Louise, Lise and Heid Erdrich -- sisters first, writers second -- look back on their parents' hand in fostering a shared love of language.
Sisters curdling with hatred, envy and jealousy abound in literature: Psyche's spiteful siblings, King Lear's jockeying progeny, Cinderella's gleeful tormentors -- just to name a few.
But literary sisters Louise, Liselotte (Lise) and Heid Erdrich -- all published authors with varying degrees of honor, praise and glory -- betray no such sentiments.
"Ribaldry, maybe, but no rivalry," said Lise, the middle sister, who loves to crack wise. "We enjoy taking salacious interest in one another's love lives and teasing about our different dysfunctions."
Even novelist Louise, with her considerable canon, inspires no envy in her sisters.
Said Heid, who has two collections of poetry and a third coming soon: "[Louise's success] just made me think that it was possible to write, that it wouldn't be a crazy or silly thing to do, that it would be something that might be taken seriously."
Said Lise, whose short stories have been widely anthologized and whose first collection is just out: "They [Louise and Heid] have taken all the pressure off me so that I can continue to be a slacker and a goofball."
How did three gifted literary writers come from the same family?
"A genetic tic," said Lise.
But push the sisters to reflect on this question, and a moving, uncommon portrait of American family life emerges.
The sisters were born to Rita and Ralph Erdrich and raised in Wahpeton, N.D. Both parents, now in their 80s, were boarding-school teachers for the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe. (Dad is German, mom Ojibwe.)
To hear the parents tell it, the Erdrich children seemed to absorb knowledge while their backs were turned, like those ferns that live on air. "They were all self-motivated," Ralph said. "There really was no 'strategy,'" Rita said. But the sisters remember their parents' clever hand in fostering reading, writing and language skills.
Rita designed flashcards and affixed them to objects in the house: "couch," "television," "refrigerator" -- even one for her friend "Bernice." With her Pfaff sewing machine, she made colorful zig-zag bindings on folded pieces of paper, "books" that the children would write in and illustrate. She still has one, Rita said, written by Heid:
"Horses and dogs are the best and loveleyest in all the world," it begins, with a dedication to her friend Carla Sims. ("Hmm ... already she knew she should dedicate," Rita said.)
A nickel a poem
Besides Louise, 53, of Minneapolis; Lise, 46, of Wahpeton, and Heid, 44, of Minneapolis, the couple have four other children: Mark, of San Diego, a pharmacist; Louis, of Bemidji, an Indian Health Service engineer, woodworker, winemaker and beer brewer; Ralph David, of Sisseton, S.D., an Indian Health Service nurse manager, and Angie, also of Sisseton, an Indian Health Service pediatrician. Louise is the oldest, Angie the youngest.
With seven mouths to feed, Rita and Ralph did not have many books in the house, but they took their children on frequent trips to the library. And the few odd books that were at home made a deep imprint. There were botanicals, copies of "Animal Farm," "Marjorie Morningstar" and, perhaps most important, "A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner" (who lived among the Ojibwe from age 10, beginning in 1790), which the children mined for evidence of their Ojibwe forebears.
Ralph committed to memory and recited to his children the poems of Robert Frost, Robert W. Service, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Alfred Lord Tennyson. He'd pay the kids a nickel for each poem they memorized. "He just gave me a roll of nickels last summer," said Louise, "all buffalo heads." He apparently thought he was in arrears, she said.
Both parents were precise namers of things. On their outdoor excursions, the children learned to distinguish the birds (bluebirds, tree swallows, nighthawks, blue jays, woodpeckers and finches), plants (juneberries, chokecherries, wild asparagus, wild plums), mushrooms (elm caps, inky caps, shaggy manes) and the endless variety of apples cultivated on the nearby Wodarz farm (Haralson, Duchess, Prairie Spy, Chestnut Crab, Rome, Lodi, McIntosh, Cortland, Wealthy).
In doing this, said Louise, "my parents gave us an appreciation for the richness of the language, especially in relation to the natural world."
With two teachers as parents, a high value was placed on education.
The three writer sisters hold a total of at least eight higher-education degrees: Louise from Dartmouth and Moorhead State (English and creative writing), Lise from the University of North Dakota and Mankato State (linguistics, community health and chemical-dependency counseling) and Heid from Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins (English and native studies). Loans, wages, scholarships and help from Mom and Dad got them through.
The education of the Erdrich children continued after they left home, in the form of letters from Mom and Dad. Rita's letters were newsy, full of recipes and "fun and practical advice," said Louise. Ralph's were witty, anecdotal and intelligent. To Louise at Dartmouth, he wrote:
Your mother is making every sort of apple concoction known to man with the eleven tons of apples I harvested. She finds time for all of this because you left clothes behind. She only has to slightly alter those duds for your sister Lise who is rapidly becoming the best dressed eighth grader of all time as she inherits your ex wardrobe. Our house is steeped in apple juice and attracts half a million bees from all parts of the county. The insides of our compost cans have the fattest ants in all of entomological history. These critters have achieved their corpulent state as the result of the presence of apple crap -- peelings and such -- which comes from the extra time Mom has -- which she got because she sews less -- which is because Lise gets your duds. See how your going to college has upset the balance of nature?
Magnum est vectigal parsimonia. [Thrift is a great revenue.]
And again to Louise, when she was studying in London in 1976:
We did appreciate the description of the death-obsessed poets in London. Stay away from them. Have you ever read the entire unexpurgated "Song of Hiawatha"? Longfellow employs eight-syllable trochaic verse. Before television, radio, and movies, before the telegraph, telephones, and the Battle of Little Big Horn, Hiawatha was a smash. Every literate and semi-literate on the face of the earth knew Hiawatha. These were the days to have been a poet. Longfellow became wealthy. Imagine that! A wealthy poet! When you mail things from London, use commemorative stamps, why don't you?
Magnum est vectigal parsimonia.
The sisters' maternal grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, a truck farmer and council member for the Turtle Mountain Band, also encouraged a love of language. Lise remembers that he always carried a notebook and pen in his shirt pocket and that he would record any intriguing word, encounter or occurrence. When she was teaching herself Ojibwe, Lise found that she had acquired a sizable vocabulary but lacked a way of putting sentences together. She'd send practice tapes to her grandfather, who in turn would offer suggestions and corrections. She was just 10 years old.
"He was overjoyed that I wanted to learn Ojibwe," she said.
With these familial gifts, both artistic and spiritual, the three sisters have moved ahead, through tragedies and successes. Today they have rich, full lives, as do their siblings.
Louise has just finished a new novel, "The Plague of Doves" (her 12th for adults), to be published in April. Her four daughters are doing well: One is showing promise as a writer in Hollywood, another is working at Birchbark Books (the Minneapolis bookshop owned by Louise) and two others are in school.
Louise admires Lise's "wildly marvelous" stories and Heid's "fierce" poems. More than the writing, she treasures her sisters' friendship and support: "As the oldest, I suppose I had to make a lot of the mistakes. ... When I've gotten in over my head, they've been there."
Lise, who has four grown sons, is taking time off as a community health worker to write a "geographical memoir" with the help of a grant from the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation. She feeds her sons, her sons' friends and their friends casseroles and souffles that are as inventive as her prose. The only rule in the house: "Don't take the Tater Tots off the top."
She's pleased to be getting her short stories published, but she's not looking forward to the attention. She deflects all praise: "Heid was kind enough to call me a 'savant' once, but she left off the word 'idiot.'" She's happy, very happy, that when she Googles herself now, the search engine no longer asks, "Did you mean: Louise Erdrich?"
Heid, who has two young children, has left her post as an English professor at the University of St. Thomas and is curating art shows at Ancient Traders Gallery in Minneapolis. Her new book of poems, "National Monuments," is inspired by a question: Why is it all right, in the Western world, to display the bones of indigenous peoples? She admits to tiny moments of exasperation with her hard-to-organize sisters.
"We are all bears," she said, "but I am the snuffly brown kind who will come out of hibernation for peanuts. Louise is a wild black Makwa who shies away from humans and who has not tasted garbage. Lise is a flat-out grizzly who guards her young and can take down prey with one swift swipe of her mighty paw.
"We'll never not be sisters. We have a beautiful, shared history."
Sarah T. Williams is the Star Tribune books editor.