INTERVIEW / Indian tales, and a nickel for the birds: Marianne Brace meets the remarkable and prolific American novelist Louise Erdrich

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The Independent Culture
For Louise Erdrich, 'People who grow up on reservations always have a very grounded sense of home. I'm still not home unless I'm on the Great Plains, it's very much a part of me.' In Erdrich's four novels set in North Dakota, that feeling of location is as important to the native Americans and mixed-bloods who live there.

Love Medicine, Erdrich's award- winning debut novel, begins with June Kashpaw preparing to trudge the many miles home, across fields deep in snow. She doesn't make it and her death haunts the book. Erdrich's new novel, The Bingo Palace (Flamingo, pounds 14.99), kicks off with a return which echoes the first. June's son Lipsha drives back to the reservation in the car bought with her death policy money. 'Going home is never so simple as one thinks.'

Part of the pleasure in reading Erdrich's powerful tetralogy is finding cross-references and explanations for things which happened books ago. It will be made all the easier when Love Medicine, The Beet Queen and Tracks are reissued this month.

The softly-spoken Erdrich enjoys cult status in the USA and is often compared to Toni Morrison. But the novelist whose preoccupations she mirrors is William Faulkner, and Erdrich says, 'I'm sure I've been much influenced.' Both draw a portrait of a dispossessed community. Both depict 'the sense of a lost heritage, of dwindled power and pride'. Southerners see themselves as the American aristocracy, while 'native Americans feel themselves the landlords at the country'.

Erdrich's novels may look back, but they are rooted in modern America. Her Indians wear surfer shirts and jeans, chill out to Jimi Hendrix and dream of owning a van with a blue plush steering wheel and diamond side windows. Within Erdrich's lyrical narrative there's humour too. Traditional windigos and witches abound, but ghosts drive sports cars and pass on magic in bingo tickets.

The eldest of seven children, Erdrich is part German, part Turtle Mountain Chippewa. Her maternal grandfather ('a fascinating storyteller and wonderful powwow dancer') was Tribal Chairman on the reservation in North Dakota where they spoke Michif - an odd mixture of 18th century French, Cree and Ojibwa. Much of Erdrich's childhood was spent visiting members of her family. 'I'm a classifiable introvert but grew up as a listener.' Raised in a town, unable to speak Ojibwa, Erdrich had 'the perspective and distance to write about the reservation.'

As a girl, Erdrich composed passionate stories about saving birds - earning a nickel for each one from her schoolteacher father. Later she was among the first women to be admitted to Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, which was founded for native Americans. Here she joined the Native American Studies programme run by Michael Dorris, who is of Modoc origin. They married, and now have five children.

'I couldn't find anything I was good at until I started writing,' says Erdrich. (She has worked variously as a short order cook, lifeguard, waitress, popcorn seller, hoer of sugar beet and mental asylum aide.) 'It occurred to me I could make sense of the mixture of my background and had an unusual chance to talk about things that concern native Americans.'

A series of stories fell into a pattern. They became the bestseller, Love Medicine, which introduces us to the Lamartine and Kashpaw families. The book is full of pain - a Vietnam vet commits suicide through despair, a husband drives his car into a train - but alcoholism is the chief enemy.

'There was a time when I felt the draw myself, so I identify with the pain that it can cause. In a spirtual culture where dreaming was of the highest order, where you had respect for altered states of mind, alcohol stepped into that cultural vacuum. When everything was taken from the Indians, it was a way of forgetting what had happened.'

But there are survivors too: Lulu Lamartine with eight sons by as many fathers, and Nanapush, witness to more change in 50 years than 'in a hundred upon a hundred before.' There's the schemer, Lyman, and the dreamer, Lipsha, and Fleur Pillager, a healer destined to live forever despite drowning twice.

For Erdrich, her characters 'exist before I get to them'. She adds, 'I really have in mind a lot of books. Only in the past year did I figure out that I'm writing one long, long novel. I know a lot of the things that are going to happen down the line.'

This has allowed Erdrich to revise Love Medicine, which she always felt had gaps. It now appears with four new chapters salvaged from her 'compost heap of old material'. They bring the book closer still to The Bingo Palace. For example, in one new chapter, Lyman sees what must be done: 'They gave you worthless land . . . then they chopped it out from under your feet. They took your kids away and stuffed the English language in their mouth. . . They sold you booze . . . and then told you not to drink. It was time . . . Indians smartened up . . . He saw the future, and it was based on greed and luck.'

The Bingo Palace, says Erdrich, 'has to do with an economic freak'. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of the Eighties brought casinos to the reservations. Some get rich, others get robbed. In The Bingo Palace the wily Lyman intends to build his gambling paradise on sacred land.

Historically the land has been central to Indian anguish. 'Native people didn't have a sense of ownership. A person's heritage was bound up in experience on the land.' Alongside it, however, 'There's always been a spiritual search, a religious impulse in the settlement of the US, from the Puritans on. This epic quest is to find home, but one that includes a grounded spirituality. What seems so ironic and tragic is the blindness with which the settlement occurred. In American culture right now, there's a real surge of New Age spirituality. Unfortunately it comes off as another kind of colonisation.'

Against the old traditional magic, there's now the magic of bingo. The palace is 'decked with bands of Christmas tree lights and traveling neon disks that wink and flicker, it comes at you across the flat dim land like a Disney setup, like a circus show, a spaceship, a constellation that's collapsed'. It's phoney, of course - in reality being a factory-like hut full of dents and rips and litter.

But The Bingo Palace is surprisingly upbeat. Gambling seems 'to stand in for the kind of risks people take in love. And The Bingo Palace is a book about desire, and what makes people lose or gain.' However shaky, there is a future, for which gambling is the metaphor. And for the dispossessed, buffeted and raw, 'there seems to be this chance, this wild hope'.

(Photograph omitted)