cyprian maintain the charade of marriage while they live nearly platonically. Erdrich introduces two eccentrics: Tante Maria Waldvogel, Fidelis’s embittered spinster sister, and Step-and-a-Half, a wandering collector of junk. Gradually the plot becomes more about how the women manage to maintain order and live than how the men prosper.

Finally, Fidelis proposes to Delphine, and she is free to accept him. She has been a surrogate mother for his sons and has achieved a respected place in Argus through her economic ways, her efficient way of meeting her responsibilities, her steady presence, and her wide reading. The novel is weighted with the vision of what it means to survive and achieve balance in the world as one finds it, not as one wishes it.

 

Major works
Long fiction Love Medicine, 1984 (revised and expanded, 1993); The Beet Queen, 1986; Tracks, 1988; The Crown of Columbus, 1991 (with Michael Dorris); The Bingo Palace, 1994; Tales of Burning Love, 1996; The Antelope Wife, 1998; The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, 2001; The Master Butchers Singing Club, 2003; Four Souls, 2004; The Painted Drum, 2005.
Short fiction: “The Red Convertible,” 1981; “Scales,” 1982; “TheWorld’s Greatest Fisherman,” 1982; “American Horse,” 1983; “Destiny,” 1985; “Saint Marie,” 1985; “Fleur,” 1987; “Snares,” 1987; “Matchimanito,” 1988.
Poetry: Jacklight, 1984; Baptism of Desire, 1989; Original Fire: Selected and New Poems, 2003.
Nonfiction: The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year, 1995; Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, 2003.
Children’s literature: Grandmother’s Pigeon, 1996 (illustrated by Jim LaMarche); The Birchbark House, 1999; The Range Eternal, 2002; The Game of Silence, 2004.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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