Louise Erdrich’s The Bingo Palace (1994)

Although it played a vital role in establishing the author’s reputation for story-crafting, The Bingo Palace feels like a single dish, served without accompaniments, on what has become, in the years since, a rich and varied menu.

The emphasis on story-telling was there in the beginning, however, in a playful and, yet, darkly resonant tone.

The story comes around, pushing at our brains, and soon we are trying to ravel back to the beginning, trying to put families into order and make sense of things. But we start with one person, and soon another and another follows, and still another, until we are lost in the connections.

Eventually there will be family trees in these volumes, carefully drawn and lettered on end papers or page-spreads preceding the narratives. (There are some spoilers in these, but they do help readers avoid getting lost in all the connections.)

But here the focus is on Lipsha. Who has connections to the Pillagers and the Morrisseys (who, Father Damien learns in The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse, always attend mass at different times).

Lipsha, in love, with Shawnee Ray. Louise Erdrich writes love like she is leaking too.

“Shawnee Ray, Shawnee Ray, my love, n’gwunajiwi. I think about her in the shape of clear beer glasses, in their sleek-waisted forms. I think about her in the napkins, which I am sure she uses politely at Zelda’s. I think about her as I stock the little rack of pocket combs and beer nuts and I even think about her as I replenish the jars of pickled eggs that sit on the counter. She is everywhere. The band plays slow wailing country love songs each evening and my heart gives, just sinks down, all riddled with holes. I leak love.”

And, yet, this is a woman-soaked story. “Who would not prefer, after all, to live in a world of women? To need men, to love men, was a great nuisance and a misery. To sit and sew with her sisters in a room was like entering a country where she had always belonged.”

With clear-cut prose and only an occasional metaphor which reveals Erdrich’s lyrical bent. “One eye was banged shut like a cupboard. The sun was up all around him and the white world glowed like the inside of a giant coffee cup.”

And, oh yes, Fleur. Fleur is here, too. A glimpse into her past, for readers who have not yet made her acquaintance, but with an emphasis on the present.

“They say that strange things happen when the old lady is around. A dog falls over dead and all of its hair drops out. Gossiping mouths twist to one side and stick that way. Cold winds blow out of nowhere, in places there isn’t even a fan system. Yellow jackets build a nest in a loaf of baking bread. And then those drownings: three times she was cast in the lake, and men were taken by the spirits each instance when she came to life, as if she put their name of the list to the death road, replacing hers. These things happened, frightful incidents, but also there is good.”

That loaf of baking bread, the ensuing explosion of wings: that’s what readers can expect from Erdrich’s fiction.

It can sting and burn, smart and scar. But above all, it is alive, active and all-a-whirl.

Louise Erdrich Project

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001)*
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)

*Rereads

2018-06-12T18:04:44+00:00

8 Comments

  1. Laila@BigReadingLife June 20, 2018 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    I identify with the other comments in saying that I’ve never read an Erdrich novel either and I’ve always felt daunted too for some reason. I should just get over myself. After 20 Books of Summer is over, of course!

    • Buried In Print June 20, 2018 at 2:07 pm - Reply

      I’ve got the perfect solution, the first in her children’s series, The Birchbark House: you might even be able to read it with your little guy. It’s simple but beautifully told (some amazing relationships: with people, with other animals) and I am eager to read on (but have to finish the adult books first wags finger at self).

  2. annelogan17 June 16, 2018 at 5:40 pm - Reply

    I’ve never read an Erdrich novel, and I know I’m worse off for it because I’ve heard her books are absolute marvels. I really must get to one these days!

    • Buried In Print June 20, 2018 at 9:54 am - Reply

      It took me about ten years of saying “one day I’m going to read them all, in story order” before I finally started to do just that (last January). Sometimes it takes us awhile to get to certain parts of the stack. commiserating smile

  3. iliana June 14, 2018 at 4:05 pm - Reply

    I think I have this and perhaps another Erdrich book on my stacks but I just haven’t gotten to them. For some reason her books seem a bit daunting to me.

    • Buried In Print June 15, 2018 at 9:06 am - Reply

      I know what you mean, and I still feel a hint of that, even after having read quite a few, in 2017 and this year, and learning, many times over, that they are just good stories. I wonder where that comes from? Awards stickers? Her reputation as a poet?

  4. whisperinggums June 14, 2018 at 8:34 am - Reply

    I have had this book on my TBR pile – the special one next to my bed for over 10 years! Even though it’s in the special pile, somehow other books keep getting ahead of it. One day I will read it. I’ve only read one of hers, and that was the collaborative one with her late/ex-husband, which was good, but probably not the most representative one of hers.

    • Buried In Print June 15, 2018 at 9:00 am - Reply

      I highly recommend a later novel as a starting point, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (my post will be up before the end of June). Not that you need any help stacking other books on top of The Bingo Palace! Heheh Those immovable stacks do taunt one, don’t they?! I’ve had The Crown of Columbus in mind for years but have never made it there. Which is pretty much where most of Erdrich would have remained if I hadn’t decided to make a little fuss (with myself) about reading her.

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