Louise Erdrich – “The Years of My Birth” from The New Yorker 1/10/2011

I enjoyed this, and simultaneously felt manipulated by it. It’s very confusing. But fact is, I couldn’t stop reading, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since, so it must’ve worked on some level.

There are many wonderful images and lines here. The narrator relates the tale of her own birth, how she was a surprise twin. Her mother decides not to have her saved, except it is, as the nurse says, too late, and she survives but is abandoned. A Native American janitor takes charge of her – why is not explained, only that she does – and remolds her misshapen head and later her deformed legs until she is almost “normal.” This opening section is wonderful. Welfare staffers try to take her away from the family that has claimed her and putting her in “a white room”, at least twice, but they do not succeed, and Linda, aka Tuffy, grows up in some semblance of happiness, if a somewhat lonely-seeming happiness from the reader’s point of view. Her childhood happiness is best evidenced by her reading of a book about a man who was institutionalized at birth, and who relates his memory of having been held once. Linda says, “I don’t remember being held as something special. Which tells me that I must have been held so often that the sensation became part of me, inseparable from my memory of the world.” She acknowledges things were not always perfect, but she developed a close bond with her sister as they grew up and remained in her almost-adoptive parents’ home.

The present time of the story, and we arrive there about halfway through, shows us Linda at 50, when she is contacted by her birth mother. A lot is made of the term “birth mother” and “mother” and it’s interesting, how it seems inconsistent, a barometer, perhaps, of how she feels towards the woman, but it doesn’t quite work that way. Names in general are interesting in this story. Her twin brother, Linden, was bestowed his name because it was an old family name. She was named Linda simply because it matched his name. Her adoptive sister is Sheryl, and her adoptive brother marries a woman named Cheryl. She has a dog, as she did growing up, but she never calls the dog by name. There’s no great pattern here, but names are not throwaways.

Her experience with her birth mother, then with her lost twin, and her understanding of the mysterious doppelganger she has sensed from time to time in her life since the “white rooms” of her early childhood, make up the second part of the story, and here is where I begin to feel a little jerked around. Maybe because birth mom is jerking her around. Maybe because birth twin brother is such an ass. Maybe this just is the way it is, and I’m reacting to the unfairness of life etc., and it is not a flaw at all. But there’s something a little overly planned towards the end of the story, leading us towards first one sentimental possibility, then withdrawing and going in another sentimental direction, no, not that either, let’s see what happens over here. It isn’t that it’s bad, it just made me suspicious that maybe this isn’t a truly great story. But maybe it is so well done, it’s gotten to me at a visceral level that I can’t even define. I’m not sure. But the language works and there’s enough that’s wonderful to recommend it.

eta: I just read the author interview in The New Yorker; one of the comments particularly interested me as a writer:

The presence could be a neglected spirit helper; it could be a projection of Linda’s need; it could be the shadowy emanation of a lost twin; it could be the thoughts of her dog. As the writer, I leave these decisions for the reader.

I love to let the reader read. I’m so glad to see a writer in The New Yorker does the same thing!

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