Places of the Heart

Sometimes how we feel about a book—or how a book makes us feel—can depend on where we are when we read it.  I first read Louise Erdrich, who will be in Santa Cruz next week to discuss her latest novel, when I was living in France.  One fall afternoon I bicycled to the outskirts of Bordeaux and settled myself in a small park overlooking a lake.  I sat on the grass, took off my shoes, and leaned against a tree.  I remember that the bark was gray and soft and the trunk was wide and sloped just right, as if it had been designed for the purpose of providing shelter and support.  It was my second year of teaching English in France, and that year I had decided to be a student myself and take an American Lit class at the university.  Love Medicine, Erdrich’s first novel, was our first assignment.  I opened the book, and this is what I read:

The morning before Easter Sunday, June Kashpaw was walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota, killing time before the noon bus arrived that would take her home.  She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved.  Probably it was the way she moved, easy as a young girl on slim hard legs, that caught the eye of the man who rapped at her from inside the window of the Rigger Bar.  He looked familiar, like a lot of people looked familiar to her.  She had seen so many come and go.  He hooked his arm, inviting her to enter, and she did so without hesitation, thinking only that she might tip down one or two with him and then get her bags to meet the bus.  She wanted, at least, to see if she actually knew him.  Even through the watery glass she could see that he wasn’t all that old and that his chest was thickly padded in dark red nylon and expensive down.

This was the first paragraph, occupying the first page of the novel.  But instead of turning the page I put the book down, overwhelmed with too many feelings to name.  I remember how I stared at the lake for a long time, thinking of home, not just my home but also a larger, rougher, American home.  I was dimly aware of unspecified longings in my heart which these sentences pressed upon in a way that, at twenty-five, I was too young to understand.  She had seen so many come and go.  We are barely into the first paragraph, and already Erdrich has generated a atmosphere suffused with loss, an atmosphere that is raw and tender and most of all, to my eyes then and now, real.

Years later, sitting on another patch of grass, I was reading another Erdrich novel.  I had just finished a weekend workshop at Esalen, in Big Sur, and was enjoying some time on the Great Lawn which overlooks the Pacific Ocean.  The book in my hands was The Plague of Doves.  A chapter called “Sister Godzilla,” about a nun whose deformed jaw looks like “a great raw-boned jackal’s muzzle” and causes her students to openly mock her, ends like this:

There was no place to look but my teacher.  But when I lifted my eyes, this time, Sister Mary Anita was not looking at me.  She had turned her face away, her rough cheek blotched as if it bore a slap, her gaze hooded and set low.  Sister walked to the window, back turned against me, against the class, and as the laughter started, uncomfortable and groaning at first, then shriller, fuller, becoming its own animal, I felt an unrecoverable tenderness boil up and rise around my ears.  Inwardly, I begged Mary Anita to turn and stop the noise.  But Sister did not.  She let it wash across us both without mercy.  I lost sight of her unspeakable profile as she looked out onto the yard.  Bathed in brilliant light, her face went blank as a sheet of paper, as the sky, featureless as all things which enter heaven.

It was while reading Plague of Doves that day at Esalen, under a brilliant blue sky, the sea also deep blue, its surface whitely shredded by the wind, that it occurred to me Louise Erdrich just might be my favorite living author.  I can’t think of another writer whose storytelling is as rooted in the deep earth of living while reaching out for spirit.  Her sentences are pathways to those places of the heart I can usually only access through music, or nature, or lovemaking, or grief, or prayer.

At the end of the first chapter of Love Medicine, June Kashpaw has gone with the man from the bar, has let him groan his body against hers in his car and now has pulled herself together and left him and is walking through the snow.  Earlier, while still at the bar, in the ladies room, “she was afraid to bump into anything because her skin felt hard and brittle, and she knew it was possible, in this condition, to fall apart at the slightest touch . . . But as she sat there, something happened . . . She felt that underneath it all her body was pure and naked—only the skins were stiff and old.”  This is how the chapter ends:

Even when it started to snow she did not lose her sense of direction.  Her feet grew numb, but she did not worry about the distance.  The heavy winds couldn’t blow her off course.  She continued.  Even when her heart clenched and her skin turned crackling cold it didn’t matter, because the pure and naked part of her went on.

The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home.

Louise Erdrich, at Bookshop Santa Cruz, Thursday, October 18, at 7:00 p.m..  Click here to pre-order a copy of The Round House, her latest novel, and to receive a numbered signing voucher.