Just as fiction in general has opened up to a diverse ethnic spectrum of writers, so too has short fiction, and Louise Erdrich’s (born Karen Louise Erdrich, June 7, 1954) stories stand as excellent examples of contemporary Native American literature. Like Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, and Paula Gunn Allen, Erdrich has taken a place as one of the prominent female Native American authors of short fiction. Even among American Indian stories, Erdrich’s stand out for their multiethnic nature. Erdrich’s stories include not only Native American characters but also characters of German, Swedish, and other European descent. Likewise, many of the stories’ themes are not specifically Native American themes. Indeed, the themes of Erdrich’s stories range from the effects of war on families and personal identity to loss of heritage and family and personal relationships.
Stylistically, Erdrich’s stories reveal many similarities to the stories of writers she has said had significant influence on her. The distinct sense of place, of character, and of history that colors the works of Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and Italo Calvino is similarly prominent in Erdrich’s stories. She has said of Calvino that “the magic in his work is something that has been an influence,” which is clear especially in stories like “Fleur” and “Snares.” As Faulkner does with Yoknapatawpha County, Erdrich creates a world of the Chippewa reservation and the town of Argus, in which and around which nearly all of her stories occur. Many of her characters are employed repeatedly in her stories. Minor characters in one story may be the central characters in another or relatives of characters in one story are featured in later stories. Thus, most of Erdrich’s stories connect to create a fictional world, which appears as true as the real world.
Erdrich has said that “the story starts to take over if it is good.” Her stories fulfill this criterion, capturing readers’ imagination and carrying them along on an intense mental ride. Her stories truly “touch some universals” that embrace readers of all ages, cultures, and beliefs.
The Red Convertible
“The Red Convertible” is Erdrich’s first published story. Like many of her stories, this tale of two brothers later became a chapter in the novel Love Medicine. On the surface, the story appears to be merely a simple tale of two brothers and the car they share. Lyman Lamartine, a young Indian man with a “touch” for money, and his brother Henry save enough money to buy a used, red Oldsmobile convertible. Lyman tells the story, describing the early adventures he and his brother shared in the car. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that much more than the car is important in this story. Lyman describes how Henry changed when he returned home from the Vietnam War. While the family tries to help the deeply depressed Henry, Lyman tricks his brother into fixing up the car that he damaged. Although Henry does improve, even the car cannot save him, as he commits suicide in the end. In this story, the red convertible represents the freedom and innocence of youth, yet once those things are lost due to war in Henry’s case and due to the altered Henry in Lyman’s case, they cannot be regained; they must be let go. Although the story unfolds mainly on the reservation, part of its success is that the topic itself (the loss of innocence, the effects of war) is universal, which allows any reader to understand and be intrigued by the tale.
Like many of Erdrich’s stories, “Saint Marie” also became a chapter in Love Medicine. “Saint Marie” is the story of a young Indian girl, who goes to the Roman Catholic convent near the reservation so she might prove she is better than the other heathen Indians. Marie tries very hard to keep Satan out of her life, yet one of the nuns, Sister Leopolda, believes Marie to be completely under the devil’s control. Leopolda proceeds to torture Marie to the point of stabbing her with a fork in order to expunge the evil. Yet to cover her madness, Leopolda lies to the other nuns, telling them that Marie must be touched by God as she has the signs of the stigmata on her hand; Marie must be a saint. However, Marie uses her knowledge of the truth of what happened to intimidate and humble Leopolda. Once again, this is a story about loss of innocence, about the psychological effects of a traumatic event in a young person’s life. Similarly, Marie’s struggle with her beliefs and Leopolda’s madness are not necessarily specific to Native Americans, so many readers can access the story and enjoy it.
A story which later became part of The Beet Queen, “Destiny” describes Celestine Duval’s visit to see her granddaughter’s Christmas play. Wallacette, Celestine’s granddaughter, is a large, strong, impulsive girl, who intimidates the other children in her school and town. The destiny of the title is Wallacette’s destiny to be strong and independent, just like her grandmother. Celestine adores Wallacette, though she does not get along withWallacette’s parents very well. In particular, there is bad blood between Celestine and her daughter-in-law, whose gelatin molds with vegetables in them are a source of great disgust for Celestine. The story turns comic whenWallacette hits a little boy she likes when he does not cooperate in the play, and it ends on a humorous note as Celestine reveals that the secret dish she had taken to the play with her daughter-in-law’s name on it was a gelatin mold with nuts and bolts in it. This story is very entertaining and universal in its depictions of family struggles and the pains of growing up. The psychological element still exists in this story, but some of the intense emotional pains are absent, which allows a humorous tone to come through.
“Fleur” presents the story of one woman’s multiple drowning experiences and her influence on the people around her. Told from the point of view of Pauline Puyat, this story later became a chapter in Tracks (1988). Pauline describes how Fleur Pillager drowned several times, and every man who rescued her ended up either crazy or dead. Pauline believes that Fleur has special magic powers, and she tells the story of the time Fleur left the reservation and went to the town of Argus. After beating a group of men at cards for a number of weeks, Fleur is attacked by the men in a smokehouse. Pauline stands by and watches the event, doing nothing to help Fleur. However, Fleur has her revenge when, in the midst of a storm that came from nowhere and touched nothing that Fleur valued, the men become locked in a meat freezer. Pauline believes that Fleur called up the storm. Although the story is about Fleur, it is also about Pauline. Pauline voices her own feelings and thoughts throughout the story, revealing the guilt she feels for not helping Fleur as well as the envy she feels toward this strong woman. Fleur is an enigma to Pauline, but she is also what Pauline seems to want to be in this story.
Though it was published after “Fleur,” “Matchimanito” is the story of how Fleur came to be the last living member of her family and what happened to her when she came back to the reservation from Argus. An old man, Nanapush, tells how he found Fleur amid her dead family and took her away to recover from the “spotted sickness.” This story reveals that Fleur is different from everyone else from the beginning. She is quiet yet powerful. Upon returning from Argus, she lives alone in a cabin next to Matchimanito, the lake, which fuels rumors about her relationship with the lake monster, Mishepeshu. However, Fleur soon attracts a young man, Eli Kashpaw, and they live as husband and wife by the lake. Fleur becomes pregnant, and her pregnancy sparks more rumors, as the child’s paternity is questioned. The birth of the child is difficult, and though many people believe that Fleur and her baby are dead, both live to prove them wrong. This is a powerful story because it demonstrates the strength of Fleur, the mixing of the old Indian ways with the new ones, the interaction of the community and individuals, and the history of both one person and a people. This story is particularly successful in its ability to show all of these things without force-feeding them to the reader.
Children’s literature: Grandmother’s Pigeon, 1996 (illustrated by Jim LaMarche); The Birchbark House, 1999; The Range Eternal, 2002; The Game of Silence, 2004.
Novels: 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 AntelopeWife, 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.
Nonfiction: The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year, 1995; Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, 2003.
Poetry: Jacklight, 1984; Baptism of Desire, 1989; Original Fire: Selected and New Poems, 2003.
Short fiction: “The Red Convertible,” 1981; “Scales,” 1982; “The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” 1982; “American Horse,” 1983; “Destiny,” 1985; “Saint Marie,” 1985; “Fleur,” 1987; “Snares,” 1987; “Matchimanito,” 1988; The Best American Short Stories 1993, 1993.
Chavkin, Allan, ed. The Chippewa Landscape of Louise Erdrich. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.
Davis, Rocío G. “Identity in Community in Ethnic Short Story Cycles: Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place.” In Ethnicity and the American Short Story, edited by Julia Brown. New York: Garland, 1997.
Erdrich, Louise. Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Edited by Allan Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
Ferguson, Suzanne. “The Short Stories of Louise Erdrich’s Novels.” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (1996): 541-555.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Rebein, Robert. Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists: American Fiction After Postmodernism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.
Smith, Jeanne Rosier. Writing Tricksters: Mythic Gambols in American Ethnic Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Stookey, Lorena Laura. Louise Erdrich: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.