“It’s just this long flat road, and I’m on it for the long haul”

Whether she’s on the reservation, as she was in such best-selling works as Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, Tracks and The Bingo Palace, or off, as she is in Tales of Burning Love, her latest effort, Native American author Louise Erdrich insists that everything she writes is all part of one big novel.

At first glance, Tales of Burning Love (HarperCollins, $25) has only a passing connection with the unforgettable characters of her youth in the North Dakota plains that Erdrich has brought so vividly to life over the past 12 years in a beguiling quartet of intricately related stories.

Indeed, the very premise of the new book four ex-wives of a purportedly deceased charmer named Jack Mauser meet up at his funeral and bond with tales of impossible love while stranded in a Ford Explorer during a vicious blizzard is almost farcical in concept. Yet, somehow, through the magic of good humor, lyrical imagery and clever storytelling, it works, and the connections with Erdrich’s distinctive world become clearer.

The truth is that I thought this book would not be related at all to the others until I was about three-quarters of the way through writing it, Erdrich confided during a recent interview. Since alert readers will note an important connection between Love Medicine (1984), her first novel, and Tales of Burning Love,” her latest, on the opening pages of each, a bit of explanation is appropriate.

What happened is that I started writing this book in the middle, she explained. I had this image of several women playing blackjack, and then I saw them trapped together in a car in a blizzard, which is not so unusual an occurrence in North Dakota. Things like that happen there all the time.

The decision to start writing in the middle, continue toward the resolution, and then swing back to the beginning, she added, developed out of a renewed fascination she had discovered for music.

I began to take piano lessons after twenty-three years of being away from it, and my teacher suggested that I master the end of some tricky songs first. That way, she told me, you’re going to give a lot more energy to your beginning when you go back and pick it up. I did that, it worked out nicely, and I thought I’d try the same technique with a novel I’d been playing with off and on for the past fifteen years.

So, with loose echoes of Boccaccio and Chaucer, what she had, in essence, was an intriguing novel involving a group of story-telling travelers, in this case four women forced by circumstance to talk about the man to whom they each had been married.

Jack Mauser is a new name in Erdrich’s world, but the details of his first marriage in a barroom ceremony to June Kashpaw, a long-legged Chippewa woman aged hard in every way except how she moved, will be familiar. What readers of the first book know is that after spending some time in the front seat of the man’s car, June walked off into a snowstorm and froze to death. The man she had been with that night was known to her only as Andy.

June’s death was the opening scene in Love Medicine, and it begins Tales of Burning Love as well, only this time we know the man’s name is not Andy at all, but Jack Mauser, a man, it turns out, who has been tormented by June’s death for fifteen years.

Despite being a thorough knave and irrepressible philanderer, Jack has a sense of humanity that endears him in subsequent matches with Eleanor, Candice, Marlis and Dot, the women who find themselves sharing their tales of burning love while trying to stay warm in the stranded van.

I was writing about this guy Jack Mauser, and then eventually it occurred to me that something had to have happened to throw him into this relentless search for union, Erdrich said.

Finally, I saw him there in that bar, and I suddenly realized that June was his very first wife, married to him by a matchbook preacher in an impromptu wedding. After Jack allows June to walk off into the snow, he never sees her again, and he freezes emotionally, and for the next 15 years he’s haunted, paralyzed, and unable to bear the depth of his own feelings. So okay, he’s a jerk, but at least he cares; he has basic decency.

This attitude of moderate affection for Jack is infectious, and readers will smile at his wild antics. This is not a male-bashing book in any way, and it’s not a ‘women’s buddy’ novel either, Erdrich said. These women all loved him; they survived him, to be sure, and except for Eleanor, who’s the most neurotic, they all outgrew him. But they don’t stop loving him either.

The daughter of a German father and a full Chippewa mother, both of whom worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Erdrich, 40, grew up on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota.

Published when she was 28, Love Medicine won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Especially memorable was a structure that allowed the novel to be told in seven distinctive narrative voices. Tales of Burning Love is of more traditional design.

Actually hearing the voice of a character happens less and less to me as I get older as a writer, she said. When I was a younger writer, I would always hear them as if they were talking to me. Now, I see things more and more with the omniscient perspective.

Erdrich’s next novel will return firmly to the reservation, although everything is part of one larger work. The fact is that they are all related, and it’s never going to stop. If it has any shape, it’s like the Great Plains; it’s just this long flat road, and I’m on it for the long haul.