The Shawl by Louise Erdrich (Short Fiction review)

Saturday, February 11, 2012


I woke up today, excited about the short hour before my usual Saturday morning workout. I usually use that time to read a short story, whichever caught my fancy. Sometimes, I usually had a story decided in advance, but today I didn't really know which to read except that I planned to hound The New Yorker for a good one. (On a side note, The New Yorker is fast becoming my favorite literary stop, and I've been playing with the idea of buying a subscription.) I eventually decided to read The Shawl by Louise Erdrich, an author I haven't read yet, but who comes highly recommended. After reading this story, I'll have to join that bandwagon.

Louise Erdrich
The Shawl starts with the story of an Anishinaabeg mother of two young kids, who just gave birth to a baby whose father is a man that is not her husband. Her depression and bad temper eventually make her husband send her to live with the other man. Except, a tragedy strikes the wagon they travel in. Wolves attack them and their daughter is eaten by the wolves, leaving only her tattered titular shawl behind. The grief that follows this death shatters both her father and her brother, so much so that this ends up having repercussions in the future generations. The father especially cannot get over his shock of how his wife tossed his daughter to the wolves, just to save herself and the baby.

The narrator of The Shawl, whose real connection to the dead girl is revealed only at the end, then proceeds to explain the chaos in his home - how he and his twin siblings live in terror of their drunkard father, over time learning to avoid the father whenever he comes home in one of his rages.

Set in the Anishinaabeg community, the story also echoed the ailing strains of the Indian American community - alcoholism eating it up, suicide becoming all too common, and how the old sort of people - "who are kind beyond kindness and would do anything for others", were fast disappearing. So far as the problems go, they reminded me of what I read in Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian, and how alcoholism and abuse were the story of their lives, and children often sat together "to compare our points of view".

The Shawl was a super-quick read - I finished it in 20 minutes, but at the end of the story, I felt as if I read a powerful long novel. I think of the stories I read so far this year, this is the one I liked the best - it was sad for sure. When the death of the sister was first mentioned, it came as a bitter shock. I think if everyone in that wagon (the mother, the baby, the girl and an uncle) had been attacked, it wouldn't have been too much of a kick-in-the-gut as when just that girl died, since the idea of a mother tossing the girl to the hungry animals was the more painful thought. I wondered how anyone got closure from something like that. But, for a story with such a heavy element, it is the ending that lets the reader move on. I won't say you what that is, but it makes reading the story so much more worthwhile.

I hope you chose to read this story - it just takes 20 minutes of your time, and it is a beautiful one. If you haven't read Erdrich yet, this will be a good introduction to her work. I'm looking forward to checking out her novels now. The Byliner has more stories by Erdrich listed, if you're interested.


I read this book online on the NewYorker. Go ahead and read it.


12 comments:

Helen Murdoch said...

My book group may choose a Louise Erdrich for our read next month, maybe The Shawl should be a part of that. Thank you for the great review!

Jenny said...

Short stories that make you feel like you've read an entire novel are awesome! I haven't read anything by Erdrich but I've herd great things about her writing. What a great way to get a feel for the author's writing!

Athira / Aths said...

I'll be looking forward to hearing which book your club decides on! I believe there are quite a few choices out there. And then comparing it with The Shawl will be great!

Athira / Aths said...

I agree! I just joined Byliner.com and am wowed by the tons of short stories listed in the site by authors we've heard and want to sample. I can't wait to explore the site more!

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

First of all, I'm impressed that you get up on Saturdays and go work out.  The story extremely well developed.

Emily said...

Yes!  Definitely read more Louise Erdrich.  It's been a while since I've read most of her work, and I just may be due for a re-read.  I'd start with Love Medicine, since a lot of the characters in that novel show up in many of her later works.  I haven't read this short story, but I'll definitely have to check it out.

Athira / Aths said...

LOL! I go for zumba, which is a lot funner than a stint at the gym. That's why I happily wake up every Saturday morning. :) 

Athira / Aths said...

Thanks for that tip! I'll definitely start with Love Medicine in that case!

Emily said...

You've inspired me to actually reread her work!  I've just declared March to be Louise Erdrich Month :)

Athira / Aths said...

I'm so glad to hear that! I will be checking your blog for the reviews. Maybe I can get inspired to read more of her works sooner.

Bkclubcare said...

her stories are not for the faint of heart. She is a talented writer.

BuriedInPrint BuriedInPrint said...

I absolutely love her stories: I read a chunk of them in The Red Convertible, but they only made me want to read her novels too. Never-ending reading lists, hmmm? Alice Munro's stories leave me with the same feeling that you've described, the sense of a novel's complexity but in a short story.