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At the crossroads of his life, Lipsha Morrissey is summoned by his grandmother to return to the reservation. There, he falls in love for the very first time—with the beautiful Shawnee Ray, who's already considering a marriage proposal from Lipsha's wealthy entrepreneurial boss, Lyman Lamartine. But when all efforts to win Shawnee's affections go hopelessly awry, Lipsha seeks out his great-grandmother for a magical solution to his romantic dilemma—on sacred ground where a federally sanctioned ...
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At the crossroads of his life, Lipsha Morrissey is summoned by his grandmother to return to the reservation. There, he falls in love for the very first time—with the beautiful Shawnee Ray, who's already considering a marriage proposal from Lipsha's wealthy entrepreneurial boss, Lyman Lamartine. But when all efforts to win Shawnee's affections go hopelessly awry, Lipsha seeks out his great-grandmother for a magical solution to his romantic dilemma—on sacred ground where a federally sanctioned bingo palace is slated for construction.
Louise Erdrich's luminous novel The Bingo Palace is a tale of spiritual death and reawakening; of money, desperate love, and wild hope; and of the enduring power of cherished dreams.
On most winter days, Lulu Lamartine did not stir until the sun cast a patch of warmth for her to bask in and purr. She then rose, brewed fresh coffee, heated a pan of cream, and drank the mix from a china cup at her apartment table. Sipping, brooding, she entered the snowy world. A pale sweet roll, a doughnut gem, occasionally a bowl of cereal, followed that coffee, then more coffee, and on and on, until finally Lulu pronounced herself awake and took on the day's business of running the tribe. We know her routine—many of us even shared it—so when she was sighted before her normal get-up time approaching her car door in the unsheltered cold of the parking lot, we called on others to look. Sure enough, she was dressed for action. She got into her brown Citation wearing hosiery, spike-heeled boots, and, beneath her puffy purple winter coat, a flowered dress cut evening low. She adjusted her rearview mirror, settled her eyeglasses on her nose. She started the engine, pulled away onto the downslope winding road. From the hill, we saw her pass into the heart of the reservation.
She rolled along in quiet purpose, stopping at the signs, even yielding, traveling toward one of two places open at that early hour. The gas pumps—she could be starting out on a longer trip—or the post office. These were the two choices that we figured out among ourselves. When she passed the first, we knew it must be the second, and from there, we relied on Day Twin Horse to tell us how Lulu entered the post office beneath the flags of the United States, the Great Seal of North Dakota, and the emblem of ourChippewa Nation, and then lingered, looking all around, warming herself like a cat at the heat register and tapping at her lips with a painted fingernail.
Day Twin Horse watched her, that is, until she turned, saw him looking, and set confusion into motion. First she glared a witch gaze that caused him to tape a finger to the postal scale. The tape seemed to have a surprising life all of its own so that, as he leaned over, extracting the finger, balling up the tape, Day Twin Horse became more and more agitated. For while he struggled with the sticky underside, Mrs. Josette Bizhieu entered, impatient as always, carrying three packages. Tending to her needs, Postmaster Twin Horse was unable to keep an eye on Lulu as she wandered, flicking at the dials of the tiny boxes that held other people's bills. He did not see her pause to read the directions on the Xerox machine, or lean over the glass display case showing pen sets, stamp mugs, albums that could be purchased by collectors. He did not see her stop before the wanted posters, flick through quickly, silently, riffling the heavy roll until she came to the picture of her son.
It was Josette herself, sharp and wary as her namesake bobcat, who tipped her chin down, turned her face just a fraction to watch Lulu Lamartine as she reached into the fall of criminals and with one quick tug, evenly, as if she were removing a paper towel from a toothed dispenser, tear away government property. Holding the paper, Lulu walked over to the copier. She carefully slid the picture onto the machine's face, inserted two coins into the coin box. Satisfaction lit her face as the machine's drum flashed and whirred. She removed the original, then the copy of the picture as it emerged. She folded it into an envelope and carried it quickly to the Out of Town slot, where Josette now held her packages as if deciding which to mail first. Seeing the drop of Josette's gaze, Lulu quickly posted the letter, but not before Josette caught the city part of the address, already written onto the outside of the stamped envelope.
Fargo, North Dakota. There it was—the well-known whereabouts of that stray grandson whom Lulu Lamartine and Marie Kashpaw shared uneasily between themselves. So Lulu Lamartine was sending the picture of the father to the son. Perhaps it was a summons home. A warning. Surely, it meant something. There was always a reason behind the things Lulu did, although it took a while to find them, to work her ciphers out for meaning. Now Lulu walked directly through the glass front doors, leaving Josette and Day Twin Horse in the post office.
The two gazed after her, frowning and pensive. Around them, suddenly, they felt the drift of chance and possibility, for the post office is a place of near misses, lit by numbers. Their gazes fixed upon the metal postal box doors—so strictly aligned and easily mistaken for one another. And then the racks constructed for the necessary array of identical-looking rubber stamps that nevertheless could send a letter halfway around the world. Of course, there were the stamps themselves, either booklets or sheets sold in waxed cellophane envelopes. Eagles. Flowers. Hot air balloons. Love dogs. Wild Bill Hickok. The ordinary world suddenly seemed tenuous, odd. Josette reared back in suspicion, narrowing her clever eyes. Day Twin Horse regarded his olive-colored tape. The roll again was docile and orderly in his hands. He ran his fingernail across the surface searching for the ridge to pull, the cut, but the plastic was seamless, frustrating, perfect, like the small incident with Lulu. He couldn't find where to pull and yet he knew that in her small act there was complicated motive and a larger story.
As it turned out, however, there was not much more to know about the things Lulu did on that particular day. It was later on that we should have worried about, the long-term consequences. All the same, we tried to keep a close eye upon her doings, so we know that soon after she left the post office Lulu Lamartine purchased . . . The Bingo Palace. Copyright © by Louise Erdrich. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
In the past year alone, Louise Erdrich completed one novel, nearly finished another, opened a bookstore and, at forty-six, gave birth to a daughter named Azure. When Erdrich walks into her Minneapolis store, Birch Bark Books, Herbs and Native Arts, she is juggling an armful of paper and books and passing out chocolate tins with pictures of Elvis Presley and the cartoon character Pepe Le Pew on top. She adjusts Azure, who's ready to be fed. "Overdoing it is my motto," she announces. "I'm one of those overdoing-it mothers."
Motherhood isn't the only area where Erdrich overachieves. She's published nine books of fiction, two volumes of poetry, two children's books, a book of essays, and numerous short stories and poems. Her work is recognized for its complexity and for its poetic, touching, gently sarcastic, and humorous voice. Erdrich delves into how Native and European American cultures come together, clash, fall apart and, at times, figure each other out and learn to love. Showing compassion for all her characters -- no matter what their weaknesses or sins, of which they tend to have a multitude -- she often writes stories with more than one point of view. She did so masterfully in her first and best-known book, Love Medicine, and she does so -- again, masterfully -- in the new one, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. Lyrically reflective, wittily refracted, and adeptly sensual, the story centers on Agnes DeWitt, who, because of a series of passions and events, lives most of her life as Father Damien Modeste, a mission priest on an Indian reservation between 1912 and 1996. The Last Report -- the sixth in a series of Erdrich books to focus on two families in Argus, a fictional Red River Valley reservation town along the Minnesota-North Dakota border -- is as thoroughly imbued with a challenging kind of spirituality as it is graced with an intriguing story.
Rich and complex as Erdrich's writing is, her life matches it for intensity and involvement -- and she wouldn't have it any other way. "I only enjoy life if it's really complicated," she says. She exudes a calm strength, but hers is a serenity earned, likely necessitated, by a life and career visited often by controversy and tragedy.
At Birch Bark Books, Erdrich's complexity is on display. There's an oil painting, for instance, by imprisoned activist Leonard Peltier, of Ka-ishpah, a forefather of Erdrich and freedom fighter of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, the same band to which Erdrich (of Ojibwe and German heritage) and Peltier belong. Erdrich attended Peltier's 1977 trial for the murder of two FBI agents and is confident that "not one scintilla" of hard evidence linked Peltier to the murders. After Peltier was convicted (he's been held in Leavenworth Prison for twenty-four years), she wrote to him and they began a correspondence. In December, The New York Times published her editorial in support of Peltier while President Clinton was considering a pardon; it was not granted. On another wall is a shelf filled with books by Michael Dorris, Erdrich's former husband and writing partner. Erdrich met Dorris in 1972 when she enrolled in Dartmouth's first coed class; he was the head of the Native American Studies program. The two didn't get involved until several years after Erdrich graduated and after she'd worked as a waitress, a poetry teacher at prisons, a construction-flag signaler, an editor for the Boston Indian Council's newspaper, The Circle, and had earned a master's degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins. By then, Dorris was a father, the adoptive single parent of three Native American children who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, an experience he described in a 1989 memoir, The Broken Cord. Erdrich and Dorris married in 1981, had three daughters, and collaborated intensely on projects, including co-authoring the 1991 novel The Crown of Columbus.
But their life together unraveled. They separated in 1995, and were planning to divorce, when allegations of criminal sexual child abuse were leveled against Dorris by some of his children. He was under investigation, but nothing was resolved. Dorris committed suicide in 1997.
After Dorris's death, Erdrich was pursued by rumor and innuendo about the couple's marriage, their separation, their family, their careers. Published next to an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that explained the allegations and details about Dorris's death -- a story for which Erdrich declined to be interviewed -- was a letter she wrote the editor. She expressed thanks to the community for its kind support, and asked that her family be granted privacy and time to grieve.
Today, Erdrich fiercely guards her privacy and that of her children. Quite simply, she states, "I'm finished talking about relationships." But her writing speaks to that which she won't; The Last Report can be seen as an extended reflection on exactly that -- relationships -- and it explores other issues central to Erdrich's life.
"I think every book is connected to a writer's psyche, but I can't say I know exactly how," Erdrich says. "It would be easy to say you were having gender issues at the same time you were writing, or a religious crisis. Certainly the task of my life has been to bring my daughters through a period of grief, but I don't think that's what the book is about entirely. It is about surviving, but I think it's about surviving yourself. The book became to me a search for a spiritual solution to the old human dilemma: Why am I me and why am I here and why is it so hard to be who I am?"
Hearing the Stories
A few years ago, Erdrich and her daughters walked by a blackened storefront window in their peaceful Minneapolis neighborhood. They started fantasizing about opening a bookstore, "complete with the bookstore cat you see in all those British movies." When the space came up for lease, Erdrich and her sister, poet Heid Erdrich, decided to start a business.
After stripping it back to its original bones -- it was originally a meat market, then a dentist's office -- they put in a stairway made from birch trees some friends in Wisconsin had found blown down on their land. Then they brought in the confessional.
Erdrich -- who claims to have a terrible addiction to rummage sales, estate sales, and anything vintage -- rescued the intricately carved Roman Catholic confessional from an architectural salvage store. Heid thought they could wire the confessional for CDs on one side and tapes on the other; their mother suggested they put books with sins in the title -- especially those about the seven deadly sins -- inside. Dream catchers dangle from the confessional's corners. A plain, framed copy of the U.S. Government's 1837 Treaty with the Chippewa hangs inside. It's a three-dimensional metaphor, raising questions about the role of the church and government in the life of Native Americans during the colonization of North America and bringing together both sides of Erdrich's ancestry. Though it serves mainly as decoration, Erdrich admits that she bought it because she "wanted to sit in the priest's box for once."
The confessional, a place of comfort and grace, is a reminder of the sanctity of stories and necessity of privacy. As a writer, Erdrich has been sitting in the priest's box for a long time. "Fiction for me is listening," she says. "It's about what I hear. I keep notes and I jot things down all the time and see what comes over the airwaves, what comes over the brain waves."
The oldest of seven children, Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, and raised in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her parents both taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. An avid reader, she also enjoyed the record player her father purchased with green stamps. "Not only did I read Shakespeare, but I had the record of King Lear, which was fantastic. Being in North Dakota, I never actually saw a stage production, but I heard King Lear. I can still hear that record, the sound of those voices." The voices Erdrich listened to while writing Love Medicine came to her primarily as first-person confessions. The book is a multigenerational portrait of two Ojibwe families, the Kashpaws and Lamartines, set in Argus. Over the past seventeen years, those whispers have added up to five more novels about the Kashpaws and Lamartines: The Beet Queen, Tracks, The Bingo Palace, Tales of Burning Love, and, now, The Last Report. "These are the people who came and talked to me way back when," Erdrich says. "And they keep talking to me, so I have to keep writing about them. I don't have a real choice about it. It's not like I can say, 'Now, I'm finished.' Because then they come back and they have another story to tell."
She stays busy with other stories, too. Starting in 1996, for instance, she published three books in three years: Grandmother's Pigeon, a children's story, The Antelope Wife, and The Birchbark House, which her friend Mark Anthony Rolo, a playwright and the former editor of Minneapolis's Native American newspaper, The Circle, says was the result of her dream to write the Native American version of Little House on the Prairie. She illustrated the book, which became a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.
"The great thing about Louise," says Rolo, a member of the Bad River Ojibwe, "is that she lives in a Native community in town. And her family is well rooted in her community back home. She is not the Jane Austen of the Native community looking out a window at the industrial plight of her people."
The First Step of The Last Report
Erdrich started writing The Last Report in 1988, originally intending it to explain how all the earlier novels came into being. She imagined the local priest in Argus, Father Damien, who had appeared as a minor character in Love Medicine, divulging all the confessions of the community to a writer, who would turn out to be Erdrich herself. It wasn't until six years and several books later that Erdrich picked up The Last Report again. The completed version chronicles the life of Father Damien. Erdrich started the book with two images: a woman in a white nightgown floating down a river on the top of a piano, and a priest taking his clothes off for bed and revealing that he is actually a woman. Turns out they became the same person.
Some of those images come directly from Erdrich's life. Though no longer a practicing Roman Catholic, she was raised in the church and still reads everything that comes her way about Catholicism. A nun taught her piano when she was a young girl; she resumed playing in her late thirties, during "a particularly difficult time" and was astonished that her fingers remembered the old pieces. Today, she calls it an incredible solace to be able to have music when she wants it. "For a time I relied upon it so much," she says. "It was enormously consoling." As for the river, growing up, Erdrich was always conscious of its moods: The nearby Red River flooded when she was a child, and again in April 1997. It devastated Grand Forks, North Dakota, that time: It reached flood stage on April 4, and the dikes overflowed on Friday, April 18; Michael Dorris died in the midst of that flood (his body was found on April 11, 1997). The Last Report, which in its early pages is visited by a flood, ends in 1997, too.
Erdrich's new book is filled with lost love, lost identities, stories in danger of being forgotten, illness and death. But at its heart, The Last Report -- lyrical and funny and mesmerizing -- is about someone who, rather than being overwhelmed by loss, survives it. Agnes, in spite of her deprivations, achieves a fantastically full life.
"Agnes really has to live through the fact that she has an amazing drive to follow what her spirit dictates. She does follow it, and it is immensely difficult," Erdrich says of her heroine. "So maybe that's what it's about. And if it's autobiographical, what can I say?" She laughs. "It's hard surviving Louise. Louise has trouble surviving Louise."
But as she finishes her next novel, she has help. It's been a few years since she's had an infant with her while she works. "I talk to Azure every morning, and I say, 'So you're going to help me write the book, right?' " Then, after she gets her older daughters ready for school, Erdrich sneaks up to her room with a cup of tea. She ties the ropes of an Ojibwe swing to her foot so she can swing Azure and write at the same time.
"Maybe when I'm eighty, I'll start being a person who will choose the less complex of the choices, and life will be manageable," Erdrich says. "But I don't do that. I have an overwhelming need to experience everything that life can possibly offer." (Karen Olson)
We never ask for all this heat and silence in the first place, it's true. This package deal. It's like a million-dollar worthless letter in the mail. You're chosen from nothingness, but you don't know for what. You open the confusing ad and you think, Shall I send it in or should I just let the possiblities ripen? You are set there in a basket, and one day you hear the knock and open the door and reach down and there is your life.--Lipsha Morrissey in The Bingo Palace
When Lulu Lamartine sends her grandson, the hapless, underachieving Lipsha Morrissey, a copy of a wanted notice for his father, Gerry Nanapush, he takes it as a summons to return home to the reservation. Morrissey, gifted with healing powers, has "shorted out his touch" by living in cities and making "himself stupid with his dope-pipe." Part of what pulls him back is the need to confront a part of his history from which he has never quite emerged: the fact that his mother tied him in a sack and threw him in a slough, where he would have drowned but for a chance rescue. Lipsha's search for himself becomes complicated almost the instant he arrives, when he falls in love with Shawnee Ray Toose, an ambitious woman who is "semi-engaged" to his half-uncle, Lyman Lamartine. Lyman is the reservation's most successful businessman, "a big, bland Velveeta" in Lipsha's view, but the "biggest cheese" around, who dreams about building a bingo palace on traditional land that is still owned by Fleur Pillager. The novel weaves together the fate of a culture-- one tryingto preserve its traditions, but needing to survive financially--with the story of Lipsha's personal quest for identity. It is through the rivalry with Lyman (who is also his guide and mentor) that Lipsha comes to understand the complexities of love, identity, success, and failure-- universals that we all must come to terms with, but that are shaded in particular ways for those who are descendants of Native American culture in the United States. As Lipsha, who has read the Greek classics, notes, "If you read about a thing like Lyman and me happening in those days, one or both of us would surely have to die. But us Indians, we're so used to inner plot twists that we just laugh."
Topics for Discussion
1. The word "luck" appears frequently in the novel: it figures in the titles of nine chapters and is invoked as a way to explain why things happen the way they do. But the novel also makes cases for fate (in forces outside of the everyday) and for design (for instance, Lipsha discovers that his "luck" in bingo is really Lyman's scheme to siphon money back to himself). In what ways does the novel explore questions of chance, fate, and will? What does luck seem to mean in the different chapters featuring it? How do specific characters (such as Lipsha, Lyman, Shawnee Ray, Zelda) exemplify the intricacies of fortune, the pressures of the past, and the problems of constructing a life for oneself? How are Juno's ghost and Fleur used to extend conventional ideas about the nature of fate and reality?
2. Critics have occasionally noted that the men and women in Erdrich's novels seem to live in entirely separate worlds. Do you feel this observation applies to The Bingo Palace ? How would you describe the separate worlds of the men and women? Does the novel offer any real points of intersection between the two?
3. Why are Lipsha and Lyman so different? Are there events in their pasts that caused them to be so different? How and why does Lipsha change? What does he come to understand about himself? Lyman? Shanwee Ray? his parents? Do you think that the novel is a cautionary tale about the dangers of trying to go home again, or a story about the value and necessity of returning to one's home?
4. One motif of Native American literature is the vision quest. How is this used in The Bingo Palace ? What kinds of quests occupy specific characters (especially Lipsha, Lyman, Shawnee Ray)? Do you think the novel demonstrates that spiritual and material quests are necessarily opposed? How do you feel about this--do you feel an inherent conflict between spiritual and material goals and desires?
About the Author: Louise Erdrich is one of the most gifted, prolific, and challenging of contemporary Native American novelists. Born in 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota, she grew up mostly in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her parents taught at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. Her fiction reflects aspects of her mixed heritage: German through her father, and French and Ojibwa through her mother. She worked at various jobs, such as hoeing sugar beets, farm work, waitressing, short order cooking, lifeguarding, and construction work, before becoming a writer. She attended the Johns Hopkins creative writing program and received fellowships at the McDowell Colony and the Yaddo Colony. After she was named writer-in-residence at Dartmouth, she married professor Michael Dorris and raised several children, some of them adopted. She and Michael became a picture-book husband-and-wife writing team, though they wrote only one truly collaborative novel, The Crown of Columbus (1991).
The Antelope Wife was published in 1998, not long after her separation from Michael and his subsequent suicide. Some reviewers believed they saw in The Antelope Wife the anguish Erdrich must have felt as her marriage crumbled, but she has stated that she is unconscious of having mirrored any real-life events.
She is the author of four previous bestselling and award-winning novels, including Love Medicine; The Beet Queen; Tracks; and The Bingo Palace. She also has written two collections of poetry, Jacklight, and Baptism of Desire. Her fiction has been honored by the National Book Critics Circle (1984) and The Los Angeles Times (1985), and has been translated into fourteen languages.
Several of her short stories have been selected for O. Henry awards and for inclusion in the annual Best American Short Story anthologies. The Blue Jay's Dance, a memoir of motherhood, was her first nonfiction work, and her children's book, Grandmother's Pigeon, has been published by Hyperion Press. She lives in Minnesota with her children, who help her run a small independent bookstore called The Birchbark.
Posted September 27, 2003
Louise Erdrich's writing style evokes the mystical and magical in the turbulent lives of the characters Erdrich so painstakingly creates. With characters caught between the traditions of the past and the reality of the present, Erdrich intertwines the two with enormous skill and almost lyrical prose. Moving and almost spiritual, Erdrich reminds us that while people have choices, the ties of tradition and family are ever present.
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