Louise Erdrich’s Tales of Burning Love (1996; 2013)

The tales are told by Jack Mauser’s wives. Lest you think this could make for a short read, there are five of them.

Four of those times, Jack married for love. You might guess what the fifth occasion was, but I bet you wouldn’t have worked a toothache into your guess.

That’s the thing about these tales, each is as strange and disorienting as the next.

Even the broken marriage which seems the most ordinary turns out to have an unexpected layer which emerges after readers have gotten familiar with the cast of characters.

And you might think that you know Jack Mauser – or, certainly, know a man like Jack: “He was a hostage of his past and his life of temporary fixes.”

But you will be surprised on that score too.

(Just as events unfold dramatically and you might think that you know what lies at the end of Jack Mauser’s life: but that, too, is surprising.)

Also, Jack is not only defined by his relationships with these five women, but more expansively, so that readers can fully understand his choices, his complexity, his motivation, his apart-ness, and his relationship with his surroundings.

“Since the Ojibwe part of Jack was inaccessible, he was a German with a trapdoor in his soul, an inner life still hidden to him. Both men saw money when they looked at land. It was just that they saw the fields delivering the wealth in different ways, as dead, as alive, as more and as less autonomous or powerful.”

In the hands of less-experienced writer, this cast could become overwhelming, but readers are immersed into the narrative slowly, meeting each character as an individual.

Then, something happens. “Every so often, whiteness blew up in a scarf, shedding particles of diamond dust that hung glittering in the air.” (What happens is not as mystical as it sounds, with my use of this particular quote, which is actually just a snippet of her lyricism which I love.)

And after it happens, the women keep each other company in close quarters for an indeterminate amount of time. There is nothing left to do but tell stories.

Which makes it sound like an innocent pastime. But as Louise Erdrich readers know, stories are life blood. They are powerful and transformative. The tales – their telling and their acceptance – change the landscape of these women’s lives.

Just as wife leads to wife, in Jack’s experience anyway, themes of continuity and change also arise in the context of motherhood and family, be that a blood-bound group or a group rooted in another kind of community.

Be it a lover’s love or a mother’s love, Tales of Burning Love pulls taut the strings that bind us: dynamic and exhaustive, immersive and wild.

“She craved him. She loved him with the secret, wild, despairing love that mothers bear their boy children, an ardor bound up in loss and foreignness and fury. She adored him and could erase him. Just at the instant he entirely surrendered to sleep he saw her once again, swooping down, his earliest memory. She was the shadow of a bending tree that springs up, snaps toward heaven, and you in the branches, curled against the live heart, shouting!”

LOUISE ERDRICH PROJECT

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)
LaRose (2016)

Do you enjoy the story-within-a-story device? Do you think you’d feel like the sixth wife after spending all this time with Jack Mauser and his wives?

2018-07-26T14:11:58+00:00

4 Comments

  1. Alley September 13, 2018 at 3:45 pm - Reply

    “Strange and disorienting” definitely describes the stories. Or at least my experience, from the bit I was able to get through. I think I was in the wrong headspace. Will need to try again

    • Buried In Print September 14, 2018 at 6:46 am - Reply

      There are definitely a lot of voices in this story, so I can see how, in certain moods, it would just feel overwhelming. If you wanted to try another, The Painted Drum is shorter and (at least to my taste) an engaging idea which only takes about 30 pages to hook.

  2. heavenali August 23, 2018 at 11:21 am - Reply

    I’m not massively fond of that story within a story thing, though it worked brilliantly in Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. This sounds rather differently structured to that one though.

    • Buried In Print August 23, 2018 at 1:09 pm - Reply

      Love The Blind Assassin for that – simply perfect. Here the story ambles along in a linear fashion, though moving between characters, and then something happens cue three dramatic chords and being in close quarters requires that the women pass some time, which they do by telling stories. Because you have glimpsed them from other directions, it’s really just a chance to temporarily inhabit them a little more intimately.

Say something bookish, or just say 'hey'