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Birchbark Blog

Not Winter Reading

Louise Erdrich - Monday, November 28, 2016

November rains and a stormy outlook. Time to plunge into a contradictory reading spree -- first Svetlana Alexievich's extraordinary work, Secondhand Time, an oral history that encompasses every emotion from extreme sorrow to the most tender love. This book of contemporary Russian voices and Soviet history is not for the faint of heart. So, when my heart went faint from descriptions of what is to live in that grand and tragic country, I turned to Amor Towles. His novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, is also about Russian/Soviet history but from the point of view of a most fortunate man. Our hero, Count Rostov, isn't executed in the first pages but instead is confined for life to the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. This is an old fashioned sort of romance, filled with delicious detail. Save this precious book for times you really, really want to escape reality. 

Back to reality -- I have resisted picking up Atul Gawande's Being Mortal for quite a while now because of the title, which would imply mortality. Once I began reading this important book I could not stop. It addresses, without fear, questions we all ask in our hearts but rarely voice. And it gives a person the tools to begin talking about . . . mortality. One's own, one's cherished family.  I gave this book to everybody in my family. Not as a Christmas gift -- I must admit it would be a downer to receive this book as a Christmas gift. But give it to yourself because you deserve clarity.

Somehow I missed talking about Ann Patchett's wonderfully human Commonwealth. Her first chapter is one of the best I've ever read -- leading to a kiss that is one of the best kisses I've ever read. The engaging and headlong family story that follows sweeps you up -- you won't stop reading until it puts you down.      

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Day Three – I’m Still With Her

Louise Erdrich - Saturday, November 12, 2016
Dear Hillary,

Thank you for running an honorable campaign. Thank you for speaking to what is best in us as humans, and as Americans. Thank you for repeatedly including everybody. Thank you for your grace under the burden of ugliness, the pressure of hate.

I never thought that I would miss this campaign, but I do. I miss watching you fight the good fight. I miss the joy. I miss the hope.

You inspired me by sticking to intelligent, practical, experience-born responses to the real problems that face us. You offered a tough but welcoming face of America to the world. As a mother of four daughters, a writer, a bookstore owner and a Native American, I gained strength from the example of your resilience and composure.

My daughter Pallas and I met you when you stopped in Minneapolis. We were thrilled. We gushed, “You are our warrior!” You smiled and gripped our hands. You exuded warmth. I wanted to hang out with you and have a beer, and I don’t even drink beer.

On the morning after the election, everything felt flat, and strange. It wasn’t just grief, it was fear. It was haunting to walk the streets, go to the grocery, do simple things. There was always that question: is that person filled with hate? Contempt? Or maybe that person? It was worse in the schools, where some students felt emboldened to make racist comments, to harass girls, to let out their ugly side.

My oldest daughter Persia teaches kindergarten in a Native language immersion school on a reservation. One of her students said she knew our next president was a “wall builder” and she was scared. She didn’t know which side of the wall she would be on.

For women of all ages on day one, a sense of confidence and joy drained out of us. We shut down, tried to cope. And of course we did our jobs. At midnight, in tears, I found myself on your website buying more Hillary buttons and signs. Irrational. I already have plenty of Hillary swag!

On day two, things began to change. A sense of all that we have to fight for came back to us. A conviction that now all of our work is more important than ever. Work our staff does at the bookstore to build awareness of climate change. Work to build understanding between people of every race. Words from your concession speech helped -- fighting for what is right is always worthwhile. Your loyal belief in the best of America, not the worst.

Thank you for your commitment to clean energy. Thank you for fighting for a future of our children, for the legions of diverse plants and animals that keep us all healthy, and deserve to live as they were created, by a force we do not comprehend.

Day two seemed to last forever though, I kept faltering. How to answer questions from people in other countries? Our national temper tantrum was now installed in our highest office. Shame crawled up inside of me. I told myself that having a bookstore where, through literature, we can inhabit hearts and minds different from our own, is important. I reminded myself that listening my 15 year old daughter’s wisdom, supporting her and other young women, especially Native women, was important. My daughter Aza has a baby, my grandson. Helping him learn that a man’s strength is expressed by his respect for women, that’s important. I wrestled with accepting that although you won the popular vote, so many other voters, 25% of Americans, were choosing racism, intolerance, contempt for women, and maybe most dangerous of all, volatile inexperience.

By the end of day two, Pallas asked me to write this letter and post it on this page. She said that it would reach a lot of people and that you might read it. My brother told me that some people are angry, blaming, and that it is a stage of grief. So I’m writing a letter on day three to say what is true. You are the most experienced candidate for president we’ve ever had. There was no better candidate. You ran into a wall of hate, but you got up again, time after time. Never lost your wits, your cool. Nobody else could have done that.

Though in frail health this summer, my father, Ralph, always wore a flower in his hat. As he walked laboriously around the neighborhood, he stopped people to campaign for you. My mother Rita, 83, always keeping Ralph steady, filled out her ballot with the pride of a Native women who had worked all her life to teach her daughters fortitude, her son’s kindness. She finally had a woman as strong as herself to vote for.

On day three I’m so thankful for what you showed us. Truth. Resilience. Honor. Expertise. You are our champion. Maybe you didn’t know that even if you lost, you would still be our champion. All along, you were showing us how to get through life without you as our President.

As you gave your concession speech, with Bill behind you, I thought: she is so much stronger than the men who have won the presidency. She is doing the right thing, but she is not defeated. She models power even in her loss.

At the age of 91, Ralph Erdrich promised that he would live to vote for you. He has. He is still living in Wahpeton, North Dakota. He is still for you. I am still for you. Mothers, sisters, brothers, daughters, children, friends – we are still for you, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

We don’t know what you will do next, but we’ll be there.

It’s day three. Time to dust ourselves off, stand up, begin.

Time to make America proud again.

Yours truly,

Louise
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Power of Spring

Louise Erdrich - Thursday, April 14, 2016
Even though this was yet again a record setting warm winter, spring still has its power and the first few days of warmth are disorientingly heady.  Before I start living outside again I have to write about one book that got me through the indefinite days of ice last month.  A Different Kind of Daughter, by Maria Toorpakai and with Katherine Holstein, is subtitled the Girl Who Hid From the Taliban In Plain Sight.  It is one of the most wrenching memoirs I've read.  The story is about a family who refuses to abandon its women to the terrifying measures of tribal law, and how one daughter defies the society into which she is born (and which she also treasures).  She breaks gender taboos in order to become a world class athlete.  Every page is gripping and Toorpakai is one of the most engagingly stubborn people I've ever read about -- her entire family is composed of a singular toughness.  This is a book for parents to read with their daughters and sons -- a kind of all family read that will reward everyone with a piercing look into the lives of extraordinarily courageous people who are also altogether human in their daily decisions, feasts, trials, squabbles, and intense loyalty.
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