When 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.