Louise Erdrich | Critical Review by Sue Halpern

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Louise Erdrich.
This section contains 830 words
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Critical Review by Sue Halpern

SOURCE: "Mother's Day," in New York Time Book Review, April 16, 1995, p. 14.

In the following review, Halpern praises The Blue Jay's Dance for its realistic portrayal of early motherhood.

I recently saw an ad for an instructional CD-ROM on "parenting, prenatal to preschool" whose contents I could only imagine: sage advice from professionals and video clips of children whose exemplary behavior—so different from one's own child's—sells the sequel. Louise Erdrich's first book of nonfiction, The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year, which is about being a parent, is nothing like that. Aside from a few recipes (lemon meringue pie, fennel and chicory salad, anise apples) and bits of painfully gained wisdom (when dealing with a screaming, colicky baby, "I use my most soothing tone of voice to call her names. The tone helps her, the words help me"), the book is delightfully impractical. It is a narrative, not a manual.

Ms. Erdrich is not only a successful novelist; she is a successful novelist who is also the mother of young children. In the past she shielded her family life from public scrutiny—allowing the press to interview her only away from her New Hampshire home, for instance, and purposefully declining to talk about her life there. Her marriage to the writer Michael Dorris was well known, and so was the fact that Ms. Erdrich and Mr. Dorris had six children, three of them adopted. The oldest of these, Abel, who died in 1991 after being hit by a car, was the subject of Mr. Dorris's harrowing book about fetal alcohol syndrome, The Broken Cord.

Ms. Erdrich's reticence to invite the news media into her kitchen was so unusual that it fanned a small mystery about her. "How does she do it with all those kids?" people—especially women, especially women with babies—asked one another as the novels Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, Tracks, The Bingo Palace and The Crown of Columbus (co-written with Mr. Dorris) were published to critical acclaim.

The Blue Jay's Dance might be expected to answer that question. "I finished this book for our daughters because I hope these pages will claim for them and for others, too, what it is to be a parent—an experience shattering, ridiculous, earthbound, deeply warm, rich, profound," she writes in the introduction. That said, she then steps back. "The baby described is a combination of our three babies whom I nursed and cared for in a series of writing offices. I do not name our children, and if I refer to them obliquely sometimes, I hope that readers will forgive. After all, these words will one day add to our daughters' memories, which are really theirs alone."

It is a hard task, writing a book that attempts to be public and private at the same time, to tell all in essence and not in fact; the writer's ambivalence is always apparent. In this case, though, Ms. Erdrich's ambivalence inspires trust. After all, she is protecting her children not only from our prurience but from her own, and this alone suggests that she is the kind of mother whose story should be told. But then she doesn't tell it, not directly. Instead she tells what her story has taught her, and what she was thinking about, seeing and feeling, while it was unfolding.

Ms. Erdrich writes lovingly of the woods around her house and the child she carries with her on her walks, and about the blue jays and ducks and woodchucks they encounter there. The book is a ramble, and sometimes the reader is tempted to stray from Ms. Erdrich—when she celebrates her husband's thick hair, for instance, or when she chronicles all the adventures of the neighborhood cats. But no matter where she is roaming, and what she is writing about, she is observant, tender and honest. And she is not afraid to write about the mind-numbing 3 A.M. despair of new motherhood, just as she is not given to forgetting that her beloved cats have claws. Of one's offspring, she says: "We cannot choose who our children are, or what they will be—by nature they inspire a helpless love, wholly delicious, also capable of delivering startling pain."

This is not an original insight, but then having babies and raising them is not exactly new, either. What makes The Blue Jay's Dance worth reading is that it quietly places a mother's love and nurturance amid her love for the natural world and suggests, passage by passage, how right that placement is. When the birth year is over, and Ms. Erdrich hands her young daughter over to a baby sitter in order to be able to continue doing her other creative work, we glimpse the mechanics of her writing life. But it is in the months before that, as Ms. Erdrich sits in her office stroking her baby with one hand and holding a pen with the other, that we begin to understand how connected, and how necessary, the left hand is to the right.

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This section contains 830 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Sue Halpern
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