In an earlier post, I noted that one of Louise Erdrich’s trademarks is her sense of humor—the way she weaves bits of broad comedy into a larger fabric that tends more often to the sad or tragic. In this post, I want to note another Erdrich trademark: her use of multiple perspectives to tell her stories. To be sure, I have not read all of her works. In the ones I have, though, I’ve noticed that she prefer to tell stories from the perspective of a community rather than of an individual.
In her first published book Love Medicine, Erdrich tells us the story of two families: the Kashpaws and the Lamartines. She does so in fourteen stories that can stand alone as separate works, but that also connect together to work as a novel. The stories focus on different characters and are told from different points of view, such as Albertine Johnson, Marie Kashpaw, Nector Kashpaw, Lulu Lamartine, and so forth. Sometimes the stories are told from a third person limited perspective (such as “Crown of Thorns”). Others are told from the first person perspective (such as “Saint Marie”). This switch in perspectives allows readers to understand the characters more broadly. For example, most people in the community think of Lulu Lamartine as a promiscuous woman who has no emotional attachments. She sees herself differently, though, as she tells us in “The Good Tears.” She notes that
“They used to say Lulu Lamartine was like a cat, loving no one, only purring to get what she wanted. But that’s not true. I was in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms. Sometimes I’d look out on my yard and the green leaves would be glowing. I’d see the oil slick on the wing of a grackle. I’d hear the wind rushing, rolling, like the far-off sound of waterfalls. Then I’d open my mouth wide, my ears wide, my heart, and I’d let everything inside.”
What others see as a lack of love, she sees as an overabundance of love.
In her novel Tracks, Erdrich continues with multiple narrators, although the chapters do not necessarily stand on their own as stories. Pauline and Nanapush alternate telling the story, which features the character Fleur. (Interestingly, Fleur is not given her own voice.) In The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, the story is told mostly from Agnes/Father Damien’s perspective, but other viewpoints are interspersed frequently, especially Nanpush’s.
The Roundhouse is told from one point of view—that of the thirteen year old narrator, Joe. Yet even in this case, other voices enter into the novel in the form of storytelling told by the characters. Mooshum, an elderly man, sometimes talks in his sleep. Rather than talking nonsense, however, he tells coherent stories taken from his tribe’s oral traditions. These stories help the readers understand the history and cultural beliefs of the Ojibwe from the perspective of an elder—something Joe would not be able to provide on his own.
Erdrich’s reliance on multiple voices, multiple stories suggests that her interest is less in a single individual than on the relationships among a whole community. She is suggesting that we cannot understand an individual character unless we also understand the community in which he/she lives and the history from which he/she comes. Despite the American ethic of rugged individualism, we are all part of a larger fabric which helps to shape who we are, whether we like it or not.
Question: What might be some of the drawbacks of writing from multiple points of view?