Published on June 3, 2012 by Amy
Karen Louise Erdrich, known as Louise Erdrich, (born June 7, 1954) is an author of novels, poetry, and children’s books featuring Native American heritage. She is widely acclaimed as one of the most significant writers of the second wave of what critic Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance. In April 2009, her novel The Plague of Doves was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore in Minneapolis.
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The eldest of seven children, Karen Louise Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, the daughter of Ralph Erdrich, a German-American, and his wife, Rita (Gourneau). Rita’s father and Louise’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, served as tribal chairman for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in the 1950s.
Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota where her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.
Erdrich attended Dartmouth College from 1972 to 1976, earning a BA degree and meeting her future husband, anthropologist and writer Michael Dorris, who was then director of the Dartmouth’s Native American Studies program. Before and after college Erdrich worked in a wide variety of jobs, including as a lifeguard, waitress, poetry teacher at prisons, and construction flag signaller. She also became an editor for The Circle, a newspaper produced by and for the urban Native population in Boston. Erdrich earned a Master of Arts degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University in 1979.
In the period from 1978 to 1982, Erdrich published many poems and short stories. She also began collaborating with Dorris, initially working through the mail while Dorris was working in New Zealand. The relationship progressed, and the two were married in 1981. During this time, Erdrich assembled the material that would eventually be published as the poetry collection Jacklight.
In 1982, Erdrich’s story, “The World’s Greatest Fisherman”, was awarded the $5,000 Nelson Algren Prize for short fiction. This convinced Erdrich and Dorris, who continued to work collaboratively, that they should embark on writing a novel.
In 1984, Erdrich published the novel Love Medicine. Made up of disjointed, yet interconnected, short narratives, each told from the perspective of a different character, and moving backwards and forward in time through every decade between the 1930s and the present day, Love Medicine told the stories of several families living on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation.
The innovative techniques used in Love Medicine, which owed a great deal to the works of William Faulkner, yet having little precedent in Native-authored fiction, allowed Erdrich to build up a picture of a community in a reservation setting. Love Medicine received praise from authors and critics, such as N. Scott Momaday and Gerald Vizenor, and was awarded the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award. It has never been out of print.
Erdrich followed Love Medicine with The Beet Queen, which continued her technique of using multiple narrators, yet surprised many critics by expanding the fictional reservation universe of Love Medicine to include the nearby town of Argus, North Dakota. Native characters are very much kept in the background in The Beet Queen, while Erdrich focuses on the German-American community. The action of the novel takes place mostly before World War II.
The Beet Queen was subject to a bitter attack from Native novelist Leslie Marmon Silko, who accused Erdrich of being more concerned with postmodern technique than with the political struggles of Native peoples.
Erdrich’s and Dorris’s collaboration continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s, always occupying the same fictional universe.
Tracks goes back to the early 20th century at the formation of the reservation and introduces the trickster figure of Nanapush, who owes a clear debt to Nanabozho. Erdrich’s novel most rooted in Anishinaabe culture (at least until Four Souls), Tracks shows early clashes between traditional ways and the Roman Catholic Church.
The Bingo Palace updates, yet does not resolve, various conflicts from Love Medicine. Set in the 1980s, it shows the good and bad effects of a casino and a factory on the reservation community. Finally, Tales of Burning Love finishes the story of Sister Leopolda, a recurring character from all the previous books, and introduces a new set of white people into the reservation universe.
Erdrich and Dorris wrote The Crown of Columbus, the only novel to which both put their names, and A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, credited to Dorris. Both were set off the Argus reservation. “The Crown of Columbus” has a female protagonist of mixed Native American and European ancestry, like Erdrich herself, and this background is of major importance to the book’s plot.
The couple had six children, three adopted by Dorris when he was single. After their marriage, Erdrich also adopted them, and the couple had three daughters together: Persia Andromeda, Pallas Antigone, and Aza Marion. Some of the children had difficulties.
In 1989 Dorris published The Broken Cord, a book about fetal alcohol syndrome, from which their adopted son Reynold Abel suffered. Dorris had discovered FAS was a widespread, and until then, relatively undiagnosed problem among Native American children resulting from mothers’ alcoholism. In 1991, Reynold Abel was hit by a car and killed at age 23.
In 1995 their son Jeffrey Sava accused them both of child abuse. Dorris and Erdrich unsuccessfully pursued an extortion case against him. Shortly afterward, Dorris and Erdrich separated and began divorce proceedings. Erdrich claimed that Dorris had been depressed since the second year of their marriage.
On April 11, 1997, Michael Dorris committed suicide in Concord, New Hampshire.
Erdrich’s first novel after her divorce, The Antelope Wife, was the first to be set outside the continuity of the previous books. She subsequently returned to the reservation and nearby towns, and has published five novels since 1998 dealing with events in that fictional area. Among these are The Master Butchers Singing Club, a macabre mystery that again draws on Erdrich’s Native American and German-American heritage, and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. Both have geographic and character connections with The Beet Queen.
Together with several of her previous works, these have drawn comparisons with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels. Erdrich’s successive novels created multiple narratives in the same fictional area and combined the tapestry of local history with current themes and modern consciousness.
In The Plague of Doves, Erdrich continued the multi-ethnic dimension of her writing, weaving together the layered relationships among residents of farms, towns, and reservations; their shared histories, secrets, relationships, and antipathies; and the complexities for later generations of re-imagining their ancestors’ overlapping pasts. The Plague of Doves was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
Erdrich’s latest novel, Shadow Tag, published in 2010, is the chilling tale of a failing marriage between two Native Americans of differing tribal backgrounds, whose artistic and family life deteriorate into ennui, deceit, and abuse, all of which are attributed to the overbearing, potentially sociopathic tendencies of a domineering, abusive husband, but who, despite it all, can live neither with nor without each other.