Instant Classic: The Red Convertible

Review of Louise Erdrich’s "The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories, 1978-2008."

Reviewed by Roxana Robinson
(Photo: Bryan McCay)

The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories, 1978-2008 by Louise Erdrich (Harper Collins) Native American author Louise Erdrich appeared on the literary scene in the early 1980s with a new Midwest: one inhabited by Ojibwas and Crees from Minnesota and North Dakota. In The Red Convertible, her collection of 36 stories — nuggets previously published in novels and magazines, as well as recently finished gems — Erdrich revisits the Great Plains and its powerful, passionate people. Some of these stories take place in the 19th century (when tribes were forced to move West), others in modern times, on reservations. Families familiar to her readers (the Nanapushes, Kashpaws, and Pillagers) show up in these dreamlike retellings of her community’s history.In the mythic "olden times" stories, fantastic things happen that cannot be explained. The powerful Fleur Pillager, for example, drowns twice, but survives: "Men stayed clear of Fleur Pillager after the second drowning. Even though she was good-looking, nobody dared to court her because it was clear that Misshepeshu, the water man, the monster, wanted her for himself." In "The Antelope Wife," the narrator falls in love with a beautiful woman who shape-shifts into a wild animal. He adores her anyway: "I’ll do anything for her. Anything except let her go." Erdrich’s vision cannot be contained by logic, but the magical events she relates are undeniably human.Other stories highlight characters caught in the cultural trap of belonging both to the present and to an ancient society that has little significance in contemporary America. These people lead hardscrabble lives — jobs are scarce, drink swallows men up, and white people are always a problem. Erdrich illuminates her dark world with people who are funny, capable, and smart, even though their futures look dim, and with prose that is strong and graceful: A woman’s hair is "dark as heaven, with roan highlights…waves deep as currents, a river of scented night fall." A farmer who is plowing "caressed his field in round after round of woven furrows."Erdrich’s meticulous observation of this world and her clear-eyed view of its past and present combine to deliver a unique collection of narratives. We are indebted to Erdrich: With her, we mourn the passing of the Native American world, and we are grateful to find its history written so eloquently.Buy the book at Roxana Robinson is a novelist and short-story writer. Her most recent book is Cost.Originally published in MORE magazine, December 2008/January 2009.

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