Some days, it feels like I’ve acquired a new hobby without even knowing it: trying to get the people around me to read more female writers, whether they’re publishing their first novel this year or lived over 200 years ago. Whenever I’m enthusiastically composing yet another list for a sometimes less-than-enthusiastic listener, Louise Erdrich’s name is often one of the first to come up. Over the past thirty-some years, she’s written over 25 books, emerged as one of the best-known authors writing about Native American life and issues (she also happens to be a quarter Chippewa) and continues to produce challenging, beautifully written work today.
Perhaps the best place to start with Erdrich is at the very beginning with her acclaimed first novel “Love Medicine” (1984), a collection of intertwined short stories focusing on two Chippewa families in North Dakota, the Kashpaws and the Lamartines, and the decades of history that keep on bringing them together. The story begins with the tragic death of June Kashpaw and then twists backwards and forwards through time, delving into character after character and making the family tree in the back of the book incredibly helpful. Native American characters are few and far between in literary fiction, especially in the 1980s when “Love Medicine” was written, and Erdrich unveils a whole new side of the United States, forcing the reader to consider the struggles of contemporary Native Americans and the strange contradictions and challenges of their world. Though I knew about Native American history, I’d never stopped to consider what Native American life was like today until I started reading Erdrich’s work. However, her books aren’t just notable for their social power. They’re powerful in a literary sense as well, for the sheer poetry and skill of her writing.
Erdrich has a knack for capturing characters in just a few phrases and for stringing words together in completely unexpected ways. There are no cliches in her writing, no expected formulas or stock descriptions and her words have an almost hallucinatory power. These aren’t the kind of books that you can read casually on the bus on the way to work or while lounging around on the beach on vacation. Erdrich’s work requires concentration and dedication, and pays that concentration back three-fold.
The characters from “Love Medicine” also appear in another novels if you’re not ready to let them go just yet, but Erdrich has also written some beautiful stand-alone novels. One of her most recent novels, “The Round House” (2012), is the story of how one family is irrevocably transformed when Geraldine Coutts is brutally attacked. Her husband, a tribal judge, struggles to obtain her justice from a corrupt and skewed system while her 13 year-old son Joe sets out on a quest with his friends to find out what really happened. “The Round House” is devastating and deeply emotional, perhaps not an easy book to read but one that demands to be read anyway and one that conjures up not just the simple pleasure of reading, but also every other emotion out there.