Louise Erdrich, Great American Novelist, Is Just Getting Started
Erdrich, who publishes her 16th novel this month, has built one of the most impressive bodies of work by any American writer alive. And she’s happy to let that work speak for her.
If you cannot see the Ojibwe in Louise Erdrich, perhaps that’s because two centuries of popular culture have depicted this nation’s first people as cartoons. You can hear Erdrich’s paternity in her Teutonic surname; her mother is half-French and half-Ojibwe, a group known also as Chippewa, who are among the many indigenous people on this continent collectively called Anishinaabe.
In the novel The Antelope Wife, Erdrich writes, “You make a person from a German and an Indian, for instance, and you’re creating a two-souled warrior always fighting with themself.” I met Erdrich this October in Minneapolis, at a restaurant next door to the small independent bookstore she owns, Birchbark Books. I read the quote from The Antelope Wife back to her and she laughed. “Absolutely,” she said. “I was thinking of myself.”
Over the course of 33 years, Erdrich has published 30 books: poetry, short fiction, nonfiction, stories for children, and now, with the publication this month of Future Home of the Living God, 16 novels. In that body of work, Erdrich has certainly written the Indian experience. But the reality that Edrich is a great Indian writer should not imply that she is not also a great American writer. She’s written the German immigrant experience, in The Master Butchers Singing Club. She’s written about young boys and teenage girls, elderly ladies and damaged veterans, priests and nuns, dogs and deer. To consider her only a Native artist is too narrow by far. No one talks about Jonathan Franzen as the great Midwestern Lutheran writer.
“I think as a minority writer, as a brown writer, you end up feeling — and getting thought of — as being limited, because you're only writing about your people,” the writer Sherman Alexie told me. “But Louise taught me that you could write about one town, one family, through the course of a couple dozen books, and be endless. When people ask me, ‘Why do you only write about Indians?’ my response was always, ‘Every moment of Shakespeare happens on my reservation every day.’ And it was Louise's epic stories about small places that taught me that.”
Erdrich reminds us how odd reality can be.
“Endless” is an apt word. Erdrich’s 16 novels are the heart of an astonishing achievement, one of the most impressive bodies of work by any American writer alive. Some writers are prolific; some are shape-shifters. It’s rare and intimidating to encounter one who is both. It’s further confounding when so serious an artist also manages to be entertaining — and Erdrich never fails to offer the reader that particular pleasure.
“She writes hyperrealistic literary fiction,” Alexie said. “There is murder and violence and desperation and hunger and prayer and car wrecks and love letters.” But Erdrich is also comfortable with the uncanny. In her fictional world, a disembodied head might pursue someone through the night; a violin lost for decades might drift to shore in an empty boat; a man may be unsure if he's seen a woman or a deer — indeed, the line between woman and deer may be hard to discern. Erdrich reminds us how odd reality can be.
In a strange way, Louise Erdrich is perhaps our least famous great American writer; she is not reclusive, but she is reticent, and her public appearances give the impression of a carefully controlled performance. But Erdrich has also shared many of her most intimate emotions and experiences, in some form, in her novels.
“I think Louise decided in a very early point in her career that she would only allow the work to speak for herself,” the writer Marlon James told me, “and that’s it.”
Her latest novel, Future Home of the Living God, says a great deal. (Erdrich and I share HarperCollins as a publisher). It will be called a dystopian novel, because it is a book about unnerving changes to society, to the planet, to human evolution itself; because it’s a book that talks about end times and contains actual monsters. It conjures a world in which the persecution of pregnant women seems possible — but, of course, we already live in a world in which the government attempts to legislate biology. In many ways, Erdrich has only ever been a realist.
Future Home will also undoubtedly bring up comparisons to Margaret Atwood, whose literary speculative fiction has become newly resonant, thanks to our current political climate and some high-profile television adaptations. Erdrich began writing Future Home in 2002, making her view of the world seem uncannily prescient in a similar way, but the novel could also present a path forward.
At one point, the protagonist and narrator, Cedar, on the run from sinister government forces and locked in a basement closet for her own safety, pauses to admire an architectural detail. “I think we have survived because we love beauty and because we find each other beautiful,” she says. “I think it may be our strongest quality.”
And that might be the best way to understand Erdrich’s artistic project: as a celebration of beauty and a testament to the redemptive power of art — which, of course, includes storytelling. “In every one of the books, there has to be someone telling a story,” Erdrich said. “It’s almost a rule that I didn’t know I made for myself — someone breaks out in story. To me that’s the true essence of the work I’m doing." In LaRose, when asked for the moral of one of her long-winded stories, an elderly Indian lady says, “Moral! Our stories don’t have those.” That feels like a statement about Erdrich’s work: The only moral to be found is that telling stories is what makes us human.
“I really think that she'll win the Nobel, at some point,” the writer Ann Patchett, Erdrich’s friend and colleague, told me. I told Patchett I thought it would be an extraordinary political statement, to acknowledge a writer whose people predate this very country at a time when this country is preoccupied with defining precisely who belongs here.
“I would say it's not that,” Patchett replied. “She's the best writer. I think that it's really important not to confuse these two things, because there's no affirmative action vote with Louise. Is there anyone but Louise? I don't think there is.”
Future Home’s Cedar is Ojibwe by birth, though reared by white adoptive parents. When evolution begins to go haywire and the government cracks down on pregnant women, Cedar decides to flee her urban existence for refuge on the reservation where she was born. The novel reads like a thriller, but it is also suffused with a sense of foreboding that feels deeply personal.
“This one was written for me in some way — it was probably working over my terror over a late pregnancy,” Erdrich told me. If the author was anxious over becoming a mother again at age 46, she seems also to have tapped into the cultural anxiety, when she began writing the book in 2002, of the post-truth era of George W. Bush — a feeling distressingly relevant, again, in whatever you’d care to call the era in which we now live. That wasn’t something Erdrich expected. “I honestly didn't think I would ever publish this book,” she said. “It was so over the top.”
Erdrich writes in longhand. (This has taken its toll; a few years ago, she began signing her books using her left instead of her favored right hand.) She then transfers the manuscript into a computer, but Future Home ended up marooned inside an obsolete machine. Eventually, one of Erdrich’s daughters rescued the work and the writer returned to it after a long absence. That computer document was 500 pages; Future Home is 288. (“I had to cut hundreds of pages of Catholic inquiry,” Erdrich said.)
“It felt so important to finish and publish it now,” Erdrich told me, “because once I started reading it again, I felt like I was expressing the anxiety I have about climate change.” The October morning I spent with Erdrich was sunny and warm — an ideal summer day in late autumn, eerily bearing out her point.
“I honestly didn't think I would ever publish this book,” she said. “It was so over the top.”
“Climate chaos? I don’t know what to call it,” Erdrich said. “The change we’re going to be seeing will probably happen on such a massive scale that there’s no predicting what will happen for any one set of people or any particular part of the world.”
Pregnancy is a rich metaphor for that climate anxiety in the book: a state of waiting, a low-level thrum of worry, a wish for human well-being. The drama of Cedar eluding capture is also the drama of Cedar awaiting the birth of her child. Erdrich imbues both with surprising tension and urgency.
The fact that Future Home is both a new work and an old one complicates the task of placing it in Erdrich’s catalog. The book feels like a stylistic shift on the heels of her last two much-heralded novels, both about families coping in the aftermath of terrible tragedies — 2012’s The Round House, which won the National Book Award, and last year’s LaRose, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award — although in a sense it predates those works.
“For this book I was of course influenced by a lot of speculative and science fiction,” Erdrich said, “the books that I love that I don’t talk about much — the reading that first excited me as a young person. Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. I didn’t know that you could go to these places, you could invent things that weren’t real.”
If Erdrich credits Bradbury for this tactic — she also mentioned George Orwell and Frank Herbert — younger writers may well credit Erdrich for the very same thing: inventing what is not strictly real to access some place of hidden meaning. “There's something about the overlapping worlds inside of her novels,” the writer Karen Russell told me. “The binaries break down in her work. … Somebody's head starts rolling after you and it simply feels undeniable as written. It's not a registered shift — it’s the way that the entire world feels.”
If Erdrich is quick to acknowledge her inspirations, there’s also something sui generis about her approach. And to talk about Future Home, or any of Erdrich’s work, as belonging to a particular genre tradition — whether it’s science fiction or magical realism — feels inescapably diminishing. Still, critical reception to Erdrich has reached back into the canon to try to make sense of her. She's probably most often compared to Gabriel García Márquez and to William Faulkner, the former for her comfort with what we might call magic, the latter for how she's explored a specific geographic territory across a large body of work.
“I'm getting tired of this,” Erdrich said, when I mentioned Faulkner to her. “It was a great compliment in the beginning. It was kind of wonderful to be compared to Faulkner, but it's over for me.” A compliment like that ends up being both a constraint and a misunderstanding; to insist that it’s a great honor borders on insult. To be fair, there really isn’t another writer like Márquez, or like Faulkner. And there may never be another writer like Erdrich.
In speaking to Erdrich’s friends for this story, their praise for her was so uniform that it was hard to imagine she has any enemies. Patchett shared a story about first meeting her, during a party when Patchett was in graduate school in Iowa: “I was probably 21 or 22 at the time. Louise was such a big deal. She was just what we all dreamed of being. She was like the vision of fiction, the goddess of fiction. She came back into the kitchen, and talked to me, and was nice to me. I was the person washing the dishes. I just can't tell you how much that fills my heart with love for her. She was and is such a decent, kind, lovely human being.”
Erdrich was born in Minnesota in 1954. She is enrolled in the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians (her maternal grandfather was the tribal chair), who are based in North Dakota; that state is where she was raised and is where many of her novels are set, in a fictional town called Argus. Erdrich graduated from Dartmouth in 1976, which means she was one of the first women to enter that institution.
At Dartmouth, she first met the scholar Michael Dorris, who would himself become a well-known writer. The two married in 1981. Dorris was a single father by adoption to three children; together, the couple had three more. As is almost inevitable with attractive, ambitious, talented young couples, the two became stars in the literary world.
Erdrich published her first novel, Love Medicine, in 1984; she's published a novel every two or three years since. Love Medicine is a multigenerational saga broken into a dozen or so stories. The book is elliptical, unpredictable, odd. It’s hard to remember who is who, and what connections bind characters of different generations. There is no plot, but there is story. There is no logic, but that absence feels like magic. It’s a difficult text that is mysteriously easy to read and a best-seller.
"Louise was such a big deal. She was just what we all dreamed of being."
“I was learning how to do it,” Erdrich said. “I had not gained the technical skill and patience to actually see a plot through with one voice.” Erdrich’s earliest books were lauded precisely for their subversive resistance to traditional narrative, so it’s delightful to learn they are postmodern only by accident.
That book established the literal geography (North Dakota) and human geography (the lives of the Ojibwe) that would become Erdrich’s abiding artistic preoccupation. In her first novels — Love Medicine, The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), The Bingo Palace (1994) — there are characters, families, histories, and locations that recur throughout, and beyond those books into others. “I used to think it was all one novel,” Erdrich told me. “Now I think there are several novels that I was working on, and that pieces of them fit together.”
If Erdrich as a young artist was trying to challenge the very form of the novel, over time she became interested in a more conventional ideal. While Erdrich’s novels have stayed in North Dakota, and stayed with Indians, they’ve grown more deftly plotted, to the point that they’re almost page-turners now. Her language, her humor, and her flair for an arresting image and a telling scene have remained constants.
Erdrich has been quoted declaring The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001) her own favorite of her books. It’s an account of the life of a woman passing as a man, who serves as a priest. It was nominated for the National Book Award. (The Corrections received the prize instead.) The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003) feels formally and stylistically related to Miracles; they’re both long novels, unfolding over decades, that grapple with history through their characters.
Four Souls (2004) revisits Fleur Pillager, a memorable character from the earliest novels. The Painted Drum (2005) is interested in the collision between modern life and Ojibwe tradition. The Plague of Doves (2008), which Philip Roth called a masterpiece, is my favorite of the author’s work: A mystery at heart, it is the first of a trio of novels — followed by The Round House and LaRose — to explore what I called “crime” and Erdrich corrected me by calling “justice.”
The title character in LaRose (2016) is a small boy who has inherited his name from an ancestor who seems possessed of a kind of power that travels across generations. The story begins when LaRose’s father accidentally shoots and kills his neighbor’s son; he then gives LaRose to that man and his family as recompense. When LaRose flees to the woods one night, he encounters some of his ancestors, as well as Dusty, the child his father accidentally killed. Instead of wondering whether these are ghosts or spirits or a child’s hallucination, the reader wonders just what reality is, anyway.
The moments in LaRose that lift out of realism are grounded by the ballast of Erdrich’s writing on Bureau of Indian Affairs schools (both of her parents taught at such schools), or a priest struggling with his vows, or the powerful grip of alcoholism and addiction. The novel is concerned with how these particular traumas reverberate inside two different families, while simultaneously stretching back into history to explore how the trauma of violence has shaped Native lives since Europeans landed in this country. Erdrich is adept at this gentle blurring.
“This is an expansive vocabulary to communicate how serious and strange human life is on this planet,” Russell said of Erdrich’s work. “I think to separate it, to call it magic, somehow makes it safer, or makes it less complex.”
Indeed, to insist on seeing Erdrich as a fabulist or a magical realist feels wrongheaded at best and diminishing at worst. It seems like a way of painting the artist as an exotic Other, a beautiful mysterious Indian instead of a gritty American realist unafraid to confront sex, crime, violence, and the body. Erdrich is not a great American mystic; she’s a great American writer.
Birchbark Books, Erdrich’s tiny shop, is crowded with art, native crafts, and bric-a-brac. In the center of the store there’s an old confessional booth (rescued from a bar, not a church). It’s a fitting flourish because Catholicism is one of her abiding preoccupations and because, although Erdrich’s fiction is not confessional in the vein of Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath, her work does contain her life.
The Blue Jay’s Dance, Erdrich’s 1995 memoir of motherhood, is perhaps the nearest thing to Future Home in her oeuvre, in that both explore motherhood as physical and existential phenomena. Erdrich reveals herself in the memoir, and it feels easy to spot that self in her novels when she writes about a mother and a baby, or about birds and the snow, household labor or a favorite pet, a loving husband or a particular meal. But this game of spot-the-author has limited value, because a novel is never exactly the truth.
“I think that I was inoculated against this feeling of being exposed by having to go to confession my entire childhood,” Erdrich told me. “I think I was convinced that I had some sort of intimacy with the reader that was actually protected. It would never be revealed what I had said.”
Erdrich’s 2010 novel Shadow Tag, which tells the story of a disastrous marriage between a painter and an academic, was received as more obviously autobiographical than most of her work. It's hard to appreciate, given how many years have passed, how well-known Erdrich and Dorris were. The two became almost a single public persona, accomplished artists who found love and wrote important books and made a big, happy family. The end of that marriage was a trauma; Dorris's suicide a tragedy. The spotlight's glow transformed into glare, with conflicting and salacious press accounts alleging abuse, infidelity, cruelty.
Shadow Tag seems to grapple with these years, which Erdrich described as “trying to turn an ocean liner around in a tiny little river.” If that's true, it's telling that the wife in the novel dies at the book's conclusion. Erdrich told me she sees Shadow Tag as a turning point in her development as a writer; it marks a formal shift toward more straightforward, momentum-driven plot (which certainly describes Future Home). But she doesn't see that novel as a particularly personal statement, which meant that the way it was interpreted surprised her.
“There are fences around a great deal of my life. And I have to keep them.”
“It was so far away from my own life," she said. "But I realized that I was again under this illusion that I was under the seal. Emotionally, there was so much fear that went into that book, and the fear was real for me.”
A writer’s biography can illuminate their work, but gossip so easily supplants comprehension that it’s not hard to see why a writer may choose to pull back. “There are fences around a great deal of my life. And I have to keep them,” Erdrich told me. “There are parts of my life that I have to leave alone.”
For those who’ve encountered her only through her books, Erdrich the human, with all her warmth and humor, is hard to know. For many writers, the endless performance of being a writer — tweeting, appearing, making the rounds — is required simply to attract enough attention to make a living. But after publishing 30 books and winning essentially every literary prize, Erdrich has earned the choice to opt out. She shows up where a writer of her stature is to be expected: the Times, the Paris Review, PBS, National Public Radio. But it’s telling how many people — including Jane Beirn, who has been Erdrich’s publicist since her very first novel — were surprised that the writer even agreed to meet with me for this story.
“I think Louise likes being in Minneapolis and away from the madness of the literary scene,” James said. “The sort of performance of being a great American writer — she's not interested in it.”
When we met, Erdrich admitted that she envies the elusive Italian writer Elena Ferrante. “I think she's very lucky to have hidden herself for so long,” she said. “I couldn't do that, because if I'm writing about Native people, it has to be my background. I have to say this is the tribe I'm from, these are my family members, et cetera. Obviously I don't look like I'm Native, whatever people think of as Native, so I had to do that. I couldn't go into hiding, and I always knew that.”
Erdrich can and does write about anything, but the personal and the domestic are consistently the grain of sand in which she finds the world. “I think one of the things Louise is doing is uncovering the unwritten history of America,” James said. “And I think she — like Toni Morrison, like Alice Walker — is very brave in showing how the fissures in American society operate on a very human, on a very personal, sometimes even a domestic level.”
Erdrich’s poem “Advice to Myself” will likely be familiar to anyone who belongs to a Facebook group devoted to parenting, or to writing, or to the intersection of the two. “Leave the dishes,” it begins. “Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator.”
There are probably some readers who don’t want a great American writer to acknowledge that cleaning out the bottom drawer of the refrigerator has ever crossed their mind. There are still those who think literature concerned in any way with the lives of women or families is insubstantial, or readers who assume that any literature by women is personal and domestic by definition. But Erdrich has never shied away from the realities of everyday life.
“I don't think there's enough — about women and men and babies and how we go about taking care of them and doing our jobs,” she told me. “I think there's a way in which the lives we lead have to find their way into the work; otherwise it has no resonance for the reader.”
In 2016, Louise Erdrich went to Standing Rock, the Indian reservation in the Dakotas that became a political and environmental flashpoint. She went not as an activist, but as an artist, writing about the protests for the New Yorker. When she returned to Minnesota, Erdrich wrote the end of Future Home.
We often burden writers of color with political meaning, but Erdrich bears that burden with grace, and in her more recent books the novelist has explicitly engaged with the political. The Round House looks unflinchingly at sexual violence against Native women and its profound reverberations through the family and society. Plague of Doves and LaRose do the same with violence, and Shadow Tag explores the complexities of artistic depictions of Native people.
Erdrich is rightly celebrated as one of Native America’s most prominent voices, and that must be a part of how any reader, Native or otherwise, considers her. “We're the Indians in the New Yorker,” Alexie told me. “So we're the Indians at those parties, we're the Indians who win those awards.”
Alexie shares Patchett’s view that Erdrich should be discussed when we start speculating on literature’s most prominent prize, but sees her Native identity as inextricable from her significance. “I've been saying it for about a decade,” Alexie told me. “Those Nobel folks love to poke white America in the face, and there are white Americans now who really need poking in the face. And what better literary weapon against our country than Louise Erdrich?”
But Erdrich’s Future Home feels like much more than a provocation. It's a terrifying parable about the future of all people, Indian and white alike. It is also, as with seemingly every Erdrich work, a story about stories. The novel is narrated as direct address, from Cedar to her unborn child; the story of her effort to elude capture, to bring the child to term, is a gift to that child. The book, then, becomes a gift to us. It's an urgent novel that deserves to be celebrated.
Anyone who has written a book this good — let alone someone with a body of work as large and significant as Erdrich's — could be forgiven a bit of pride. But Erdrich, like many artists, maintains a careful separation between her work and that work's reception. She referred at one point in our conversation to “Louise’s ego” in the third person. She was rigorously humble, utterly sincere. “My ideal thing to do in life is to keep writing books,” she said, “but I’m always slightly concerned that suddenly — it’s like I’ve managed this pace, and now the jig is up. This didn’t work. Goodbye!”
That Erdrich fears rejection even after publishing 30 books is somehow reassuring. But the writer allowed that books are what she does best. She spoke of her role as mother, daughter, and sister, lamenting her bad housekeeping, the piles of paper and notebooks strewn about her house. When I asked if she’d sold her papers to a library, she looked as though the thought had never crossed her mind. It was hard not to think of the celery rotting in the fridge. “Life is so tenuous,” Erdrich said. “I’ve never felt like I have coherence in my everyday life. The work is the only real coherence.”
Erdrich described the novel she’s writing now, as she awaits the publication of this new one, and of course there’s no way to know what's lying fallow in other obsolete computers, in all those piles of notebooks and paper. The artist at 63 has the energy and ambition of an artist at 36. “I just have this huge backlog. I have to get to it,” Erdrich said. “I want to go on and on, because I have so much left.” ●
Rumaan Alam's writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, and elsewhere. He is the author of the novel Rich and Pretty; his novel That Kind of Mother will be published in 2018.