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368 pages, Paperback
First published April 3, 2001
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.
For those not familiar with the novels of Erdrich, many of the characters in LRMLNH were introduced in earlier books. In this story, a priest on a remote reservation in Minnesota writes a missive to The Pope, telling the pontiff he’s got the wrong person in mind for sainthood: Sister Leopolda, a woman whose either-or-but-not-both attitude is potently destructive. Instead, the priest tells The Pope about the witness he received from the tribe of Mary Kashpaw, Lulu, Fleur Pillager and (my favorite) Grandpa Nanapush. In a sense, this novel is a satire of religious conversion memoirs from earlier centuries.
Although there are many ways to connect this novel to others in Erdrich’s round of stories, I’m interested in her use of music, something that significantly helped the characters of Tracks survive the harsh winter of 1917-1918. Music seems related to the concept of flow, be it blood, water, wine or the transfiguration of one to another.
In other novels, Erdrich has used water as a volatile symbol, so LRMLNH astonishes with its variation on the motif. The water of the natural world in Love Medicine is still imbued with significance in LRMLNH, but Erdich links characters to nature by the flow of that water. Sister Cecilia leaves the convent when Mother Superior hides all music (except Bach) because the midnight playing of Chopin’s “Prelude in E Minor” wakes Mother Superior in sweat & tears with memories of her own dead mother (15). In one deft scene, Erdrich dramatizes the spiritual link between family, spirit and the flow of water. This early leave-taking becomes more amazing when considered with the novel’s conclusion.
The connection between music and family is subtle but startling once we realize that some music is sex. For example, Berndt Vogel--a farmer whom Sr. Cecilia goes to work for--uses the piano to keep her around; Cecilia, in turn, uses music to seduce him (a bit like the movie The Piano) While Sr. Cecilia practices piano, Berndt practices for loving her. The musical sex described on page 21 is more astounding than the traditional sex described on page 24. For an author as accomplished at writing eroticism (Tales of Burning Love is particularly memorable in exploring the diversity of physical love), Erdrich continues to astonish in LRMLNH.
The musical sex Berndt and Agnes share is a kind of birth control, unless we consider music the offspring. This book is about the spirit transcending the physical. It is interesting that Fr. Damien looks at the piano as a “sleeping child” (6-7). Few writers have written as much non-fiction on parenting as Erdrich (The Blue Jay’s Dance, Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country and whatever contributions she made to Michael Dorris’ Broken Cord). So it is with interest that I look at the spiritual rebirths in LRMLNH, in particular, Fr. Damien’s realization that being reborn once might not be enough. And the novel is not talking about reincarnation, but opening a new dimension of one person, and music seems to be present throughout the conversions.
When Fr. Damien plays the piano in the new church, snakes come from the ground, giving him good standing with the Anishinaabeg (220). The snakes or ginebigoog come from the lower levels to hear the priest play piano, thus bringing the people to church because the snakes are known to be wise. All these things occur in Chapter 12, “The Audience,” one of the most philosophical passages in all Erdrich for it is here music elucidates the distinctions between European and American approaches to language, time and love. As for me, this chapter is sacred literature. So to quote from it I risk the heresy of paraphrase (don't we always?), but the poetry found within Erdrich’s prose is worth it:
“Divine love may be so large it cannot see us.The novel earns this philosophical indulgence with physical hardship of surviving the Era of Benign Neglect. It is the spiritual transcendence mistaken as a loss of faith that makes this novel so rich. If survival is to be more than a physical act, survivors need to evolve spiritually, which here seems to be not a loss of faith but a loss of misunderstanding.
"Or it may be so infinitely tiny that it works at a level where it directs us like an unknown substance buried in our blood.
"Or it may be transparent, an invisible screen, a filter through which we see and hear all that is created.
"Oh my friends…”
The snakes lifted their bullet-smooth heads, flicked their tongues to catch the vibrations of the sounds the being made somewhere before them.
”I am like you,” said Father Damien to the snakes, “curious and small. Like you, I poise alertly and open my senses to try to read the air, the clouds, the sun’s slant, the little movements of the animals, all in the hope I will learn the secret of whether I am loved.”(227)