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AUG 27, 2009


It is a daunting task to write a brief review about a 500 page book that holds thirty-six stories, most of which have been published in esteemed publications and spawned bestselling novels. Further, author Louise Erdrich is already known and beloved, a prolific, highly acclaimed writer of both short and long fiction. Her twelve novels include the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award winner, Love Medicine, and her most recent, A Plague of Doves, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Her own heritage—her father was of German descent, her mother half French, half Ojibwe —is reflected into all of her stories, set in the land she grew up in.

The stories that comprise The Red Convertible are ordered in chronological fashion but also grouped by subject (several come together to form the basis of different novels). This collection is a gem—every last story is beautifully written, well-crafted, full of delicious lines, distilled and descriptive, emotionally searing without ever descending into sentimentality. Within these stories the past century rolls across the page, cultures clash, collaborate, life delivers its knocks and people try to rebound.

Erdrich is unafraid to plumb the depths of despair, love in all its forms, death, suicide, cancer, anything that might strike down her strong, vivid characters. But the stories’ sense of wit and irony save the collection from ever being perceived as too grim. Several stories, in fact, border on the hilarious, the fantastical. Shop owners, displaced people, teenagers, Native Americans, immigrants, nuns, musicians, men suckling babies—these all are part of the ensemble cast, several making cameo appearances in later stories. It becomes like a jigsaw puzzle, the way families and professions fit into the grand scheme of Erdrich’s fictional world. Readers familiar with her novels will find quite a few recognizable characters and stories here. Readers new to Erdrich are given a sampler platter of which novel might appeal to them.

What connects these diverse stories is a sense of place—geographic and otherwise. Most occur near or within the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota, not far from the Minnesota border, and all of its characters are engaged in a struggle—to make ends meet, to survive the minefields of marriage, of relationships, conflicts between the past and present or simply within the self. And what each story yields is a nugget of insight, of clarity, even if only to remind us that yes, life is a struggle, often violent, but within the suffering lies a certain fierce beauty, a glittering paradox.

In the eponymous “The Red Convertible,” a Native American Vietnam vet tries to pick up the pieces of his life after his military service, while his brother watches on, helpless. Two orphaned children struggle to upright themselves when forced to leave depression-era Minneapolis in “The Blue Velvet Box,” a story that served as the basis for the novel The Beet Queen. One of my favorite stories of the collection was “Naked Woman Playing Chopin,” which integrates two subjects of great interest to me: music and spirituality, in the form of a nun who is seduced by playing the piano music of Chopin, to the exclusion of all else.

Teen angst and the stigma of being poor is addressed in a searing yet tender fashion in “The Dress.” Here, we have a perfect problem—Dot and her mother think they’re splurging, while being budget-conscious, when they mail-order five “grab bag” dresses for a dollar each. When the dresses arrive, however, Dot discovers they are five of the same horrific print dress, her sole attire for the school year. This kind of humor mixed with unlikely pathos—Dot’s vulnerability amid the richer, prettier girls is just aching— represents what else I enjoyed in the collection: tragicomic writing centered in the everyday. Daily life struggles made both buffoonish and noble.

“Fleur,” too, is another wonderfully compelling story, with a brilliantly drawn, strong warrior-like female character, clashing with every man she encounters. Also mesmerizing is “Saint Marie” (from which the opening excerpt is taken), a wondrous, scathing, bittersweet account of a reservation girl’s desire for Catholic enlightenment, which pits convent life and its nuns against reservation values and beliefs.

In “History of the Puyats,” Erdrich serves us grittier fare, while maintaining her lyricism and fine storytelling, even offering dollops of humor in the first part. The story takes a dark turn, however, culminating in loss of life, followed by the systematic emotional destruction of a young girl and her mother. Elegantly rendered, it nonetheless became a struggle to finish. Was the story metaphorical of the struggles of the Native American? Was I getting a cultural lesson? Most likely, yes. The story’s violence shifts from the plight of the characters to that of the buffalo, in a scene of carnage foretelling their demise as a species, a slaughter of 800. The surviving buffalos linger at the site long afterward, grieving, eventually charging, trampling the carcasses.

“The buffalo were taking leave of the earth and all they loved, said the old chiefs and hunters after years had passed and they could tell what split their hearts. The buffalo went crazy with grief to see the end of things. Like us, they saw the end of things and like many of us, many today, they did not care to live. What does that tell you about the great pain of the end of things that lives in every family, here on the reservation? The daughter was, of course, the warped result of all that twisted her mother. She was the hope, the poison, what came next, beyond the end of things. She was the residue of what occurred when some of our grief-mad people trampled their children. And so the history of the Puyats is the history of the end of things. It is bound up in despair and the red beasts’ lust for self-slaughter, an act the priests call suicide, which our people rarely practiced until now.”

Do I recommend this collection? Certainly. Buy it, however. No chance of borrowing it from the library and reading it in a short period of time. It’s just too dense. It’s like a vat of chocolate mousse. Each bite is exquisite, but when you’re only halfway done, you start feeling a little queasy from too much stimulus, too much intensity, much of it uncomfortable, unsettling—which, of course, is the literary fiction writer’s goal. You have to pause, switch to nonfiction or some fluff commercial fiction to ease the tension in your head before you can go back for more. But when you do return—wow. There are no clunkers in this collection. This is pure, unadulterated, quality fiction.

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