Giving voice to a people

The Baltimore Sun

The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories 1978-2008

By Louise Erdrich

HarperCollins / 494 pages / $27.99

Louise Erdrich's first story collection, The Red Convertible, may make you wonder why the Pulitzer judges have not yet awarded her the prize for fiction.

This all-you-can-read buffet of stories, some well-known and some never before published, as well as versions of material from three of her 12 novels, represents her work spanning the past 30 years.

It is a magnificent feast.

Erdrich, whose mother is French and Anishinaabe (Ojibwe/Chippewa) and whose father is German American, sets her tales largely in North Dakota and Minnesota, on reservations and in small towns and the Twin Cities. Much as Toni Morrison is the acclaimed voice of African-American women, Erdrich is the chronicler of Great Plains Native American tribes, their white neighbors and their mixed-heritage offspring.

Ranging back to the ancient peoples and forward to the present day, she weaves history and irony, bawdiness and spirituality, humor and violence into an endlessly unfolding narrative, as these 36 stories demonstrate.

Laced with words from native dialects - meaning can be guessed, but a pronunciation guide would have been welcome - the book presents work from stories preceding her first novel, Love Medicine, to "The Fat Man's Race," which The New Yorker ran in November.

Her admirers will enjoy re-encountering sly Gerry Nanapush, resolute Margaret Kashpaw, feral Fleur Pillager and restless Jack Mauser, among others. A genealogical tree of her characters would spread its branches over many pages.

There is uniformly fine work in these stories, but some stand out.

The pain and pleasure of love is an undercurrent in much of Erdrich's work, and she evokes with equal ease lyrical romance and raw animal coupling.

Passion of a warped nature is explored in "Saint Marie," in which a would-be novice and a domineering nun are locked in a dance of shocking abuse. Memorably linked religious, musical and physical ecstasy - and brutal violence - is at the mysterious heart of "Naked Woman Playing Chopin." In "The Gravitron," the narrator is 40 - at "the fulcrum of society, the sawhorse beneath the seesaw of young and old people"- and watching as her mother, long beached on the shore of single life, is once again swept into the emotional rapids.

Love in much later years - along with some explosively undercooked beans and a tough old moose - enliven the ribald "Le Mooz," full of racy humor up to its tender finale.

"Hasta Namaste, Baby" is about two kinds of sexual betrayal and the imperfect bargain one man makes with the future to ensure some peace in the present.

"A Father's Milk" is Erdrich at her lyrical, mystical best. Here Fox, a repentant cavalry soldier, saves an infant girl after he helps massacre her tribe and miraculously nurses the starving child:

"It seemed, when he held her close upon his heart as women did, that the child grew angry with longing and desperately clung, rooted with its mouth, roared in frustration, until at last, moved to near insanity, Fox opened his shirt and put her to his nipple." The girl will later find her true mother, her true tribe. She moves on. The story remains with you.

The Red Convertible is a door into Erdrich's complex world, welcoming old friends and newcomers alike. Don't hesitate to step inside.

Carole Goldberg, a former books editor at The Hartford Courant, is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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