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Published August 21, 2012, 11:28 PM

Louise Erdrich moved away from the Red River Valley, but land stayed in her books

FARGO - With a new novel set to hit bookstores, Louise Erdrich returns to Fargo-Moorhead this week. She is the guest of honor for the North Dakota Humanities Council’s symposium, “Four Souls: Stories from America’s Borders” starting Thursday night at Bluestem Center for the Arts. In many ways though, the Wahpeton, N.D., native never left the Red River Valley.

By: John Lamb, INFORUM

FARGO - With a new novel set to hit bookstores, Louise Erdrich returns to Fargo-Moorhead this week. She is the guest of honor for the North Dakota Humanities Council’s symposium, “Four Souls: Stories from America’s Borders” starting Thursday night at Bluestem Center for the Arts.

In many ways though, the Wahpeton, N.D., native never left the Red River Valley.

“In all of my work I go back to the first and strongest impressions in life, and for me those happened in Wahpeton,” the author says from her Minneapolis home. “In my imaginative world, I’m always there in some sense. I try writing about other places, but I’m always drawn back.”

Such is the case with her new book, “The Round House,” due out Oct. 2.

She says the book is based on a number of true stories over the past 20 years.

The book’s publisher, Harper Collins, describes it as the fallout after a woman living on a North Dakota reservation is attacked. As she descends into solitude and her husband seeks justice, their 13-year-old son is left alone to look for answers and try to save his mother.

Erdrich says it is, “set in 1988, but very current” and looks at “how hard it is to prosecute cases of rape on reservation land and why that is.”

Like her other books, like her award-winning debut, 1984’s “Love Medicine” or 2008’s Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Plague of Doves,” it looks at the cultures of American Indians and Americans of European ancestry and how they intersect. Erdrich’s father is of German descent and her mother comes from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.

She said she’ll likely talk about the book Thursday night in a discussion moderated by Jamieson Ridenhour.

It’s not the only time real events have inspired her work. Erdrich says she keeps notes on stories that catch her attention. One of which was a blizzard in 1984 that killed four people caught in a stretch along Fargo’s 19th Avenue North, near the airport.

Erdrich was familiar with that stretch and her voice still sounds shaken as she recalls accounts of the incident.

“It was kind of a nightmare to know what happened there,” she says.

A similar disaster falls on character in her 1997 novel, “Tales of Burning Love.”

A woman about town

“There are these scenes in her books and I know what place she’s talking about. I know she’s talking about the Bison Hotel,” says Greg Danz, owner of Zandbroz Variety on Broadway, gesturing across the street to the former Bison Hotel.

Danz says Erdrich’s books are always popular with shoppers, and the two chat when she returns to town. Erdrich owns her own independent bookstore, Birchbark Books, in Minneapolis, which she calls, “an act of happiness in the face of so much that goes wrong.”

Not all of her location descriptions in books are visible from the street. A small, interior apartment above what is now Artic Audio on Fargo’s Eighth Street South is featured in her debut, ’84’s “Love Medicine.” She lived in the space in the mid-to-late 1970s as she wrote the book a block away on the top floor of the Block 6 building, then DeLendrecies. Her rented office had windows that allowed her to see what was then the edge of the city.

She paid $75 a month for the office and $105 for the apartment and used a bike as her only transportation.

“That’s how I was able to start as a writer,” she says.

“I’m looking forward to seeing my old haunts in downtown Fargo.”

(She jokes that two years ago she ran as part of a family team relay in the Fargo Marathon, which allowed her to see the city, “through a veil of pain.”)

She worked a variety of jobs during that period, working with Joe Richardson at Plains Distribution, a small press service, and as a poet in the schools, based out of the Creative Arts Studio with artists like photographers Wayne and Jane Gudmundson, ceramicist Bob Kurkowski and painter Charlie Thysell. She also worked in schools around the state, in the penitentiary and on the Turtle Mountain Reservation.

“As a young artist it is hard to calculate how important that experience really was for me,” she recalls. “I don’t know if these programs are still going on, but for me it was tremendous.”

Seeing so much of the state helped develop her own geographical map of North Dakota and one she’s reluctant to show others. While many of her novels are set on a North Dakota reservation or the fictional town of Argus, she doesn’t pin-point the location.

“I don’t want to limit a person’s fictional experience, so I always use a combination of settings,” she says.

First words

Another important experience was working with Moorhead poet Mark Vinz.

“He’s always been a great person. Kind of a hero to me,” Erdrich says.

“She’d bring work and I’d read it, and it just knocked me out. I didn’t even know she wrote fiction. What she brought me was poetry, a lot of which was in her first book (of poetry, ‘Jacklight’),” Vinz says.

Recognizing her talent, he became the first person to publish her work, first in Dacotah Territory magazine and later in Dakota Arts Quarterly.

After she left Fargo for her master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, she sent Vinz what would end up as the first two chapters of “Love Medicine.”

“That absolutely blew me away,” Vinz recalls. “She was just immensely talented – a delight to work with.”

“We think that she is the finest living example of an author from the state alive today,” says Brenna Daugherty Gerhardt, executive director of the North Dakota Humanities Council. “We’re hoping this will serve as a springboard to get her into the Roughrider Hall of Fame because we feel that would do a great deal for North Dakota and North Dakota literature.”

(Last fall The Forum ran a reader survey of who should be in the Roughrider Hall of Fame starting with 32 notable North Dakotans. Erdrich made it to the final four.)

“I think it’s a terrific idea. I think my chances are pretty slim,” Erdrich said with a laugh. “However it goes I’m happy with it.”

And she’s happy with her formative years in the Red River Valley.

“I always go back. Sometimes I try not to go back and I just can’t,” Erdrich says. “I think it’s that I spent such an intense time of my life in Wahpeton.”

“People don’t seem to grow up the way I grew up any more. … I could just walk downtown. I could walk down to a swimming pool or ride a bike out of town and just listen to meadowlarks. I ride my bike out of town and I don’t hear meadowlarks anymore.”

She notes that her mother, Rita, sister Lise, and others have been active in trying to maintain Wahpeton’s vibrant downtown, most recently opening the Red Door Art Gallery in the former National Bank.

“Growing up there and going back all the time, I’ve been very privileged to see how things turned out for people,” Erdrich says. “It was just a gift for a writer to have this kind of background as a place that always remains truly there in my consciousness.”

If you go

What: Four Souls: Stories from America’s Borders: A Public Humanities Symposium featuring Louise Erdrich, Luis Alberto Urrea, Robert Pinsky and Naomi Shihab Nye

When: 7:30 Thursday and from 10:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. Friday

Where: Bluestem Center for the Arts 801 50th Ave. S., Moorhead. In case of bad weather the event will be moved to Davies High School, 7150 25th Street South, Fargo

Info: This event is free and open to the public. (218) 477-6540

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533