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Louise, Lise and Heid Erdrich -- sisters first, writers second -- look back on their parents' hand in fostering a shared love of language.
By SARAH T. WILLIAMS
Reprinted from the Minneapolis Star Tribune
READINGS BY THE ERDRICH SISTERS
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
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.
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.
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.am in the train station. If he woke up who knows what could have happened?” she said.
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.
And again to Louise, when she was studying in London in 1976:
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.
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.".
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