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Red Convertible And American Culture

In the short story “The Red Convertible,” by Louise Erdrich, the
author, contrasts the old way of life versus the new. Erdrich does this through
metaphorical symbols: the color red, convertible, summer trip, and the
“fancy” dance Henry performs before his death (Erdrich p. 468). In the
story, the color red symbolizes many things. The convertible is red. Lyman also
said his brother, “had a nose big and sharp as a hatchet, like the nose on
Red Tomahawk” (Erdrich p. 467). Also when the brothers took their final
journey Lyman says, “We started off east, toward Pembina and the Red
River” (Erdrich p. 467). The color red, in this story, represents Henry’s
will to be free. The convertible appears in a bright red because, while driving
the car, Henry feels trapped by the white man’s war (Erdrich p. 467). By
returning to the “Red River” Henry regains his spiritual freedom.

According to The American Heritage book of Indians, the “Red Sticks”
were and “anti-American faction” that fought to keep the white man
out, and their heritage strong (p. 221). With this information, the “Red
Sticks,” and the color red, represented in the story can be linked in their
feelings with “anti-Americanism” (The American Heritage book of
Indians p. 221). Lyman says, “He said he wanted to give the car to me for
good now, it was no use” (Erdrich p. 468). By Henry giving Lyman the red
convertible, he is foreshadowing his death. In the Chippawa culture gifts are
given to the family of the deceased (The Chippawas of Lake Superior p. 16). A
“remnant of the deceased” was kept, “wrapped in birch bark,”
this “spirit bundle” was then kept for a year and later given to the
family (The Chippawas of Lake Superior p. 16). Lyman knows that Henry is
preparing him for Henry’s death by giving him the car. Lyman states, “No
way. I don’t want it,” referring to the car (Erdrich p. 468). Lyman refuses
this gift because he does not want Henry to die. The “red convertible”
also represents a “curative charm” (The Chippawas of Lake Superior p.

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19). In the Chippawa culture, a charm was given to the injured or diseased. This
charm was used in many ways to: “stimulate love, attract wealth, insure a
successful journey, and to counteract evil” (The Chippawas of Lake Superior
p. 19). The charm consisted of an artifact that represented the individual or a
“figurine” (The Chippawas of Lake Superior p. 19). The car was Henry’s
charm form Lyman. Lyman states, “I thought the car might bring the old
Henry back somehow” (Erdrich p. 466). Lyman could see Henry was sick, so by
reconnection Henry with the car, he thought the Henry would get better. To
understand why the brothers took tow trips, one to Alaska, and the other at the
end of the story, the Nomadic lifestyle of the Chippawas must be examined. The
Chippawas led a “seminomadic” life, dependent upon the seasons (The
Chippawas of Lake Superior p. 10). At the beginning of the story, Henry and
Lyman venture off for the summer. The brothers end up in Alaska, which
symbolizes their search for “new hunting ground” (The Chippawas of
Lake Superior p. 11). The final journey, that the boys embark on, represents
Henry’s return to nature. Lyman identifies Henry’s feeling by stating,
“When everything starts changing, drying up, clearing off, you feel like
your whole life is starting. Henry felt it too (Erdrich p. 467). When Henry and
Lyman reach their final destination, something comes over Henry. Lyman
identifies this change when he states, “I think it’s the old Henry” (Erdrich
p. 468). However, Lyman doesn’t understand Henry’s next move when he says,
“He throws off his jacket and starts springing his legs up form the knees
like a fancy dancer…He’s wild” (Erdrich p. 468). To understand Henry’s
“fancy” dancing, the reader must be aware of the cultural ties the
Chippawa have to dancing. The origin of the Chippawa “dancing drum” is
told through an old legend (The Ojibwa Dance Drum p. 44). The legend begins with
an old Indian woman, who lost her four sons fighting the white man. This woman
took refuge in a lake. Hiding from the white man, under lillypads, the
“Great Spirit” told her how to ward off the white man (The Ojibwa
Dance Drum p. 44). To do this, the “Great Spirit told her to make a drum,
and taught her songs to sing when the white man returned” (The Ojibwa Dance
Drum p. 44). When the woman returned to her people, she told the men how to sing
the songs. The Great Spirit said, “It will be the only way you are going to
stop the soldiers from killing your people” (The Ojibwa Dance Drum p. 44).

When the white men returned to the village, they heard the drum and saw the
dancing, they then put down their arms, and stopped the killing (The Ojibwa
Dance Drum p. 44). By looking at this story’s background, and understanding the
difficulties Henry went through, the reader can understand the meaning of
Henry’s “fancy, wild” dance (Erdrich p. 468). Henry was sent to fight
in a white man’s war, and upon his return, he had changed. henry’s dance
symbolically represents his rejection of war. Henry, tortured by the memories of
war, performs this dance in hopes of warding of the nightmares. “The lake
country red man’s lifestyle developed from an acceptance of his environment, not
from its transformation” (The Chippawas of Lake Superior p. 6). This
statement in effect describes Henry. Henry couldn’t accept the changes that were
occurring around him, therefore he took his own life. Symbolically, the author,
Louise Erdrich uses the culture of the old Native Americans to explain the
actions demonstrated by the characters in the story. The convertible can be
looked at as a charm to help the sick. The nomadic lifestyle is demonstrated by
the trips taken by the brothers. Also Henry’s dance symbolizes the fighting of
the American soldiers.


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