BASS 2016: Louise Erdrich, “The Flower” from TNY, 6/29/15

TNY art by Gray318

TNY art by Gray318 (detail)

Outside an isolated Ojibwe country trading post in the year 1839, Mink was making an incessant racket. She wanted what Mackinnon had, trader’s milk—a mixture of raw distilled spirits, rum, red pepper, and tobacco. She had bawled and screeched her way to possession of a keg before. The noise pared at Mackinnon’s nerves, but he wouldn’t beat her into silence. Mink was from a family of powerful healers. She had been the beautiful daughter of Shingobii, a supplier of rich furs. She had also been the beautiful wife of Mashkiig, until he destroyed her face and stabbed her younger brothers to death. Their eleven-year-old daughter huddled with her now, under the same greasy blanket, trying to hide. Inside the post, Mackinnon’s clerk, Wolfred Roberts, had swathed his head in a fox pelt to muffle the sound, fastening the desiccated paws beneath his chin. He wrote in an elegant, sloping hand, three items between lines. Out there in the bush, they were always afraid of running out of paper.

~ Story available online at The New Yorker

I’m always interested in how a writer decides on names, particularly who gets a name, and who doesn’t. Here, it isn’t really a writer’s choice. Of course everything that happens in a story is the writer’s choice, but in this piece, Erdrich has chosen to leave the choice to the eleven-year-old daughter of Mink, who chooses to keep her name to herself even as she and Wolfred forge a bond of those alone against the world. The third time he asks, “[s]he laughed, not wanting him to own her, and drew a flower.”

Of the characters introduced in that first paragraph, the story comes down to the two children, Wolfred and the girl, who save each other and escape the adults who have betrayed them in unspeakable ways.

It’s peculiar how kids often miss an abusive parent, and this girl is no exception; her loneliness for the mother who sold her into sexual slavery for a few days’ worth of booze permeates the story. I think it’s deeper than the loss of a parent: she loses her culture, her entire way of life, when Mink dies. Wolfred, himself only 17, becomes her protector – and later, in a beautiful display of loyalty, her patient – but he can’t make up for the loss. In fact, his misinterpretation of the flower underlines the gulf between them: she can’t imagine why anyone would be named after a flower, a thing that dies.

She brings her culture along in some ways: her mother’s drum, a dog who joins them as they escape from the store where Wolfred murdered MacKinnon, her nighttime flights over the treetops, the healing skills she’s picked up from her family. But the dangers of the adult world cannot be left behind so easily:

Mackinnon’s head, rolling laboriously over the snow, its hair on fire, flames cheerfully flickering. Sometimes it banged into a tree and whimpered. Sometimes it propelled itself along with its tongue, its slight stump of neck, or its comically paddling ears. Sometimes it whizzed along for a few feet, then quit, sobbing in frustration at its awkward, interminable progress.

I very much like this semi-fantastical element, particularly as it’s presented: both she and Wolfred see it, so it becomes more real than some flight of fancy or a hallucination. While the head is the embodiment of rage and they flee from it in fear, I would guess it represents different things to each of them. To her it’s the white world trying to own her; to him, it’s the guilt of having murdered someone, even though violence was his only choice.

But they are not alone in the world, and eventually, they must re-enter. For Wolfred, this is probably a good thing, but the girl will lose more of herself when she’s put into a school where the idea is to drain her of everything Indian, to make her acceptable in the white world:

At the school, everything was taken from her. Losing her mother’s drum was like losing Mink all over again. At night, she asked the drum to fly back to her again. But there was no answer. She soon learned how to fall asleep. Or let the part of myself they call hateful fall asleep, she thought. But that was all of herself. Her whole being was Anishinaabe. She was Illusion. She was Mirage. Ombanitemagad. Or what they called her now—Indian. As in, Do not speak Indian, when she had been speaking her own language. It was hard to divide off parts of herself and let them go. At night, she flew up through the ceiling and soared as she had been taught. She stored pieces of her being in the tops of the trees. She’d retrieve them later, when the bells stopped.

The last sentence of the story is quite pointed, but in general I found the end to be unsatisfying, leaving the story unresolved in a way that feels unfinished rather than a projection into the future. I seem to be noticing endings a lot these days. In her Page Turner interview, Erdrich does cite a forthcoming novel, LaRose (published this past summer), but tells us this story does not appear in this form though its elements are scattered throughout. I’m curious: does that mean one of the girl’s descendents is a character in the novel? Or did she become a cultural icon as an adult? How did her story get carried forward? In any case, I’m glad it did.

BASS 2015: Louise Erdrich, “The Big Cat” from The New Yorker, 3/31/14

The women in my wife’s family all snored, and when we visited for the holidays every winter I got no sleep. Elida’s three sisters and their bombproof husbands loved to gather at her parents’ house in Golden Valley, an inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis. The house was less than twenty years old, but the sly tricks of the contractor were evident in every sagging sill, skewed jamb, cracked plaster wall, tilted handrail, and, most significantly, in the general lack of insulation that caused the outer walls to ice up and the inside to resound.

~~ Available online (thank you, New Yorker)

The stories in BASS are, and always have been, arranged alphabetically; there’s no element of choice here, no grouping of themes or variation of style as in Pushcart. Yet I seem to be noticing, this year, a relationship between nearby stories. The narrative structure of “The Siege at Whale Cay” and “Happy Endings”; the opposite extremes of language in “Siege” and “Bride”. And now, after commenting on “Bride”‘s slow transfiguration from realism to something else, I see that at work here as well – a story that, while firmly rooted in domestic realism througout, gives a nod to the horrific surreal at the very end – and it’s only afterwards I took seriously the subtle warning signs.

One scene in particular seemed to leap out at me, though I couldn’t identify why:

When Valery turned twelve, I was cast in a supporting role in a movie that got a lot of attention. It could have been my fabled break. But Elida suddenly panicked over how unhappy Valery was in high school and decided that the schools in Minneapolis were more nurturing. We moved back. I had to accept the fact that my film career was over. I’d worked steadily and spoken a line or two, given many a meaningful glance, tripped villains, sucker-punched heroes, spilled coffee on or danced around movie stars in revolving doors. I had appeared in dozens of films, TV episodes, commercials. But Elida hadn’t been doing well, and both of us got better, more reliable jobs back home.

How does the writing work: that “suddenly” dropped in there, the vagueness of the complaint leading to the move, the casual acceptance on the protagonist’s part, perhaps did double duty to underscore, yet try to breeze over, this event. I thought maybe I was being paranoid, drawing too much on my own experience, when this screamed “Sabotage!” to me. But the manipulation became clearer as the story moved on, and other incidents piled up.

And what’s more, I think the narrator realized he was being played as well; he just refused to take notice, perhaps because then he’d have to acknowledge his participation in events it’s much easier to pretend to be an innocent victim. Take the moment when the two exes are caught having an affair by their daughter, and the narrator realizes: “You can live with a person, have an affair with a person, and still suddenly see an unfamiliar flash, like the belly of a fish in the shallows, there and gone.” I’ve had those moments, sort of like one of those perception puzzles where two profiles suddenly become a vase. Everything changes. But the narrator’s awareness is ephemeral,just like a 60’s sitcom, where insight only lasts for the last moments of a 30-minute episode, and next week, everybody’s ready to make the same mistakes over again to the same laugh track.

Prior to the ending, the closest the narrator comes to incorporating his awareness is in viewing a film, made by his wife, of all the bit parts he’s played. It’s quite a metaphor, isn’t it: to see our lives played out, not chronologically but narratively, to see the development of our souls, to see the future in the past. Skilled writing gives the section its power: it’s not easy to convey a film viewing experience in pages, but Erdrich does a great job. I know exactly what that film looked like, and I know exactly how the narrator felt, viewing it – the second time. Because the first time, he, guess what, just let it go by him. Insight doesn’t come easily to this guy. Until the last sentences. But I have confidence: when he wakes up, he’ll be back in denial until the next time.

Though I’m not particularly drawn to domestic realism, no matter how acutely observed and sensitively expressed, I found this story compelling as the unnamed narrator, a successful if unknown bit-part actor turned non-profit admin, weaves his way through life. I had to know what would happen next. Oddly, I forgot the title (I try to keep titles in mind as I read), so was completely surprised when the big cat turned up in the final sentences.

Erdrich’s TNY interview provides some interesting insight into process: she didn’t write the ending as much as it wrote her. Fortunately, she showed more insight than her narrator, and kept every skin-crawling word.

Louise Erdrich: “Nero” from The New Yorker, May 7, 2012

New Yorker photo by Birthe Piontek: "Front Yard"

New Yorker photo by Birthe Piontek: “Front Yard”

As I looked into his eyes, which were the same brownish gold as mine, I had my first sensation of self-awareness. I realized that my human body, my human life, was arbitrary. I could have been a dog. An exhilarating sadness gripped me, and I felt the first intimations of sympathy for another form of creation, for Nero, who had to eat guts from an old pie tin.

Girl meets guard dog. Girl looks in dog’s eyes and realizes girl could have been dog. Girl is sad.

Girl’s grandfather, with whom girl is living for a few weeks while girl’s mom has baby, is tough old coot and grocery-store-butcher-shop-slaughterhouse owner who establishes tough-cootness and disappears from story:

[My grandfather] slept behind a locked door with my grandmother on one side of him and a loaded gun on the other. This was not a place where a child got up at night to ask for a glass of water.

Girl’s grandmother is likewise tough old bird who hands girl pie plate of offal to feed dog and leaves her with valuable life advice: “Throw down the guts if he rushes you.”

Who’s left? Uncle Jurgen, who slaughters the animals by wrestling them into submission, letting them struggle and wear themselves out until he can slit their throats with the precision needed to collect the blood for blood sausage.

Hmmm. You might not want to read this story over lunch.

Uncle Jurgen’s also in a perpetual struggle with Nero – who works as guard dog at night in the store – building the fence in the back yard higher and higher to keep Nero from escaping. But Nero keeps trying to run away during the day because he’s in love with Mitts.

Oh, yeah, Mitts. Priscilla owns Mitts, a vicious little cocker spaniel who bites anyone within reach. Priscilla breeds to a “papered stud” once a year so she can sell the puppies.

Nobody knew if Mitts preferred Lord Keith to Nero, because she bit every dog and person within her reach. Priscilla, with her bandaged fingers, often had to cope with Nero’s longing, but she never called the city dogcatcher.

Priscilla is the bookkeeper at the store-butchershop-slaughterhouse. At twenty-five, she still lives with her saloon-keeper father, who insists on fighting all of her beaux when they start to show more than casual interest. She’s been ok with this since no one’s really grabbed her fancy… until now. She and Uncle Jurgen are getting serious, as we used to say back when “hooked up” described telephones, not relationships.

Girl goes to visit Priscilla:

When Priscilla answered the door, Mitts barked viciously and darted for my ankle, but Priscilla elegantly kicked her dog down the hall with the pointed toe of her shoe. Mitts rolled, skidded, and trotted sullenly before us into the kitchen. She slumped in her pillowed corner, glowering as only a cocker spaniel can glower, while Priscilla sat me at the table and warmed some sugared milk with a bit of coffee in a small blue pan. She also made me cinnamon toast.

One of the charms of this story (which I did like, in spite of my half-assed way of discussing it) is that the lines between people and animals keeps getting blurred. I kept thinking Priscilla was slumped and glowering, and I’m still not sure who the warm sugared milk with coffee –today we’d call it latte – was for.

Another thing I like about this story: it’s told in first person from the girl’s point of view, but from the vantage point of the future, when all the lessons have been digested and the import of it all has been realized. We’re never told exactly how these events affected the girl, but they must be significant to her. This piece started as a memoir – the visit, the grandparents, the store, the dog, the realization, are all real; the skinny uncle and Priscilla, along with her dog and her father, are fictional.

The actual plot of the story – that above is all just background, see? – starts when Mr. Gamrod insists on his traditional fight with Uncle Jurgen if he wants Priscilla’s hand. Gamrod is the odds-on favorite, since he bounces drunks regularly and Jurgen is a scrawny little thing.

During the fight, the little girl remembers a traveling animal show that visited her school once. It’s the sort of thing no principal would allow today – bringing pythons and tarantulas into an elementary school auditorium, god, the liability – and it’s kind of a hilarious scene, in a Northern Plains Keystone Kops way. The python escapes and squeezes the presenter, the tarantula goes flying “like a flailing discus,” and all hell breaks loose. This is the image the little girl remembers as Uncle Jurgen fights Mr. Gamrod just like he slaughters animals – without the throat slit, of course.

Mr. Gamrod is changed by the experience:

Mr. Gamrod could not stop talking about his trip to the other world….how in the clutch of Jurgen’s limbs he had died and come to life again. He had not walked into the light. He had not seen Jesus. The only way he could explain it was to say that he had been suspended in a timeless present that held the key to…something. He’d felt his arm pound the earth just as he was about to grasp the meaning of it. A few days later, he realized he was no longer afraid. After death he would understand the answers to questions that in life he couldn’t even put into words. Aside from this new assurance, Mr. Gamrod didn’t seem much changed.

I like the change that doesn’t seem to be a change, as though Gamrod is deflecting his shock at losing by any means available.

As Uncle Jurgen wins his right to Priscilla, he comes up with a plan to keep Nero penned: he puts electrified wire around the top of the now-eight-foot fence. I like that, too: his freedom, and Nero’s, come to an end at the same time. Except he’s giving his up voluntarily.

Now it’s time for the little girl to go home, but on a family visit six months later, she finds Nero in bad shape. He now lives in a chicken coop and has broken his teeth on an iron cauldron. He’s useless for guard dog duty, but the store has an electric security system now. Eventually Uncle Jurgen and the little girl take him out in the back woods and shoot him.

It’s a little off-kilter, this story. You know how sometimes the sound track and picture are a little out of sync on a tv show or movie – not much, just a microsecond, and everything just seems off though you can’t clearly see the lips are moving before the sound? That’s a little like what it is. The humor doesn’t quite come off. In fact, it took a while to realize there was humor. Everyone has their realization, but the realizations aren’t united; they aren’t the same, of course, because that would be corny, but they just seem… disjointed. Like refracted light.

Erdrich explains some of this in her Book Bench interview with editor Deborah Treisman:

You probably read more short stories than anyone else on earth, so you know the rules. If a person gets romantic justice in the story, the dog must suffer, or vice versa.

I did not know there was a Rule of Balanced Romantic Justice for Dogs and People. But it makes sense there would be. Too much parallelism would be Lifetime Movie territory.

I get the “Call of the Wild” thing about confinement, freedom, breaking. Do they really work together, though? The story reads heavy to me – almost ponderous – in places where it should be lively and fun. I’m all for the rule of opposites in fiction – treat the trivial seriously and the serious lightly, balance out content and tone – but somehow it doesn’t quite work for me here. It’s worth a read, though. Just not over lunch.

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!