- Studies in the Literary Achievement of Louise Erdrich, Native American Writer: Fifteen Critical Essays
As Brajesh Sawhney observes, the preponderance of scholarship on Louise Erdrich centers on her earliest published works, notably Love Medicine and Tracks. His recent collection, Studies in the Literary Achievement of Louise Erdrich, Native American Writer: Fifteen Critical Essays, seeks to expand the range of available scholarship through its focus on the seventeen prose texts Erdrich published between 1988 and 2005, including some eight novels for adults, three books of creative nonfiction, and six works for children and adolescents. Three novels, however—The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse, Four Souls, and Antelope Wife—garner the lion’s share of critical attention. The project grew out of Sawhney’s 1999 Fulbright Fellowship appointment to the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA, and its contributors include both emerging and well-established [End Page 120] scholars of Native literatures in the United States and Canada, among them Peter Beidler, Gay Barton, and Connie Jacobs.
The collection is notable for the range of scholarly approaches represented, from cultural and gender studies to trauma theory and considerations of intertextual connections with dominant culture works often dubbed “writing back to the center.” One of the most enjoyable essays is not scholarly in the classic academic sense but more akin to a Native honoring ceremony. “‘The human heart is every bit as tangled as our road’: Six Memorable Characters in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich” brings together the reflections of Barton, Beidler, Jacobs, David McNab, Debra Barker, and Uta Lischke in a multivocal collaboration, foreshadowing a new trend in Native criticism, though the critical voices here are presented in sequence rather than in dialogue. The six scholars are eloquent in articulating reasons for their surprising and unsurprising choices. In honoring Fleur Pillager, June Kashpaw, Lulu Lamartine, Kit Tatro, Mary Kashpaw, and Omakayas, they clearly honor the power of the writer who created these characters.
Alan Velie’s essay, “Louise Erdrich and American Indian Literary Nationalism,” is a singular contribution to Erdrich criticism and to this collection, addressing an issue now central to Native criticism. Velie understands that Native writers claim not only tribal but pantribal identity and emphasizes the importance of the bond with tribal homeland in Erdrich’s work. Far from upholding Weaver, Womack, and Warrior’s contention that such work be viewed as separate and labeled “Native,” however, Velie defends Erdrich’s stated preference to be considered an American writer, agreeing with David Treuer that there is nothing intrinsically Indian about the Indian literature. Without using the term essentialism, he suggests that any racialized definition of Indian literature, including his own expedient definition based on tribal ancestry, however distant, is simply irrational. Velie’s essay left me wondering about the notable absence of one Erdrich novel—The Master Butchers Singing Club centering on her German American heritage—from critical consideration in a collection that explicitly labels the author Native American in its title. [End Page 121]
Two very different cultural studies yield some of the freshest insights into Erdrich’s work. In “Plenty of Food and No Government Agents”: Perspectives on the Spirit World, Death and Dying in the Writings of Louise Erdrich,” David McNab explores the development of this theme from an Anishinaabe perspective in six different texts, including short and long fiction, creative nonfiction, and adolescent fiction. Peter Beidler, meanwhile, uses a “white studies” approach in “Mauser’s Illness: Medical Humor in Erdrich’s Four Souls,” revealing once again that truth is stranger than fiction. He demonstrates how Erdrich deploys the facts of early twentieth-century medicine to reverse stereotypes associated with Native healers and healing as Fleur Pillager makes use of commonsense tribal knowledge rather than supernatural power. Harry Brown’s essay on the power of names and naming in many Erdrich novels might have been grounded in Native ontology and cultural studies. Although it is not, it remains a useful compendium of Erdrich’s statements on the subject...