Literary Learnings

Tales Well Spun

By Dianna Sinovic

This past year, I read Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. It was her debut novel way back in 1984. She’s subsequently written more than a dozen other novels, one of which, The Night Watchman, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2021.

Erdrich wasn’t new to me as an author; I’d read several of her other books. But this one started it all. According to Stephen Graham Jones, whose The Only Good Indians … I loved, she was a major influence on his writing. He cites Love Medicine in particular.

After reading the novel, I can see that influence.

In her body of work, Erdrich, who is part Chippewa, has created a fictional North Dakota area that includes a reservation and several small towns. She returns again and again to that setting, bringing certain characters back but from different vantage points. And within some of her works, including Love Medicine, she weaves the story from multiple voices. It’s a mix that’s been compared to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, another masterful tale.

In Love Medicine, we meet the members of several interrelated families—the Kashpaws, Morrisseys, and Lamartines—whose lives and loves are intertwined over several generations. 

She continues that exploration in the sequel, The Beet Queen, from 1985, and its sequel, Tracks, from 1988.

After several other books, Erdrich wrote another trilogy, beginning with A Plague of Doves, in 2008. Plague is about the fallout from an unsolved murder that happened in the previous generation.

Erdrich followed that with a dive into the legal intricacies of reservation land in The Round House, from 2012. The story starts with a rape, but it’s unclear who owns the land on which the violent crime happened. Under which jurisdiction does the crime fall? Who can arrest the suspect? Will justice be served? Does anybody outside of the reservation care?

In LaRose, the third installment in 2016, she examines the impact of tribal customs. When a man accidentally kills the young son from another family, he and his wife give up their young son to help make amends. But what about the living son’s preferences? How will this unrelated boy fit into a household steeped in grief? As you might guess, things don’t go well.

Her themes often delve into what it means to be different, what it means to be loved, and what it takes to survive. And she paints her characters with such vivid brush strokes that they live with you long after you’ve finished the book.

Erdrich’s works are highly regarded. A Plague of Doves was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. And The Night Watchman, based on Erdrich’s grandfather, who was a night watchman at a factory, earned the prize last year. About that novel, the Pulitzer committee said:

A majestic, polyphonic novel about a community’s efforts to halt the proposed displacement and elimination of several Native American tribes in the 1950s, rendered with dexterity and imagination.

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