January 06, 2009

Erdrich's books are All-American

Selected and New Stories 1978-2008
By Louise Erdrich
496 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99

Last fall, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, the group that hands out the Nobel Prize in Literature, disparaged American letters, saying our fiction was “too isolated, too insular” and “too sensitive to trends” in our own “mass culture” (in short, too American) to matter much to the wider world. But it’s the very Americanness of our literature—the hybrid nature of our national makeup, the variety and breadth of our landscape, our mania for self-invention and reinvention—that captured the international imagination at a time when most readers could never visit the country they dreamed about. It still does today.

Americanness needs no apology; it’s the strength of our letters. And few of our contemporary writers exemplify its adaptive vitality better than Louise Erdrich, herself descended from the first Americans (her mother was part Chippewa, part French, and her grandmother was a tribal chairwoman) and from German immigrants. The author of some two dozen books for adults and children, Erdrich is also a wondrous short story writer. In “The Red Convertible,” she gathers 36 stories, 26 previously published, together creating a keepsake of the American experience. Like the painted drum in her story of that name, this collection can be considered “a living thing,” an emblem of the universe—“exquisitely sensitive for so powerful an instrument.”
Comment:  For more on the subject, see The Three Erdrich Sisters and The Best Indian Books.

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