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Study Questions for Louise Erdrich's "The Red Convertible"

Vocabulary: American Dream, asyndeton, multiculturalism, theme

Introduction: What Amerindian tribe comprises half of Erdrich's ethnic background? What European nationality or ethnic group constitutes the other half?

Lecture or Handouts: none

Identify the following characters, places, and objects:

Lyman Lamartine, Henry Lamartine, Susy, Bonita, Blood Reserve, a red Oldsmobile

Reading Questions:

  • Lyman Lamartine was the first person on his reservation to do what?
  • What unusual talent (for a Chippewa) does Lyman have?
  • What disaster strikes the Joliet Café?
  • What verb does Lyman use to describe the way the Oldsmobile sits in the yard when he first sees it?
  • What is the symbolism of the name "Blood Reserve" to refer to the Indians' reservation?
  • When Lyman and his brother pick up the hitchhiking girl, they offer her a ride home. Where does her home turn out to be?
  • What branch of the armed forces recruits Henry for the Vietnam war?
  • When Lyman teases Henry about his nose, he compares that nose to Red Tomahawk. Explain the historical allusion here, and how it connects with Sitting Bull. (Consult an encyclopedia if you need to.)
  • How does Henry's behavior change after returning to the reservation after the war?
  • What is the "clicking" sound Lyman hears as Henry is watching television?
  • What does Lyman do to the red convertible to get Henry's attention?
  • After the car is repaired, what do the two brothers get into a fight about?
  • What happens to the red convertible at the end of the novel?

Passages for Identification: Be able to identify the author, the work, the character speaking (if any) and briefly explain the significance or context of the passage.

A: "My own talent was I could always make money. I had a touch for it, unusual in a Chippewa."

B: There it was, parked large as life. Really as if it was alive. I thought of the word repose, because the car wasn't simply stopped, parked, or whatever. That car reposed, calm and gleaming, a FOR SALE sign in its left front window. Then, before we had thought it over at all, the car belonged to us and our pockets were empty. We had just enough money for gas back home.

C. "Hop on in," says Henry. So she climbs in between us.
"We'll take you home," I says. "Where do you live?"
"Chicken" she says.
"Where the hell's that?" I ask her?
"Okay," says Henry, and we drive.

D: We liked to tease him that they really wanted him for his Indian nose. He had a nose big and sharp as a hatchet, like the nose on Red Tomahawk, the Indian who killed Sitting Bull, whose profile is on signs all along the North Dakota highways.

E: Once I was sitting in the room watching TV with Henry and I heard his teeth click at something. I looked over, and he'd bitten through his lip. Blood was running down his chin. I tell you right then I wanted to smash that tube to pieces. I went over to it but Henry must have known what I was up to.

F. "That car's a classic! But you went and ran the piss right out of it, Lyman, and you know it don't deserve that. I kept that car in A-one shape. You don't remember. You're too young. But when I left, that car was running like a watch. Now I don't even know if I can get it to start again, let alone get it anywhere near its old condition."

G. "I walk back to the car, turn on the high beams, and drive it up the bank. I put it in first gear and then I take my foot off the clutch. I get out, close the door, and watch it plow softly into the water. The headlights reach in as they go down, searching, still lighted even after the water swirls over the back end. I wait. The wires short out. It is all finally dark. And then there is only water, the sound of it going and running and going and running and running."

Food for Thought:

What do fast, shiny cars symbolize or represent in the minds of most Americans? Does that meaning change when the car is owned by reservation Indians? How? In what way?

Why does Lyman let the car roll into the river after spending so much time with his brother trying to fix it up?

What does the water of the river symbolize as it runs over the car's sunken carcass? Why does Erdrich say it is "going and running and going and running and running"? Why does the author use asyndeton here?


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