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256 pages, Paperback
First published March 10, 1998
Louise Erdrich is one of the most gifted, prolific, and challenging of contemporary Native American novelists. Born in 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota, she grew up mostly in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her parents taught at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. Her fiction reflects aspects of her mixed heritage: German through her father, and French and Ojibwa through her mother. She worked at various jobs, such as hoeing sugar beets, farm work, waitressing, short order cooking, lifeguarding, and construction work, before becoming a writer. She attended the Johns Hopkins creative writing program and received fellowships at the McDowell Colony and the Yaddo Colony. After she was named writer-in-residence at Dartmouth, she married professor Michael Dorris and raised several children, some of them adopted. She and Michael became a picture-book husband-and-wife writing team, though they wrote only one truly collaborative novel, The Crown of Columbus (1991).
The Antelope Wife was published in 1998, not long after her separation from Michael and his subsequent suicide. Some reviewers believed they saw in The Antelope Wife the anguish Erdrich must have felt as her marriage crumbled, but she has stated that she is unconscious of having mirrored any real-life events.
She is the author of four previous bestselling andaward-winning novels, including Love Medicine; The Beet Queen; Tracks; and The Bingo Palace. She also has written two collections of poetry, Jacklight, and Baptism of Desire. Her fiction has been honored by the National Book Critics Circle (1984) and The Los Angeles Times (1985), and has been translated into fourteen languages.
Several of her short stories have been selected for O. Henry awards and for inclusion in the annual Best American Short Story anthologies. The Blue Jay's Dance, a memoir of motherhood, was her first nonfiction work, and her children's book, Grandmother's Pigeon, has been published by Hyperion Press. She lives in Minnesota with her children, who help her run a small independent bookstore called The Birchbark.
Because of the Dawes Act, reservation land was parceled out to individuals instead of remaining in tribal trust possession. Land was the only thing that hungry people owned, and it started to disappear with astounding haste.Then the idea of progress, with its inherent bias toward eliminating elements it considers backward and reactionary:
The walls were paneled with ancient oak worked into scenes of progress. There were wagons, valiant pioneers, oxen, plows, trains of course. As the Americans advanced counterclockwise around the great waiting room, Indians melted away before them…Finally, the idea that time is both linear and divisible, the idea upon which all subsequent imperial progressions and capitalist allotments depends:
Although the Ojibwe never had a special day to pray until mission and boarding schools taught how you could slack off the rest of the week, Sunday now has its name. Praying Day.The novel, first published as The Antelope Wife in 1998 and in this retitled revision in 2016, resists the ideology of progress with a twisting and recursive narrative and resists the ideology of individualism with a family saga plot whose characters, including spouses and lovers, humans and animals, are all related by blood. Plains Indian beadwork is the novel's model for art; a myth humming in the novel's background pictures the cosmos as beaded into existence by rivalrous twin sisters, one adding dark and the other light, each trying to overturn the balance of good and evil. Unlike other authors in the feminist/multiculturalist counter-canon, there's little moralism in Erdrich: she knows that the progressive dream of eliminating evil—yes, even evils like racism or rape—is at one with the eliminationist dreams of those who led the march of progress across the Plains that trampled indigenous America.
"We developed as a people over many thousands of years. Our culture. Our ways. Our adaptations. Then all of a sudden in one generation—wham. Warp-speed acculturation. And now we're the products of two cultures. Something happened in our family that cannot be explained by the culture we live in now. When our mothers tell the stories they heard from their grandmothers and great-grandmothers, we listen and nod as if we think the stories are true. But we don't think they're true."The novel's narrator, by the way, is a dog—a descendant of the dog nursed by the mourning Ojibwe mother in the opening chapters. Proficient in dirty jokes and metafictional reflections, this narrator, who literally offers history from below, is capable too of Erdrich's lyrical-mythical style: "The world halted. There sounded a great gong made of sky. A gasp. Silence.” This kind of rhetoric sits in Antelope Woman without blushing beside passages of Carveresque naturalist desperation as well as of cute sitcom dialogue and broad comic set-ups. In one scene, a woman trying to surprise her man on his birthday instead greets an entire surprise party while wearing nothing but stick-on bows on her nipples; in another an old woman accidentally sprays her granddaughters' glitter on her vulva while preparing for a gynecologist appointment.
"We're just like those people, never knowing what the gods or the government is going to do to us next".The federal government is mocked and derided throughout the novel; unlike other American minority groups, Native Americans perhaps have a harder time seeing the state as guard and guarantor of rights. But the American Indian Movement is queried, too, for what Erdrich portrays as its swaggering masculinism. Calico Sweetheart is both a female victim of male predation and a supernal threat in her own right. The world is dark and light. Why should a novel not seek the same balance of opposites?