“The Years Of My Birth” (2011) is a short story by Louise Erdrich.
Tommy Orange joined Deborah Treisman to read and discuss “The Years of My Birth,” by Louise Erdrich, which appeared in a 2011 issue of the New Yorker magazine.
The author has said that her novels come from her short stories. “The Years Of My Birth” led to the novel The Round House. Despite the connection and clear evolution, the two are best considered separate works. However, in the New Yorker discussion it’s clear Treisman and Orange have read both. They know a few things which can’t be learned from the story itself, for instance the real name of Tuffy (Linda) which is hinted at but not explicit in the short story. If you’ve read the book, your reading of the short story will be influenced by what you learned in that.
SETTING OF “THE YEARS OF MY BIRTH”
PERIOD — It was common half a century ago in the West to remove disabled children from mothers and place them in institutions. Mothers were advised by white patriarchal doctors to do this, continue breeding and to get on with their lives, for the sake of the other children. When Erdrich opens the story with a doctor stepping in between the mother and the nurse, this is clearly the situation that’s happening. Mrs Lasher’s moral dilemma in the first half of the 20th century would not be a moral dilemma today, because parents are not urged to institutionalise disabled children, but are instead offered more supports to keep all children in the family unit. (And even when this doesn’t happen, there is no automatic expectation of institutionalisation.)
DURATION —Erdrich covers an entire half century of life, compressing it in masterful fashion.
LOCATION — One of the characters lives “down in Bismarck” suggesting a more Northern part of North Dakota?
ARENA — There are two separate arenas, the white world and the Native American Chippewa world, the reservation. Tuffy’s birth mother takes her to Vert’s Supper Club, ‘the only place in the area that served full dinner and drinks’. (Is this because alcohol is banned on the reservation?) The narrator endures what she calls “sour white wine”. I’m thinking she’s talking about “dry white wine”, another typically white thing to like. Despite being white, Tuffy has been enculturated on a Native American reservation.
MANMADE SPACES — hospitals, houses, the schools. The school at the reservation is run by the Catholic mission. The narrator’s next school is run by the government.
The Wishkob house smells of “old wood, onions, fried coot, the salty outdoors scent of children”.
NATURAL SETTINGS — The outside of a house is compared to the inside of a house. This is only highlighted when a dog is brought inside, against Native American custom. I’ve read the Dogs entry at Stuff White People Like, which is partly how I know that my white decision to keep our dog inside the house is specific to white people, and that dogs are kept separate in most cultures.
Near the Wishkobs’ house are some woods, where Albert teaches the children to catch rabbits, ride ponies and fish. Living close to the land, Tuffy feels she had everything she needed.
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Our medical system is at the point where a person with kidney failure might be saved, but not at the point where we can manufacture synthetic replacements. So family members face difficult decisions around donation, one of the tentpole medical moral dilemmas of our time. Most medical dilemmas are faced by the medical profession, but this one is made by laypeople.
LEVEL OF CONFLICT — This story is about the separate spheres of Native vs white cultures rubbing up against each other. Erdrich chose a white viewpoint character adopted into a Native American family in order to show this opposition.
THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — The first person narrator of this story is afforded unlikely omniscience, and I deduce this comes from spanning two cultures and also for being a sort of witch like woman who lives in a cottage near woods with a dog (instead of near deep, dark forest with a cat).
This is a story full of pairings and opposites but, at the same time, this is not a simplistic dualism of black hats and white hats. Harking back to some very old stories, it seems at first glance to be a story full of dualisms:
- Good twin, bad twin (Cain and Abel aren’t explicitly drawn as twins in scripture but there is ample evidence to draw that conclusion.)
- Good mother, bad mother
- Women giving, men taking
- Inside dog, outside dog; dog of childhood, dog of adulthood
- Inwardly beautiful Tuffy, outwardly beautiful Linden
- Cheryl with a C, Sheryl with an S
CAST OF CHARACTERS
First Person Narrator
When first person narrators tell the story of their lives including of their births, I call this ‘first person omniscient’. I don’t know what others call this, but we see it in Nutshell by Ian McEwan and in Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, to name a few examples. There’s no way a person can remember what actually happened in the room of their birth, and this first person narrator has no one who could have relayed the story of it. Perhaps this kind of omniscience can be considered part of the magical realism. Within the world of the story I consider it a fabricated memory which would have come from all the fictional narrator has learned in her lifetime about how the medical system kicks in when a deformed baby comes out.
See the entry at TV Tropes: Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane.
In case we missed the pinkness of the baby’s skin in the opening paragraph, it is reconfirmed at the end of the childhood part of the narrative that Tuffy is white.
Tuffy lives on her own in her adoptive parents’ former house and works by day at the reservation post office.
Mrs NANCY Lasher
In the constructed memory-scene of the narrator’s birth, it is the mother who is asked to make a life and death decision when she is literally in the middle of the pushing phase of birthing twins. The father, of course, would have been outside. If TV is accurate, he was probably smoking. I start with quite a bit of empathy for Mrs Lasher, because there is no way a person in that position, probably the most dangerous and painful of her life, should be asked to make that decision.
Mrs Lasher is the Every Nice White Lady (TM):
She was shorter than me. And so ordinary. I was sure that I must have seen her in the street, or at the grocery, or in the bank, perhaps.“The Years Of My Birth” by Louise Erdrich
Nice, white people who really aren’t doing anything other than being nice people are racist. We are complicit with that system. There is no neutral place.Ari Shapiro, NPR
People on the reservation didn’t go near women who looked like her—I can’t say why. A mutual instinct for avoidance, perhaps.“The Years Of My Birth” by Louise Erdrich
Mrs Lasher is depicted as manipulative. She really is only approaching the daughter she gave away to try and secure a kidney for her son. She is suspiciously quick to switch emotions, suggesting the sadness is fake: ‘Her tears dried up and her face became sharp and direct.’
mR George Lasher
In the constructed memory, Mr. Lasher has been spared the moral dilemma of being asked whether or not to keep the narrator as a baby. He owns and ran a farm-implements dealership. By the time mother and daughter reconnect decades later, he has died of a heart attack. This is useful for the plot, as it means one less potential kidney.
The night janitor at the hospital, a woman from the reservation named Betty Wishkob, asked the head maternity nurse for permission to hold me on her break. While cradling me, with her back to the observation window, Betty also nursed me—she was still nursing her youngest child at home.“The Years Of My Birth” by Louise Erdrich
Betty’s job at the hospital doesn’t last. Had an ‘explosive temper’. Now deceased.
Betty’s husband, who helps with the narrator’s therapies. Sells firewood, corn and squash to keep the family fed. Drank q fair bit. Now deceased.
This is an example of a short story which may or may not feature a ghost. See also: Why Write A Ghost Story When You Don’t Believe In Ghosts?
Around the age of two, I was taken away for the first time and placed alone in a room. I remember the smell of disinfectant and what I would now call despair. Into this disinfected despair, there came a presence, someone or something, who grieved with me and held my hand. That presence would come to me again at other moments in my life. Its return is partly what this story is about. […]
The first time I was aware of it was when I was taken from Betty and put in a white room. After that, I occasionally had the sensation that there was someone walking beside me or sitting behind me, always just beyond my peripheral vision.“The Years Of My Birth” by Louise Erdrich
Of the Wishkob children, Sheryl is the closest in age to Tuffy.
“Tuffy, you are so ugly you’re cute,” she said.
An older Wishkob child, and the one who nicknames Tuffy. The name is a kindness, because if she doesn’t have a good nickname, she’ll attract a worse one once she starts school.
At the New Yorker podcast, Deborah Treisman reveals she asked Louise Erdrich if the presence is Linden. Erdrich replied:
- a neglected spirit helper
- a projection of Linden’s need
- a shadowy emanation of a lost twin
- the thoughts of her dog
The last is a facetious answer, of course. Erdrich means to leave interpretation to the reader. Tommy Orange talks about his relationship to magical realism, and says he finds many works of magical realism leave too much mystery open. Conversely, works of realism don’t include enough magic for his liking. He considers this story the perfect balance for him. Erdrich is asking the reader to do some work to create part of the story ourselves, which is a feature of lyrical short stories in general.
Tuffy’s twin brother is a postal worker in Bismarck. Has wrecked his own kidney by trying to suicide with a massive dose of acetaminophen, aspirin and alcohol. Nice looking. By coincidence, both Linden and Tuffy work with mail, but their jobs are very different. Linden experiences the white privilege version of a mailman, and receives tips and gifts every year.
Cheryl with a ‘c’ is the name of Cedric’s wife. As pointed out during the New Yorker discussion, it is unusual for an author to deliberately choose two names which are the same, or even too similar. This is an extra tax on the reader, so to do so is a very deliberate choice. Perhaps it lends verisimilitude. We know multiples with the same name in real life and we deal with it. Perhaps also, in this story, two Cheryls add to the doppelganger/duplicitous/doubling theme, functioning as a name motif.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE YEARS OF MY BIRTH”
We are born but once. What’s with the plural in the title?
Over the course of a lifetime we experience many ‘rebirths’. This is a religious concept, but is also a feature of any full narrative. The Greeks called it anagnorisis, others call it self-revelation, writers might call them turning points. This particular story begins with a literal birth. Her next ‘birth’ might be the considered her butterfly-like emergence as someone who has been kneaded and moulded by her adoptive mother’s hands into someone who is no longer visibly disabled. The next comes in her 50s when she is approached by her birth mother. Finally, in the white room with her twin on the bed, she experiences another kind of rebirth.
There’s a clear irony to this story, which the main character herself only realises at the end: Her malformation at birth is what led to her removal from the Nice White Lady (TM), and she now considers this deformity the thing which saved her.
I know that I was loved, because it was a complicated matter for Betty and Albert to claim me from the welfare system
The birth mother wants a kidney, the ultimate sacrifice, especially for a child who knows full well she has been abandoned without good reason. The reason for the mother’s contacting Tuffy is the story’s big plot reveal.
Although we rarely have full insight into people’s reasons for doing things in real life, we do expect more from characters in fiction. This is why we read fiction, after all. To understand people’s interior lives. Sometimes, when a character’s reasons are a less relatable, it’s sometimes best for the author (via the narration) to simply state clearly why the fictional character has chosen to do what they do:
I don’t seek pain, and I would not have contemplated going through with it unless I found the alternative unbearable.“The Years Of My Birth” by Louise Erdrich
This was a necessary sentence. We’d have wondered why Tuffy didn’t just hang up the phone otherwise.
The main confrontation occurs in the hospital room between Tuffy, who would feel bad if she weren’t allowed to help save her twin brother’s life, and the twin brother himself, who is so disgusted by his twin sister that he doesn’t want a part of her in his body.
Tuffy has a succession of small revelations after meeting her birth mother, a common experience, I’m sure. First she sees that her birth mother is exactly the sort of nice white lady reservation people actively avoid. Next, she feels glad to have escaped:
She’d have blamed Linden. I had felt the contempt and the triumph in her touch. I was grateful now for the way things had turned out. Before we were born, my twin had had the compassion to crush me, to improve me by deforming me: I was the one who was spared.“The Years Of My Birth” by Louise Erdrich
The next revelation happens in the white room with her brother on his sick bed. This time, the revelation is designed for the reader to experience. Tuffy asks Linden:
“Did you ever think…that there was someone walking your route just beside you or just behind you? Someone there when you closed your eyes, gone when you opened them?”“The Years Of My Birth” by Louise Erdrich
I interpret this ‘shadow’ creature as a metaphor for white privilege. Others have compared privilege to a knapsack. (See Peggy McIntosh.)
Here, it is more like a ghost. Tuffy sees it clearly because:
- they are twins
- she grew up white in a Native American culture
- they do similar jobs and yet they are very different.
- Tuffy hasn’t always enjoyed able-bodied privilege
- and is a woman rather than the precious boy who was never going to get the important family name, but rather one that ‘matched’ her brother’s.
I backed up against the wall and was stuck there in that white, white room.“The Years Of My Birth” by Louise Erdrich
White has been utilised as a motif throughout this story, which felt cemented by its emphasis in the last line.
For instance, we see it in teeth. First, the birth mother’s teeth are ‘stained’, but we can assume they used to be white and that it is only age now which diminishes the woman’s general privilege. She also wears pearls, a nice white lady thing to do, and also a version of white. In the final scene the hospital is white, the man within those walls is white (someone less privileged would have been left to die already) and his orthodontically enhanced teeth are presumably white as well.
Because dental care is so expensive, teeth are often a quick, visible indication of a person’s wealth.
If Louise Erdrich had mentioned the word white over and over, it would’ve been too much. So she wrote of white things without saying ‘white’. This works even better as a motif.
Treisman and Orange used the phrase ‘magical realism’ to describe this story. I detect a fairytale vibe. Fairytales will always be with us, sometimes in more disguised forms. Though quite different in many ways, I’m reminded of the “Donkey Skin” variety of fairytale. In that story, a princess (read: a girl with beauty privilege) leaves her privileged home behind (for darn good reason) but she’s never truly without her invisible knapsack because she can always summon her fancy dresses and accoutrements and turn back into a princess.
Header illustration is made with Midjourney using the prompt: post office at native american reservation in the style of maynard dixon