First Posted: 2/21/2014
Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with the work of many writers. Yet something – shyness perhaps – prevents me from sending off fan letters to thank these people for the gifts of their imagination, linguistic brilliance, compelling characters and themes, and stories in which I can lose myself.
Writing a column about books is one way to remedy this lapse, so today, here’s a belated Valentine to Louise Erdrich, author of several of my favorite novels: “Love Medicine,” “The Beet Queen,” “Tracks” and “The Bingo Palace.” Taken together, along with several others, this quartet of books weaves a complex tapestry of lives braided together by heritage, proximity, and fate. Erdrich’s own ethnic mix, German and Ojibwe (Chippewa), and the fact that she grew up in North Dakota, provided her with the intimate knowledge of the cultures and geography she needed to create her vibrant fictional worlds.
Many critics have compared her to Faulkner, and rightfully so. Just as he invented Yoknapatawpha County, Erdrich invents a mythical Ojibwe reservation that is home to most of the characters, as well as the nearby town of Argus, North Dakota, where “The Beet Queen,” and some scenes from other books are set. Likewise, she uses Faulkner’s technique of multiple narrators – a device that drives some readers crazy, but one that I admire and enjoy because we get to hear the stories from multiple and often conflicting perspectives. I suspect that what really bothers some readers and critics is that Erdrich makes us work hard to piece together the disjointed chronology of the saga that emerges in these books.
The complex family relationships are even trickier to figure out. I understand that more recent editions of these books include family trees, but I’m glad I read the older ones, where the connections between the Kashpaws and Nanapushes, Pillagers, Morrisseys and Adares, are revealed piecemeal. Like many early readers, I found myself drawing diagrams of family trees, filling in new relationships as I discovered them, book by book. The pleasure of finding these connections for myself, like the satisfaction of placing a jigsaw puzzle piece in the right spot to complete the picture, came from the countless “Aha!” moments in which the answer to some nagging question, some mystery, was revealed.
Even if you’re not nerdy enough to enjoy piecing the whole story together, you’d find it hard not to be fascinated by the people who inhabit the novels. Like a ventriloquist or brilliant impersonator, she brings to life these richly drawn characters, each with his or her distinct personality and voice. I love them all, but my favorite is the mysterious Fleur Pillager. Fleur represents the old ways of her tribe that, throughout the novels, are constantly pitted against the encroachments of the modern world. Silent, strong, capable and passionate, Fleur is a woman to be reckoned with, respected and feared by the other characters. They believe she is a witch, saved several times from drowning because the water monster, Misshepeshu, has taken her as his mistress. Whatever the cause, she uses her powers to heal and to destroy.
I believe that Fleur represents the inner fierceness her creator feels, but cannot express openly. In a 2010 interview in “The Paris Review,” Erdrich recalls: “You get all that praise for good behavior, but inside, you’re seething.”
At the same time, Fleur’s life embodies the themes that run through these novels: the losses and hardships her people have experienced through sickness, famine and the government’s gradual takeover of their lands, and also, because she’s linked to four generations, the power of family ties, and the ability of her people to survive. As her name signifies, she is, on the one hand, a pillar of strength, a restorer and healer, as we see in “The Beet Queen,” when she rescues Karl Adare, heals his shattered legs and cures him of pneumonia. But she is also, quite literally, a pillager – the implacable ravager of the white men who rape her land and her body.
In “Tracks,” when the loggers who come to cut down the last stand of her beloved trees, she beats them at their own game, sawing the trees part way through so that, when a breeze comes up, the trees crash to the ground, killing the men. Later, we find her working in a butcher shop in Argus, where she consistently beats her four male co-workers at poker. When the men, humiliated, beat and rape her to put her in her place, she enacts a terrible revenge, trapping them in the shop’s meat locker, where they freeze to death. We’re led to believe that she covers her tracks by conjuring up a tornado that devastates the town, so that when the frozen bodies are discovered, it appears that the storm has caused their deaths. While there are many tragedies and disasters in these novels, Erdrich leavens them with wonderful, often grotesque, humor.
All this richness comes to life through Erdrich’s powerful, precise language that often makes use of her talents as a poet. In “The Beet Queen,” Mary Adare ponders the question of what happens to our memories when our brains have been damaged, and thinks about her own mind.
“I felt the live thoughts hum inside of me, and I pictured tiny bees, insects made of blue electricity, a colony so fragile that it would scatter at the slightest touch. I imagined a blow…or a stroke, and I saw the whole swarm vibrating out. Who could stop them? Who could catch them in their hands?”
The answer is: Louise Erdrich. She has put her bees to work and captured them on the pages of her novels for us to marvel at, and for this feat, this gift to us, her readers, I thank her.