Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Reading Louise Erdrich: At Last

For years, vaguely since I collected The Bingo Palace with a university course in mind (but there was never enough time to read all the books I planned to read for papers) and intensely since falling in love with The Last Miracle at Little No Horse, I’ve wanted to go back to the beginning of Louise Erdrich’s stories.

Erdrich TracksThis isn’t uncomplicated, and not only because making time for more than a dozen novels when one’s TBR list has 7,559 books on it is tricky.

Readers can choose to read in publication order or in chronological order.

“All of the books will be connected somehow—by history and blood and by something I have no control over, which is the writing itself. The writing is going to connect where it wants to, and I will have to try and follow along.”

So these connections are interconnections, as explained in the the Paris Review interview, from Issue 195 in 2010, with Lisa Halliday. She finally began to include family tree diagrams after seeing so many devoted fans making their own, bringing them to book readings and signings.

The earliest stories, chronologically, are those about Fleur and Pauline, Nanapush and Eli, which play out between winter 1912 and spring 1924.

But these were not the works Louise Erdrich wrote first. “Then I thought I’d better write a real novel. So I left everything else and wrote a book called Tracks.”

She explains that she rewrote the novel completely in 1989, based on her emotional understanding of the characters rather than out of her own experience.

“I’ve only had children with two fathers. Lulu’s had children by what, eight? People sometimes ask me, Did you really have these experiences? I laugh, Are you crazy? I’d be dead. I’d be dead fifty times. I don’t write directly from my own experience so much as an emotional understanding of it.” [Paris Review interview]

Family is integral to Tracks and the novels which precede and follow, and the interconnections between the works have led to comparisons with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County novels.

And this basic concept does emerge from her experience. “In the Turtle Mountains, everybody is related because there are only so many families. Nobody sits down and picks apart their ancestry. Unless you want to date somebody.”  [Paris Review interview]

Yet family does not translate into intimacy, into connections. Not necessarily.

“Abandonment is in all the books: the terror of having a bad mother or being a bad mother, or just a neglectful mother; letting your child run around in a T-shirt longer than her shorts.” [Paris Review interview]

And what is consistent, what endures, is not necessarily human. But, even so, living. As Nanapush explains in Tracks.

“Land is the only thing that lasts life to life. Money burns like tinder, flows off like water. And as for government promises, the wind is steadier. I am a holdout, like the Pillagers, although I told the Captain and the Agent what I thought of their papers in good English. I could have written my name, and much more too, in script. I had a Jesuit education in the halls of Saint John before I ran back to the woods and forgot all my prayers.”

The connection between land and people is more intimate than some readers might expect. The spirit is one.

“Summer fled and all the living plants dried to stalk and seed. The earth hardened. I swelled so tight that I could hardly life my arms and every breath was forced, fought for against her weight. I felt my bones give, the bowl of my hips creak wide, and between my legs there was a soft and steady burning.”

And the connection between women and the land can be particularly powerful but the connection between people must be nurtured and nourished, just as the connection with the land.

Nanapush handed his nearly full plate back to Margaret, who took a spoonful and passed the dish to Fleur, whose bowl was already cleaned by Lulu.
“I ate while I cooked,” said Margaret. She looked at Fleur, so gaunt, the baby pushing out, and at Lulu, eating with such ravenous attention, suking the thin bones and licking her fingers. “We old ones don’t need much, because our stomachs are too bitter.”

Bitter stomachs, bitter politics: what one takes and what one gives. This story unfolds more than a hundred years ago, but what we can learn from it fits with the headlines of today’s world.

This is my first read in my Louise Erdrich reading project; I’ve tried to arrange them in chronological order in terms of recurring characters, but when she’s shifted focus to other characters and other communities, I’ve settled back into publication order.

Favour a particular reading order? Please let me know. Is she a favourite of yours? Have you dabbled?

Tracks (1988)
Four Souls (2004)
Love Medicine (1984)
The Beet Queen (1986)
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001) *Reread
The Bingo Palace (1994) *Reread
Tales of Burning Love (1997)
The Antelope Wife (1998)
The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003)
The Painted Drum (2005)
The Plague of Doves (2008)
Shadow Tag (2010)
The Round House (2012)
LaRose (2016)

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27 comments to Reading Louise Erdrich: At Last

  • I’ve read them all and wish I had them to read for the first time. Her characters and landscapes become part of your dreams. Loved The Round House, loved Shadow Tag, The Last Report…and most recently (a few weeks ago) LaRose. They’re all of a piece, grand and funny and harrowing and beautiful.

    • My reading doesn’t often make its way into my dream-life, so I’m curious to see if these do have that effect! (So far, the only author I can think of having had that experience with on more than one occasion is Toni Morrison. Distinctly uncomfortable.)

  • Just a dabbler, but The Round House blew me away. This is a great idea for a reading project. I’m doing a similar “complete works” thing and i hasn’t even considered her.

  • I’ve yet to read anything by Erdrich so this recommended reading order is going to be very helpful

  • I’ve only read one by Erdrich, The last report on the miracles at Little No Horse, which I really enjoyed. Spotted this one on Goodreads and really want to read it, looks very interesting.

    • Apparently one of the signifcant voices in TLROtMaLNH is one of the key voices in Tracks; I didn’t know this at the time but now, having read Tracks, I wonder if I’ll feel differently about them when I reread Last Report!

  • I haven’t read any of her books yet. I didn’t realize some of them were interconnected. I’m also surprised to see that The Round House was only published in 2012 – why do I feel like it’s been around longer than that? I guess it’s 2017 now… sigh.
    This will be a fun project to follow!

    • I actually have the opposite feeling, because I bought The Round House new and it feels like I *just* bought it, so how can she possibly have a new book out “already”? *sigh* Sooo many good books to read. (Nice problem to have!)

  • Totally didn’t realize Erdrich’s books were connected. I’ve only read a couple (definitely Tracks once or twice and I feel like something else) but will have to read more. I like the order you have here, maybe I should try that

  • Seriously! I have so many Erdrich books marked to read and haven’t read one yet! I’ve heard the most recent ones were connected so I thought about starting with the first of those – but they all have connections? Damn. It’s probably going to be something where I start with something from her earlier stuff – like maybe Antelope Wife? But I can’t be held to that. 🙂

    • There are several writers whose works I’ve done a stunning job of collecting but I haven’t read more than one book (or, sometimes, even that)! I don’t know whether I’ll stick to this order, but it’s my starting plan. Four Souls is next!

  • I’ve read a couple of her books, enjoyed them all. I don;t think they have to be read in any particular order so I’d say read them as the mood and story description strikes you. 🙂

  • This is one of those authors that for some reason I have found a bit intimidating. I need to get over that and just pick up one of her books!

  • Kat

    What a great project! I read the first four a few years ago and then stopped–and I’ve already forgotten my Nanapushes. I favor publication order but I can see the reasoning behind the other order.

    • Yes, I was looking at the family tree in Four Souls last night and wondering if I had already left too much of a gap between it and Tracks! Heheh Nah, I think that’ll be manageable, but I’m guessing you’d need to start fresh if your memory is anything like mine!

  • Oh, I loved Tracks so much. I will have to get it out for a reread. I haven’t read her last few titles though – maybe I should try to catch up, too.

  • I’m reading LaRose next because that’s the only one I own currently, since she hasn’t released any new books since LaRose (right?), then I’ll just start from the beginning with Tracks!

  • Blooo

    While her books center around a specific area, not all of them trace the highly complex relationship between Lulu and Marie, where Erdrich’s work started.

    So, Love Medicine (which has 3 versions, at least), Bingo Palace, Tracks, Last Report, (for sure) all trace 4 (maybe 5) generations of these two tangled families.

    Other books center around white immigrants, for instance, to the area.

    • Thanks for your comment, Blooo. I’m guessing from your email addy that you’ve spent some time studying her work and I appreciate the hint towards keeping an eye on this core relationship. You’ve also raised another matter which I thought was very interesting, the rewriting of some of the works. That intrigues me too!

  • […] Nonetheless, I’ve plucked this book from my TBR not, in this instance, for its bookishness, but for its Louise-Erdrich-ness. Because this year I am making good on my promise to myself to read and reread her books. […]

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