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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Louise Erdrich (Chippewa)
(b. 1954)

Karen Louise Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe of North Dakota. The daughter of Bureau of Indian Affairs educators, she received degrees from Dartmouth College and Johns Hopkins, and later served for a time as editor of The Circle, a newspaper published by the Boston Indian Council, before earning residential fellowships to the distinguished writers’ colonies. Her initial reputation was founded on a series of successful short stories, for which she received the Nelson Algren Award in 1982 and a Pushcart Prize in 1983.

In 1984 Erdrich published her first book of poetry, Jacklight, which focuses upon both her own personal experiences and her observations of small town, upper-midwestern life. The classic themes of this poetry—the fragility and power of a life in the flesh, the desperation of longing, the need for transcendence—return in her second book of poetry, Baptism of Desire (1989), rendered almost surrealistically by combining an urgent and vivid organicism with a crackling, electrical imagery. Indeed, the virtuosity of Erdrich’s acclaimed prose style is founded in the disciplined craft of her poetry, most of it written before her more widely known fiction.

Erdrich’s first novel, Love Medicine (1984), was generously praised in the United States, where it won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for the Best Work of Fiction for 1984. The novel is structured as a series of separate narratives—several of which were first published as short stories—spanning a period of fifty years, from 1934 to 1984. Set on a North Dakota reservation, the stories focus on relations between three Chippewa families: the Kashpaws and their relations, the Lamartine/Nanapush, and the Morrisey families. The novel opens in 1981 with a young college student’s return to the reservation on the occasion of the death of June Kashpaw. Coming home she sees clearly the pain and personal devastation the years have wrought on her family, and she struggles in her first-person narrative to comprehend what force or attraction in that situation would compel her Aunt June to set out for her home across an empty, snow-covered field on the night she froze to death. The stories that follow probe the relations between these families and in so doing focus on three major characters: Marie Lazarre, a strong-willed woman of great spirit and beauty whose sense of principle is founded on feelings of inadequacy that have bedeviled her all her life; Lulu Lamartine, a woman of passionate intensity, who learned early in her life of the frailty of the flesh and its enormous capacity to heal life’s pain and redeem its guilt; and Nector Kashpaw, a man of good looks and popular appeal, who is irresistibly drawn to Lulu but marries Marie (June is their daughter). The selection in the anthology is the second chapter of the book, the first in which we meet Marie Lazarre and come to understand her need for a “love medicine,” a medicine which would create love, a love that would be a medicine.

Erdrich’s second novel, Beet Queen, returns to the upper midwest in the same time frame as Love Medicine, but focuses on the Euro-American townspeople near the reservation. The action of the third novel in the trilogy, Tracks, precedes that of the other two, removing the story to the turn of the century and setting the stage for the other novels by exploring the different fates of young Fleur Pillager and Pauline Puyat and the traditional presence of the elder, Nanapush. In Tracks we learn that before she went into the convent and became Sister Leopolda, Pauline gave birth to a daughter, Marie (later Lazarre), whom she gave up to Bernadette Morrissey. Erdrich’s work is marked by a generous, compassionate spirit, a marvelous sense of comic invention, a sometimes acute irony, and a finely honed sense of imagery and style.

Andrew O. Wiget
New Mexico State University

In the Heath Anthology
from Love Medicine
      Saint Marie (1934) (1984)

Other Works
Jacklight (1984)
Beet Queen (1986)
Tracks (1988)
Baptism of Fire (1989)
The Crown of Columbus (with Michael Dorris) (1991)
The Bingo Palace (1994)
Tales of Burning Love (1996)

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Satan: Hijacker of a Planet
An Erdrich short story from The Atlantic.
Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian", Louise Erdrich's "Love Medicine", and the (De)Mythologizing of the American West
Student essay.
The Salon Interview: Louise Erdrich
An interview conducted by Robert Spillman.
Voices from the Gaps
Includes a lengthy biography/literary introduction and primary and secondary bibliographies.

Secondary Sources