The Red Convertible

This collection of short pieces by Louise Erdrich is a rich sampler of her writing at its best.

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When reading for pleasure, I don’t usually choose short stories. I’ve got exceptions, such as Flannery O’Connor, Jhumpa Lahiri, Angela Carter, and, of course, Alice Munro. But often, it doesn’t seem like there are enough pages for me to fully sink inside a tale. That’s not a problem with Louise Erdrich’s gloriously fat new collection of short stories, The Red Convertible.

At a hair under 500 pages, it’s stuffed with 30 years’ worth of Erdrich’s gorgeous prose. And her fictional town of Argus, N.D., and its environs is so detailed, you could walk for days without finding the backs of the sets.

Presented in chronological order (you can tell how much real time has passed by noting when “Chippewa” changes to “Ojibwe”), most of the stories will be familiar to fans. More than half are excerpted from Erdrich’s novels, and the names are old friends.

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The Nanapush, Kashpaw, and Pillager families jostle and squabble, but there’s enough room in the anthology for everyone to get their say. By my count, her earliest novels, “Love Medicine” and “The Beet Queen,” get the most representation, with five stories culled from each.

Last year’s “A Plague of Doves” gets only one, but it’s a particularly good one. Shamengwa was one of my favorite characters, and rereading the story of how he acquired his violin was no hardship.

There are six stories that have never before been published, but they make up less than 80 pages of the total. Now, this could strike some as cheating (probably the purists who sniff scornfully when a band puts out a greatest hits album).

But here’s the thing: A lot of us plebians liked listening to those albums (before MP3 players rendered them quaint). And when you’re dealing with a writer like Erdrich, you’re talking about a lot of hits.

The stories range from athletic feats – a former trapeze artist rescuing her daughter from a fire in “The Leap” – to acts of grace that get a little boost from magic, such as the US soldier who rescues a baby from a massacre in “Father’s Milk.”

Erdrich is perhaps best known as a creator and chronicler of native American fables, and “Father’s Milk” is an excellent example of her talents in magic realism. She also excels at the haunting first sentence: “The first time she drowned in the cold and glassy waters of Lake Turcot, Fleur Pillager was only a girl.”

But Erdrich never lets the air get too thin. “The Red Convertible” is also populated with tall tales such as “Le Mooz,” in which a hunt turns into a summertime sleigh ride, thanks to laziness and some unfortunately placed fishhooks; and “The Gravitron,” which made me laugh so hard, I woke my family. And while male characters are occasionally swallowed up by the ground, sometimes the supernatural has a pragmatic side, such as the ugly reality behind a teenage girl’s “stigmata” in “Saint Marie.”

Whether Ojibwe or white, Erdrich’s women have broad shoulders and impressive stomach muscles. And most of them need this strength, since, as one character remarks, “Life is just bad timing to begin with.”
These women can turn even the most domestic task into an act of war. Take an expectant mother in “Scales”: “She knit viciously, jerking the yarn around her thumb until the tip whitened, pulling each stitch so tightly that the little garments she finished stood up by themselves like miniature suits of mail.”

The men – unless they’re predators – tend to be bemused fast-talkers who can’t quite figure out either life or women.

“Time was rushing around me like water around a big wet rock,” explains Nector Kashpaw in “The Plunge of the Brave.” “The only difference is, I was not as durable as stones. Very quickly I would be smoothed away.”

Money evaporates before it can be spent, new cars inevitably get wrecked, and land is swiped out from under those tending it. Faith offers some promise, but religion’s role is more suspect. (The Roman Catholic church and its long missionary history plays a role in several stories.) Romantic love offers temporary respite, if at all.

Despite the fact that I’d read many of the stories before, they all still compelled attention – no mean feat for a 500-page book. If you’ve never encountered Erdrich before, the anthology offers readers an insider’s tour of Argus.

For those who have read her novels, “The Red Convertible” will hold few surprises, but many pleasures.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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