The Faulkner of Little Falls

Louise Erdrich’s new novel is a worthy addition to a brilliant body of work. Is it time to crown her as our greatest writer?

WHEN LOUISE ERDRICH BURST onto the literary scene with a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984 for her debut novel, Love Medicine, she took all of us in Minnesota with her. How strange—and strangely exposed—it felt, to have a book of such consequence taking place in “Chippewa” Indian country and sending its characters through the streets of Fargo and Minneapolis. ¶ Critics and readers loved Love Medicine because it was a welcome shot of modern Indian reality and of Erdrich’s dreamy, stream-of-consciousness-yet-sharp-edged prose: an intergenerational narrative with remarkable sense of place. It seemed like Faulkner—but closer, more personal, more female. Of course, we loved it because it was us, the inner voice of Minnesota: brooding, pretty, funny, soft, secretly burning with longing and, of course, deeply tied to the land.

Erdrich has now spent three decades turning out consistently remarkable work (besides her novels, she has published poetry, children’s books, and a memoir) that has resurrected the Indian soul of Minnesota and blended it into a bigger picture of who we are today. And she has done it all with novels that absorb and nurture intellectual curiosity.

Her new novel, The Plague of Doves, is a classic work of intersecting lives and hidden histories, suffering and retribution, concealed truths and stunning revelations. Erdrich has been able to re-create and build upon the romance, devastation, and wisdom of Love Medicine over and over again to form what is now a cohesive, intense, and satisfying body of work. But that consistency has numbed us to the impact of her new releases. While her books always sell, and while there’s an understood, yeah-she’s-amazing sense of reverence for her work among the press, there’s a reticence to examine what Erdrich means to this loon-and-prairie land she wholeheartedly embraces. At 53, she’s mid-career as a novelist, and it’s time to consider what that career has delivered to readers. It’s also time to come out and say that she is Minnesota’s greatest writer.

THERE IS MYSTICISM in Erdrich’s novels, and pain, and hardships, and alcoholism, and violence. But there is also that gentle and teasing brand of Native American humor and humility, a delicious absurdity, of examining—and accepting—the wounds from the near-eradication of Indian culture. In the haunting conclusion of Tracks, Erdrich writes of mid-20th century Indian assimilation policies in action: “She sent you to the government school, it is true, but you must understand there were reasons,” she writes. “There would be no place for you, no safety on this reservation, no hiding from government papers, or from Morrisseys who shaved heads or the Turcot Company, leveler of a whole forest…. So you were sent away, another piece cut from my heart.”

But poignancy and lust are woven just as deeply as Indian suffering into Erdrich’s artful prose. In Tales of Burning Love, jealous Fargo undertaker Lawrence Schlick “felt his smile falter, and he looked down at the surface of the tarry coffee. He tipped the cup to his mouth and closed his eyes. Darkness rinsed down behind his eyelids. Putting down the cup, he felt his lips form an odd new smile. Bitterness. Tender lust. The softest feathers brushed his throat.”

Often, Erdrich unearths a chilling historical injustice or employs a colorful regional legend as a jumping-off point for an intricate and sprawling narrative. In Doves, she takes a true story about the lynching of several Indians and imagines how it would wind down through a small town’s interacting, intermarrying generations. By the time the story unfolds in the present day, Erdrich has made the case that people tied to the same piece of land are tied to each other—that we are all inextricably woven into each other’s lives.

In the native mysticism that Erdrich employs, there’s no sense of affectation; she’s not “playing Indian.” She was born in Little Falls in 1954 and raised in Wahpeton, a modest-size North Dakota town on the Minnesota border where both her father, who is of German ancestry, and her mother, who is Ojibwa and French, taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. Erdrich’s Ojibwa connections were readily accessible to her growing up. “It’s just part of me,” Erdrich says of her Indian heritage.

“There is always this potent sense of place in Louise’s work,” says writer Mark Anthony Rolo, who is also Ojibwa. “The power of the physical land is a recurring character. It’s a very Indian thing, and I am sure it’s never intentional.”

The Indian presence in Erdrich’s novels mirrors the internal conflict of a state that’s been denying its undeniable Indian-ness for a century and a half. And her importance to Minnesota for defining the state’s unspoken issue can’t be overvalued.

AS MUCH AS SHE’S OURS, and masterful, and prolific, there’s a strange reticence in the local literary community to crown Erdrich as our queen of letters. Besides the general sense of discomfort with “best” or “greatest” among writers—people who deal heavily in nuance and complexity—there’s a big, gin-soaked wall to scale for the title: F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s conventional wisdom that Big Fitz created the concept of the modern novel with The Great Gatsby. But Gatsby plays out in West Egg, Long Island, not West Acres, Fargo. And Fitzgerald left us as soon as he could for the glitz, glam, and boozy self-destruction of the Jazz Age East Coast. Erdrich, on the other hand, got her education at Dartmouth, lived for a while in New Hampshire, and then fully ensconced herself in the City of Lakes. Fitzgerald was from Minnesota. Erdrich is of Minnesota. And one might mention, out of obligation, Sauk Centre’s own Sinclair Lewis. The first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature was big back in the day, but the passage of time hasn’t burnished the appeal of his work as it has Fitzgerald’s. When he satirized his hometown in Main Street, the country was hungry to mock small-town small-mindedness. Now it just seems kind of dated and mean.

There is, of course, also a great amount of talent in Minnesota’s contemporary literary community. Patricia Hampl’s high-minded work has been much lauded, but she’s a memoirist, not a novelist. Garrison Keillor’s serious novels have been overshadowed by his radio persona. Jon Hassler is strongly identified with Minnesota, but his work doesn’t possess Erdrich’s otherworldly transcendence. Lorna Landvik, Leif Enger, David Treuer, and the venerable Charles Baxter (who, for his part, says Erdrich is “brilliant” and considers her work to be too universal to be considered “Minnesota writing”): All these writers deserve big audiences and national attention. But even among these talented wordsmiths, Erdrich reigns as a grande dame of Minnesota letters.

Treuer, who has authored three novels and an essay collection, and who is from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwa, says of Erdrich’s influence: “It’s safe to say that I would not have become a writer if I hadn’t read Erdrich.” He says reading Erdrich’s second novel, The Beet Queen, and her third, Tracks, consumed him so profoundly as a college student that he literally did not rise from his couch for three days. Her effect on Treuer’s writing has been just as staggering: “She showed me, and many others,” he says, “that the grand themes of literature—good and evil, life and death, love, beauty, sexuality, and so on—are not only alive and well, but particularly alive and well in our largely forgotten and ignored part of the world.”

The most hesitant to interpret the importance of Erdrich’s body of work is Erdrich herself. “I don’t think a novelist ever thinks how a book will fit in with a career,” she says, describing each new novel she writes as “opening a door into a new room.” Erdrich is not the kind of gregarious, larger-than-life personality that lends itself well to book promotion. She’s warm and self-effacing, and those who know her are very protective, attesting to her kindness and generosity. Her well-known discomfort with publicity is understandable: She lost one of her seven children in a car accident and her husband and collaborator, writer Michael Dorris, killed himself in 1997 amid allegations of child abuse.

Some think it’s silly or frivolous to talk about who’s the best in a serious avocation such as literature, though Rolo, for his part, isn’t afraid to speak in superlatives. “In terms of craft and process,” he says, “I believe Louise is the most honest writer of our time.”

Erdrich certainly isn’t looking to be an object of fawning adulation. But Mississippi has Faulkner. California has Steinbeck. Maybe it’s time we define ourselves by a writer who defines us?

Cherie Parker comments on literature and books on her blog