Novels by and about Native Americans
A writer with Louise Erdrich’s gifts does something few authors can pull off – she transports the reader into the lives of people whose existence might be far different from our own, but who after all, have the same hopes and fears as the rest of us.
Erdrich belongs to the Ojibwe tribe of the upper Midwest and many, though not all, of her characters are native Americans. One of the pleasures of reading her stories is that like actors in an ensemble, they tend to pop up in more than one book. Her characters all have very rich inner lives; you feel like you get under their skin.
She has written many books, including 15 novels, one story collection and seven children’s books. I’m going to mention just a couple of her most noteworthy novels, then move on to some other writers who have brilliantly revealed the lives of Native Americans, both in the past and contemporary.
Her breakout book was 1984’s Love Medicine. Love Medicine and four subsequent novels told the stories of three interrelated families, living in and around a North Dakota Indian reservation from 1912 through the 1980s.
The title comes from the Chippewa belief in love potions, and the story begins with the death of a member of a Chippewa family. Then it goes back in time to tell the story of Marie and Nestor, the grandparents. Erdrich likes to jump back and forth in time, so the reader experiences Marie’s unhappy experiences in a convent, including being burned by boiling water by a nun who is trying to exorcise a devil she thinks is inside Marie. Magic is a big part of Erdrich’s books, and a love potion does make an appearance. This book won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction – quite an achievement for a debut novel.
Speaking of achievements – her 2012 novel The Round House won the National Book Award for fiction.
This harrowing book tells the story of Joe, a 13-year-old boy, who decides to pursue his own version of justice after his mother Geraldine, a tribal official on the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, is raped. But Geraldine won’t talk. Why? She has her reasons.
Joe is quite a creation, a young man who veers from boyhood to angry warrior, determined to avenge the harm done to his mother. This book is about the past, and how secrets can haunt people for a long, long time. It is also an indelible portrait of contemporary Native American life.
Writer David Treuer has something in common with Erdrich – he is also a member of the Objibwe tribe, though a different band, and he too goes back and forth between past and future when he writes about Native American life. His novels also feature the intersection of whites and Indians in America.
His beautifully written novel Prudence begins with the death of a 26 year old girl, who dies pregnant and alone. Then it goes back into history, during the time during and after World War II. A wealthy Chicago family owns a summer retreat close by an Indian reservation in northern Minnesota. Their son Frankie is spending the summer there, as he has for many years, right before he is about to enter the Army. The person Frankie is closest to, a sort of surrogate father, is Felix, an Indian caretaker on the property whose life has been touched by tragedy.
Then a German POW from a nearby camp escapes, which sets off a chain of events that these people will spend the rest of their lives dealing with. This is a masterful story of trying to reconcile the past with the present. Treuer is a writer well worth checking out.
For my last two books I’m going to go a little further back in time to a couple of my all-time favorites, both by the same wonderful Montana author, James Welch.
Jim Welch introduced me to contemporary Native American literature – I was in Missoula, Montana \in a used bookstore, and I picked up a battered paperback copy of his novel The Indian Lawyer.
Welch, who taught writing at the University of Montana, influenced an entire generation of Native American writers. His friends, fellow authors, fans and former students mourned his passing when he died in 2003.
Welch wrote many books, but I’m going to mention just a couple:
The Indian Lawyer is about Sylvester Yellow Calf, a prominent lawyer raised in poverty on Montana’s Blackfoot reservation.
Sylvester is young, brilliant, and charismatic. He has a seemingly limitless future and is considering a run for Congress – until a disgruntled convict, denied parole by a parole board Sylvester serves on, sets out to destroy his career. This book is both an insightful portrayal of a talented Indian man in the white man’s world, and a gripping suspense thriller.
Finally, I loved the last novel Welch ever published, The Heartsong of Charging Elk. This book’s main character is the ultimate outsider – an Oglala Sioux who tours with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show in the late 1800s and gets left behind in Marseille, France. Welch creates an unforgettable character in Charging Elk, a man of simplicity, sensitivity, courage and violence – all in the same complicated package.