THE RED CONVERTIBLE
Selected and New Stories
By Louise Erdrich
Harper. 496 pp. $27.99
It has been 25 years since Louise Erdrich published the first of her vibrant novels -- or was that really a novel in the first place? Love Medicine, set on a Chippewa reservation in North Dakota, was told from a number of perspectives over many years, and some critics argued at the time that it was more properly described as a collection of stories. But Erdrich's use of multiple narrative voices has been, from the beginning, a fruitful choice. Besides, she hardly invented the concept of multiple narrative voices; her literary kinship with Faulkner in particular is apparent. Erdrich -- of mixed ancestry including German, Chippewa and French forebears -- has over the years created a Midwestern territory situated somewhere between the borders of realism and fanciful mythopoeticism. Hers is a place where Native and immigrant Americans live in uneasy proximity, where a single voice or angle of vision can't begin to reconstruct the whole tale, where characters make cameo appearances in multiple novels rather than play the starring role. You can call her slicing up of the story "postmodern" -- many have -- but Erdrich is a true original, and labels won't do justice to the oddness, wit and ferocity of her fiction.
Now she has gathered a few new stories and many previously published as chapters in novels into a single volume that makes her work seem more modular than ever. Most of the pieces in The Red Convertible stand perfectly well on their own and resonate, in this arrangement, in new ways. If multiple voices seemed particularly apt 25 years ago, the recycling here is downright inspired. Short stories have a special punch, and though this is a long collection, many of these stories have that power.
Erdrich's North Dakota and Minnesota settings, on and off the reservation, yield rich anthropological and political themes (the first story, "The Red Convertible," concerns a young Indian back from Vietnam). The myths and traditions of a people, whether Chippewa or German, inform the rich cadences of her storytelling. Short stories also enable her to concentrate on individuals and the singular pain that comes from poverty or alcoholism or sexual despair.
Humiliation is a recurrent theme, but so is pride: Margaret Kashpaw, as punishment for her opposition to a treaty settlement, is attacked and shaved bald. But Margaret flaunts her baldness, just as Ojibwe men "press a sharp crease down the front of their blue jeans" to show that "although the government has tried in every way possible to destroy their manhood, they are undefeatable."
One of the qualities that have made Erdrich's writing so attractive is the strutting sureness of her formulations -- "Owehzhee. We still look good and we know it" -- and another is her humor, dry and wry in equal measure. That humor is often aimed at two sensitive subjects: Christianity and sexuality. Religion is treated as, alternately, a consoling tradition and a construct designed for whites to wield power. One of Erdrich's most appalling, fascinating and funny creations is Sister Leopolda of "Saint Marie" (though she recurs in the novels, readers of these stories will get one good strong dose of her). Another is Father Damien, whose evolution as both religious and sexually ambiguous character is hinted at here.
Indeed, sexuality and gender roles among both whites and Indians have always been key themes for Erdrich. Women often act outside their assigned roles, but here -- especially in the later stories -- men take on strange duties, none more so than the suckling of a baby girl accomplished by a runaway soldier in "Father's Milk." The later stories (and the novels in which they appear) explore sexuality in broadly humorous ways: The love struggles between the aging Margaret and Nanapush in "Le Mooz" are pathetic, touching, funny, even thrilling.
Although despair, death and suicide take their toll again and again, these stories focus on the dignity that can accompany struggle, on the human capacity to embrace and forgive. Chippewa women often embody this graciousness, but white women too can exude wisdom: No woman is more dignified than the dying Eva, of "The Butcher's Wife." Erdrich doesn't flinch when she eyes the trials of motherhood, and some of the last stories pay special tribute to the mothers of middle-aged women.
Erdrich has revisited her fiction before -- she revised and published a new edition of Love Medicine in 1993 -- a habit that points out her kinship to Faulkner in yet another way. Whether the decision to gather these stories was commercial, literary or both, I'm glad she's done it, even if not all of them are entirely successful in this context. "The Blue Velvet Box," which was published as a story before it made its appearance in the novel "The Beet Queen," is as powerful as ever, but seems here more of an introduction than a world unto itself. Midway through the collection, stories like "The Crest," are clever conceptually but written from an emotional distance unusual for Erdrich.
The wonder, of course, is that so many of these pieces could be quilted together in the first place, much less ripped apart and re-stitched to such strong effect. Erdrich is one of our major writers: She illuminates large swaths of U.S. history and culture, and this volume is a good demonstration of her compelling stylistic innovations, not to mention her literary cunning. ·
Valerie Sayers is a novelist and professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.