From wavering steps, great grace emerges
Louise Erdrich is an immensely satisfying storyteller who molds her novels from the clay of her short fiction. In the preface to “The Red Convertible,” a collection of her new and selected stories, Erdrich writes that these pieces later “gather force and weight and complexity” to generate whole books, woven densely as tapestries.
This anthology returns 30 of those stories, which eventually became parts of 11 novels, to their original, unentangled forms. The book also includes six other stories, some of which are being published for the first time.
Like Faulkner, Erdrich has created a fictional community -- an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota -- from which her work can unfold.
Her stories stretch back 100 years or more and venture as far away as New Hampshire, looping elliptically, intersecting through a priest, a place, a hidden parentage. But where her novels develop these relationships, “The Red Convertible,” in dislodging the stories, creates a new arc between them.
Not that newcomers to Erdrich’s work will need to brush up -- in fact, they’ll find this a welcoming and thorough introduction. The writing here appears, roughly, in order of publication; the book opens with the title story, a tale of two brothers whose tragedy is cushioned by lyricism and grace.
No matter who narrates these stories -- many characters speak in the first person -- there is an underlying generosity. Describing Nestor, a recurring character, in “The World’s Greatest Fishermen,” Erdrich tells us: “There were moments I could almost envy his winter, for his loss of memory was protective, absolving him of the past, and he lived calmly now without guilt or desolation. When he thought of June, for instance, she was young. She fed him wild plums. That was the way she would always be for him. His great-grandson, Delmar Junior, was happy because he hadn’t yet acquired a memory. Grandpa’s happiness lay in losing his.”
How melancholy the above passage would be without the wild plums, a typically beautiful Erdrich detail. Her stories are as forgiving as Grandpa Nestor, yet they have what he has lost: memory.
Many of these stories take place over decades; the long view allows time to dissipate wrongs, to cast hate as pettiness, to find poetry in pain. Love, however, remains powerful.
Nestor’s father, Nanapush, marries Margaret; their story “Le Mooz” is positively giddy, a slapstick moose chase with randy old folks and rumbling bowls. “The Leap” is a fable in which a trapeze-artist mom saves her daughter from a burning building.
And in “Father’s Milk,” a soldier leaves a raid on an Ojibwe village and rescues a baby sent away on the back of a dog. He raises the little girl, finding that, on the verge of starving, she is able to survive by nursing from him.
The girl’s mother, in turn, nurses a puppy and raises it as a companion. Years later, after walking an impossible distance to retrieve her child, the woman must sacrifice the dog to feed her. “Steam rises,” Erdrich writes, “the fragrance of the meat is faintly sweet. Quietly, she gestures to her daughter. Prods the cracked oval pads off the cooked paws. Offers them to her.”
In other hands -- say, Cormac McCarthy’s -- this tale would be brutal, barren. But Erdrich doesn’t emphasize the desperation. She finds grace in action, using the gentlest of language: “quiet,” “fragrance,” “sweet,” “faintly,” “offers.”
The handful of newer stories in “The Red Convertible,” several of which are set in the present, seem lighted, in contrast, by fluorescents. In “Future Home of the Living God,” Cedar, an adult adopted daughter, discovers she’s pregnant and tracks down her birth mother to find a dull suburban home and a drug-using, goth half-sister.
This may seem a strange fit, given the otherness of Erdrich’s reservation stories, but in the end it feels like a natural extension of her orbit. The tender storytelling is still there. Crying, Cedar thinks, “I have accidentally tampered with and entered some huge place. I do not know what giant lives in this vast and future home.”
What longtime Erdrich readers will find is a slight reconfiguring of familiar narratives. “Naked Woman Playing Chopin,” for instance -- pulled from the 2001 novel “The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse” -- separates the characters of Agnes and Father Damien; he appears in other stories but as a marginal figure. Such small changes allow “The Red Convertible” to have its own clear path.
More important, the collection showcases an evolution in storytelling. The earliest works are loose-jointed, a bit oblique; we’re not sure why characters act the way they do. In the first-person narratives, individual motivations are explored, building connective tissue. Then there are jaunts of fable and allegory.
Finally, a full-fledged omniscience opens, as the storyteller’s wisdom finds a place on the page.
Kellogg is lead blogger for Jacket Copy, The Times’ book blog.