Louise Erdrich, The bingo palace (#BookReview)

Book coverWhen I bought Louise Erdrich’s The bingo palace in 1995, I never expected it to take me 24 years to read it but, there you go. Time flies, and suddenly it was 2019 and the book was still sitting on the high priority pile next to my bed! Truly! It took Lisa’s ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week to make me finally give it the time it deserved – and even then I’m late. Oh well.

I have read Louise Erdrich before, back in 2000 when I read The crown of Columbus with my reading group. She it wrote with her then husband, the late Michael Dorris. While it was an enjoyable read, it didn’t make a big impression. However, I have always remembered it because of her. So now, her!

Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation (also known as Chippewa), and it is among the people of this nation that The bingo palace is set. One of the reasons the novel captured my attention all those years ago is because when we lived in the USA, we became aware of the importance of gambling as a major source of income for many Native American communities. Erdrich’s narrative draws from this fact, but it also provides her with the “luck” or “chance” metaphor – “the drift of chance and possibility” – which underpins the novel. One-third of the novel’s twenty-seven chapters, in fact, include the word “luck” in their titles, as in “Lipsha’s luck”, “Shawnee’s luck”, “Lyman’s luck”, and so on. Luck, good and bad, is a constant in the novel, and Erdrich constantly puts her characters to the test, as they navigate their rocky worlds. How much “luck” is of their own making is a question for them, and us the readers, to consider, I think.

Anyhow, the story centres on an unsettled young man, Lipsha Morrissey, and his love for Shawnee Ray, who has had a baby with Lyman Lamartine, manager of the titular Bingo Palace. The novel contains a complex web of relationships, which takes a while to unravel, but for which we are prepared in the first chapter:

The story comes round, pushing at our brains, and soon we are trying to ravel back to the beginning, trying to put families into order and made sense of things. But we start with one person, and soon another, and another follows, and still another, until we are lost in the connections. (p. 5)

Now, you might have noticed something interesting about the voice in the above paragraph – it’s a first person plural voice. This voice – which operates a bit like a Greek chorus, though here it’s the tribal Chippewa – disappears for most of the novel, reappearing near the end in chapters 25 and 27. The other chapters are told in first person for Lipsha’s story, and third person for all the other stories. This is tricky, daring stuff, but it works, partly because of the power of the stories being told, partly because of its unusual tone (to which I’ll return), and partly because of the language. Erdrich’s language is arresting:

As a baby, Lipsha knew how to make his hands into burrs that would not unstick from Marie’s clothing. (p. 28)


Unwilling, I followed him out to the barn, placing no in my mouth like a pebble to throw. (p. 47)


Albertine could see that Shawnee Ray bent her strength like a bow to the older woman’s need. (p. 210)


We get into the car, pull into the pitted road, and I try not to brush too hard against my sorrows. (p. 215)

Now, back to the story, which concerns Lipsha’s attempts to win Shawnee Ray’s love, after being called back to the reservation by his grandmother, Lulu Lamartine. Life is not simple on the reservation, and as we follow Lipsha’s desperate quest, we are introduced, through a wonderful array of characters, to reservation life – to the tension between old traditions and new businesses, between spiritual life and the material one. Lipsha tries them all – he is initially lucky at bingo and wins a van, only to lose it to some white Montana boys. With a degree of easy-come-easy-go nonchalance, he then seeks out his great grandmother, Fleur Pillager, for love medicine. She lives on sacred land around Lake Machimanito, that Lyman has managed to have set aside for another bingo palace. Lipsha also, with Lyman, tries a spiritual retreat run by ceremony man, Xavier Toose.

All this is told with a tone that veers between resigned realism and sudden visions, a tone that effectively conveys the paradoxes involved in trying to retain tradition while surviving in a modern world. Lyman puts his faith in bingo entrepreneurship, while Shawnee sees education as her way. Zelda, on the other hand, has tried for decades to deny love and passion, while Fleur puts her faith in land and spirit.

Near the end, Lipsha, who has his moments of insight, says:

It’s not completely one way or another, traditional against the bingo. You have to stay alive to keep your tradition alive and working. Everybody knows bingo money is not based on solid ground […]

And yet I can’t help but wonder, now that I know the high and low of bingo life, if we’re going in the wrong direction, arms flung wide, too eager. The money life has got no substance, there’s nothing left when the day is done but a pack of receipts. Money gets money, but little else, nothing sensible to look at or touch or feel in yourself down to your bones … Our reservation is not real estate. Luck fades when sold … (p. 221)

Of course, as I read this, I wondered whether I could see any comparisons with indigenous lives and literature here, and one book immediately came to mind, Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my review). The likeness is loose, but both books have a wildness about them. Both confront the challenge of marrying tradition with contemporary life, and both do it by slipping easily between concrete reality and what we non-indigenous readers see as something more magical, but which for many indigenous people is all part of one spectrum. Both books are exhilarating, mind-expanding, to read.

Our “Greek chorus” tells us near the end, when “the federals” try to get the truth out of Lulu:

anyone of us could have told them they were getting into mazy woods when talking to that woman. (p. 265)

As you’d probably expect, there is no simple resolution at the end. Instead, there is, as the “chorus” says, “more to be told, more than we know, more than can be caught in the sieve of our thinking”. Like “the federals”, I got lost at times in the “mazy woods”, but I thoroughly enjoyed the humour and inventiveness, the warmth and heart – along with the challenge – to be had in reading this novel.

Canadian blogger Buried in Print has also reviewed this novel.

BannerLouise Erdrich
The bingo palace
London: Flamingo, 1995 (orig. pub. 1994)
ISBN: 9780006547099

29 thoughts on “Louise Erdrich, The bingo palace (#BookReview)

  1. Terrific review. It sounds like there is a lot to this book. I am particularly interested in different point of views and writing styles. First person plural sounds interesting.

    • Thanks Brian. There is a lot to Thu s book, way more than I could tease out in one post, and one proper read. I’d love to read it again. I did skim some of it before I posted, but it really needed more to do it justice.

  2. “I thoroughly enjoyed the humour and inventiveness, the warmth and heart – along with the challenge – to be had in reading this novel.”
    This could be a statement about the book reviews you post, ST..

  3. I always imagined you were a kind of instant reading machine. So I am pleasantly surprised to learn that a book could languish by your bedside for nearly a quarter of a century. Good to know its time has come. I like your comment about the ‘resigned realism and sudden visions’.
    So what else is there in the deep dark recesses of the bedside library?

    • Haha, Carmel, I’m sort of glad that I’ve outed myself so clearly then! You can see now why I avoid libraries! I have my own here.

      As for what’s in the dark recesses of the bedside library, there’s too many that have been there too long. It’s an eclectic bunch… But it does include two short story collectios, which I’d started and been distracted from. You may know one of them 😀

    • Oh, and re ” resigned realism and sudden visions”, I woke up this morning still worrying about how I described it’s overall tone and sense, so your comment was just right! It’s still not the best description I think, but it tells you something about it.

  4. Thanks for this, WG. Erdrich is one of my all-time favourite writers. I haven’t caught up with this yet, or the other of hers you mention – she’s quite prolific. My favourite so far is The Roundhouse. Have you read that?

    • Thanks Sara. No, I’ve only read the two I mentioned. Would absolutely love to read more, and as you say she’s written quite a few to choose from. I gather she has written at least one inspired by her European heritage?

      Apparently she also owns an independent bookstore.

      • Sara, The Round House is the only Erdrich I’ve read. I thought it was superbly written, but its Catch-22 theme is too disturbing to be ‘enjoyable’, if you know what I mean.
        This one interests me: it sounds as if the challenge of economic survival in the modern world and maintaining important traditions is a problem anywhere that Indigenous people have been displaced…

        • Yes, it does Lisa … a very similar challenge of juggling multiple lives, within the pressure of government policies and agents that interfere or don’t support!

  5. Pingback: Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2019 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  6. Kim Scott uses a number of voices including first person plural in a similar way in his first novel, True Country (1993), “You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s here you belong. A place like this.” As you say, a voice in the background, appearing to represent the whole community.

  7. Incidentally, I have The Last Report on the Miracles At Litlle No Horse on the shelf and I plan to read it soon.
    I’ve started it once before and got lost in the narration (even in French translation!) and after reading your review of The Bingo Place, I wonder if I’m cut out for Erdrich’s brand of prose.

    As I read some of the characters’ names, I thought they sounded French: Fleur Pillinger, Lamartine (a poet), Xavier. I suppose it’s because they live on a territory that was once colonized by the French.

    • Yes, thats it I’m sure, Emma. The names are great – loved them. They have suchb oetry. Her previous we is really great. I remember though being put of years ago, but I actually found it gorgeous.

        • I think there is a quartet Emma, though I haven’t read that they are exactly sequels… Anyhow, I understand that some of the characters are in other books. I ont like sequels, but this one certainly didn’t read like one, so I’d be interested to read at least some of the others.

    • The beginning of this book is a little disorienting (Little No Horse) because she is introducing a character who is kind of new to a community (a community which is divided into two clans with a history of conflict) and that character is concealing a very significant part of themselves as well. If you just let it flow over you (for maybe a quarter of the book – it does take awhile), it will come to feel more comfortable and, at the end, you will understand completely (and possibly find yourself wanting to reread with your new understanding of that individual’s past). Along the way, there are some beautiful bookish bits too.

  8. Thanks for including the link to my review WG: very kind. I loved reading your take on it, which includes so many lovely quotations as well. Easy to see Erdrich’s poetic roots in this novel too. I read and reread through her novels in 2017 and 2018 and most of them do unfold in the same territory, so that the same families (and some characters, like Fleur, for instance) appear regularly and we come to have an understanding of family and tribal relationships that feels very real and expansive. I read them in mostly story-chronological order, beginning with the earliest historical stories, and it was a wonderful project. Now I have only the dystopia and her children’s series left to finish but there is always the idea of rereading. And, yes, she does have her own indie bookstore: wouldn’t that be wonderful?

  9. Pingback: Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich – Stunning | Book Around The Corner

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