Once named one of People magazine's most beautiful people, Louise Erdrich (born 1954) is a Native American writer with a wide popular appeal. She is no literary lightweight, however, having drawn comparisons to such noted American authors as William Faulkner.
Louise Erdrich was the first of seven children born to Ralph Louis Erdrich and Rita Joanne (Gourneau) Erdrich. Born on June 16, 1954, in Little Falls, Minnesota, she was raised in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Her mother, of Ojibwe descent, was born on the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Reservation while her father was of German ancestry. Both parents taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school.
A Tradition of Storytelling
From childhood, the rich oral tradition of Ojibwa storytelling was a part of Erdrich's life. Her mother and grandparents told her many stories about life on the reservation during the Great Depression of the 1930s, as well as other tales. Erdrich's father also told stories about his relatives and the towns where he grew up. Erdrich maintains that listening to her family's stories has in some ways been her most significant literary influence. Her father introduced her to the works of William Shakespeare and encouraged all of his children to write, paying a nickel apiece for her stories— Erdrich later joked that these nickels were her first royalties. Her mother supported her efforts as well, creating book covers for her daughter's manuscripts out of woven strips of construction paper and staples.
Living in a small town where she and her family were regarded as eccentric, Erdrich became an avid reader. Among her literary influences were Flannery O'Connor, Gabriel García Marquéz, Katherine Anne Porter, Toni Morrison, Willa Cather, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Faulkner.
Erdrich attended a Catholic school in Wahpeton. Her grandfather, Petrice Gourneau, taught her about culture and religion; tribal chair of the Turtle Mountain Reservation, he worshiped the traditional Ojibwa religion while at the same time was a devout Catholic. Her grandfather's example inspired Erdrich's creation of the character Father Damien who appears in many of her novels.
Indeed, Erdrich has drawn on her roots, both the land and the experiences of her family, for inspiration. As Mark Anthony Rolo wrote in the Progressive, "Erdrich once mused that Native American literature is often about coming home, returning to the land, the language and love of ancient traditions—a theme opposite of Western literature, which is about embarking on a journey, finding adventures beyond one's beginnings."
Native American Studies
In 1972 Erdrich enrolled in Dartmouth College as part of that school's first coeducational graduating class. There she met anthropologist Michael Dorris, chair of the Native American Studies department created at Dartmouth that same year. At Dartmouth Erdrich started writing poems and stories integrating her Ojibwa heritage and in 1975 she was awarded the Academy of Poets Prize. She received her bachelor of arts degree the following year.
Erdrich served as a visiting poet and teacher for the Dakota Arts Council for two years after college graduation. She went on to earn a master of arts in writing from Johns Hopkins University in 1979. While she began sending her work to publishers around this time, most of them sent back rejections.
Erdrich served as communications director and editor for one year for The Circle, a Boston Indian Council-sponsored newspaper. Following that, she worked as a textbook writer for Charles Merrill Company.
Beginning of a Partnership
In 1979 Erdrich returned to Dartmouth to do a poetry reading, where she once again met up with Dorris. Dorris became interested in Erdrich's poetry, but even more interested in the poet herself. Although the two went their separate ways for a year—Dorris to New Zealand, Erdrich returning to Dartmouth as a visiting fellow in the Native American Studies department—they continued to exchange manuscripts through the mail. They met back at Dartmouth the next year and were married on October 10, 1981.
Viewed by outsiders as having an idyllic relationship, Erdrich and Dorris collaborated on every project and wrote tender dedications to each other in their books. They had a system worked out: when both wrote comparable amounts of a draft, the work was published under both names, but when one of them wrote the entire first initial draft, that person was the author. Even in the latter case, the final product was always a result of collaboration. They did the research together, developed plot lines and characters— sometimes even drawing them to see what they looked like—and discussed all aspects of the draft before submitting it for publication.
When they were first married and needed money, Erdrich and Dorris published romantic fiction using the pen name Milou North: " Mi chael plus Louise plus where we live," Erdrich once explained to Shelby Grantham in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. One of their stories was published in Redbook, while others ran in European publications.
Erdrich received the 1982 Nelson Algren Fiction Award for "The World's Greatest Fishermen," a story that became the first chapter of her first novel, Love Medicine. Erdrich learned of the contest and started writing just two weeks before the submission deadline. The first draft was completed in just one day, and Dorris collaborated with her on the subsequent drafts. The final product was one of 2,000 entries judged by Donald Barthelme, Studs Terkel, and Kay Boyle.
In 1983 Erdrich was awarded the Pushcart Prize for her poem "Indian Boarding School" and the National Magazine Award for fiction for her short story "Scales." This story and another she had previously published, "The Red Convertible," also found their way into Love Medicine.
Prizewinning First Novel
The next year, at the age of 30, Erdrich published Jacklight, a book of blank verse poems collected from her graduate thesis work, and Love Medicine, her first novel. Love Medicine was a runaway success, winning the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, the Sue Kaufman Prize for Best First Fiction, and the Virginia McCormick Scully Award. The novel continued to win awards the following year, including the Los Angeles Times Award for fiction, the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and a fiction award from the Great Lakes Colleges Association.
Love Medicine became the first of Erdrich's "Argus" novels covering several generations of three Ojibwe families living in Argus, North Dakota, between from 1912 and the 1980s. Comparisons have been drawn to the work of Southern writer William Faulkner because of Erdrich's use of multi-voice narration and nonchronological storytelling as well as the ties of her characters to the land. Erdrich's fictional town of Argus has also been compared by critics to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
The "Argus" Novels
Erdrich's second novel in the series, The Beet Queen, published in 1986, covers a 40-year span beginning in 1932. Through characters like orphans Karl and Mary Adare and Celestine James and her daughter, Erdrich explores the negotiated interactions between the worlds of whites, half-breeds, and Native Americans. She followed this with a prequel, Tracks. Gleaned from the manuscript of the first novel she had ever started, Tracks explores the tensions between Native American spirituality and Catholicism. Erdrich continued the "Argus" series with The Bingo Palace, Tales of Burning Love, The Antelope Wife, and The Last Report on Miracles at Little No Horse.
Many of the characters in Erdrich's books grow and develop over time in successive novels. Katy Read in the Globe & Mail wrote, "Erdrich's characters do seem to have lives of their own—lives and histories and intricate relationships that meander in and out of nearly all her books."
For example, In the Last Report on Miracles at Little No Horse, a finalist for the National Book Award, Father Damian Modeste, first introduced in Love Medicine, returns. The Father's secret, it unfolds, is that he is really a former nun, Agnes DeWitt, who, through a series of events, ended up posing as a Catholic priest. Agnes spends half a century ministering to the people of an Objibwe reservation and hiding the fact that she is actually a woman.
Interest in the Unusual
Although strange things often happen in her books, Erdrich rejects the "magical realist" label, claiming that even the most unusual events are based on things that really occurred, things she has found documented in newspaper clippings and books. She collects books on strange tales and supernatural happenings and keeps notebooks which she fills with stories of odd events she has heard about. Erdrich has also done a great deal of historical research, especially family history and local history around North Dakota. On the other hand, she admitted to Rolo, "A lot of it is plain made up."
Erdrich's second book of poems, Baptism of Desire, was published in 1989. That same year, her husband, Dorris, received the National Book Critics Circle Award for his nonfiction work The Broken Chord. The book, with a preface by Erdrich, is a memoir of Dorris's experiences as one of the first single men to adopt children; by the time he married Erdrich he had adopted three Native American children with fetal alcohol syndrome.
In 1991 the couple published their co-authored novel The Crown of Columbus. The book is a complicated 400-page story about a love affair between two writers and intellectuals who, at the same time they are trying to define their relationship, are also grappling with the historical figure of Columbus in their research and writing. The couple also co-authored a book of travel essays titled Route Two.
Tragic Turn of Events
Erdrich and Dorris had three children together in addition to the three children Dorris adopted prior to their marriage. The couple separated in 1995 in the wake of allegations of sexual abuse brought against Dorris by some of his children. After an investigation left the accusations unresolved, Dorris committed suicide in 1997. As Erdrich told a National Public Radio Weekend Edition commentator that during that time, "All my being was really concentrated on getting our children through it, and that's something you do minute by minute. Then, you know, there's that one day at a time."
Despite the turbulence within her personal life during the 1990s, Erdrich kept writing. In 1995 she published her first nonfiction book, The Blue Jay's Dance, in which she records her experience with pregnancy and the birth year of her child. The title, which refers to the way a blue jay will defiantly dance toward an attacking hawk, is a metaphor for "the sort of controlled recklessness that having children always is," Erdrich told Jane Aspinall in an article in Quill & Quire.
The following year Erdrich wrote the children's book Grandmother's Pigeon. Using the same sense of magic found in her novels, she tells the story of an adventurous grandmother who rides to Greenland on a dolphin. The eggs she leaves for her grandchildren hatch into pigeons that can send messages to her.
New Start in Minneapolis
In 1999 Erdrich and her three youngest children relocated to Minneapolis to be closer to her parents in North Dakota. In July 2000, she and her sister Heidi opened Birchbark Books, Herbs, and Native Arts in the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis. The store, located in a building that was once a meat market, is decorated with a stairway made of birch trees that fell on land owned by friends in Wisconsin; the shop's focal point is an intricately carved Roman Catholic confessional Erdrich found at an architectural salvage store. Dream-catchers hang in the corners of the confessional, along with books with "sin" in the title and a framed copy of the U.S. Government's 1837 treaty with the Chippewa.
Since the late 1990s Erdrich has focused on learning the Ojibwe language and studying her tribe's culture and traditions, including its mysticism. She has also taught her youngest daughter to speak the Ojibwe language. In 2001 she finished writing The Last Report on Miracles at Little No Horse and also had a baby girl. The following year Erdrich wrote her first novel for young adults, the National Book Award for Young People finalist The Birchbark House. The story of a young Ojibwa girl named Omakayas, The Birchbark House also features illustrations by Erdrich. Her 2003 novel for adults, The Master Butchers Singing Club, returns readers to Argus, North Dakota; its main character is a German butcher named Fidelis Waldvogel, an immigrant to the United States in the 1920s.
Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, edited by Allan Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
Associated Press Newswires, March 23, 1998; March 25, 1998.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 21, 2001.
News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina), April 22, 2001.
Progressive, April 1, 2002.
Quill & Quire, August 1995.
Star Tribune (San Diego, California), December 30, 2001.
Toronto Star, April 22, 2001.
"Meet the Writers: Louise Erdrich," http://www.barnesandnoble.com/writers/writer.asp?cid929573 (February 4, 2003).
"Modern American Poetry: About Louise Erdrich," http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/erdrich/about.htm (February 4, 2003).
NPR Weekend Edition,http://www.npr.org/ (July 8, 2001).
"Voices from the Gaps: Louise Erdrich," http://voices.cla.umn.edu/authors/louiseerdrich.html (February 4, 2003). □
Erdrich, (Karen) Louise
ERDRICH, (Karen) Louise
Nationality: American. Born: Little Falls, Minnesota, 7 June 1954. Education: Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, B.A. 1976; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, M.A. 1977. Family: Married Michael Anthony Dorris in 1981 (separated; Dorris committed suicide in 1997); three sons and three daughters. Career: Visiting poetry teacher, North Dakota State Arts Council, 1977-78; creative writing teacher, Johns Hopkins University, 1978-79; visiting fellow, Dartmouth College, 1981. Member, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa. Awards: MacDowell fellowship, 1980; Yaddo fellowship, 1981; Nelson Algren award, for story, 1982; National Book Critics Circle award, 1984; Virginia Sully prize, 1984; Sue Kaufman award, 1984; Los Angeles Times Book award, 1985; Guggenheim fellowship, 1985. Address: c/o Harper Collins, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.
Love Medicine. New York, Holt, 1984; London, Deutsch, 1985; revised and expanded edition, 1993.
The Beet Queen. New York, Holt, 1986; London, Hamish Hamilton, 1987.
Tracks. New York, Holt, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1988.
Crown of Columbus, with Michael Dorris. New York and London, Harper Collins, 1991.
The Bingo Palace. New York and London, Harper Collins, 1994.
The Bluejay's Dance. New York and London, Harper Collins, 1995.
Grandmother's Pigeon, illustrated by Jim LaMarche. New York, Hyperion Books for Children, 1996.
Tales of Burning Love. New York, HarperCollins, 1996.
The Antelope Wife. New York, HarperFlamingo, 1998.
The Birchbark House, with illustrations by the author. New York, Hyperion Books for Children, 1999.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Scales," in The Best American Short Stories 1983, edited by
Shannon Ravenel and Anne Tyler. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1983; as The Year's Best American Short Stories, London, Severn House, 1984.
"Destiny," in Atlantic (Boston), January 1985.
"Mister Argus," in Georgia Review (Athens), Summer 1985.
"Flesh and Blood," in Buying Time, edited by Scott Walker. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1985.
"Saint Marie," in Prize Stories 1985, edited by William Abrahams. New York, Doubleday, 1985.
"Fleur," in Prize Stories 1987, edited by William Abrahams. NewYork, Doubleday, 1987.
"Snares," in The Best American Short Stories 1988, edited byShannon Ravenel and Mark Helprin. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
"A Wedge of Shade," in Louder than Words, edited by WilliamShore. New York, Vintage, 1989.
"Crown of Thorns," in The Invisible Enemy, edited by Miriam Dow and Jennifer Regan. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1989.
"Matchimanito," in The Best of the West 2, edited by James Thomas and Denise Thomas. Layton, Utah, Peregrine Smith, 1989.
"The Bingo Van," in New Yorker, 19 February 1990.
"Happy Valentine's Day, Monsieur Ducharme," in Ladies' Home Journal (New York), February 1990.
"The Leap," in Harper's (New York), March 1990.
"Best Western," in Vogue (New York), May 1990.
"The Dress," in Mother Jones (San Francisco), July-August 1990.
"The Island," in Ms. (New York), January-February 1991.
Jacklight. New York, Holt, and London, Sphere, 1990.
Baptism of Desire. New York, Harper Collins, 1991.*
Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, edited by Allan Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1994; The Broom Closet: Secret Meanings of Domesticity in Postfeminist Novels by Louise Erdrich, Mary Gordon, Toni Morrison, Marge Piercy, Jane Smiley, and Amy Tan by Jeannette Batz Cooperman. New York, Peter Lang, 1999; The Chippewa landscape of Louise Erdrich, edited by Allan Chavkin. Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1999; A Reader's Guide to the Novels of Louise Erdrich by Peter G. Beidler and Gay Barton. Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1999; Louise Erdrich: A Critical Companion by Lorena L. Stookey. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1999; The Gamefulness of American Postmodernism: John Barth and Louise Erdrich by Steven D. Scott. New York, Peter Lang, 2000.* * *
While it may seem that Americans might have recognized a Native American writer well before the end of the twentieth century, it was not until Louise Erdrich published her first novel, Love Medicine in 1984, to both critical and popular acclaim that a Native American writing about her heritage and the present condition of her people enjoyed so much notoriety and influence in that country's literature. Erdrich is a prolific writer, and from her novels more readers have begun to appreciate that contemporary Native Americans have important stories to tell that go beyond retelling their ancestors' rich creation myths and legends.
Most of Erdrich's novels have the same geographic center, a fictional Chippewa reservation in North Dakota. From this center characters appear and reappear in different books, and family lines cross and separate in deepening complexity much like an intricate braid or a beaded belt. Not only in the connected novels, but also in the totality of her oeuvre to date, Erdrich's accomplishment is that she is weaving a body of work that goes beyond portraying contemporary Native American life as descendants of a politically dominated people to explore the great universal questions—questions of identity, pattern versus randomness, and the meaning of life itself. As she writes at the end of The Antelope Wife, "Who is beading us?…Who are you and who am I, the beader or the bit of colored glass sewn onto the fabric of this earth?"
The connected novels include Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, Tracks, The Bingo Palace, and Tales of Burning Love. In Love Medicine, which first appeared in 1984 but was revised, expanded, and reissued in 1993, the reader meets not only members of three interconnecting families that will populate the later novels, the Kashpaws, the Lazarres, and Lulu Nanapush's extended family, but also Erdrich's style of making a whole out of seemingly random parts. The novel is comprised of short stories that set up this premise both structurally and in content. Plotlines thread and interweave. Among others, plots and subplots include the rivalry between Lulu Nanapush and Marie Lazarre for Nector Kashpay's love; Gerry Nanapush's relationships with June and Dot Adare; and Lipsha Morrissey's giving the raw turkey heart to Nector as love medicine. While the events occur from around 1900 to 1984, they do not always happen chronologically, and the disappearance and reappearance of characters and their relationships to other characters in different time periods often confuse readers until they reach the end of the book.
Events in The Beet Queen occur from 1932 to 1972 and are set in the mostly European-American community of Argus, North Dakota. This novel is another gathering of stories into chapters, but this time the focus is turned away from the reservation to life off of it in characters such as Dot Adare, who is part Chippewa but has few on-reservation experiences. Families are separated and unhappy and there is a sense of betrayal, abandonment, and loneliness.
The time period for Tracks, the third book in the connected series of novels, is 1912 to 1924 and is told by two alternating narrators: Nanapush, who survived the 1912 consumption epidemic, and Pauline Puyat, a mixed European/Native American who is ashamed of the Indian side of her heritage. Relationships and claims of identity are at stake in this novel.
The Bingo Palace brings the storylines to around the time of 1994-95, shortly after the end of Love Medicine chronologically. The primary plot is Lipsha's love for Shawnee Ray, which is made problematic by Shawnee Ray's uncertainty and a rivalry with Lipsha's boss, Lyman. In Tales of Burning Love, the time period is from 1962-95, and many of the elements center around Jack Mauser and his five wives.
As her body of work grows, Erdrich's fictional Chippewa Reservation centered around Matchimanito Lake in North Dakota is increasingly compared to William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. Both are imaginary regions of a real American landscape where mixing of the races has caused issues of identity and disconnection.
Some of the confusion readers experience in the connected books is supported by problems in consistency within the later novels. Using the revised Love Medicine as a reference point in studying the later novels, critics have since found discrepancies in facts, characterizations, geography, and time among the later books. Whether this is a sign that Erdrich's project became too ambitious and complex even for her to keep straight, or whether the discrepancies are intentional as an expression of randomness, or a signal by which to recognize unreliable narrators, or an echoing back to the lack of concern for facts in the oral tradition of storytelling, it should be noted that the inconsistencies are a facet of Erdrich's work in the connected novels that will undoubtedly be further studied and explored.
Erdrich appears to depart from the series with The Antelope Wife. This novel introduces a different set of families: the Roy family, the Shawango family, and the Whiteheart Beads. In this novel, Erdrich seems to be stretching the thread on which she has beaded her stories in the previous books. While in the previous books readers beheld animals that had human characteristics, in The Antelope Wife this connectedness is heightened to the point where people are actually descended from animals such as the deer and antelope. While genders cross in her earlier work, in this one a soldier suckles babies. One wonders if, perhaps, Erdrich is not attempting to explore the so-called circle of life from every possible direction.
With the publication of Birch House, a juvenile novel that is similar to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie but from a Native American perspective, Erdrich has embarked on yet another planned series of novels. This one promises to be an important, fruitful addition to the historical novel genre for children.
—Connie Ann Kirk
Erdrich, (Karen) Louise
ERDRICH, (Karen) Louise
Nationality: American (Native American: Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa). Born: Little Falls, Minnesota, 7 June 1954. Education: Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, B.A. 1976; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, M.A. 1977. Family: Married Michael Dorris in 1981 (died 1997); two sons and four daughters. Career: Visiting poetry teacher, North Dakota State Arts Council, 1977–78; creative writing teacher, Johns Hopkins University, 1978–79; communications director and editor of Circle, Boston Indian Council, Massachusetts, 1979–80; text book writer, Charles-Merrill Company, 1980; visiting fellow, Dartmouth College, 1981. Also has worked as a beet weeder in Wahpeton, North Dakota; waitress in Wahpeton, Boston, and Syracuse, New York; psychiatric aide in a Vermont hospital, poetry teacher in prisons; lifeguard; and construction flag signaler. Awards: MacDowell fellowship, 1980; Yaddo fellowship, 1981; Nelson Algren award, 1982; National Book Critics Circle award, 1984; Virginia Scully prize, 1984; Sue Kaufman award, 1984; Los Angeles Times Book award, 1985; Guggenheim fellowship, 1985. Member: American Academy of Arts and Letters; American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Address: c/o HarperCollins, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, 10022, U.S.A.
Jacklight. New York, Holt, 1984.
Baptism of Desire. New York, HarperCollins, 1989.
Recordings: Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris with Paul Bailey (videotape), Roland Collection of Films on Art, 1980; Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
Love Medicine. New York, Holt, 1984; London, Deutsch, 1985.
The Beet Queen. New York, Holt, 1986; London, Hamish Hamilton, 1987.
Tracks. New York, Holt, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1988.
Crown of Columbus, with Michael Dorris. New York and London, HarperCollins, 1991.
The Bingo Palace. London, Flamingo, 1994.
Tales of Burning Love. New York, HarperCollins, 1997.
The Antelope Wife. New York, HarperCollins, 1998.
Route 2, with Michael Dorris. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1990.
The Bluejay's Dance: A Birth Year. New York, HarperCollins, 1995.
Grandmother's Pigeon (for children). New York, Hyperion, 1996.
The Birchbark House (for children). New York, Hyperion, 1999.
Editor, with David Solheim, Plainsong: Writings from North Dakota's Poets-in-the-Schools Program, 1975–1977. Fargo, North Dakota, North Dakota Council on the Arts, 1978.*
Critical Studies: "Transactions in a Native Land: Mixed-Blood Identity and Indian Legacy in Louise Erdrich's Writing" by Daniela Daniele, in RSA Journal, 3, 1992; "Working (In) the In-Between: Poetry, Criticism, Interrogation, and Interruption" by Jeannie Ludlow, in Studies in American Indian Literatures (Virginia), 6(1), Spring 1994; "The Construction of Gender and Ethnicity in the Poetry of Leslie Silko and Louise Erdrich" by Susan Perez Castillo, in ICLA '91 Tokyo: The Force of Vision, II: Visions in History; Visions of the Other, edited by Earl Miner and others, Tokyo, International Comparative Literature Association, 1995; "Sacramental Language: Ritual in the Poetry of Louise Erdrich" by P. Jane Hafen, in Great Plains Quarterly (Lincoln, Nebraska), 16(3), Summer 1996.* * *
Louise Erdrich's standing as a poet rests with the two volumes of poetry that she published in the 1980s, Jacklight (1984) and Baptism of Desire (1989). Even if she were to continue to concentrate on writing prose fiction, as she has done since then, and never publish another collection of her poems, her reputation as a poet would be solid. She has already established herself with the truthful intensity of her poetic expression, her fearlessness in the use of myth to express the realities of the human heart, and the imaginative exactness of her language.
Of Ojibwa (Chippewa) and German heritage (she is a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Ojibwa), Erdrich was raised in Wahpeton, North Dakota, and she uses all of these elements of ancestry and place in her poetry. The Jacklight poems tend to fall into five overlapping thematic categories: poems of Indian heritage in conflict with the dominant white culture; poems of sisterhood and family; love poems; poems peopled with the shadows of figures from her past; and mythic poems that draw upon Native American myths and the habit of mythmaking.
Among the poems of tension between the Indian and white worlds are some of Erdrich's best and most frequently anthologized poems, including "Indian Boarding School: The Runaways," which recounts the habitual running away of children from an Indian boarding school to the Indian place of their dreams "just under Turtle Mountains." They know that the sheriff will be "waiting at midrun / to take us back," but "home's the place we head for in our sleep." Like the tracks on the land of the railroad they ride, "the worn-down welts / of ancient punishments lead back and forth." "Dear John Wayne" presents the reaction of young Indians to a John Wayne western at a drive-in movie. When it is over, they continue to hear his voice speaking its real message: "Come on, boys, we got them / where we want them, drunk, running. / They'll give us what we want, what we need."
"A Love Medicine" represents Erdrich's sisterhood-family poems. When "this dragonfly, my sister" feels the boot of her man planting "its grin / among the arches of her face," the speaker responds with her whole feminine being: "Sister, there is nothing / I would not do."
Erdrich's love poems tend to have a poignantly sad note that is echoed in "Train": "Here is the light I was born with, love. / Here is the bleak radiance that levels the world." Mary Kröger is the most powerful figure in the character poems of "The Butcher's Wife" section of Jacklight. Futilely pursued by Rudy J.V. Jacklitch, the sheriff who crashed his truck and died cursing her, Mary hears her name destroyed by the townspeople until she "feared to have it whispered in their mouths!"
Among the best poems in the fine "Myths" section of Jacklight is "Whooping Cranes," a haunting poem about a foundling boy, "strange and secret among the others, / killing crows with his bare hands / and kissing his own face in the mirror," who ends up flying into the mystical formation of whooping cranes that "sailed over / trumpeting the boy's name." Noteworthy, too, is the Potchikoo mythical prose poem cycle about a man born as a "potato boy" after "a very pretty Chippewa girl" is raped by the sun in a potato field. Archetypally, Potchikoo dies when his three lovely daughters visit him in his old age, sit on his lap, and block the sun from him: "He hardly knew it when all three daughters laid their heads dreamily against his chest. They were cold, and so heavy that his ribs snapped apart like little dry twigs."
Baptism of Desire projects very much the same range and depth as the earlier volume. Indeed, some of the same characters—Rudy J.V. Jacklitch, Mary Kröger, the mythic Potchikoo—do encore appearances, for which readers of Jacklight must be grateful. The main change is that Baptism is, paradoxically, even more spiritual in its earthiness. In "The Sacraments," for example, a richly portrayed rain dance merges with the Christian sacraments. In "Mary Magdalene," after she washes "your ankles / with my tears," Mary sardonically resolves to "drive boys / to smash empty bottles on their brows. / I will pull them right off of their skins." She concludes with an observation that is at once earthy and spiritually rebellious: "It is the old way that girls / get even with their fathers— / by wrecking their bodies on other men."
The poet and critic Simon Ortiz has summed up the strength of Erdrich's poetry succinctly: "… by knowing a bit of truthful fear we may know courage, love, faith, life. That is the way I experience Erdrich's poems of revelation. She is a remarkable, remarkable writer."