I note that it’s been over a month since my last entry. Not living up to my website’s name, am I? At least as far as the blogging’s concerned. But I’m about to make up for it.
Louise Erdrich’s work is no secret. She’s been one of those rarities among artists–both popular and respected–at least since Love Medicine won the National Book Award around 1993. In ensuing years, she’s built
a universe of and constellation of characters comparable to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha county. Her marriage to novelist Michael Dorris (Yellow Raft on Blue Water is his best known; their collaboration The Crown of Columbus is a unique piece of historical fiction.) Their good work among Indian victims of alcohol is (See his The Broken Cord, the story of adopting a child with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.) and the circumstances of his 1997 suicide are worthy of attention both within and outside the literary world. But I’ve just finished The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse and want to use this space to revel in her magic.
The last Erdrich I read was The Painted Drum which disappointed me with its lack of dramatic tension. Little No Horse has no such problem. Every section, virtually every page, has its own story, yet each story is part of a whole in a novel that covers eighty-plus years in the life of Agnes DeWitt, who spends most of her life as the priest Father Damien Modeste serving his/her parishioners on the North Dakota reservation of Little No Horse. (To give you an idea of what a relentless storyteller Erdrich is, even her end notes contain the fascinating story of how the reservation got its name.) Of course, as usual with her, the story spans much more time and space–in both the earthly and spirit worlds–than the lifetime of this sham priest.
Erdrich’s prose is at once grounded in reality, earthy, and spiritual. I opened the book at random and happened on this one passage describing the child Lulu’s attempt to escape from boarding school by hiding under a traveling school bus:
….My teeth chattered at first but then the [exhaust] pipe under me, the middle pipe, grew warm. It ran straight down the center of me, warming me, burning me, although that would be in the end a complete surprise.
All through my life, to the mystery of my devoutest lovers, I have borne that central scorch mark–a think stripe of gold lighter than my skin, a line evenly dividing me, running between my breasts and vanishing between my legs.
And it is Lulu’s nature to embody the essence of both good and evil in her life, yet her inner nature is expressed in a decidedly unmetaphorical event. And so it is with even the smallest details of Erdrich’s writing. A character leans over, brushing her hair, and the hair will brush the ground, then root to it–if only for a moment–and a simple act becomes a metaphor for communing with nature. All in the space of fewer words than I have taken to describe it. And the reader experiences that communion at the same time as wondering what just happened. I guess what’s happened is a shock of connection between the spiritual/physical/emotional planes of existence, which is what we seek always in art. That unity of all the disparate pieces of ourselves that most of the time lie scattered yet always pull toward one another.
And that’s the reason I’m talking about Louise Erdrich’s whole body of work here. Before The Painted Drum for me, there was Tales of Burning Love, which is nearly as exhilarating as Miracles, but includes many of the same characters, or references to them. Each new approach to the Erdrich world, then, widens one’s understanding of the people, their history, their spirit.
Every artist is part of a tradition, of course, and Erdrich includes not only the magical realism of her Native American soul, but a number of distinctly American literary motifs, the most notable one for me in Miracles is the tall tale. The story of Nanapush and the moose as well as his subsequent wake/funeral deserves to be enshrined as right up there with Paul Bunyan–except it’s too risque to get into the children’s stoybooks. Another section is in a category of its own–have you ever read of a nun climaxing while playing Chopin?
One theory of art has it that the greater the volume of reality a work embodies, the more satisfying it is to the audience which experiences it. Erdrich embodies an enormous hunk of reality, and too read her work is to enrich our every aspect.