Before I embark on my Louise Erdrich project, I want to give a small introduction to her and her work, especially since she seems to be virtually unknown in the UK. As I understand, she is kind of a big deal in the American literary world, but over here, people don’t recognize her name when I mention it (and I work in a bookshop). This entry will also act as a snapshot of my understanding of her work as I begin the project. We’ll see how it changes as I go along.
Louise Erdrich is an author mostly known for her novels, although she’s also written poetry, children’s books, short stories and non-fiction. To give you an idea of her skill, I could list some of the awards she’s won, and yes I’m going to, because recognition is nice. She’s received several lifetime achievement awards, a National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. And those are just my highlights. I told you she was a big deal.
More important to grasp her work, however, is her cultural background. Louise is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa Indians, for which her grandfather served as tribal chairman when she was a child. Her mum is of French and Chippewa descent, while her dad is German-American. This mixed Chippewa identity, as well as the Midwestern setting in which she grew up, are the foundation of her work. Most of her stories take place on the same fictional reservation in North Dakota, where she weaves intricate family sagas laced with myth and history. Also relevant is the fact that she was raised Catholic, as there always seems to be a cool priest or an evil nun (the reverse might also be true) hanging around in her stories.
In line with the great patriarchal tradition, critics like to compliment Louise by likening her writing to that of dusty white men, like Faulkner and García Márquez. If the comparison is valid, then she completely subverts their work, because hers is steeped in the feminine. This is an idea I hope to be able to explain more clearly by the end of this project, but for now I’ll just say that women – their lives, their concerns, their worldviews- are always at the centre of the writing, regardless of the protagonist’s gender. She gives particular value to motherhood: child-rearing always happens in her stories, natural and loving even when it poses challenges.
Another dispatch from the patriarchy: Louise’s prose is “beautiful” and “lyrical”. Like she’s a fairy that bestows her mythical female magic onto us (novelist Rebecca Makkai pointed to this kind of reductive description in her conversation with Louise last year). You bet there’s beauty there, but there’s also a whole lot of expertise. Louise can mold language into whatever she wants, and, in the process, generate a warmth and power that make me want to cry for my mum. You know that famous six-word story attributed to Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”? Well I raise you this story:
You went out for the afternoon and came back with your dress on inside out.*
In one sentence, she catches her readers’ attention (by using “you”), builds a mostly feminine space (since men don’t wear dresses traditionally) and creates the potential for both tragedy and humour (“dress on inside out”). Boom. I’m there.
So that’s it, the work of Louise Erdrich as I see it for now. If you want to know more about Louise, you can always look up her Wikipedia page. You should also know that she owns a bookshop in Minneapolis called Birchbark Books and Native Arts, that has a canoe hanging from the ceiling and a confessional converted into bookshelves, because why the hell not. Birchbark Books doesn’t deliver outside the US, but you can always visit their website for recommendations, or read Louise’s blog.
OK, let’s read some books. The first in the project will be the poetry collection Jacklight.
*This is Louise’s fulfilment of a “very short fiction” exercise she assigned to students during a workshop at the Turtle Mountain Community College in 2010, as reported by Lisa Halliday in The Paris Review.