November 2008

Lorette C. Luzajic

Fascinating Writers

The Professorís Wife: The Life and Work of Louise Erdrich

“The beauty of Love Medicine saves us from being devastated by its power,” said Toni Morrison of Louise Erdrich’s first novel, high praise from a writer who would soon win both a Nobel and a Pulitzer prize.

The novel quickly became a bestseller and won a heap of awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the L.A. Times Best Novel of the Year, and the Janet Kaufman Award for Best First Novel. But numerous publishers rejected the stunning, unusual narrative before Erdrich’s husband posed as a literary agent and launched her prolific and revered career as one of America’s foremost voices in literature. The novel came out in 1984, the same year as Jacklight, her first poetry collection.

It’s astonishing that Oprah Winfrey hasn’t book-clubbed Ms. Erdrich, given the magnate’s penchant for women’s survival stories, multicultural writing, and great literature. More than twenty years and nearly as many books later, all highly acclaimed, it’s impossible to imagine a world without the mixed families and topsy-turvy happenings in Erdrich’s deeply original books. Part Chippewa, and part German, the writer’s stories are set in an invented landscape called Red River Valley, a reservation town on border of North Dakota and Minnesota, two states where she was raised. And despite extreme personal trials, including raising adopted children with fetal alcohol syndrome, a son’s death, her husband’s suicide, and allegations from their children of child abuse, Erdrich continues to produce works that attract both mass market and literary readerships.

The range of her appeal is apparent when on one hand, at the age of 35, she makes the pages of 1990’s People Magazine’s Most Beautiful People, and on the other hand, her books are taught in university literary courses. 

With gentleness and humour, she deftly handles centuries of conflict between Catholics and Native Americans. Storytelling in the Chippewa and the American traditions are Louise’s birthrights, and her works interweave characters and settings one from another, cycling in and out of various families and circumstances. In this way, her entire oeuvre reflects the highly unusual narrative of Love Medicine, a foreshadowing of the next several decades to come. Not only does she create her own ways of telling stories that deepen one another with each new work, but she ambitiously covers just about every conceivable theme possible. These include love as medicine and redemption; tribal or racial conflicts; the strengths and frailties of identity for mixed-heritage people; life and death; gender identity; homosexuality; love and betrayal; the search for meaning and acceptance from within ordinary life; justice; bloodlust; family: the list goes on. There is no stone unturned in Erdrich’s excavation of human identity. Interconnection is at the heart of her work.

Her titles lure the reader from the get-go. They are clever snapshots of where she goes within their pages. The Bingo Palace, Tales of Burning Love, The Beet Queen, and this year’s unforgettable A Plague of Doves are but a handful of her offerings. Every reader and writer recalls creative writing class -- the advice is classic: “Show, don’t tell.” But how do you do that, when you are "telling" a story? This elusive advice has scarred many a good writer. But you see, Louise knows it naturally, even if it were something she found difficult to define. It begins in the titles, and continues instinctively throughout her writing. “The earth was full of life and there were dandelions growing out the window, thick as thieves, already seeded, fat as big yellow plungers,” she writes in her first novel. No detail is ever denied these rich, juicy pictures.

Her style has been compared to Faulkner (though not nearly as boring!), and also to Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Erdrich herself states that she has no intention of “magical realism,” the style that blends absolute realism with the fantastical, of which Marquez is king. Yet the quirky characters, coincidences, Native and other religious mythologies, and mystical signs are all hallmarks of her work. Many of her books are evocative, also, of Margaret Laurence, the Canadian author of the unforgettable Diviners. The Diviners was part of a series set in the fictional prairie world of Manawaka. These books show many parallels to Erdrich’s, including the underlying themes of native identity and mixed relationships.

Louise Erdrich got a good education and a whole lot more as one of the first women admitted into Dartmouth College in 1972. She majored in English but took courses in Native American Studies. Her professor, Michael Dorris, would later become her husband.

They were literary soul mates, and they collaborated frequently throughout their marriage. Behind the scenes, as Dorris encouraged her literary pursuits and helped get her out there, he was equally as dependent on her for different reasons. Erdrich says she knew of his deep and ongoing depression since two years after their wedding. The subject of suicide often surfaced. “'It was just part of our marriage,'' Erdrich has said.

Dorris’s father died when he was young, in a car crash that many believe was suicide, though Dorris staked out a separate mythology in which his father died in the army, as a hero. Nonetheless, he pursued a successful literary and teaching career, pivotal in changing silence around Native American issues, in university and in general. He was the first single male in the States to successfully adopt children, three of them, who were later adopted by Louise when they married. He wrote about The Broken Cord, about children growing up with fetal alcohol syndrome. This issue affected all of their adopted children.

Michael went on to have three girls with Louise, but the thrill of their mutual and individual successes and of their large and unusual family was shattered in 1991. One of their adopted children was hit by a car and died.

Then, as Louise worked furiously, writing, mothering, and recovering from her loss, Michael’s depression deepened. But the complex traumas grew much worse than Louise could have imagined, when devastating allegations were brought against Michael by his children. Michael was accused of child abuse in every way, from stabbing one child with a fork, to molesting them. Louise herself was implicated in some but not all of the charges against them. Charges were later dropped after hellish investigations.

The husband and wife then pursued an extortion case against their eldest son for the refuted allegations, but they lost the case. About a year before the sad finale to their relationship, Louise sought divorce from Michael. Nonetheless, they were often together.

The alleged evidences in court and all the details were sealed after the death of Dorris. Michael Dorris had attempted suicide two weeks before he succeeded. Louise hoped his near-escape would somehow change his mind, and bring her outside support from loved ones who hadn’t seen the pain they were in. But on an April day in 1997, Michael Dorris sat in a room at the Brick Tower Motor Inn, drinking vodka. He suffocated himself with a plastic bag.

His funeral was practically deserted.

A giant question mark will forever hang over the shattered family, who has dealt with their problems and sorrows privately. Many vehemently defended the innocence of their deceased friend and colleague. But many were not sure what else could make your children graphically detail abuse to the authorities. The case was a complicated one that entailed whispers of sex-rings and recovered memories, therapists or man-hating women with axes to grind. Various groups felt a man who spoke for dads with their hands full, and for native people, was driven to death by a witch-hunt. What really happened may forever be a mystery to outsiders, but it began when Louise brought in a therapist to help their kids deal with Dad’s depression. That therapist contacted the authorities, stating she suspected child abuse.

Louise has been dignified and somber through the harrowing grief and stress, simply asking for healing for her whole family, seldom alluding to any specific turn of events. But after the suicide, she bravely and generously went to her kids’ schools to talk with the kids who had questions about the suicide.

Miraculously, Louise shows no sign of slowing down her prolific creative work. More than ten years after losing her soul mate and all of the painful things they endured together and apart, she continues to release critically acclaimed works. She has also earned numerous awards, and an honorary doctorate in 2007 that she refused because the school had racist insignia. Some believe that her fiction release this year, A Plague of Doves, is her strongest story yet.

In a short story in the Atlantic, in 1988, one of Louise’s characters said, “I got well by talking. Death could not get a word in edgewise, grew discouraged, and traveled on.” And so, Louise just keeps telling stories, as she was born to do, in order to meet her fate head on.

In 1990, in People Mag’s Most Beautiful People blurb, she could barely have known what she was saying, but the words are haunting and beautiful in retrospect. "I would to be shaped by the risks I've taken. I know that's going to include wrinkles, and I hope that the way one appears to others is shaped by all of the edges you have come to in your life and, most of all, by the other faces you have looked into with love."

Lorette C. Luzajic’s Fascinating Writers is a spin-off of her blog, Fascinating People. Visit other interesting folks at http://fascinatingpeople.wordpress.com.

You can learn more about Lorette and her writing at www.thegirlcanwrite.net, but you may have already read her work in everything from Gremolata to Adbusters to Dog Fancy to Modern Poetry. She is the author of the book The Astronaut’s Wife: Poems of Eros and Thanatos. Lorette lives in Toronto, in her library with three cats.