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  • Approaches to Teaching the Works of Louise Erdrich
  • David A. Allred
Approaches to Teaching the Works of Louise Erdrich. Ed. Greg Sarris, Connie A. Jacobs, and James R. Giles. (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2004. Pp. 261, prefaces, introduction, works cited, index, appendixes.)

Those who teach folklore-influenced literature are faced with the challenging task of encouraging students to explore not only the literary text itself but also the traditional artistic expressions that inform the text. Approaches to Teaching the Works of Louise Erdrich acts as a helpful resource for such teachers. Such a volume is needed for Erdrich's widely taught works because, as editor Connie Jacobs notes, their heavy use of Ojibwe oral tradition poses "special challenges, especially to non-Native students who lack knowledge of Native culture and traditions in general and Ojibwe history specifically" (p. 5). While the scope of the book includes more than Erdrich's use of Ojibwe (and other) traditional knowledge, many of the essays artfully explicate worldviews, narratives, and customs that, when taken into account, dramatically alter one's understanding of Erdrich's work.

Part of the growing MLA book series entitled Approaches to Teaching World Literature, this volume contains twenty-two essays, many of which present pedagogical suggestions balanced with literary and historical criticism. The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 provides a brief overview of Erdrich's background and writings while detailing some of the cultural context of her work. Included in this section is a helpful bibliography of relevant critical works. Part 2 presents critical essays grouped into four sections: "History and Culture," "Erdrich's Fictional World," "Pedagogical Strategies," and "Critical and Theoretical Perspectives." Part 2 concludes with appendixes containing maps, a chronology of important Turtle Mountain Ojibwe events, genealogical charts of Erdrich's interrelated characters, and reading guides for her works.

"History and Culture" contains the most important essays for readers interested in the role [End Page 375] of oral tradition in Erdrich's writing. In this section, several scholars explore the traditional knowledge that informs some of Erdrich's most vivid characters. G. Thomas Couser deals with Nanapush, arguing that the character's similarity to an Ojibwe trickster figure allows readers to see him as a "hinge," negotiating "the world of myth" and contemporary life as it is depicted in Erdrich's fiction (p. 58). Karah Stokes explores ways in which the characters Lulu and Marie are dependant on traditional Ojibwe narratives about the sisters Oshkikwe and Matchikwewis (p. 52). Stokes's approach is especially useful in that she examines Erdrich's reliance not only on the content of these traditional narratives but also on their structure. Finally, Amelia V. Katanski offers an engaging argument comparing the pivotal character Fleur to an actual Ojibwe healer and traditional singer who collaborated with a folksong collector in the early twentieth century (p. 66). Katanski presents her argument as suggestive rather than definitive, and in so doing she highlights the historical relevance of the oral tradition that structures aspects of Erdrich's literary art.

This anthology provides many other enlightening discussions of how folklore and literature intersect. Many of the essays deal with Erdrich's hybrid discourse that combines elements of orality and literacy, and these discussions often connect not only with Walter Ong's work but also with Barre Toelken's articulation of conservative and dynamic elements in folklore performance and John Miles Foley's concept of immanent art. Ultimately, for folklorists, one of the book's biggest strengths is its exploration of the compositional balance exemplified in the work of a creative artist and performer of tradition. Other strengths emerge in articles that explore facets of storytelling performance. For example, Nancy L. Chick argues that genealogical charts distract from the most important forms of relationship in Erdrich's work, pointing out that "who passes on stories to whom . . . is far more significant to the relationships in the novels and more helpful to students who are trying to decipher those relationships" (p. 86). Dean Rader's excellent analysis of Erdrich's poetry, including her use of "the performative power of Native oral expression" (p. 106), is also noteworthy.

While this book has...


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