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Award-winning author Louise Erdrich published her first two books — Jacklight, a volume of poetry, and Love Medicine, a novel — at the age of thirty. The daughter of a Chippewa Indian mother and a German-American father, the author explores Native American themes in her works, with major characters representing both sides of her heritage. The first in a multi-part series, Love Medicine traces two Native American families from 1934 to 1984 in a unique seven-narrator format. The novel was extremely well-received, earning its author numerous awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984. Since then, Erdrich has gone on to publish The Beet Queen, Tracks, The Bingo Palace, and Tales of Burning Love, all of which are related through recurring characters and themes.

Erdrich's interest in writing can be traced to her childhood and her heritage. She toldWriter's Digest contributor Michael Schumacher, "People in [Native American] families make everything into a story.... People just sit and the stories start coming, one after another. I suppose that when you grow up constantly hearing the stories rise, break, and fall, it gets into you somehow." The oldest in a family of seven children, Erdrich was raised in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Her Chippewa grandfather had been the tribal chair of the nearby Turtle Mountain Reservation, and her parents worked at the Bureau of Indian Falls boarding school. Erdrich once told CA of the way in which her parents encouraged her writing: "My father used to give me a nickel for every story I wrote, and my mother wove strips of construction paper together and stapled them into book covers. So at an early age I felt myself to be a published author earning substantial royalties."

Erdrich's first year at Dartmouth, 1972, was the year the college began admitting women, as well as the year the Native American studies department was established. The author's future husband and collaborator, anthropologist Michael Dorris, was hired to chair the department. In his class, Erdrich began the exploration of her own ancestry that would eventually inspire her novels. Intent on balancing her academic training with a broad range of practical knowledge, Erdrich told Miriam Berkley in an interview with Publishers Weekly, "I ended up taking some really crazy jobs, and I'm glad I did. They turned out to have been very useful experiences, although I never would have believed it at the time." In addition to working as a lifeguard, waitress, poetry teacher at prisons, and construction flag signaler, Erdrich became an editor for the Circle, a Boston Indian Council newspaper. She told Schumacher, "Settling into that job and becoming comfortable with an urban community — which is very different from the reservation community — gave me another reference point. There were lots of people with mixed blood, lots of people who had their own confusions. I realized that this was part of my life — it wasn't something that I was making up — and that it was something I wanted to write about." In 1978, the author enrolled in an M.A. program at Johns Hopkins University, where she wrote poems and stories incorporating her heritage, many of which would later become part of her books. She also began sending her work to publishers, most of whom sent back rejection slips.

After receiving her master's degree, Erdrich returned to Dartmouth as a writer-in-residence. Dorris — with whom she had remained in touch — attended a reading of Erdrich's poetry there, and was impressed. A writer himself — Dorris would later publish the best-selling novel A Yellow Raft in Blue Water and receive the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award for his nonfiction work The Broken Cord — he decided then that he was interested in working with Erdrich and getting to know her better. When he left for New Zealand to do field research and Erdrich went to Boston to work on a textbook, the two began sending their poetry and fiction back and forth with their letters, laying a groundwork for a literary relationship. Dorris returned to New Hampshire in 1980, and Erdrich moved back there as well. The two began collaborating on short stories, including one titled "The World's Greatest Fisherman." When this story won five thousand dollars in the Nelson Algren fiction competition, Erdrich and Dorris decided to expand it into a novel — Love Medicine. At the same time, their literary relationship led to a romantic one. In 1981 they were married.

The titles Erdrich and Dorris have chosen for their novels — such as Love Medicine and A Yellow Raft in Blue Water — tend to be rich poetic or visual images. The title is often the initial inspiration from which their novels are drawn. Erdrich told Schumacher, "I think a title is like a magnet: It begins to draw these scraps of experience or conversation or memory to it. Eventually, it collects a book." Erdrich and Dorris's collaboration process begins with a first draft, usually written by whoever had the original idea for the book, the one who will ultimately be considered the official author. After the draft is written, the other person edits it, and then another draft is written; often five or six drafts will be written in all. Finally, the two read the work aloud until they can agree on each word. Although the author has the original voice and the final say, ultimately, both collaborators are responsible for what the work becomes. This "unique collaborative relationship", according to Alice Joyce in Booklist, is covered in Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, a collection of 25interviews with the couple. By 1997, when Dorris committed suicide, the pair had separated and were no longer actively collaborating.

Erdrich's novels Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, Tracks, The Bingo Palace, and Tales of Burning Love encompass the stories of three interrelated families living in and around a reservation in the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota, from 1912 through the 1980s. The novels have been compared to those of William Faulkner, mainly due to the multi-voice narration and nonchronological storytelling which he employed in works such as As I Lay Dying. Erdrich's works, linked by recurring characters who are victims of fate and the patterns set by their elders, are structured like intricate puzzles in which bits of information about individuals and their relations to one another are slowly released in a seemingly random order, until three-dimensional characters — with a future and a past — are revealed. Through her characters' antics, Erdrich explores universal family life cycles while also communicating a sense of the changes and loss involved in the twentieth-century Native American experience.

Poet Robert Bly, describing Erdrich's nonlinear storytelling approach in the New York Times Book Review, emphasized her tendency to "choose a few minutes or a day in 1932, let one character talk, let another talk, and a third, then leap to 1941 and then to 1950 or 1964." The novels' circular format is a reflection of the way in which the works are constructed. Although Erdrich is dealing with a specific and extensive time period, "The writing doesn't start out and proceed chronologically. It never seems to start in the beginning. Rather, it's as though we're building something around a center, but that center can be anywhere."

Erdrich published her first novel, Love Medicine, in 1984. "With this impressive debut," stated New York Times Book Review contributor Marco Portales, "Louise Erdrich enters the company of America's better novelists." Love Medicine was named for the belief in love potions which is a part of Chippewa folklore. The novel explores the bonds of family and faith which preserve both the Chippewa tribal community and the individuals that comprise it.

Reviewers responded positively to Erdrich's debut novel, citing its lyrical qualities as well asthe rich characters who inhabit it. New York Timescontributor D. J. R. Bruckner was impressed with Erdrich's "mastery of words," as well as the "vividly drawn" characters who "will not leave the mind once they are let in." Portales, who called Love Medicine "an engrossing book," applauded the unique narration technique which produces what he termed "a wondrous prose song."

After the publication of Love Medicine, Erdrich told reviewers that her next novel would focus less exclusively on her mother's side, embracing the author's mixed heritage and the mixed community in which she grew up. Her 1986 novel, The Beet Queen, deals with whites and half-breeds, as well as American Indians, and explores the interactions between these worlds, tracing themes of separation and loss.

The Beet Queen was well-received by critics, some of whom found it even more impressive than Love Medicine. Many noted the novel's poetic language and symbolism; Bly noted that Erdrich's "genius is in metaphor," and that the characters "show a convincing ability to feel an image with their whole bodies." Josh Rubins, writing in New York Review of Books, called The Beet Queen "a rare second novel, one that makes it seem as if the first, impressive as it was, promised too little, not too much."

Other reviewers had problems with The Beet Queen, but they tended to dismiss the novel's flaws in light of its positive qualities. New Republic contributor Dorothy Wickenden considered the characters unrealistic and the ending contrived, but she lauded The Beet Queen's "ringing clarity and lyricism," as well as the "assured, polished quality" which she felt was missing in Love Medicine. Although Michiko Kakutani found the ending artificial, the New York Times reviewer called Erdrich "an immensely gifted young writer." "Even with its weaknesses," proclaimed Linda Simon in Commonweal, " The Beet Queen stands as a product of enormous talent."

After Erdrich completed The Beet Queen, she was uncertain as to what her next project should be. The four-hundred-page manuscript that would eventually become Tracks had remained untouched for ten years; the author referred to it as her "burden." She and Dorris took a fresh look at it, and decided that they could relate it to Love Medicine and The Beet Queen. While more political than her previous novels, Tracks, Erdrich's 1989 work, also deals with spiritual themes, exploring the tension between the Native Americans' ancient beliefs and the Christian notions of the Europeans. Tracks takes place between 1912 and 1924, before the settings of Erdrich's other novels, and reveals the roots of Love Medicine's characters and their hardships. At the center of Tracks is Fleur, a character whom Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Terry Tempest Williams called "one of the most haunting presences in contemporary American literature."

Reviewers found Tracks distinctly different from Erdrich's earlier novels, and some felt that her third novel lacked the characteristics that made Love Medicine and The Beet Queen so outstanding. Washington Post Book World critic Jonathan Yardley felt that, on account of its more political focus, the work has a "labored quality." Robert Towers stated in New York Review of Books that he found the characters too melodramatic and the tone too intense. Katherine Dieckmann, writing in the Voice Literary Supplement, affirmed that she "missed [Erdrich's] skilled multiplications of voice," and called the relationship between Pauline and Nanapush "symptomatic of the overall lack of grand orchestration and perspectival interplay that made Erdrich's first two novels polyphonic masterpieces." According to Commonweal contributor Christopher Vecsey, however,although "a reviewer might find some of the prose overwrought, and the two narrative voices indistinguishable ... readers will appreciate and applaud the vigor and inventiveness of the author."

Other reviewers enjoyed Tracks even more than the earlier novels. Williams stated that Erdrich's writing "has never appeared more polished and grounded," and added," Tracks may be the story of our time." Thomas M. Disch lauded the novel's plot, with its surprising twists and turns, in the Chicago Tribune. The critic added, "Louise Erdrich is like one of those rumored drugs that are instantly and forever addictive. Fortunately in her case you can just say yes."

Erdrich and Dorris's jointly authored novel, The Crown of Columbus, explores Native American issues from the standpoint of the authors' current experience, rather than the world of their ancestors. Marking the quincentennial anniversary of Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus's voyage in a not-so-celebratory fashion, Erdrich and Dorris raise important questions about the meaning of that voyage for both Europeans and Native Americans today.

Some reviewers found The Crown of Columbus unbelievable and inconsistent, and considered it less praiseworthy than the individual authors' earlier works. However, New York Times Book Review contributor Robert Houston appreciated the work's timely political relevance. He also stated, "There are moments of genuine humor and compassion, of real insight and sound satire." Other critics also considered Vivian and Roger's adventures amusing, vibrant, and charming.

Erdrich returned to the descendants of Nanapush with her 1994 novel, The Bingo Palace. The fourth novel in the series which began with Love Medicine, The Bingo Palace weaves together a story of spiritual pursuit with elements of modern reservation life. Erdrich also provided continuity to the series by having the novel primarily narrated by Lipsha Morrisey, the illegitimate son of June Kapshaw and Gerry Nanapush from Love Medicine.

Reviewers' comments on The Bingo Palace were generally positive. While Lawrence Thornton in the New York Times Book Review found "some of the novel's later ventures into magic realism...contrived," his overall impression was more positive: "Ms. Erdrich's sympathy for her characters shines as luminously as Shawnee Ray's jingle dress." Pam Houston, writing for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, was especially taken by the character of Lipsha Morrissey, finding in him "what makes this her most exciting and satisfying book to date."

The Bingo Palace was also reviewed in the context of the series as a whole. Chicago Tribune contributor Michael Upchurch concluded, "The Bingo Palace falls somewhere between Tracks and The Beet Queen in its accomplishment." He added, "The best chapters in The Bingo Palace rival, as Love Medicine did, the work of Welty, Cheever, and Flannery O'Connor."

Erdrich turned to her own experience as mother of six for her next work, The Blue Jay's Dance. Her first book of nonfiction, The Blue Jay's Dance chronicles Erdrich's pregnancy and the birth year of her child. The title refers to a blue jay's habit of defiantly "dancing" towards an attacking hawk, Erdrich's metaphor for "the sort of controlled recklessness that having children always is," noted Jane Aspinall in Quill & Quire. Erdrich has been somewhat protective of her family's privacy and has stated the narrative actually describes a combination of her experience with several of her children. Sue Halpern in the New York Times Book Review remarked on this difficult balancing act between public and private lives but found "Ms. Erdrich's ambivalence inspires trust...and suggests that she is the kind of mother whose story should be told."

Some reviewers averred that Erdrich's description of the maternal relationship was a powerful one: "the bond between mother and infant has rarely been captured so well," commented a Kirkus Reviews contributor. While the subject of pregnancy and motherhood is not a new one, Halpern noted that the book provided new insight into the topic: "What makes The Blue Jay's Dance worth reading is that it quietly places a mother's love and nurturance amid her love for the natural world and right that placement is." Although the Kirkus Reviews contributor found The Blue Jay's Dance to be "occasionally too self-conscious about the importance of Erdrich's role as Writer," others commented positively on the book's examination of the balance between the work of parenting and one's vocation. A Los Angeles Times reviewer remarked: "this book is really about working and having children, staying alert and...focused through the first year of a child's life."

Erdrich retained her focus on children with her first children's book, Grandmother's Pigeon. Published in 1996, it is a fanciful tale of an adventurous grandmother who heads to Greenland on the back of a porpoise, leaving behind grandchildren and three bird's eggs in her cluttered bedroom. The eggs hatch into passenger pigeons, thought to be extinct, through which the children are able to send messages to their missing grandmother. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented, "As in her fiction for adults..., Erdrich makes every word count in her bewitching debut children's story."

Within the same year, Erdrich returned to the character of June Kasphaw of Love Medicinein her sixth novel, Tales of Burning Love. More accurately, it is the story of June's husband, Jack Mauser, and his five (including June) ex-wives.

Reviewers continued to note Erdrich's masterful descriptions and fine dialogue in this work. According to Penelope Mesic in the Chicago Tribune, "Erdrich's strength is that she gives emotional states — as shifting and intangible, as indefinable as wind — a visible form in metaphor." A Times Literary Supplement contributor compared her to both Tobias Wolff — "(like him), she is...particularly good at evoking American small-town life and the space that engulfs it" — as well as Raymond Carver, noting her dialogues to be "small exchanges out the barely navigable distance between what's heard, what's meant, and what's said."

Tales of Burning Love also focuses Erdrich's abilities on the relationship between men and women. The Times Literary Supplement reviewer continued, "Erdrich also shares Carver's clear and sophisticated view of the more fundamental distance between men and women, and how that, too, is negotiated." However, Mark Childress in the New York Times Book Review commented that while "Jack's wives are vivid and fully realized...whenever (Jack's) out of sight, he doesn't seem as interesting as the women who loved him."

While Erdrich covers familiar territory in Tales of Burning Love, she seems to be expanding her focus slightly. Roxana Robinson in Washington Post Book World remarked, "The landscape, instead of being somber and vividly illuminated by bolts of freewheeling lunacy: This is a mad Gothic comedy." Or as Verlyn Klinkenborg noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "this book marks a shift in (Erdrich's) career, a shift that is suggested rather than fulfilled...there is new country coming into (her) sight, and this novel is her first welcoming account of it."


Novels Love Medicine, Holt, 1984, expanded edition, 1993. The Beet Queen, Holt, 1986. Tracks, Harper, 1988. (With husband, Michael Dorris) The Crown of Columbus, HarperCollins, 1991. The Bingo Palace, HarperCollins, 1994. Tales of Burning Love, HarperCollins, 1996.

Poetry Jacklight, Holt, 1984. Baptism of Desire, Harper, 1989.

Other Imagination (textbook), C. E. Merrill, 1980. (Author of preface) Michael Dorris, The Broken Cord: A Family's Ongoing Struggle with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Harper, 1989. (Author of preface) Desmond Hogan, A Link with the River, Farrar, Straus,1989. (With Allan Richard Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin) Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson), 1994. The Falcon: A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner, Penguin (New York City), 1994. The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year (memoir), HarperCollins (New York City), 1995. Grandmother's Pigeon (children's book), illustrated by Jim LaMarche, Hyperion (New York City), 1996.

Author of short story, The World's Greatest Fisherman; contributor to anthologies, including the Norton Anthology of Poetry; Best American Short Stories of 1981-83, 1983, and 1988; and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, in 1985 and 1987. Contributor of stories, poems, essays, and book reviews to periodicals, including The New Yorker, New England Review, Chicago, American Indian Quarterly, Frontiers, Atlantic, Kenyon Review, North American Review, New York Times Book Review, Ms., Redbook (with her sister Heidi, under the joint pseudonym Heidi Louise), and Woman (with Dorris, under the joint pseudonym Milou North).


Books Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 10, Gale (Detroit), 1993. Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 39, 1986, Volume 54, 1989. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 152: American Novelists since World War II, Fourth Series, Gale, 1995. Pearlman, Mickey, American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, University Press of Kentucky, 1989, pp. 95-112.

Periodicals America, May 14, 1994, p. 7. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 1987, pp. 51-73. American Literature, September, 1990, pp. 405-22. Belles Lettres, Summer, 1990, pp. 30-1. Booklist, January 15, 1995, p. 893. Chicago Tribune, September 4, 1988, pp. 1, 6; January 1, 1994, pp. 1, 9; April 21, 1996, pp. 1, 9. College Literature, October, 1991, pp. 80-95. Commonweal, October 24, 1986, pp. 565, 567; November 4, 1988, p. 596. Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1996, p. 244; April 15, 1996, p. 600. Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 5, 1986, pp. 3, 10; September 11, 1988, p.2; May 12, 1991, pp. 3, 13; February 6, 1994, p. 1, 13; May 28, 1995, p. 8; June 16, 1996, p.3. Nation, October 21, 1991, pp. 465, 486-90. New Republic, October 6, 1986, pp. 46-48; January 6-13, 1992, pp. 30-40. Newsday, November 30, 1986. New York Review of Books, January 15, 1987, pp. 14-15; November 19, 1988, pp. 40-41; May 12, 1996, p. 10. New York Times, December 20, 1984, p. C21; August 20, 1986, p. C21; August 24, 1988, p. 41; April 19, 1991, p. C25. New York Times Book Review, August 31, 1982, p. 2; December 23, 1984, p. 6; October 2, 1988, pp. 1, 41-42; April 28, 1991, p. 10; July 20, 1993, p. 20; January 16, 1994, p.7; April 16, 1995, p.14. People, June 10, 1991, pp. 26-27. Playboy, March, 1994, p. 30. Publishers Weekly, August 15, 1986, pp. 58-59; April 22, 1996, p. 71. Quill & Quire, August, 1995, p. 30. Time, February 7, 1994, p. 71. Times Literary Supplement, February 14, 1997, p. 21. Voice Literary Supplement, October, 1988, p. 37. Washington Post Book World, August 31, 1986, pp. 1, 6; September 18, 1988, p. 3; February 6, 1994, p. 5; April 21, 1996, p. 3. Western American Literature, February, 1991, pp. 363-64. Writer's Digest, June, 1991, pp. 28-31.*