Famous First Words: Love Medicine
The oft-repeated anecdote regarding the beginning of Louise Erdrich’s practical employment as a writer is the one about how her father used to give her a nickel for every story she wrote. Even if you weren’t aware of it, you probably could have guessed that the two of them were pretty well tired of hearing about it before long, and Erdrich has since expressed that, as a child, “It didn’t occur to me that my books would be widely read at all, and that enabled me to write anything I wanted to.” But the anecdote suffers no loss of meaning through overuse, and thus remains an instructive example of how someone might come to the realization that art can have monetary value as well, a critical and irrevocable step in an individual’s deeper understanding of the task.
Erdrich’s family moved from Little Falls, Minnesota, to Wahpeton, North Dakota, when she was young, and she continued to write stories for the same rate. Her father, a German-American, and mother, an American of French and Ojibwe lineage, were both teachers at a boarding school operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The arts were encouraged at home; Erdrich cites her father as her most important literary mentor, and she learned to draw from her mother. “People in [Native American] families make everything into a story,” she later explained in an interview with Writer’s Digest. “People just sit and the stories start coming, one after another. I suppose that when you grow up constantly hearing the stories rise, break, and fall, it gets into you somehow.” Her parents also made a concerted effort to shield Erdrich and her six siblings from a corrupting excess of television, going so far as to instruct them to cover their eyes whenever the commercial breaks came on. Erdrich still counts the Three Stooges among her strongest influences.
She had begun to direct herself more toward poetry when she left Wahpeton in 1972 for Dartmouth College, where she was a member of the first co-ed class there and says that she “worked hard to catch up with people.” Erdrich also began to examine her cultural heritage more vigorously through her introduction to the Native American studies department—also established that year—and the department’s newly appointed director, Michael Dorris, whom she would marry in 1981. (The two had five children together and had separated prior to Dorris’s suicide in 1997.) She and Dorris collaborated on many projects during this period, exchanging edits for each draft until they were in complete agreement on the final product. Erdrich graduated from Dartmouth in 1976 and got an appointment teaching poetry with the State Arts Council of North Dakota. Her next stop was the MFA program at Johns Hopkins University in 1978, after which she returned to Dartmouth for a time as a writer-in-residence.
Erdrich was still writing poetry, but she gradually started to notice that her poems were straying off more and more often, storylines becoming more complex and connecting to one another as they morphed into something considerably closer to prose. She ultimately obliged them. Her first crack at a novel came in the form of Tracks, which was roundly declined by publishers. “It was the kind of first novel where the writer tries to take a high tone while loads of mysterious things happen, and there was way too much Faulkner in there,” Erdrich said years afterward. “People would find themselves suddenly in cornfields with desperate, aching anguish over the weight of history. I kept it, though, the way people keep a car on blocks out in the yard—for spare parts.” In 1982, a story of hers called “The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” about the death of an Ojibwe woman on a fictional North Dakota reservation, won the Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. Erdrich was galvanized to expand further and went right back to that story in order to do so, ultimately using it as the first chapter for a new manuscript.
From that spare part she created Love Medicine, a fifty-year chronicle told through the perspectives of seven different narrators, which was published in 1984 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Perhaps in keeping with the shifting nature of the story, Love Medicine was released in a couple of iterations—a reprint in 1993 integrated four new stories, which were taken out again for another edition in 2009. To date, thirteen more novels have followed the first (including a rewritten Tracks in 1988), as have poetry collections, nonfiction works, an acclaimed series of juvenile fiction, and several children’s books (most of which she also illustrated). Regardless of classification, though, her work has been marked by an unmistakable lyrical sensibility and the immutable application of humor throughout, which functions as an essential tool for her characters’ survival in the midst of the injustice and unending atrocities of the human experience. It’s also a reliably formidable challenge for her in the technical sense. As she noted during a conversation in a return to Dartmouth in 2012, “Humor is the hardest to write.”
Marco España is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon.