American Indian Louise Erdrich Plumbs Her Heritage to Produce a Prizewinning First Novel
It was a moving experience for Erdrich, although perhaps not as thrilling as the moment four months later when she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Love Medicine. A tragicomic tale about the lives and passions of two Chippewa families, the book has established Erdrich, already a published poet, as a strong voice in American fiction.
Erdrich defies pigeonholing as yet another ethnic writer spinning out tales about downtrodden, cigar store Indians. Hers are vivid human beings, full of the pleasure and pain of life. "We need stories about Indians in which the emphasis is not always on conflicts with white culture and on the idea that Indians are a dominated culture," says Erdrich. "The people I've known have had the worst of times and still laughed and survived."
Erdrich, the eldest of eight brothers and sisters, grew up in Wahpeton near the reservation that inspired her fiction. Her mother comes from a prominent Chippewa family; Louise's grand father is a retired tribal leader. Her father is of German descent, and both parents have been teachers all their lives. In 1972 Louise left to attend Dartmouth College, where she won poetry awards and met her future husband, Michael Dorris, a failed rodeo bronco rider. The 39-year-old Dorris, who is half Modoc Indian, teaches Native American studies at the college.
The couple have settled near Dartmouth in Cornish Flat, N.H., also home of the reclusive writer J.D. Salinger. Erdrich, who is at work on her second novel, collaborated closely with her husband on Love Medicine. But Dorris points out that he is only a collaborator, not co-author. "We figure my name is on the kids," he says, "and Louise's name is on the books."