"The Years of My Birth"
by Louise Erdrich
Originally published in the January 10, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

Having never read anything by Erdrich before (though she has been in the magazine several times before), the last few weeks have practically been all-Erdrich-all-the-time. The last book I read in 2010 was her most recent novel Shadow Tag; then I was pleased to read her interview in the most recent issue of The Paris Review. And now a new short story appears in The New Yorker.

If the other things I’ve recently read by Erdrich didn’t convince me to looks at her work more closely, “The Years of My Birth” certainly would have. It’s another relatively short story, but again the author is in complete control and gets a lot of traction from the few words used.

The nurse had wrapped my brother in a blue flannel blanket and was just about to hand him to his mother when she whispered, “Oh, God, there’s another one,” and out I slid, half dead. I then proceeded to die in earnest, going from slightly pink to a dull gray-blue, at which point the nurse tried to scoop me into a bed warmed by lights. She was stopped by the doctor, who pointed out my head and legs. Stepping between me and the mother, the doctor addressed her.

“Mrs. Lasher, I have something important to say. Your other child has a congenital deformity and may die. Shall we use extraordinary means to salvage it?”

She looked at the doctor with utter incomprehension at first, then cried, “No!”

However, Linda, the deformed daughter,¬†survives because the nurse doesn’t listen to the doctor. The Lashers, though, still don’t want her and refuse to take her home. Fortunately, the night janitor Betty Wishkob, a Chippewa woman from the reservation, cares for the child in the hospital and eventually is allowed to take Linda home.

It is now fifty years later. Linda gives us a small look at her life in those fifty years. She felt loved, though her parents were not adopted parents were not perfect and her siblings were not always kind or accepting of this white, deformed child. She has never married or had children, and she says perhaps its it is because she has always tried to avoid pain. That is also the reason she has never had any desire to find her real family, though she they didn’t live very far away. She does believe, though, that at times in her life, particularly hard times, she has felt the comforting presence of her twin brother.

Despite that, the story does not reach out into the mystical or the sentimental. It’s rough in its briefness, and it’s painful to read as Linda tries to deal with the recent first contact from her birth mother and the prospect of meeting (and perhaps saving) her twin brother. The mother, as we know from our first encounter with her at Linda’s birth, is not a caring person, and in some ways Linda is grateful her twin brother crushed her in the womb: “I was the one who was spared.”

An excellent story.

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By |2016-06-27T16:40:03+00:00January 5th, 2011|Categories: Louise Erdrich, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Thomas January 5, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    I really enjoyed this story as well–much so than Millhauser’s “Getting Closer”. I’ve always had a great respect for Erdrich for populating her stories with Native Americans and other minorities who don’t usually get the same “literary” treatment as other groups of people (or at least not as much.)

    The language of this story was sharp and simple–just the way I like it. Two questions surfaced after I finished the story:

    1) What is the significance of those moments in the retelling when Linda distances herself from her biological mother and when she claims “ownership” over her. The first example is in the first sentence when Linda recalls a nurse handing her brother off to “HIS mother.” Later she mentions calling a few numbers on a card “MY mother had given me.” Finally, in describing her brother she says “he’d got the best of HIS mother’s features.” Who knows, perhaps she is distancing herself from her brother more so than her mother.

    2) I’m not quite sure I could understand what drove Linden to be so cruel to his biological sister. Was it to emphasize just how similar mother and son were? I wonder also if by this point Linda has not come to see herself as Native American–as well as outsiders–and perhaps the disregard for her sacrifice was an example of the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of everyone else (in particular, whites). She does after all end up being “stuck in that white, white room.” This is a bit of a stretch, of course, but I couldn’t really find any other source for Linden’s behavior.

  2. Trevor January 5, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    Hmm, I hadn’t noticed the play with language you mentioned in point 1. Great catch! I’ll have to think on it, as I’m not sure what it means. It certainly does seem to revolve around her twin.

    As for number 2, I think Linden has had a terrible upbringing, as Linda expects. She was saved, not him. He’s bitter and condescending and will not accept her, and he’s probably somewhat jealous and longs for something she has. And who knows how many times his twin sister has come up as part of his own discipline growing up. Erdrich alluded to the possibility that the mother would take her guilt out on him. Basically, I blame him on the wretched mother for Linden’s demeanor!

  3. Betsy January 9, 2011 at 11:47 am

    In Greek mythology, one had to treat strangers with hospitality, as it was never clear when that stranger might be a god in disguise. In this magnificent story, “The Years of My Birth”, Louise Erdrich creates a similar reality – one in which the elusive god is true goodness — goodness whose appearance is continually shifting and reappearing. Our ability to perceive that goodness in its disguise is also continually shifting and reappearing.

    Who is the true healer? Who is the true mother? What is human deformity? Who is the trustworthy twin of our heart who has appeared to us when we were in despair? Of whom we could say that she truly “grieved with me and and held my hand”? What is the true legitimacy of a culture? Its true life? Erdrich’s story is spellbinding, tight, strange, and wonderful. And, in the tradition of other great short stories, we are not sure at the end what the ending really is, or what the ending really should be, although that answer probably lies within the story if we were to look.

    I was fascinated with the multiple pairs of twins, the multiple versions of names, and the multiple veils of reality. The doctor who was a killer and the healer who healed with the miracles of mother’s milk and the laying on of hands are just one example. In this story, comfort and despair are twins as well, twins who seem to exchange their skins as the story proceeds. The story itself is a kind of twinning – a story born of both the tradition of folktale and the tradition of western literature and told by a master.

  4. Joe January 12, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    I enjoyed this story for all the reasons mentioned above, but I do have one small issue with it. My thoughts on this haven’t completely ripened, so please bear with me.

    Although it’s fairly short, the story is so chock full of plot that it feels like maybe there’s a bit too much crammed it. (I normally don’t have a problem with this kind of thing. I like stories where stuff happens!) In particular, I think it can be difficult to end a story like this. For example, one can imagine that if the story were a page longer, there would probably be another revelation or two (maybe the guy Linda met at the hospital turns out not to be her brother, but a con artist who needs a kidney?) so why should it end where it did? In any case, I sometimes had the feeling that I was reading a summary of a novel rather than a true short story.

    That’s all a minor quibble. Overall, I liked this one a lot!

  5. Trevor January 12, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    Interesting, Joe. I thought this one had about the right amount for me! I liked where it ended. In fact, I hope that this is not the beginning of a novel (in her interview she indicates that this was story she’d been dabbling with for years, and that she finally got the ending and is now done — we’ll see).

  6. Betsy January 19, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Trevor – I, too, liked the story where it ended. It’s interesting what you say about the interview. I remarked that the story was about the true guise of goodness. But it’s also about recognizing evil in its disguises. So I liked the ending. The twin brother feels like a version of sorrow that’s veering into evil – but we don’t know. That’s where it ends. I liked it that it’s not clear.

  7. Ken January 24, 2011 at 6:48 am

    I liked this story and thought it’s economy and precision were admirable and wouldn’t agree with it packing in too much narrative, I thought it was fine in this regard unlike other stories which do have this problem. I saw it as a debate on nature vs. nurture. You can be raised well enough by adopted parents and establish a realtively dignified and solitary and peaceful life in a community not ethnically your own and yet the pull of the twin, of family is hard to resist. It seems to me she’ll give Linden the kidney and this is not stated because it’s almost assumed by Erdrich.

  8. Jim February 6, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Could it be that Linden was pretending to be cruel and mean to her because he wanted to make it easier for her to refuse to donate her kidney? She thought so too and said as much: “Are you saying this to drive me away?”

    He realized what she must have gone through in life, and wanted to make the one gesture he was capable of in his state, to not put her through any more.

  9. Trevor February 7, 2011 at 12:49 am

    I didn’t read it that way, Jim (not that that should dissuade anyone from such a reading). I thought he was a bitter, mean man raised by an awful woman. As much as she cavorts him, she treated him terribly. And here comes the discarded child to his rescue. Also, Linda had a great life filled with companionship and love. If Linden felt this at all, I imagine he would despise Linda even more.

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