- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

THE RED CONVERTIBLE: SELECTED AND NEW STORIES
By Louise Erdrich
HarperCollins, $27.99, 512 pages
REVIEWED BY BRUCE ALLEN

Louise Erdrich’s own personal history as a family member, citizen and creative spirit is lucidly mirrored in the teeming world of her increasingly acclaimed fiction. And the beat goes on, in two distinguished recent additions to her oeuvre.

“The Red Convertible” is a rich, inevitably uneven, yet overall invaluable collection of the short stories that accompany, comment on and inhere in Ms. Erdrich’s 11 published novels, that portray cultural and familial collisions in and around the town of Argus, N.D., spilling over to the nearby Ojibwe (formerly Chippewa) Indian reservation, and the urban Minneapolis-St. Paul orbit, where the promise of a future may await a people too long discouraged from expecting one.

Tensions between assimilation and dispersal, reverence for ancestral lands and rape of the environment, and the penetration of the human world by animal and spirit realms characterize the roiling matrix within which Ms. Erdrich’s battling couples, overeager youngsters and (sometimes well-meaning, sometimes manipulative and greedy) outsiders mix and match, cohabit and conflict.

In a volume for which many readers have eagerly waited (though cynics may minimize its importance by declaring it an album of Ms. Erdrich’s greatest hits), we renew acquaintance with the scattered (in both senses of that word) Lamartines, Kashpaws, Morrisseys, Pillagers and other clans — first in 12 separately published stories later incorporated (slightly rewritten, we’re informed) into her first three novels: “Love Medicine” (1984), “The Beet Queen” (1986) and “Tracks” (1988).

Comedy and pathos intersect nicely in the title story, a tale of rivalry and cooperation between two brothers who strive to retain possession of a high-maintenance vehicle, and are differently transformed by their shared obsession. Strong women hold their own with stubborn men in “The World’s Greatest Fisherman” (appropriately, it’s an oft-retold tall tale); “Knives,” in which the loss of a girl’s virginity empowers her progress toward maturity; and “Fleur,” a vivid chronicle of the emotionless hell raised by “healer” (and reputed witch) Fleur Pillager, feared by all who know her and desired by men who ought to know better.

Other stories related explicitly to Ms. Erdrich’s novels include “Tales of Burning Love” and “The Antelope Wife,” each a distillation of the novel of the same title. The former is a Chaucerian gathering of wives’ (and mistresses’) remembrances of chronically unfaithful construction worker Jack Mauser; the latter is a gorgeous mythic tale that moves backward and forward in time, dramatizing the tragic incompatibility of Ojibwe and white cultures. Ms. Erdrich probably couldn’t resist including also a self-contained excerpt from her 2003 novel “The Painted Drum.” And this reviewer wouldn’t have wanted her to omit “Shamenga,” a superb dark comedy (from “The Plague of Doves,” 2008) which tells the just-so story of how a self-taught Ojibwe musicmaker acquired his beloved violin.

Stories we haven’t seen in other incarnations vary considerably in interest and excellence. A handful are essentially vignettes: A grandmother’s tale of her amorous dalliance with Satan (“The Fat Man’s Race”); a different take on the complicated psyche of serial womanizer Jack Mauser, hounded by guilt for disappointing his spirited (current) wife and exploiting his uncle’s beloved farmland (“The Crest”); a long-suffering teenage daughter’s observations of her 40-year-old mother’s impulsive love affair (“The Gravitron”) and the story of a last buffalo hunt envisioned as “the end of things” for a defiantly traditional family (“History of the Puyats”).

More substantial, albeit similarly brief, are stories depicting doting mother Celestine’s struggle (in “The Dress”) to make her tomboy daughter a bit more feminine, abetted by the surprising outcome of a school rivalry; and another of the several marital misadventures of petty criminal and virtually resident jailbird Gerry Nanapush (“A Wedge of Shade”). The tale of young good-for-nothing Lipsha Morrissey’s unlikely acquisition of a coveted grand prize (“The Bingo Van”) turns unhappy when neither that delight nor long-delayed sexual gratification can make a man of him. Even better is the wonderful “stretcher” (as Mark Twain called them) of a tale that transforms the incorrigible Gerry Nanapush’s courtship of truculent Margaret Kashpaw into a very devil of a wild ride (“Le Mooz”).

I would further recommend to readers not yet conversant with the sheer range and breadth of Ms. Erdrich’s fictional world (often, and justly compared with William Faulkner’s seminal Yoknapatawpha County) two somewhat uncharacteristic stories. “Pounding the Dog” traces the complicated relationships between Ojibwes and European-American immigrants who are transforming the old territories into hotbeds of industry and commerce, as a female butcher shop owner keeps a stoical vigil with a former childhood friend, herself a blank slate of submission to her fate. And in “Sainte-Marie” (from “Love Medicine”), an adolescent girl burdened with what may or may nt be a religious vocation, becomes both the protege and antagonist of a missionary nun determined to protect her from “the Dark One,” all the while bullying and tormenting the girl. It’s a powerful crystallization of the relations between Ojibwes and the priesthood of those who mean nothing but good, yet may unthinkingly alter and compromise an ancient, pristine and proud way of life.

How all these characters and concerns flow into and away from one another, and the consequences for a perpetually changing world: This is the dynamic that powers Louise Erdrich’s brilliant and necessary fiction. She has herself (in the story “Riven Road”) given the ultimate definition of its texture: “In the woods, … what grows best does so at the expense of what’s beneath.” Natural process, cyclical change and decay and change — and, as their consequence, survival and endurance. Also of interest: The forthcoming paperback edition of Ms. Erdrich’s “The Plague of Doves.” Two narrators — half-breeds Evelina Harp and Judge Antone Coutts — tell the tangled stories of how their two families were afffected by a horrific crime (based on a historical incident), in which five members of a white farming family were slaughtered, and four Ojibwes, falsely accused of the crime, were hanged by a lynch mob. Revelation follows revelation with virtuoso pacing and stunning power, as Ms. Erdrich once again demonstrates the stabbing truth of Faulkner’s great aphorism: “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”

Bruce Allen reviews literary fiction and nonfiction for Kirkus Reviews, the Sewanee Review and other publications. He lives in Kittery, Maine.

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