Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Crown of Columbus fails to sparkle

37. The Crown of Columbus, Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich. Fiction, 4-18, pp. 382

This book must have seemed like a good idea.

Two talented authors, Louise Erdrich and her now-deceased husband, Michael Dorris, team up to write a novel.

It seems like a good idea. Until you read the book.

I moved The Crown of Columbus, a 1994 novel, to the top of my reading list because I’m committed to reading the complete works of Erdrich. Sadly, the qualities that attract me to Erdrich’s writing are largely missing from this clunky, improbable novel.

Erdrich’s appeal lies in her ability to vividly capture the Native American voice; to peel back and expose layers of their hearts, minds and souls. She shows us, in so many of her novels, how some Native Americans still cling—proudly and stubbornly—to ancient ways, while others have been destroyed by American culture, microbes and booze.

The Crown of Columbus is unsuccessful in giving full expression to Erdrich’s unique voice. The voice is there, but it’s overwhelmed by a sort of cuteness.

The Crown of Columbus is set at Dartmouth. The principals are two professors—Vivian Twostar, a Native American anthropologist seeking tenure, and her lover, the insufferable Roger Williams, scholar and poet. Roger is writing “the” epic poem of Columbus as the quincentennial approaches. Vivian finds herself caught up in a mystery that lead to the discovery of not only Columbus’ diary, but a genuine New World treasure.

I’m curious about who wrote what. Did Erdrich write the passages of the token Native American professor or did her late husband take that on in a not-as-clever-as-it sounds bit of authorial role playing. “Hey, I have an idea, Louise. You write the passages narrated by the stuffy New England poet-professor and I’ll do the brassy, female Indian.”

I don’t know if that’s how it was done. I only know that The Crown of Columbus falls flat. As I said, it’s improbable. It’s also melodramatic and tepid – although it tries to whip the reader into an emotional frenzy on about a half-dozen fronts, ranging from European treatment of native Americans to the relationship of these academic lovers to . . .

Well, never mind. It’s not worth re-counting.

Erdrich is almost always worth reading. Almost. Always.

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