Louise Erdrich | Critical Review by Mark Childress

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Louise Erdrich.
This section contains 1,076 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Mark Childress

Critical Review by Mark Childress

SOURCE: "A Gathering of Widows," in New York Times, May 12, 1996, p. 10.

In the following review, Childress praises Erdrich's storytelling and characterization in Tales of Burning Love.

Louise Erdrich is attracted by the miraculous possibilities of love. Romantic love, religious ecstasy, the strange mixture of devotion and misunderstanding that runs through families—all are steeped together. The result is a rich and fragrant infusion.

Tales of Burning Love is her sixth novel (including The Crown of Columbus, written with her husband, Michael Dorris). The publisher says this book "extends the boundaries of her literary vision," but any reader familiar with Love Medicine and The Beet Queen will recognize the characters and settings. Once again we are firmly placed in the bleakly beautiful landscape surrounding Argus, N.D. Once again many of the characters are Native Americans with a fading connection to the reservation, confused Roman Catholics on the lookout for miracles, lonely women searching for that thing called love.

In this case, the male component of that thing is Jack Mauser, a lapsed Chippewa who marries five times in 13 years—four times for love and once as a result of booze, painkillers and a horrible toothache. The story opens in 1981 with that toothache, which has put Jack into such a state that he takes up with the first woman he sees in the Rigger Bar. The attending clergyman is on the next bar stool. The wedding rings are the pop-tops from two cans of beer.

When his new bride wanders out drunkenly into a blizzard, Jack—who can't quite remember her name—lets her go. After the blizzard has lifted, she is found frozen against a fence post, "her hair loaded with melting stars. No one had touched her yet. Her face was complex in its expectations. A fist of air punched Jack to earth and he knelt before her with his hands outstretched."

The guilt of that moment will haunt Jack through each of his subsequent liaisons. He's an impulse marrier, operating on the "if at first you don't succeed" principle, trying and failing, then trying again. Unlike Elizabeth Taylor, though, Jack seems to get luckier as his marital career goes along.

Wife No. 2 is Eleanor, a writer and teacher, a quivering bundle of erotic emotion and neurotic opinion. The third is Candice, a blond and beautiful dentist: "With her stiff pink-white mask covering the lower half of her face, she was a mysterious priestess." Fourth in the line is Marlis, a blunt-spoken, dreamy-eyed vixen in the Ally Sheedy, mature-beyond-her-years mode. Jack's last wife is solid, responsible Dot, an accountant at his failing construction company, as brusque and unfancy as her name.

Jack Mauser is the thread binding these women's stories. Each of them has loved him in a different way, and each of their marriages to him has failed for its own reasons. At first, the structure of Tales of Burning Love seems as shaggy and chaotic as something from Chaucer. The stories pop up seemingly at random, overlapping, circling back and forth through time and crossing one another in ways that are often ingenious and only occasionally confusing.

Soon enough, though, Ms. Erdrich skillfully gathers up all these threads. Jack touches bottom. His half-completed subdivision is a failure. Drunk and alone in his unpaid-for dream house, he allows a small fire to blaze out of control when he realizes that his death—or, at least, the appearance of his death—could be a major problem solver. "Things were falling into place," he realizes, "great things, huge problems over which he had had no control now were being solved precisely because he had relinquished control and God had smiled a big hot smile on him."

God plays a major offstage role in this plot. The four Mauser widows come together the night of Jack's funeral, which also happens to be the night of another ferocious blizzard. The women become trapped in Jack's red Explorer in the middle of a snow-blasted nowhere. Shivering, munching stale candy, they spend the whole night in the car, sharing the stories of how they fell in love with Jack and why they broke up with him. The aptly named Explorer becomes "a confessional."

"Rule one," Dot proposes. "No shutting up until dawn. Rule two. Tell a true story. Rule three. The story has to be about you. Something that you've never told another soul, a story that would scorch paper, heat up the air!"

This sequence is the comic centerpiece of the novel. By the time they're all together, we know these women well, and their stories bump together to strike real comic sparks. One wife is in a post-Jack spin, having lost her job after an embarrassing sexual misadventure and gone to live in a convent, where she is studying a nun she suspects of sainthood. Two of the wives have fallen in love with each other and are caring for Jack's infant son. The remaining wife is just plain disgusted with Jack, suspecting that he married her so she couldn't be forced to testify against him.

What these women discover is that loving Jack Mauser has changed their lives in very particular ways. "It isn't entirely farfetched to say that we each married a different man," Eleanor observes. "No one of us has a quarrel with any woman in this car. No more so than if we'd all had different husbands."

They discover that one of them loved Jack more than the others—still loves him, in fact—and although it would spoil the surprise to give her away, this discovery infuses the latter parts of the novel with great poignance and charm. Miracles and possibilities come together here to produce a kind of earthly magic that is more potent than magic realism. No one emerges from the Explorer unchanged. Ms. Erdrich's saints are nearly as lively as her sinners, and that's a real achievement.

If I have a quibble with this story, it's with the man at the heart of it. Jack's wives are vivid and fully realized, and Jack is too—as long as he's at center stage. Whenever he's out of sight, though, he doesn't seem as interesting as the women who loved him. I wanted them to stop trying to explain their attraction to him and tell us more about themselves. Most of all, I wanted to hear more of Louise Erdrich's constantly inventive prose, as when she describes the surprised sound made by a gut-shot deer: "A wild laugh like a little girl on a Halloween street, running."

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This section contains 1,076 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Mark Childress
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