Dakota Datebook

Karen Louise Erdrich, Author

Monday, June 7, 2004

Today is the 50th birthday of Karen Louise Erdrich, one of the most uniquely gifted writers in the country and one of the finest to emerge from North Dakota. She is the oldest of six children. Her German-American father and French-Ojibwe mother taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Wahpeton, and her father often recited poetry to his children.

Erdrich is a tribal member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, of which her maternal grandfather was once a tribal chairman. Like renowned visual artist, Fritz Scholder, also from Wahpeton, Erdrich found that her mixed-blood heritage provided her with a unique artistic style. In a Harper’s Bazarre interview, she said, “To be of mixed blood is a great gift for a writer. I have one foot on tribal lands and one foot in middle-class life.”

In an interview for Writer’s Digest, she said, “People in (Native American) families make everything into a story… People just sit and the stories start coming, one after another. I suppose that when you grow up constantly hearing the stories rise, break, and fall, it gets into you somehow,” she continued. “My father used to give me a nickel for every story I wrote, and my mother wove strips of construction paper together and stapled them into book covers. So at an early age I felt myself to be a published author earning substantial royalties.”

In 1972, Erdrich became a student at Dartmouth College just as it was going co-ed. After she graduated, she came back to North Dakota for three years, then got her masters degree at Johns Hopkins University. She also married one of her former Dartmouth professors, Michael Dorris, who had three adopted children. In 1984, she published her first book of poetry, Jacklight, but when she tried to publish her first novel, Love Medicine, she received nothing but rejections. When Dorris posed as her agent and resubmitted the manuscript, it was published. Ironically, it was a phenomenal success and received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for Fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

In her early years, Erdrich supported herself in many ways. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, she said, “I ended up taking some really crazy jobs, and I’m glad I did.

They turned out to have been very useful experiences, although I never would have believed it at the time.”

In addition to working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, she was also a lifeguard, a poetry teacher in prisons, and a construction flag signaler. She was also an editor for Circle, a Boston Indian Council newspaper. “Settling into that job,” she said, “and becoming comfortable with an urban community – which is very different from the reservation community – gave me another reference point. There were lots of people with mixed blood, lots of people who had their own confusions. I realized that this was part of my life – it wasn’t something that I was making up – and that it was something I wanted to write about.”

Since then, Erdrich has published poetry, children’s books and eight highly acclaimed novels. She has earned a long list of awards, including a nomination for the 2001 National Book Award for The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. Her stories are almost entirely set in North Dakota and deal with Native characters. But, her latest novel, The Master Butcher’s Singing Club, placed in the fictional town of Argus, is the first in which she explores her German roots. Like all of her works, it’s a must-read.

Erdrich and Dorris had three children together and later separated. Dorris died in 1997. Erdrich now lives with her children in Minneapolis, where they run a bookstore called Birchbark.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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