Ceremonial Healing and the Multiple Narrative Tradition in Louise Erdrich's Tales of Burning Love
Rosenberg, Roberta, MELUS
In the opening scenes of Tales of Burning Love, two characters sit in a bar telling each other stories and discussing healing remedies for toothache. June, a Chippewa woman, suggests to Jack, the victim of a particularly painful tooth, that he try chewing cloves which she describes as an "old Ojibwa remedy." Jack replies with skepticism, "Cloves, aren't they from Europe or something?" (5). Yet, what is immediately apparent to the reader and the characters is that whether cloves are Native or European is far less important than whether they promote healing. Although this scene seems insignificant initially, June's Ojibwa "cloves" remedy provides a paradigm for cross-cultural sharings and intertextualities of all kinds, including the universal storytelling process which is unconcerned with ownership but asks only that each speaker/ listener benefit from gained wisdom and pass it on. As Erdrich comments in an interview: "Why is that, as humans, we have to have narrative? I don't know, but we do. I suppose it goes back to before the Bible; that storytelling cycle is in oral traditions of all cultures" (Chavkin 175).
I would like to argue that contemporary literature needs the kind of healing narrative found in oral traditions, but has lost the consciousness of that need. Through her use of both Native and European storytelling, however, Erdrich awakens this consciousness by reaching back into not only Native but Western Eurocentric traditions for a storytelling form that she can use effectively to heal fractures in the modern psyche, or to put it metaphorically, to at least soothe our collective toothache.
Although I do not wish to homogenize indigenous and European traditions or suggest that one was derived from the other, I believe that Erdrich's novel, Tales of Burning Love, is syncretic as it weaves the Native and Western traditions together into an art form uniquely her own. In fact, one of Erdrich's achievements has been this creative blending which is often overlooked as critics seek originality and difference instead of continuity and wholeness. For it is my belief that Louise Erdrich's Tales of Burning Love was influenced by and shares with many pre-modern European texts a rich storytelling tradition which involves multiple narrators in the creation of transformative "magic"--narrative as healing ceremony--and that to interpret the stories in this context provides the reader with a universally accessible, mystical as well as intellectual experience that makes whole cloth of many narrative threads.
Although the pre-modern European storytelling cycle, found in texts like the Decameron, the Canterbury Tales, and the Heptameron, does seem moribund or dramatically altered in the contemporary West, Louise Erdrich has found an imaginative means of revising and revitalizing it within a Native American context. (1) It is in this way that she has rebalanced and recentered the contemporary novel, reinfusing it with the healing power of storytelling that has been lost in the modern world.
Erdrich, who holds both undergraduate and advanced degrees in English, is an ideal mediator between worlds. As critic John Purdy notes, "Erdrich is quite aware of the traditions and conventions that derive from both European and North American sources, and so it seems perfectly logical that we employ a similarly enlightened methodology when addressing her works" (92). Repeatedly in interviews, Erdrich has named Native, European, and American authors as important influences, from Sir John Mandeville, Shakespeare, and Donne in the Middle Ages and Renaissance to Morrison, Faulkner, Silko, Welch, and Hogan in the twentieth century (Chavkin 220-53). Furthermore, she has described her family reading as "eccentric" and has consistently rejected the notion of a single or dominant influence: "Everybody that you read is a literary influence. I had a literary education so the entire literary canon is a background" (Chavkin 38). …