Biography of Louise Erdrich, Native American Author

Postmodern Champion of Her Indigenous American Heritage

Louise Erdrich poses during a portrait session in Paris, France
Louise Erdrich poses during a portrait session in Paris, France.

Eric Fougere/Corbis via Getty Images

Louise Erdrich (born June 7, 1954) is an American author and poet and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Erdrich often explores themes and symbolism relating to her Native American heritage in her work, which encompasses both adult and children’s literature. She is also considered to be a leading figure in the literary movement known as the Native American Renaissance.

Erdrich has been short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize in literature and won the National Book Award in 2012 for her novel The Round House. Erdrich regularly hosts writing workshops at the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, and operates an independent bookstore in Minneapolis with a heavy focus on Native American literature.

Fast Facts: Louise Erdrich

  • Known For: Dense, interlinked novels inspired by her Native American heritage.
  • Born: June 7, 1954, Little Falls, Minnesota
  • Parents: Ralph Erdrich, Rita Erdrich (née Gourneau)
  • Education: A.B., Dartmouth College; M.A., Johns Hopkins University
  • Selected Works: Love Medicine (1984), The Master Butcher’s Singing Club (2003), The Round House (2012)
  • Spouse: Michael Dorris (divorced 1996)
  • Children: Six (three adopted and three biological)
  • Notable Quote: “To sew is to pray. Men don't understand this. They see the whole but they don't see the stitches.”

Early Years

Louise Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, the eldest child of Ralph and Rita Erdrich. Her father was a German-American, her mother was part Ojibwe and served as tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Nation. Erdrich had six siblings, including fellow writers Lise and Heidi.

When Erdrich began writing stories as a child, her father encouraged her by paying her a nickel for every story she completed. Her father served in the National Guard, and wrote to her regularly when he was away from home. Erdrich has called her father her biggest literary influence, and notes that the letters her mother and father wrote to her inspired much of her writing.

Erdrich was a member of the first co-educational class to attend Dartmouth College in 1972. There she met Michael Dorris, the Director of the college’s Native American Studies program. Erdrich took the course Dorris was teaching, and this inspired her to begin seriously investigating her own Native American legacy, which had a tremendous influence on her writing. She graduated in 1976 with an A.B. in English and went on to Johns Hopkins University, graduating with an M.A. in 1979. Erdrich published some of her earliest poetry while at Johns Hopkins, and after graduating she took a position as writer-in-residence at Dartmouth.

Michael Dorris
circa 1990: Writer Michael Dorris (1945 - 1997). A member of the Modoc tribe on his father's side, he raised national awareness of fetal alcohol syndrome (birth defects caused by a mother's drinking through pregnancy) in his book, 'The Broken Cord' and was married to the novelist Louise Erdrich. Louise Erdrich / Getty Images 

Early Writing Career (1979-1984)

  • “The World's Greatest Fisherman” (1979) - short story
  • Love Medicine (1984)

Dorris left Dartmouth to conduct research in New Zealand, but remained in touch with Erdrich. The two corresponded regularly, and began collaborating on writing projects despite the distance between them, eventually co-authoring the short story “The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” which won first prize in the Nelson Algren fiction competition in 1979. Dorris and Erdrich were inspired by this to expand the story into a longer work.

Erdrich published the resulting novel, Love Medicine, in 1984. With “The World’s Greatest Fisherman” as the first chapter, Erdrich used a variety points-of-view characters to tell a sprawling story of 60 years in the lives of a group of Chippewa Indians living on an unnamed reservation. She employed postmodern touches, like a casual, conversational tone to many of the chapters. The interwoven stories explore themes of familial bonds, tribal policies and traditions, and the struggle of maintaining a Native American identity in the modern world. Love Medicine won the National Book Critics Circle Award and established Erdrich as a major talent and a leading light of what has become known as the Native American Renaissance.

The Love Medicine Series and Other Works (1985-2007)

  • The Beet Queen (1986)
  • Tracks (1988)
  • The Crown of Columbus (1991)
  • The Bingo Palace (1994)
  • Tales of Burning Love (1997)
  • The Antelope Wife (1998)
  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001)
  • The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003)
  • Four Souls (2004)
  • The Painted Drum (2005)

Erdrich returned to the setting of Love Medicine for her second novel, The Beet Queen, expanding the scope beyond the reservation to include the nearby town of Argus, North Dakota, (the book series is sometimes referred to as the Argus novels as a result) and employing the same technique of multiple narrators. Six more novels followed—Tracks, The Bingo Palace, Tales of Burning Love, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, Four Souls, and The Painted Drum). Each book in the series is not a direct sequel to the prior story; instead, Erdrich explores different aspects of the setting and the characters and tells interlocking stories that are both part of a fictional universe and standalone stories. This technique has been likened to William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury) who set many of his stories and novels in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, linking most of his characters to that fictional time and place.

In 1991, Erdrich co-authored the novel The Crown of Columbus with Dorris. The novel was a departure for both writers despite still utilizing Native American culture and themes, telling a lighthearted romance-mystery concerning a married couple's investigations into the possibility that Christopher Columbus buried a priceless treasure somewhere in the New World.

Her novel The Antelope Wife, a magical realist story of two families bound together by invisible connections throughout time, won the World Fantasy Award in 1999.

In 2003, Erdrich published The Master Butcher’s Singing Club, which focused on her German heritage as opposed to her Native American background. Erdrich used many of the same postmodern techniques she’d employed in the Love Medicine series to explore her German roots, and many of the same themes of holding on to cultural identity in America, family and local bonds, and the power and limitations of tradition.

Poetry and Children’s Books

  • Jacklight (1984)
  • Baptism of Desire (1989)
  • Grandmother's Pigeon (1996)
  • The Birchbark Series (1999–2016)
  • Original Fire: Selected and New Poems (2003)

Erdrich is a renowned poet, exploring many of the same themes in her poetry as she does in her fiction. In 1983 she was awarded the Pushcart Prize in Poetry. Her first collection of poetry, Jacklight, included much of the work she composed while at Johns Hopkins University earning her Master's degree, and was published in the same year as Love Medicine.

Erdrich’s poetic style is chiefly narrative; her poems are frequently structured as direct address or in the form of dramatic narrative. Her second collection of poetry, Baptism of Desire, published in 1989, explores religious themes and issues related to motherhood. Baptism contains the poem Hydra, composed while she was pregnant with her first child, Persia, which is a lengthy exploration of motherhood, fertility, and the role and status of women through history and myth. Erdrich draws heavily on her Catholic background for these poems. Her most recent collection, Original Fire, contains many of the poems previously collected along with some new work.

Erdrich began writing books for younger readers with 1996’s Grandmother's Pigeon, which introduced an element of whimsy and magical realism to her typically realistic style. This was followed by The Birchbark House, the first in a series of books including The Game of Silence (2005), The Porcupine Year (2008), Chickadee (2012), and Makoons (2016). The series follows the life of a Ojibwe family living in the mid-19th century in the Dakotas, and is based in part on Erdrich’s own family history.

Non-Fiction

  • The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birthyear (1995)
  • Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country (2003)

Erdrich has written several non-fiction works, including two books detailing her experiences during pregnancy and as a mother. The Blue Jay’s Dance chronicled her sixth pregnancy and explored the intense emotions the experience generated, while also painting an intimate and revealing portrait of her home life with her husband and five other children. After the birth of her last daughter, Erdrich embarked on a boat trip through the traditional lands of her Ojibwe ancestors, and wrote Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country as a reflection of that experience, linking her work and life even more strongly to her Native American heritage.

Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich. Wikimedia Commons / Alessio Jacona / Public Domain CC BY-SA 2.0

The Justice Series and Later Works (2008-Present)

  • The Plague of Doves (2008)
  • The Round House (2012)
  • LaRose (2016)
  • The Future Home of the Living God (2017)

After several years concentrating on her work for younger readers, Erdrich returned to adult fiction with The Plague of Doves in 2008. The novel, telling the story of three Native Americans unjustly lynched for a white family’s massacre in 1911 North Dakota, is recognized as one of the best works Erdrich has produced, a complex narrative that doubles as a generational mystery that ultimately reveals a series of intricate clues. The novel was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

The Round House is not a direct sequel to The Plague of Doves, but deals in many of the same themes as it tells the story of an older Ojibwe woman, Geraldine, who is raped near the Round House, a spiritually important place on the reservation. The ensuing investigation conducted by her son is paralleled by Geraldine’s reaction to the brutal assault, ultimately leading to a fatal act of revenge. The novel won the National Book Award in 2012.

In 2015, Erdrich became the third person awarded the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. Her novel LaRose, telling the story of a young Ojibwe boy whose parents give him to the parents of his best friend, Dusty, after LaRose’s father accidentally kills Dusty in a hunting accident, won the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. The story pivots on an actual Ojibwe tradition and explores the brutal history of LaRose’s family as well as Erdrich’s common themes of revenge, justice, and guilt amidst a tightly-knit culture.

Erdrich’s most recent novel, The Future Home of the Living God, finds Erdrich exploring a new genre in a dystopian tale of a future where pregnancy is criminalized when children begin exhibiting signs of reverse evolution. Erdrich still weaves Ojibwe traditions and culture into the story, and the novel was favorably compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Personal Life

Erdrich and Dorris married in 1981. Dorris had adopted three Native American children prior to the marriage, and the couple had three biological children as well. Before finding publishing success, Dorris and Erdrich collaborated on romance fiction under the pseudonym Milou North.

Michael Dorris suffered from depression and suicidal ideation. The three adopted children all suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and required a great deal of exhausting and constant attention. In 1994 his adopted son, Sava, sent the couple threatening letters demanding money. Fearing violence from the young man, the couple took the boy to court, but Sava was acquitted. Erdrich separated from Dorris in 1995, moving to a nearby home she initially claimed was rented as a temporary solution, but later revealed she had bought outright. The couple divorced in 1996. When Dorris committed suicide in 1997, it was shocking: Dorris had just published his second novel and was at the top of his profession. It was later revealed that a massive investigation into his physical and sexual abuse of his adopted children had been undertaken. Dorris had commented to friends that he was innocent of these charges, but lacked faith that he would be exonerated. After his suicide, the criminal investigation was closed.

In 1999 Erdrich relocated to Minneapolis with her youngest children and opened Birchbark Books, Herbs, and Native Arts with her sister Heidi.

Legacy

Erdrich is considered to be one of the most important modern Native American writers. Her work combines a postmodern approach, utilizing multiple viewpoint characters, complex timelines, and shifts in points-of-view to tell the stories of Ojibwe people in both historical and modern settings. A key aspect of her work is shared characters and settings, which has been likened to William Faulkner’s work. Her style is narrative and implicitly evokes the oral traditions of Native American cultures—she has described her technique as simply being "a storyteller."

Sources

  • “Louise Erdrich.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/louise-erdrich.
  • Halliday, Lisa. “Louise Erdrich, The Art of Fiction No. 208.” The Paris Review, 12 June 2017, https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6055/louise-erdrich-the-art-of-fiction-no-208-louise-erdrich.
  • Atwood, Margaret, and Louise Erdrich. “Inside the Dystopian Visions of Margaret Atwood and Louise Erdrich.” ELLE, 3 May 2018, https://www.elle.com/culture/books/a13530871/future-home-of-the-living-god-louise-erdrich-interview/.
  • Streitfeld, David. “SAD STORY.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 13 July 1997, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1997/07/13/sad-story/b1344c1d-3f2a-455f-8537-cb4637888ffc/.
  • Biersdorfer., J.D. “Where to Find Native American Culture and a Good Read.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 July 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/25/books/birchbark-minneapolis-native-american-books.html.