Love Medicine Louise Erdrich
(Born as Karen Louise Erdrich; has also published under pseudonyms Heidi Louise and Milou North) American novelist, poet, memoirist, children's writer, and historian.
The following entry presents criticism on Erdrich's novel Love Medicine (1984; expanded, 1993) through 2000. See also, Louise Erdrich Criticism.
In the novel Love Medicine, Erdrich draws upon her Chippewa heritage to examine complex familial and sexual relationships among Native Americans and their conflict with white communities. Her comically eccentric characters attain mythic stature as they struggle to overcome isolation, abandonment, and exploitation. Although Erdrich's work often deals with issues of concern to Native Americans, critics have noted the universality of her themes, the poetic quality of her literary voice, and her engaging authorial presence. Initially published in 1984, Erdrich released a revised and expanded version of Love Medicine in 1993 to clarify events and relationships between characters, as well as strengthening links to her later works such as Tracks (1988) and The Bingo Palace (1994). Love Medicine remains critically and commercially popular and has earned a notable position in the canon of American literature.
Plot and Major Characters
Love Medicine features fourteen interconnected stories related by seven different members of the Kashpaw and Lamartine families of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa community. The first chapter of the novel, “The World's Greatest Fishermen,” opens with the death of June Kashpaw, who freezes to death as she tries to walk back to her reservation following a meaningless sexual encounter with a white oil worker. As the chapter progresses, Erdrich relates the reactions of June's relatives, children, and the Turtle Mountain community to her death, establishing the foundation for the rest of the narrative. The subsequent chapters are not arranged chronologically, but rather follow significant moments in the lives of her characters between the years of 1934 and 1984. The chapters “Saint Marie” and “Wild Geese” follow Nector and Marie Kashpaw, who at times act as June's parents following the death of her mother. Nector was sent to public school while his twin brother Eli stayed home on the reservation and, as a result, Eli has been unable to fully integrate himself into white culture. In Marie's early adolescence, she attempted a social climb by becoming a nun in a convent near the reservation. After battling with the sadistic Sister Leopolda, who believes that Marie is possessed by the Devil, Marie leaves the convent and marries Nector. Their marriage is tumultuous, and Nector later begins an affair with Lulu Nanapush, whose past is related in “The Island,” a chapter added to the 1993 expanded edition. “The Beads” opens in 1948 with June in her childhood just after Marie and Nector took her into their home. The chapters “Lulu's Boys,” “The Plunge of the Brave,” and “Flesh and Blood” all take place in 1957, primarily focusing on the strained relationships between Nector, the promiscuous Lulu, and the overly socially conscious Marie. “A Bridge” and “The Red Convertible” take place between 1973 and 1974 and follow Henry Lamartine, the son of Lulu and her former brother-in-law, Beverly. Henry is on his way back to the reservation, returning after being released from a Vietnam prisoner-of-war camp, when he meets Albertine, a niece of June's who is running away from home. The bonds between Nector, Lulu, and Marie are further explored in “Love Medicine” and “The Good Tears.” Lipsha Morrissey, who was raised by Marie, tries to heal the breach between Marie and Nector caused by Nector's attraction to Lulu in the retirement center in which they live. Unwittingly, as Marie tries to get Nector to eat the turkey hearts prepared by Lipsha as a “love medicine,” Nector chokes to death. “The Good Tears” ends with Lulu and Marie's reconciliation, with Marie acting as Lulu's nurse, putting the “tears” in her eyes following Lulu's cataract surgery and Nector's death. The final three chapters—“The Tomahawk Factory,” “Lyman's Luck,” and “Crossing the Water”—follow Lyman Lamartine, Nector and Lulu's son, and Lipsha, who discovers that June was his birth mother.
The stories in Love Medicine examine the lives of individuals in the Turtle Mountain community, tracking both their physical moves to stay or leave the reservation and their spiritual moves to accommodate a pervasive American culture or remain true to the lifestyle of their Chippewa ancestors. In part, the linked sections chart the health and success of the characters who are in the process of this movement. Chapters such as “The World's Greatest Fishermen” and “The Island” concentrate on a variety of thematic concerns such as abandonment, promiscuity, alienation, the devastating effects of alcoholism and suicide in Native American communities, and vicissitudes of familial relationships. Characters like Eli and Lyman reflect the displacement and isolation of Native Americans within American cultural, socioeconomic, and political landscapes. Eli isolates himself on the reservation, not acknowledging the presence of white culture, while Lyman dreams of building a casino to attract white gamblers to the area. However, the novel also focuses on more positive aspects of the tribal community, including the healing power of humor, familial and cultural bonds, compassion, hope, and redemption. Despite their lifelong struggle surrounding Nector—who tries to balance himself between white and Native American culture—Marie and Lulu are able to reconcile their differences and live together in the Native American retirement community. Critics have explored the archetypal image of the Native American trickster in Love Medicine, which Erdrich embodies in the characters of Lulu and Lipsha. Commentators have additionally noted that Erdrich's use of multiple narrators illustrates the complex relationships amongst the characters while also recreating the form of the Native American oral narrative.
Love Medicine has received an overwhelmingly positive critical assessment since its initial publication, earning several accolades and honors, including the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984. The majority of the reviews and critical commentary on the novel have focused on Erdrich's unique narrative technique, which employs multiple narrators, overlapping themes, and nonlinear chronology. This nontraditional structure has earned Love Medicine favorable comparisons to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom! Erdrich's continuing use and development of characters in the Turtle Mountain region has also been praised for its similarity to Faulkner's creation of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Some critics have complained that Erdrich's use of alternating narrators interrupts the narrative flow and makes the text needlessly confusing, while others have lauded Erdrich's characterization and the thematic links between the narrators. Placing Love Medicine within a specific literary genre has been widely debated among scholars and academics, with some alternately referring to the story as a novel, a collection of stories, or a short story sequence. Although Erdrich refers to each section as a “chapter,” reviewers have noted that many of the sections originally appeared in other publications as short stories. Hertha D. Wong has asserted that the structure of Love Medicine constitutes a “short story cycle,” noting that, “[a]lthough each of the short stories in Love Medicine is inextricably interrelated to a network of other stories beyond its covers, the sequence of stories within the book has its own coherence, just as each story has its own integrity.”
Erdrich’s Love Medicine invites its readers to experience the storytelling tradition of an American Indian tribe, the Ojibwa (also referred to as Chippewa), through its use of multiple narrators and resistance to strictly linear plot. There is no main character or focusing narrator; many speak, all with authority. The reader must fit together the pieces to construct the layers of understanding necessary to trace kinship and events. The weaving together of individual voices to form the communal whole is part of Erdrich’s theme. The diverse viewpoints function to reveal the ties of family and tribe as well as to point out how much has broken down between individuals and generations and has been lost, perhaps forever. Every event—June’s death, for example—is viewed differently by each narrator, and the complexity of that which may initially seem simple and straightforward is disclosed. The nature of time is not chronological or linear; it is cyclical and layered. Lipsha says when he comforts his Grandma Kashpaw after the death of Nector, “He [Nector] loved you over time and distance,” suggesting that past, present, and future are united in a profound way.
Although it is realistic in its detailing of contemporary American Indian life— including problems with alcohol, poverty, joblessness, and generational conflict—Love Medicine reflects the fact that powerful myths shape the lives of its narrators, though not in any stereotypical way. There are no rain dances, peace pipes, or sweat lodges in this novel. The only attempted “magic” is the “love medicine” of the title, which goes awry when a largely untrained practitioner—Lipsha—resorts to “an evil short cut” in the ritual, purchasing frozen turkey hearts when he finds it too difficult to procure the hearts of two wild geese. Instead of tribal gods and chanting medicine men, the moments of spirituality, magic, and myth occur within the patterns and enduring qualities of the natural world in the forms of water, fire, air, earth, and animals, all part of Ojibwa oral tradition.
Water, the major symbol in the book, is one of the elements that unifies the novel. The narratives themselves are fluid, flowing together to form the whole. Bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, and creeks are important to many of the interwoven tales. Five of the novel’s fourteen sections are titled with water references, including the first section, “The World’s Greatest Fishermen,” and the final section, “Crossing the Water.” Tears or their absence, boiling water, the lack of rain, and the frozen snow are only a few of the many mentions of water in its various forms throughout the book. Water is life giving, as when Marie helps restore Lulu to tears, but it can also be life destroying, as when Henry Lamartine, Jr., drowns himself or when June dies as she walks over the snow. Lulu Lamartine notes “how drowning was the worst death for a Chippewa to experience. . . . There was no place for the drowned in heaven or anywhere on earth.” A universal symbol, water is also associated with memory, and in its many guises it is carefully and consistently used by Erdrich throughout Love Medicine.
Other natural elements that appear include fire, which ritually purifies as well as destroys (Nector accidentally sets fire to Lulu’s house), and earth, in the form of dust, which permeates the air because of the lack of rain, and mud, resulting from a sudden abundance of water (Lyman comes to tell Lulu of the death of Henry, Jr., “with mud in his hair”). Fragility is expressed by yet another natural symbol—the egg and its shell. June is enticed by a man peeling a blue, hard-boiled egg in a bar. She is described as feeling fragile, and she pulls down her shell, as if to protect herself. King smashes pies in a fit of rage, and Albertine says she cannot repair the cracked and broken shells. Except perhaps for Eli Kashpaw and Lipsha Morrissey, the men seem unable to relate fully to nature or the elements as they appear in Love Medicine, while the women appear to be more able to coexist with and take sustenance from the natural world.
Several major themes often associated with American Indian literature flow through the novel. These include a relationship with the land and the importance of land to tribal and personal identities. Most of the narrators comment on the land, and people and place are inseparable. One returns to the land where one is rooted by either birth or association. The characters in the novel continually return to the tribal lands because they are part of the land. There is a sense of mourning the loss of land and a desire to protect what remains in Indian hands. Geographical boundaries do not matter; the characters flow back and forth from city to reservation, from country to country. The allotted Kashpaw land is on the border of North Dakota and Canada, and the place where Lipsha goes to play the ironically titled video game “Space Invaders” is in Winnipeg.
Closely related to the relationship with the land is the sense of returning home or to a center. Unlike the conventional American plot of “leaving” or “lighting out for the territory,” there is a desire to return home, to find the center, to follow the sacred hoop. Returning to the reservation (or remaining on it), however, may not be a positive experience for the contemporary Indian, who may be alienated from the past or ignorant of it, and who may not be able to live on what the reservation lands can offer. One of the difficulties faced by younger generation Indians such as Albertine Johnson is that there is no simple or obvious way to “be” an Indian, to bridge the gaps.
Erdrich reveals the complexities of life for the many narrators of Love Medicine with a sense of humor that is by turns gentle and ironic. The “love medicine” incident is one example of this use of humor. Marie and Sister Leopolda fight over a spoon that Marie has come to believe is the source of the nun’s power. The only person who romanticizes Indians is Lynette, who is white. By allowing her characters to laugh as well as to suffer, Erdrich makes them believable and worth caring about.