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 Bingo Palace (1994)
Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country (2003)
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)