• Birth—June 7, 1954
• Where—Little Falls, Minnesota, USA
• Education—A.B., Dartmouth College; M.A., Johns Hopkins
• Awards—National Book Award; National Book Critics Circle
Award; Nelson Algren Prize for Short Fiction
• Currently—lives in Minnesota
Karen Louise Erdrich is an author of novels, poetry, and children's books with some Native American ancestry. She is widely acclaimed as one of the most significant writers of the second wave of what critic Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance. In 2009, her novel The Plague of Doves was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. She is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The eldest of seven children, Erdrich was born to Ralph and Rita Erdrich in Little Falls, Minnesota. Her father was German-American while her mother was French and Anishinaabe (Ojibwa). Her grandfather Patrick Gourneau served as a tribal chairman for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota where her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school.
She attended Dartmouth College in 1972-1976, earning an AB degree and meeting her future husband, the Modoc anthropologist and writer Michael Dorris. He was then director of the college’s Native American Studies program. Subsequently, Erdrich worked in a wide variety of jobs, including as a lifeguard, waitress, poetry teacher at prisons, and construction flag signaler. She also became an editor for The Circle, a newspaper produced by and for the urban Native population in Boston. Erdrich graduated with a Master of Arts degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University in 1979.
In the period 1978-1982, Erdrich published many poems and short stories. It was also during this period that she began collaborating with Dorris, initially working through the mail while Dorris was working in New Zealand. The relationship progressed, and the two were married in 1981. During this time, Erdrich assembled the material that would eventually be published as the poetry collection Jacklight.
In 1982, Erdrich's story "The World’s Greatest Fisherman" was awarded the $5,000 Nelson Algren Prize for short fiction. This convinced Erdrich and Dorris, who continued to work collaboratively, that they should embark on writing a novel.
In 1984, Erdrich published the novel Love Medicine. Made up of a disjointed but interconnected series of short narratives, each told from the perspective of a different character, and moving backwards and forward in time through every decade between the 1930s and the present day, the book told the stories of several families living near each other on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation.
The innovative techniques of the book, which owed a great deal to the works of William Faulkner but have little precedent in Native-authored fiction, allowed Erdrich to build up a picture of a community in a way entirely suited to the reservation setting. She received immediate praise from author/critics such as N. Scott Momaday and Gerald Vizenor, and the book was awarded the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award. It has never subsequently been out of print.
Erdrich followed Love Medicine with The Beet Queen, which continued her technique of using multiple narrators, but surprised many critics by expanding the fictional reservation universe of Love Medicine to include the nearby town of Argus, North Dakota. Native characters are very much kept in the background in this novel, while Erdrich concentrates on the German-American community. The action of the novel takes place mostly before World War II.
The Beet Queen was subject to a bitter attack from Native novelist Leslie Marmon Silko, who accused Erdrich of being more concerned with postmodern technique than with the political struggles of Native peoples.
Erdrich and Dorris’ collaborations continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s, always occupying the same fictional universe.
Tracks goes back to the early 20th century at the formation of the reservation and introduces the trickster figure of Nanapush, who owes a clear debt to Nanabozho. Erdrich’s novel most rooted in Anishinaabe culture (at least until Four Souls), it shows early clashes between traditional ways and the Roman Catholic Church.
The Bingo Palace updates but does not resolve various conflicts from Love Medicine: set in the 1980s, it shows the effects both good and bad of a casino and a factory being set up among the reservation community. Finally, Tales of Burning Love finishes the story of Sister Leopolda, a recurring character from all the former books, and introduces a new set of white people to the reservation universe.
Erdrich and Dorris wrote The Crown of Columbus, the only novel to which both writers put their names, and A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, credited to Dorris. Both of these were set away from the Argus reservation.
The couple had six children, three of them adopted. Dorris had adopted the children when he was single. After their marriage, Erdrich also adopted them, and the couple had three daughters together. Some of the children had difficulties.
In 1989 Dorris published The Broken Cord, a book about fetal alcohol syndrome, from which their adopted son Reynold Abel suffered. Dorris had found it was a widespread and until then relatively undiagnosed problem among Native American children because of mothers' alcohol issues. In 1991, Reynold Abel was hit by a car and killed at age 23.
In 1995 their son Jeffrey Sava accused them both of child abuse. Dorris and Erdrich unsuccessfully pursued an extortion case against him. Shortly afterward, Dorris and Erdrich separated and began divorce proceedings. Erdrich claimed that Dorris had been depressed since the second year of their marriage.
On April 11, 1997, Michael Dorris committed suicide in Concord, New Hampshire.
Erdrich’s first novel after divorce, The Antelope Wife, was the first to be set outside the continuity of the previous books. She has subsequently returned to the reservation and nearby towns, and has produced five novels since 1998 dealing with events in that fictional area. Among these are The Master Butchers Singing Club, a macabre mystery which again draws on Erdrich's Native American and German-American heritage, and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. Both have geographic and character connections with The Beet Queen.
Together with several of her previous works, these have drawn comparisons with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels. The successive novels have created multiple narratives in the same fictional area and combined the tapestry of local history with current themes and modern consciousness.
In The Plague of Doves, Erdrich has continued the multi-ethnic dimension of her writing, weaving together the layered relationships among residents of farms, towns and reservations; their shared histories, secrets, relationships and antipathies; and the complexities for later generations of re-imagining their ancestors' overlapping pasts. The novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
Erdrich's 2010 book, Shadow Tag, was a departure for her, as she focuses on a failed marriage.
Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation (also known as Ojibwa and Chippewa). Erdrich also has German, French and American ancestry. One sister, Heidi, publishes under the name Heid E. Erdrich; she is a poet who also resides in Minnesota. Another sister, Lise Erdrich, has written children's books and collections of fiction and essays. For the past few years, the three Erdrich sisters have hosted annual writers workshops on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota. (Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 3, 2008)
The award-winning photographer Ronald W. Erdrich is one of their cousins. He lives and works in Abilene, Texas. He was named "Star Photojournalist of the Year" in 2004 by the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors association. (From Wikipedia.)
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