Once named one of People magazine's most beautiful people, Louise Erdrich (born 1954) is a Native American writer with a wide popular appeal. She is no literary lightweight, however, having drawn comparisons to such noted American authors as William Faulkner.
Louise Erdrich was the first of seven children born to Ralph Louis Erdrich and Rita Joanne (Gourneau) Erdrich. Born on June 16, 1954, in Little Falls, Minnesota, she was raised in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Her mother, of Ojibwe descent, was born on the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Reservation while her father was of German ancestry. Both parents taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school.
A Tradition of Storytelling
From childhood, the rich oral tradition of Ojibwa storytelling was a part of Erdrich's life. Her mother and grandparents told her many stories about life on the reservation during the Great Depression of the 1930s, as well as other tales. Erdrich's father also told stories about his relatives and the towns where he grew up. Erdrich maintains that listening to her family's stories has in some ways been her most significant literary influence. Her father introduced her to the works of William Shakespeare and encouraged all of his children to write, paying a nickel apiece for her stories— Erdrich later joked that these nickels were her first royalties. Her mother supported her efforts as well, creating book covers for her daughter's manuscripts out of woven strips of construction paper and staples.
Living in a small town where she and her family were regarded as eccentric, Erdrich became an avid reader. Among her literary influences were Flannery O'Connor, Gabriel García Marquéz, Katherine Anne Porter, Toni Morrison, Willa Cather, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Faulkner.
Erdrich attended a Catholic school in Wahpeton. Her grandfather, Petrice Gourneau, taught her about culture and religion; tribal chair of the Turtle Mountain Reservation, he worshiped the traditional Ojibwa religion while at the same time was a devout Catholic. Her grandfather's example inspired Erdrich's creation of the character Father Damien who appears in many of her novels.
Indeed, Erdrich has drawn on her roots, both the land and the experiences of her family, for inspiration. As Mark Anthony Rolo wrote in the Progressive, "Erdrich once mused that Native American literature is often about coming home, returning to the land, the language and love of ancient traditions—a theme opposite of Western literature, which is about embarking on a journey, finding adventures beyond one's beginnings."
Native American Studies
In 1972 Erdrich enrolled in Dartmouth College as part of that school's first coeducational graduating class. There she met anthropologist Michael Dorris, chair of the Native American Studies department created at Dartmouth that same year. At Dartmouth Erdrich started writing poems and stories integrating her Ojibwa heritage and in 1975 she was awarded the Academy of Poets Prize. She received her bachelor of arts degree the following year.
Erdrich served as a visiting poet and teacher for the Dakota Arts Council for two years after college graduation. She went on to earn a master of arts in writing from Johns Hopkins University in 1979. While she began sending her work to publishers around this time, most of them sent back rejections.
Erdrich served as communications director and editor for one year for The Circle, a Boston Indian Council-sponsored newspaper. Following that, she worked as a textbook writer for Charles Merrill Company.
Beginning of a Partnership
In 1979 Erdrich returned to Dartmouth to do a poetry reading, where she once again met up with Dorris. Dorris became interested in Erdrich's poetry, but even more interested in the poet herself. Although the two went their separate ways for a year—Dorris to New Zealand, Erdrich returning to Dartmouth as a visiting fellow in the Native American Studies department—they continued to exchange manuscripts through the mail. They met back at Dartmouth the next year and were married on October 10, 1981.
Viewed by outsiders as having an idyllic relationship, Erdrich and Dorris collaborated on every project and wrote tender dedications to each other in their books. They had a system worked out: when both wrote comparable amounts of a draft, the work was published under both names, but when one of them wrote the entire first initial draft, that person was the author. Even in the latter case, the final product was always a result of collaboration. They did the research together, developed plot lines and characters— sometimes even drawing them to see what they looked like—and discussed all aspects of the draft before submitting it for publication.
When they were first married and needed money, Erdrich and Dorris published romantic fiction using the pen name Milou North: " Mi chael plus Louise plus where we live," Erdrich once explained to Shelby Grantham in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. One of their stories was published in Redbook, while others ran in European publications.
Erdrich received the 1982 Nelson Algren Fiction Award for "The World's Greatest Fishermen," a story that became the first chapter of her first novel, Love Medicine. Erdrich learned of the contest and started writing just two weeks before the submission deadline. The first draft was completed in just one day, and Dorris collaborated with her on the subsequent drafts. The final product was one of 2,000 entries judged by Donald Barthelme, Studs Terkel, and Kay Boyle.
In 1983 Erdrich was awarded the Pushcart Prize for her poem "Indian Boarding School" and the National Magazine Award for fiction for her short story "Scales." This story and another she had previously published, "The Red Convertible," also found their way into Love Medicine.
Prizewinning First Novel
The next year, at the age of 30, Erdrich published Jacklight, a book of blank verse poems collected from her graduate thesis work, and Love Medicine, her first novel. Love Medicine was a runaway success, winning the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, the Sue Kaufman Prize for Best First Fiction, and the Virginia McCormick Scully Award. The novel continued to win awards the following year, including the Los Angeles Times Award for fiction, the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and a fiction award from the Great Lakes Colleges Association.
Love Medicine became the first of Erdrich's "Argus" novels covering several generations of three Ojibwe families living in Argus, North Dakota, between from 1912 and the 1980s. Comparisons have been drawn to the work of Southern writer William Faulkner because of Erdrich's use of multi-voice narration and nonchronological storytelling as well as the ties of her characters to the land. Erdrich's fictional town of Argus has also been compared by critics to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
The "Argus" Novels
Erdrich's second novel in the series, The Beet Queen, published in 1986, covers a 40-year span beginning in 1932. Through characters like orphans Karl and Mary Adare and Celestine James and her daughter, Erdrich explores the negotiated interactions between the worlds of whites, half-breeds, and Native Americans. She followed this with a prequel, Tracks. Gleaned from the manuscript of the first novel she had ever started, Tracks explores the tensions between Native American spirituality and Catholicism. Erdrich continued the "Argus" series with The Bingo Palace, Tales of Burning Love, The Antelope Wife, and The Last Report on Miracles at Little No Horse.
Many of the characters in Erdrich's books grow and develop over time in successive novels. Katy Read in the Globe & Mail wrote, "Erdrich's characters do seem to have lives of their own—lives and histories and intricate relationships that meander in and out of nearly all her books."
For example, In the Last Report on Miracles at Little No Horse, a finalist for the National Book Award, Father Damian Modeste, first introduced in Love Medicine, returns. The Father's secret, it unfolds, is that he is really a former nun, Agnes DeWitt, who, through a series of events, ended up posing as a Catholic priest. Agnes spends half a century ministering to the people of an Objibwe reservation and hiding the fact that she is actually a woman.
Interest in the Unusual
Although strange things often happen in her books, Erdrich rejects the "magical realist" label, claiming that even the most unusual events are based on things that really occurred, things she has found documented in newspaper clippings and books. She collects books on strange tales and supernatural happenings and keeps notebooks which she fills with stories of odd events she has heard about. Erdrich has also done a great deal of historical research, especially family history and local history around North Dakota. On the other hand, she admitted to Rolo, "A lot of it is plain made up."
Erdrich's second book of poems, Baptism of Desire, was published in 1989. That same year, her husband, Dorris, received the National Book Critics Circle Award for his nonfiction work The Broken Chord. The book, with a preface by Erdrich, is a memoir of Dorris's experiences as one of the first single men to adopt children; by the time he married Erdrich he had adopted three Native American children with fetal alcohol syndrome.
In 1991 the couple published their co-authored novel The Crown of Columbus. The book is a complicated 400-page story about a love affair between two writers and intellectuals who, at the same time they are trying to define their relationship, are also grappling with the historical figure of Columbus in their research and writing. The couple also co-authored a book of travel essays titled Route Two.
Tragic Turn of Events
Erdrich and Dorris had three children together in addition to the three children Dorris adopted prior to their marriage. The couple separated in 1995 in the wake of allegations of sexual abuse brought against Dorris by some of his children. After an investigation left the accusations unresolved, Dorris committed suicide in 1997. As Erdrich told a National Public Radio Weekend Edition commentator that during that time, "All my being was really concentrated on getting our children through it, and that's something you do minute by minute. Then, you know, there's that one day at a time."
Despite the turbulence within her personal life during the 1990s, Erdrich kept writing. In 1995 she published her first nonfiction book, The Blue Jay's Dance, in which she records her experience with pregnancy and the birth year of her child. The title, which refers to the way a blue jay will defiantly dance toward an attacking hawk, is a metaphor for "the sort of controlled recklessness that having children always is," Erdrich told Jane Aspinall in an article in Quill & Quire.
The following year Erdrich wrote the children's book Grandmother's Pigeon. Using the same sense of magic found in her novels, she tells the story of an adventurous grandmother who rides to Greenland on a dolphin. The eggs she leaves for her grandchildren hatch into pigeons that can send messages to her.
New Start in Minneapolis
In 1999 Erdrich and her three youngest children relocated to Minneapolis to be closer to her parents in North Dakota. In July 2000, she and her sister Heidi opened Birchbark Books, Herbs, and Native Arts in the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis. The store, located in a building that was once a meat market, is decorated with a stairway made of birch trees that fell on land owned by friends in Wisconsin; the shop's focal point is an intricately carved Roman Catholic confessional Erdrich found at an architectural salvage store. Dream-catchers hang in the corners of the confessional, along with books with "sin" in the title and a framed copy of the U.S. Government's 1837 treaty with the Chippewa.
Since the late 1990s Erdrich has focused on learning the Ojibwe language and studying her tribe's culture and traditions, including its mysticism. She has also taught her youngest daughter to speak the Ojibwe language. In 2001 she finished writing The Last Report on Miracles at Little No Horse and also had a baby girl. The following year Erdrich wrote her first novel for young adults, the National Book Award for Young People finalist The Birchbark House. The story of a young Ojibwa girl named Omakayas, The Birchbark House also features illustrations by Erdrich. Her 2003 novel for adults, The Master Butchers Singing Club, returns readers to Argus, North Dakota; its main character is a German butcher named Fidelis Waldvogel, an immigrant to the United States in the 1920s.
Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, edited by Allan Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
Associated Press Newswires, March 23, 1998; March 25, 1998.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 21, 2001.
News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina), April 22, 2001.
Progressive, April 1, 2002.
Quill & Quire, August 1995.
Star Tribune (San Diego, California), December 30, 2001.
Toronto Star, April 22, 2001.
"Meet the Writers: Louise Erdrich," http://www.barnesandnoble.com/writers/writer.asp?cid929573 (February 4, 2003).
"Modern American Poetry: About Louise Erdrich," http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/erdrich/about.htm (February 4, 2003).
NPR Weekend Edition, http://www.npr.org/ (July 8, 2001).
"Voices from the Gaps: Louise Erdrich," http://voices.cla.umn.edu/authors/louiseerdrich.html (February 4, 2003).