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Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, a moving saga of two Native American families.
Newly Revised Edition
The World's Greatest Fisherman (1981)
The morning before Easter Sunday, June Kashpaw was walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota, killing time before the noon bus arrived that would take her home. She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved. Probably it was the way she moved, easy as a young girl on slim hard legs, that caught the eye of the man who rapped at her from inside the window of the Rigger Bar. He looked familiar, like a lot of people looked familiar to her. She had seen so many come and go. He hooked his arm, inviting her to enter, and she did so without hesitation, thinking only that she might tip down one or two with him and then get her bags to meet the bus. She wanted, at least, to see if she actually knew him. Even through the watery glass she could see that he wasn't all that old and that his chest was thickly padded in dark red nylon and expensive down.
There were cartons of colored eggs on the bar, each glowing like a jewel in its wad of cellophane. He was peeling one, sky blue as a robin's, palming it while he thumbed the peel aside, when she walked through the door. Although the day was overcast, the snow itself reflected such light that she was momentarily blinded. It was like going underwater. What she walked toward more than anything else was that blue egg in the white hand, a beacon in the murky air.
He ordered a beer for her, a Blue Ribbon, saying she deserved a prize for being the best thing he'd seen for days. He peeled an egg for her, a pink one, saying it matched herturtleneck. She told him it was no turtleneck. You called these things shells. He said he would peel that for her, too, if she wanted, then he grinned at the bartender and handed her the naked egg.
June's hand was colder from the outdoors than the egg, and so she had to let it sit in her fingers for a minute before it stopped feeling rubbery warm. Eating it, she found out how hungry she was. The last of the money that the man before this one had given her was spent for the ticket. She didn't know exactly when she'd eaten last. This man seemed impressed, when her egg was finished, and peeled her another one just like it. She ate the egg. Then another egg. The bartender looked at her. She shrugged and tapped out a long menthol cigarette from a white plastic case inscribed with her initials in golden letters. She took a breath of smoke then leaned toward her companion through the broken shells.
"What's happening?" she said. "Where's the party?"
Her hair was rolled carefully, sprayed for the bus trip, and her eyes were deeply watchful in their sea-blue flumes of shadow. She was deciding.
"I don't got much time until my bus...." she said.
"Forget the bus!" He stood up and grabbed her arm. "We're gonna party. Hear? Who's stopping us? We're having a good time!"
She couldn't help notice, when he paid up, that he had a good-sized wad of money in a red rubber band like the kind that holds bananas together in the supermarket. That roll helped. But what was more important, she had a feeling. The eggs were lucky. And he had a good-natured slowness about him that seemed different. He could be different, she thought. The bus ticket would stay good, maybe forever. They weren't expecting her up home on the reservation. She didn't even have a man there, except the one she'd divorced. Gordie. If she got desperate he would still send her money. So she went on to the next bar with this man in the dark red vest. They drove down the street in his Silverado pickup. He was a mud engineer. Andy. She didn't tell him she'd known any mud engineers before or about that one she'd heard was killed by a pressurized hose. The hose had shot up into his stomach from underground.
The thought of that death, although she'd only been half acquainted with the man, always put a panicky, dry lump in her throat. It was the hose, she thought, snaking up suddenly from its unseen nest, the idea of that hose striking like a live thing, that was fearful. With one blast it had taken out his insides. And that too made her throat ache, although she'd heard of worse things. It was that moment, that one moment, of realizing you were totally empty. He must have felt that. Sometimes, alone in her room in the dark, she thought she knew what it might be like.
Later on, the noise falling around them at a crowded bar, she closed her eyes for a moment against the smoke and saw that hose pop suddenly through black earth with its killing breath.
"Ahhhhh," she said, surprised, almost in pain, "you got to be."
"I got to be what, honeysuckle?" He tightened his arm around her slim shoulders. They were sitting in a booth with a few others, drinking Angel Wings. Her mouth, the lipstick darkly blurred now, tipped unevenly toward his.
"You got to be different," she breathed.Love Medicine
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)
But when she mentions them love medicines, I feel my back prickle at the danger. These love medicines is something of an old Chippewa specialty. No other tribe has got them down so well. But love medicines is not for the laymen to handle. You don't just go out and get one without paying for it. Before you get one, even, you should go through one hell of a lot of mental condensation. You got to think it over. Choose the right one. You could really mess up your life grinding up the wrong little thing.--Lipsha Morrissey in Love Medicine
In this powerful first novel, Louise Erdrich introduces several generations in the interrelated families living in and around a Chippewa or Ojibwa reservation near the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota. The lives of these characters will unfold further in The Beet Queen, Tracks, and The Bingo Palace. Spanning fifty years, from 1934 through 1984, the novel is told through the voices of a series of vivid characters, mostly Chippewa men and women who are caught up in the emotional tangle of their families' histories, but who struggle to gain some control over their lives. Sometimes compared to Faulkner's multinarrated family sagas, Love Medicine creates an intense vision of a world that is at once violent and tender, ugly and lyrical, realistic and gothic. At their best, the separate stories that make up the novel convey the subtle pressures upon the souls of people who are culturally mixed -- of those whose lives are shaped by both Native American and non-Indian values, habits, and customs. The novel begins at afamily gathering following the death of June Kashpaw, frozen to death in a snowstorm on Easter Sunday, 1981. Relatives exchange stories about June, piecing together the fragments of memories that are the stuff of family histories. By storytelling and recollection, Erdrich resurrects lives throughout the novel: the sensual Lulu Lamartine, whose children have different fathers, but whose passionate tie to her first love, Nector Kashpaw, intensifies over the years; Nector Kashpaw, who recalls his first encounter with his future wife, Marie Lazarre, and then unfolds the history of his obsession with Lulu. We also hear the younger generation: the philosophical Lipsha Morrissey, June's abandoned son, who makes a Chippewa love medicine to keep his grandparents together; the Lamartine boys, the "lucky" one, Lyman, whose ambition is to build a bingo palace, and the "unlucky" Henry, who returns from three years in Vietnam a restless, tortured soul; and the ambitious Albertine Johnson, studying Western medicine and living far away, off-reservation.
"Love Medicine is finally about the enduring verities of loving and surviving, and these truths are revealed in a narrative that is an invigorating mixture of the comic and the tragic.... Each word, each sentence seems perfectly placed to achieve her desired effect."--Marco Portales, The New York Times Book Review
Topics for Discussion
1. The novel deals extensively with the love-hate relationships between family members. What are some of the different kinds of familial bonds, positiveand negative? What themes are explored through these relationships? What doesthis novel suggest about the nature of families?
2. One theme of the novel is the unavoidable impact of the non-Indian world (for instance, Catholicism, alcohol, intermarriages, the Vietnam War, capitalism, the legal system) on the Chippewa. How does the interaction with outsiders affect specific characters? What does the novel suggest about the difficulties and consequences of dealing with a mixed world?
3. Why do you think Erdrich chose to write her novel in the way she did, using time leaps and a series of different narrators to recount their own tales? What do you think is gained by this form of narrative? How might the form's emphasis on individual storytelling relate to the novel's larger themes?
4. Why do you think the section "Love Medicine" was chosen as the title story of the novel? Would you have chosen another section on the basis of a strength or unifying theme?
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.