June 7, 1954 Award-winning novelist Louise Erdrich is born on this day in Little Falls, Minnesota.
Erdrich’s Native American heritage became a dominant theme in her novels, which explored the lives of American Indian families. Her grandfather was tribal chairman for the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, and Erdrich was raised in the nearby town of Wahpeton, where her parents taught at a boarding school for Native American children run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Erdrich took a B.A. at Dartmouth College, where she met her future husband, Michael Dorris, who was also part Native American, descended from Modoc Indians from Kentucky. She earned her master’s degree at Johns Hopkins. At various times, she worked as a field hand, a highway construction worker, a waitress, a lifeguard, and the editor of a paper for Native Americans in Boston. She and Dorris married and adopted three children. They later had three of their own as well, and struggled to support their growing family until Erdrich won the prestigious Nelson Algren fiction prize in 1982, with an award of $5,000. The award-winning story grew into her first novel, Love Medicine (1984), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Erdrich’s subsequent books, including The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), The Bingo Palace (1994), and Tales of Burning Love (1996), were critical and popular successes. Meanwhile, Dorris’ writing was also winning awards and gaining recognition.
The pair, who dedicated all their books to each other, seemed the perfect literary couple until Dorris committed suicide in 1997. Dorris was about to be indicted for sexually and physically abusing their children. Erdrich had secretly been separated from Dorris for more than a year at the time of his death.
Her 1998 novel The Antelope Wife features a deteriorating marriage and a husband who slides into drunkenness and self-pity before shooting himself. In the book’s dedication, she was careful to make it clear that the subject matter was not based on Dorris’ life. It read, “This book was written before the death of my husband.”
Many of Erdrich’s later works–including The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003), The Plague of Doves (2008), and Shadow Tag (2010)–draw on her multiethnic background and address issues of family, community, and history. The Plague of Doves was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009.