Caitlin Hamilton Summie: Awoken by Erdrich

Caitlin Hamilton Summie
photo courtesy Caitlin Hamilton Summie

I’ve known Caitlin Hamilton Summie for years, first as the marketing director of some fantastic small independent publishers, and then as the proprietor of her own marketing and publicity firm. Now I find out she’s been writing her own short stories this entire time, and they’ve just been collected in To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts. It’s an apt title: Caitlin’s characters deal with the holes left in their lives by, say, fathers lost to combat overseas, or sisters who were their only point of contact with an estranged family—or they’re haunted by the memory of a young girl who played hopscotch outside their apartment building those few months they tried living in Manhattan. Or…well, discover for yourself. In this guest essay, Caitlin reveals how Louise Erdrich’s stories were the key that unlocked a central aspect of her own writing.

I have loved the short stories of Jhumpa Lahiri and William Maxwell and Hemingway—and others—but if I were to think of one collection that really affected me as a writer, it would be Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich—the first Love Medicine, not the revised edition she published later.

I read the book in graduate school twenty-five or so years ago and it was the first collection of linked stories I remember reading. I hadn’t been an English major. Heck, I hadn’t even minored in English. I had majored in Middle Eastern history with a minor in philosophy, and I came into my MFA with significant reading gaps. (I still haven’t closed all the gaps.) During that first year of grad school (and even after), colleagues referenced books that I had never read, and there I was, quiet, listening, with nothing to contribute, or at least nothing to contribute that would interest them. Sufi poetry, anyone?

The neatest part of my MFA was that we had to pass a comprehensive exam in literature before we could present and defend our thesis, which made the program a glorious three years instead of two and which allowed me to read broadly. During this time, I read Hemingway and loved his work. I even read a biography about him. I still remember waiting to see what one professor would say after my exam about my essay on Hemingway, she a feminist scholar. I remember reading Malamud with great admiration.

But in my second year, I took a class on Native American Literature—and I read, among other writers, Momaday and Erdrich. And I was captivated. Specifically, something about the sheer poetry of the prose in Love Medicine captured me—along with the gripping story of a family and a community, of a place in time. I loved the reflection of a culture and belief system in all that she wrote. I had at that time begun writing stories about a multi-generational family (and still am), and I loved what I now call the “chorus effect” of voices woven together into a whole. I’d tried something like it before, but not succeeded, but here was success, this wonderful novel.

Our worlds are different, but we had (and I guess have) a similar approach to writing about them. Like Erdrich, my work is strongly rooted in family and place and attuned to the music of language. In her work, as in mine, no one is entirely isolated; history matters.

I still remember reading the first story in Love Medicine and the shock of the main character dying—and yet the evocative language. I don’t have my copy anymore, which I deeply regret, but it was a battered, much-thumbed used edition and so in one of my many moves, I decided to let it go. A big mistake, as I think that original edition is hard to find now. I don’t generally reread books so I have not revisited Love Medicine—or any of the stories or novels that shook me awake as a writer. I want to preserve those a-ha moments. But I kept my copy of Erdrich’s Tracks and as I wrote this essay, I paused to open it and to remember—and there it was, that beautiful, riveting prose, right in the very first line:

“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.”

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14 August 2017 | selling shorts, uncategorized |