Louise Erdrich | Critical Review by Lawrence Thornton

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Louise Erdrich.
This section contains 1,065 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Lawrence Thornton

Critical Review by Lawrence Thornton

SOURCE: "Gambling with Their Heritage," in New York Times Book Review, January 16, 1994, p. 7.

In the following review, Thornton offers a positive appraisal of The Bingo Palace but expresses reservations about the novel's elements of magical realism.

One of the dominant motifs in the fiction of American Indian writers is the vision quest, whose goal is the integration of inner and outer being through knowledge gleaned from nature. Louise Erdrich has explored this territory in Love Medicine, The Beet Queen and Tracks, and she revisits it in her moving new novel, The Bingo Palace. Set, like the others, on the North Dakota plains, this latest book shows us a place where love, fate and chance are woven together like a braid, a world where daily life is enriched by a powerful spiritual presence.

Her story comes to us in the alternating voices of the inhabitants of the Chippewa reservation—the novel's chorus—and of Lipsha Morrissey, the central character, who is sometimes laconic, frequently passionate and, through painful experience, increasingly insightful. Presented in a counterpoint that is by turns colloquial and lyric, all these voices reveal how inescapably Lipsha's fate is inscribed within his heritage. To emphasize this connection, Ms. Erdrich begins and ends The Bingo Palace with the chorus, thus bracketing both Lipsha's good luck and his misadventures within a broader view of the world that binds the past to the present while looking uncertainly toward the future.

As the novel's title implies, gambling is a major force on the reservation; but while this may initially suggest that life there has been reduced to a game of chance, it soon becomes clear that luck, which means nothing in the world of contingency, is actually design in the realm of the spirits. Lipsha begins to learn this almost as soon as he returns to his people, quitting his job in a Fargo sugar beet factory where he has accumulated a covering of sweetness on his skin and clothes, a symbolic "seal of corrosion," separating him from his past. He has been frittering away his off hours in bars, "the tougher spots, the dealer hangouts and areas beneath the bridges where so much beyond the law gets passed hand to mouth." But when his grandmother Lulu Lamartine mails him a picture of his now-imprisoned father, Gerry Nanapush, copied from a post-office wanted poster, all this changes. Aware that the picture could foretell his own future, Lipsha goes home in search of an authentic life.

The community is "disgusted with the son of that wanted poster." Going back and forth to the city has, the chorus declares, "weakened and confused him and now he flails in a circle with his own tail in his teeth." But even though Lipsha has trouble written all over him, his uncle Lyman Lamartine offers him a job in his bingo parlor.

On his first night home, Lipsha attends the winter powwow, where he is undone by a beautiful dancer, Shawnee Ray Toose. An ambitious and kindhearted young woman intent upon winning prize money to pay for a college education, she has designed her own ceremonial "jingle dress," resplendent with beadwork and shining clackers. Struck by the elegance of her dancing, Lipsha is fascinated; his eyes "somehow stay hooked to Shawnee Ray."

The problem is that Shawnee Ray has had a child by Lyman; Lipsha's aunt Zelda Kashpaw has maneuvered them into an unofficial engagement and hopes that marriage will follow. What develops instead is a romantic rivalry between Lipsha and his uncle, which is complicated by the fact that Lyman soon becomes Lipsha's mentor, both in the world of business and that of the spirit. Even as he encourages Lipsha to invest his savings in a scheme to build a larger bingo palace on the shore of a sacred lake, Lyman takes his nephew to a healer who begins the process by which Lipsha will learn that the "bingo life" is an attraction that "has no staying power, no weight, no heart."

Ms. Erdrich's story of three decent people looking for love on a windblown prairie expands to accommodate supernatural events. The first occurs when Lipsha, wandering through the bingo parlor after hours, runs into the spirit of his dead mother, June Kashpaw, who is angry because his blue Firebird was paid for with her insurance money. In exchange for the car, June gives him a booklet of bingo tickets that will change his life.

Lipsha's magic tickets allow him to accumulate modest wealth, but he is still sick with desire. In search of love medicine to counter Lyman's hold on Shawnee Ray, he visits his great-grandmother Fleur Pillager. Their sweetly mysterious encounter loosens Lipsha's memories of his heritage and starts him on a journey toward the past. Helped by Lyman, he sets out on a spirit quest with the double motive of "getting the real old-time traditional religion" and impressing Shawnee Ray Toose.

This is a crucial turning point for Lipsha, who has misconstrued the effects of money and success. In its aftermath, he comes to understand that Lyman's scheme for the new bingo palace is leading everyone in the wrong direction: "Our reservation is not real estate, luck fades when sold."

Unfortunately, Ms. Erdrich's resolution of the conflict among Lipsha, Lyman and Shawnee Ray is subordinated to events that skew the novel's focus by turning Lipsha's quest into a wildly improbable madcap chase. For while June's appearance in the bingo parlor is a fine example of reality gracefully expanding to include the realm of the spirits, some of the novel's later ventures into magic realism seem contrived, merely artificial means of tying up strands of an overly complicated plot. Moreover, the delayed appearance of Lipsha's father, who has been little more than a mysterious presence from the opening chapter, only raises questions about this role rather than offering a satisfying resolution to an important strand in the narrative.

The Bingo Palace does, however, eventually return to its strengths, ending with a beautiful evocation of the spirit world. Part eulogy, part coda, the last few pages bind together the living and the dead in an elegiac choral voice. Here, as in most of the book, Ms. Erdrich's sympathy for her characters shines as luminously as Shawnee Ray's jingle dress. We leave this brightness aware of the complex pattern that links Lipsha, Fleur, Shawnee Ray and all the rest of the characters to both their community and their land.

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This section contains 1,065 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Lawrence Thornton
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