This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for June 7, 2017: Father

June 7, 2017: birthday: Louise Erdrich

It’s the birthday of novelist and poet Louise Erdrich (books by this author), born in Little Falls, Minnesota (1954). She grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Her mother was French Ojibwe and her father was German American; she grew up in a big family, the oldest of seven children, with lots of extended family nearby. She said: “The people in our families made everything into a story […] People just sit and the stories start coming, one after another. You just sort of grab the tail of the last person’s story: it reminds you of something and you keep going on. I suppose that when you grow up constantly hearing the stories rise, break and fall, it gets into you somehow.”

Her parents encouraged her writing — her father even paid her a nickel for every story she wrote. When she was a teenager, her mother found a picture in National Geographic of ice sculptures at Dartmouth College, and it piqued her interest since Dartmouth was historically dedicated to educating Native Americans. Erdrich was accepted as part of the first class to admit women. It was also the first year of Dartmouth’s new Native American Studies program, run by a young professor named Michael Dorris, whom she eventually married. Erdrich said of writing: “I was in college and had failed at everything else. I kept journals and diaries when I was a kid, and I started writing when I was nineteen or twenty. After college I decided that that’s absolutely what I wanted to do. Part of it was that I did not prepare myself for anything else in life.”

After graduation, she returned to North Dakota and worked as a resident poet in the schools, driving all over the state in her old pickup truck. She often went out to the local bar in whatever town she happened to be visiting, and there she heard all kinds of fascinating stories. She was writing poetry, but she was frustrated by it, and she finally realized that she was trying to tell too many stories in her poems, and that what she really needed to write was fiction. She thought about the people she had known growing up in Wahpeton and on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, and about various conversations she had had in bars around North Dakota, and she started writing a book that was a collection of stories told by a whole chorus of characters. By this time, she was living in Fargo, renting a tiny apartment above a flower shop. She said, “It was heaven to have my own quiet, beautiful office with a great window and green linoleum floors and a little desk and a view that carried to the outskirts of Fargo.” Eventually she set her book aside, convinced that she needed to write a more conventional novel. In the meantime, she published her first short story, called “Saint Marie.” She got two letters in response: one from an angry priest who felt she had misrepresented his religion, and the other from Philip Roth, who said he liked it. She was too shy to write back but it inspired her to keep writing. Her novel was rejected by everyone she sent it to, so after a while she gave it up and went back to her first book, and that became Love Medicine (1984), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Her novels include The Beet Queen (1986), The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003), The Plague of Doves (2008), and The Round House (2012).