"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.