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.