The Antelope Wife (1998); “The Years of My Birth” (2011)
Louise Erdrich got her MFA in Poetry from Hopkins, and her every line of fiction is infused with rich language and rhythm. I love that she toggles between matter-of-factness (“Nurse,” the doctor said. “Too late,” she answered) and mysticism and otherworldliness (“Into this disinfected despair, there came a presence, someone or something, who grieved with me and held my hand.”)
Sherman Alexie–also a poet and fiction writer–and Louise Erdrich are often spoken of together, the two best-known authors on Native American themes. I’ve read almost everything of Alexie’s; he’ll do that tonal shifting as well, but he very rarely goes quite as far into that beautiful spirit-language as Erdrich does. Though (especially compared to Alexie) she does seem better suited for shorter forms than long narrative.
A master class in:
Openings. Here’s “The Years of My Birth,” first lines: “The nurse had wrapped my brother in a blue flannel blanket and was just about to hand him to his mother when she whispered, ‘Oh, God, there’s another one,’ and out I slid, half dead. I then proceeded to die in earnest, going from slightly pink to a dull gray-blue, at which point the nurse tried to scoop me into a bed warmed by lights.”
Immediate setting, character, conflict, and voice. (Come to think of it, Alexie also likes to start with the birth of a dying baby.) It’s important, I think, to conceive of openings as generous things: they have to give. In the MFA, we talked about the entire atomic makeup of the story being present in its first paragraph. This first-person reflection on the half-dead baby is an opening that gives.
“He [Vincent Lawrence] had a device which he thought was so important—the “love rack” he called it. I have never yet, as I sit here, figured out how this goddamn rack was spelled . . . whether it was wrack, or rack, or what dictionary connection could be found between the word and his concept. What he meant by the “love rack” was the poetic situation whereby the audience felt the love between the characters. He called this the “one, the two and the three.” Someone, I think it was Phil Goodman, the producer and another great influence, once reminded him that this one, two, and three was nothing more than Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end.”
But I’ve always had trouble with the idea of the watershed in fiction–does it really represent the way life is? (This will be another post sometime.) In any case, there’s a subtler option. Here’s Erdrich on a father-daughter in The Antelope Wife: “Once, he holds her foot in the cradle of his palm and with the adept point of his hunting knife painlessly delivers a splinter, long and pale and bloody. Teaches her to round her c‘s and put tiny teakettle handles on her a‘s. Crooks stray hairs behind her ears.” Not a single save-the-cat or a love-rack moment, but a long collection of little actions that make us feel the love.
“She howled and scratched herself half-blind and at last so viciously took leave of her mind that the old ones got together and decided to change her name. …The namer went away, starved and sang and dreamed, until it was clear that the only name that made any sense at all was the name of the place where the old Blue Prairie Woman had gone to fetch back her child. Other Side of the Earth.”
“After that, our nights are something I can’t address in the day, as though we’re wearing other bodies, other people’s flaming skins.”
“You wouldn’t think a man as ordinary as myself could win a woman who turns the heads of others on the streets. Yet…”
“The women in my family are the kind to argue with the spirits.”