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Louise Erdrich: Secrets in the Indian file

Her acclaimed fiction remembers the drama and tragedy of the Native American past. Louise Erdrich's latest novel, she tells John Freeman, is about memory itself

Of all the fictional hamlets American writers have planted, from William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County to Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, the most complex, luminous place yet might be a little town called Argus, North Dakota. Since she first introduced the town in Love Medicine (1984), Louise Erdrich has gone back to it continually, conjuring the reservation it abuts, the love affairs which bolt down through the generations, the tensions that simmer between French-Canadians, Catholics and the native Ojibwe Indians and their competing notions of God. It is amazing someone hasn't accidentally drawn up a rough guide.

So perhaps it is just a palpable sense of relief radiating off her at New York City's Penn Station on a rainy mid-morning in May. Erdrich has swung through town to talk about her latest novel, The Plague of Doves (HarperPerennial, £7.99), her first book in a while to spin out of Argus into new characters and territory. The enormous timeline Erdrich keeps in tandem with Trent Duffy, her copy editor, did not have to be checked for inadvertent errors. Nor did she have to worry about veering off course from a main character's biography. She simply had to tell the story – or as she likes to put it, wait for it to come.

"I knew this particular incident was going to be part of it," she says. "I just didn't know how I was going to approach it." The incident Erdrich refers to was a brutal one. On 13 November 1897, a mob of 40 men broke into a North Dakota jail and lynched three American Indians – two young boys (one of whom was named Paul Holy Track) and a grown man – who were among a group being tried for the murders of six members of a white family. The Plague of Doves brilliantly reimagines this event, bringing to life an entire fictional North Dakota community and tracking how the crime filters down through subsequent generations.

At the mouth of this tale's river is Mooshum, an Ojibwe grandfather who was to be hung, but survived in part due to his own mixed heritage. Mooshum tells his version of the events to his granddaughter, Evalina Harp, when she becomes infatuated with a teacher who is, as it turns out, descended from one of the men responsible for the killing. "I could not look at anyone in quite the same way anymore," Evalina concludes. Later in the book she discovers the genealogy of this killing extends all the way to the man she loves.

As in all of Erdrich's books, revenge is a theme – but a complicated one, as families involved in the hanging intermarry. Memory is a battleground. The tribal members keep the story alive through folklore; the whites try to pretend it never happened. "In the beginning, the whites had all the power," Erdrich says, "but as one reviewer put it: The Indians have the history." Her deft handling of this tension has earned her high praise across the US. "Her most deeply affecting work yet," wrote the New York Times's famously hard-to-please critic Michiko Kakutani, while Philip Roth hailed a "dazzling masterpiece".

Shuttling between these various modes of storytelling, of remembering, has been Erdrich's life's work – on and off the page. Her father Ralph, who according to family lore was born in a tornado, is German-American; her mother, Rita, is French and Ojibwe. Erdrich was born Karen Louise in Little Falls, Minnesota and grew up with six siblings in Wahpeton, North Dakota, a town of around 9,000 where her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs School. One of the only books in the house was A Narrative of Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner, the tale of a man who lived with the Ojibwe in the late 1700s.

The Erdrichs – regarded as the town eccentrics – were rigorous teachers. Ralph encouraged his children to memorise the poems of Frost, Tennyson, Robert Service and Longfellow, paying them a nickel for every poem they could recite. Not surprisingly, two other Erdrichs are writers – Lise, a children's author, and Heid, the author of three poetry collections. Erdrich has published three collections of verse, and four children's books. "I lived a very sheltered childhood, a very sweet childhood," she says. "We used to go for walks outdoors. I spent a lot of time around animals. I grew up without television."

She also spent a lot of time around storytellers. Throughout her work, including in The Plague of Doves, elder figures form the bedrock of stories. They are the long memory against which current action often plays out. "I was lucky to have grandparents around," Erdrich says – she listened to their stories, and asked questions, something she continues to do when she drives to North Dakota, stopping off beside the road to write down ideas. There is a comically literal character in The Plague of Doves who constantly badgers Mooshum and his siblings for "the real story," to get the timeline of events straight. I ask Erdrich if she ever feels like this woman and she shoots back, "all the time," though this doesn't seem to bother her. "I still feel like I listen more than I tell."

This engagement with the past and her Ojibwe roots is shot through every aspect of Erdrich's life. She left the plains in the 1970s for Dartmouth University, the Ivy League school founded in the 1760s for the education of Native Americans in the New England area. It was here that she met her future husband, Michael Dorris, fiction writer and anthropologist. Erdrich had returned as a writer in residence after earning a master's in creative writing. Dorris heard her read her poetry and was intrigued. They communicated by letter while he did fieldwork in New Zealand and she began to publish. She supported herself working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and as a construction flag signaller.

The two married in 1981, and began a working relationship that lasted over a decade. Dorris encouraged her to work on fiction, and even posed as her agent when Love Medicine was turned down by many publishers. The book, which still marks her as the youngest ever fiction winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, sold 400,000 hardcover copies. She became a minor celebrity, and was named one of People's Most Beautiful People in 1990. But there would be no flame-out. Love Medicine was the start of a tetralogy that included The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), and The Bingo Palace (1994). With Dorris she published Route Two (1990) and The Crown of Columbus, (1991). They separated and were in divorce proceedings when Dorris committed suicide in spring 1997.

Erdrich has been guarded with the press ever since, but her books have not slowed down. Any criticism that she was dependent upon Dorris's input come up against the wall of what she has produced since then – six novels for adults, one of which, The Last Report on the Miracles of Little No Horse (2001), was a National Book Award finalist; three novels for children, one of which, The Birchbark House (1999) was a finalist for the National Book Award; a collection of poems and a non-fiction work on books and islands in Ojibwe Country. She also founded Birchbark Books, a non-profit bookstore in Minneapolis, raised four daughters, continued learning the Ojibwe language, which she feared was being erased, and taught workshops on Turtle Mountain with her sister Heid.

This activity would not give you the sense that Erdrich is willing to wait. But in person she is quiet and self-effacing. She called upon these qualities as she waited for The Plague of Doves, which has been with her since the early 1980s as she worked on other books. The voices of the main characters – a college graduate, a judge, a grandfather and a doctor – came over time, at odd moments, their story in shards. "I can't quite know I'm making a book," Erdrich says. "I really don't know where [the voices] come from. I just feel like I get to take down what they're telling me."

At times, Erdrich can sound closer to a medium than a fiction writer. But she is keen to deflect that impression. "A voice that is going to take over a story is someone you will have prepared for quite some time," she says. And in 25 years of publishing, these characters have taught her how cruel the world can be. "It's against my nature to believe how evil people can be," she says. "I didn't see cruelty a lot growing up. When it became apparent that the world was different from what I had known as a child, it took me a long time to understand it." It would seem, with The Plague of Doves, there is no confusion any more.

Biography: Louise Erdrich

Born in 1954, Louise Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, with six siblings. Her German-American father and her mother, half French and half Ojibwe, were teachers. She studied at Dartmouth University, where she later met her husband, the anthropologist and writer Michael Dorris. He was the agent for her first novel, Love Medicine (1984), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Subsequent books include fiction (The Beet Queen, 1986), children's books (The Birchbark House, 1999) and poetry (Original Fire, 2003). During their divorce, Dorris committed suicide in 1997. Since then Erdrich has founded and started Birchbark Books, raised four daughters and taught writing workshops. Her latest novel is The Plague of Doves (HarperPerennial).