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.
This 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?
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)
Edited to add her children’s cycle
The Birchbark House (1999)
The Game of Silence (2005)
The Porcupine Year (2008)