Book Review — Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich

“My prayer is a tale of burning love”–Sister Leopolda

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I’ve finished Tales of Burning Love, as part of the #HarpiesReadTheWorld challenge, and it was an excellent read! This book has plenty of layers, perspectives, and delightful bites.

Tales of Burning love is the fourth installment of Louise Erdrich‘s “multi-generational epic on the long-lasting effects of colonialism on Ojibwe peoples and communities”, as stated on Goodreads.

The plot of the book is centered around Jack Mauser and his wives. We start the novel with Jack and his first wife, June Morrisey, a relationship that lasts only a day and ends with June’s death. The novel then jumps to a few decades later when Jack is now newly married to Dot Nanapush, his accountant, who has no idea that he has been married before. As the novel goes on we meet Eleanor Schlick, Jack’s second wife, a literature professor and writer, Jack’s third wife Candace Pantamounty, a dentist, and Jack’s fourth wife Marlis Cook, a cunning woman who Jack didn’t quite like at the beginning and for good reasons. The novel jumps back and forth between his wives and what they are doing in the present, and Jack’s life with his new wife. However, the climax of this novel comes when all four wives end up trapped in a snowstorm and are forced to keep each other awake so as to stay alive. In this way we get their points of view on Jack, how they met him, and what kind of a man he was to them.

It’s incredibly interesting how Erdrich manages to have an omniscient narrator and have each character also as an independent narrator as each tells their own story. The personalities of each character really shine through in Erdrich’s writing. For example:

“All I had to do was make myself available because I knew from his look, from his approach, from the way he had walked toward me down the aisle of glass, that he could be interested in me. I knew.” –Eleanor Schlick

“I developed hopes from this. We might bond on the trip. He might fall in love with me for real and ever. I’d melt him, warm him, fill him with cheese sandwiches and heat him up with thermos coffee” — Candice Pantamounty

Jack Mauser is described by each of the women in particular ways, and this made me think of how each of us is seen differently by every person that we meet or know. The perspective of us from each member of our family is different, not to mention the perspectives of the people that we have other meaningful relationships with. Each person sees us in different time frames, in our childhood, as we grow into adolescence and into adulthood. I am so curious as to how different people in my life see me, as well as how the one perspective I have on the people I know is different from others. It’s just mind-blowing!

The title of the book, Tales of Burning Love, is echoed throughout the book with the language that Erdrich uses. She often gives us the imagery of fire or heat, both literal and figurative. There are many instances where the characters are saved or doomed by fire, just as they are by love and desire. The idea that love is fire, it can warm you and protect you, save you, but also burn you and even kill you, is thoroughly explored in this book. In that sense, it is not just romantic love, there’s also the idea of familial love that can be a safety net or a dangerous fire one must keep at bay. She says:

“Love — which the young expect, the middle-aged fear or wrestle with or find unbearable or clutch to death — those content in their age, finally, cherish with pained gratitude”

Although this book talks about love and relationships, I’m not sure that “romantic” would be the best way to describe it. The characters are driven by this love, but it’s not sweet or nice most times, it is driven by lust, by power, by money, and by revenge. Love is complex and dynamic, and this novel explores this theme with beautiful writing and complex characters.

There are a few other themes throughout the book, such as religion and spirituality, gender equality, sexuality, the opportunities that Native American people have in this country, their rights and their culture. If you are interested in any of these topics do read this book because it will give you a very unique point of view.

I leave you with my favorite image from this book, one that I wish I could transport myself to every time I read:

“One night, in a moon drift, the late August air billowing and succulent, in the lush scents of turned dirt and growing plants and ancient skunk musk and the sweet pink rugosa roses, the screen door unlatched, Eleanor read in a pool of lamplight by the citronella candle.”

Final rating: 5/5 stars

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