"I don't think American Indian literature should be distinguished from mainstream literature. Setting it apart and saying that people with special interest might read this literature sets Indians apart too."
Louise Erdrich from a 1985 Interview with Laura Coltelli
Louise Erdrich is a storyteller, first and foremost. Whether through poetry, novels or short stories, she imparts rich tales peopled with complex characters. Her distinctive narratives have been called "experimental", even as they have been lauded as compelling and entertaining. Of mixed Native-American heritage (her mother is French Ojibwa, her father, German-American), Erdrich is often labelled as a Native-American writer. Still, her characters speak to everyone.
Born the oldest of seven children in Little Falls, Minnesota in 1954, Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota where her parents taught at a local reservation. From a young age, Erdrich was encouraged to write poems and plays. Erdrich recounted the oral traditions of her family in a 1991 Writers Digest interview, "The people in our families made everything into a story...I suppose that when you grow up constantly hearing the stories rise, break and fall, it gets into you somehow."
Erdrich attended Dartmouth in 1972, where she caught the attention of one of her professors, who recognized a burgeoning poetic talent in her young student. That same year, Erdrich met Michael Dorris then program director of the Native American Studies Department. They maintained a friendship after she graduated, and eventually married in 1981.
Receiving her undergraduate degree, Erdrich went on to teach poetry and writing to young people through the State Arts Council of North Dakota. She supplemented her income through a variety of low-paying jobs, at one point, working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken as well as on a variety of road construction projects. She incorporated her work experiences into many of her stories. In 1979, Erdrich earned a master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, and later became a writer in residence at Dartmouth.
Erdrich’s literary ascent began in 1982, after she won the Nelson Algren fiction competition with her short story, "The World’s Greatest Fisherman", which later became the first chapter of her novel, Love Medicine, a collection of interrelated short stories featuring four families: the Kashpaws, the Lamartines, the Pillagers, and the Morrisseys. The novel, set in a fictionalized North Dakota community, follows these families over 50 years (cyclical, not chronological) and serves as the begnnning of a tetralogy that includes The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), and Bingo Palace (1994). Combining comedy with tragedy, the stories relate the tensions arising from conflicting religious beliefs, from the varying American and Anishinaabe cultures, and focuses on interrelationships more than social hierarchies. Ironically, Love Medicine was rejected by 28 publishers until Dorris resubmitted the work posing as Erdrich’s literary agent. The novel went on to win the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for Best First Fiction.
Erdrich continued writing even as her family expanded to include five children. In a 1996 interview with Salon, Erdrich related how motherhood engaged her emotions in ways that only deepened her art, allowing her a mother’s insight. While married, Erdrich wrote independently, but also collaborated with her husband on a few collections, including The Crown of Columbus (1991), which is the only publication featuring them as co-authors. Unfortunately, the couple separated in 1995, and Dorris commited suicide in 1997.
Erdrich is still busy today. Over the years, her works have appeared in Ms., the New Yorker, and Harper’s as well as a variety of anthologies, including Spider Woman’s Granddaughters. Her latest novel, The Master Butchers Singing Club, was published in February, 2003. Again, it is set in North Dakota. Publisher Weekly writes, "All of the virtues of Erdrich's best works-her lyrical precision, bleakly beautiful North Dakota settings, deft interweaving of characters and subplots, and haunting evocation of love and its attendant mysteries-are on full display in this superb novel."
Featured below is an online short story by Erdrich. Read: