Love Medicine caused a critical stir when it was published in 1984. Made up of a series of fragmented though interconnected short narratives, each told by a different character, the story moves back and forth through time, unraveling the intricate connections between the Kashpaw, Morrissey, Nanapush, and Lamartine families—American Indians living in North Dakota on an Ojibwa reservation. Some commentators suggest that the novel is a portrayal of Turtle Mountain Reservation, but the landscape Louise Erdrich describes in the novel is similar to the landscapes of other reservations in Minnesota.
Erdrich drew heavily on the works of novelist William Faulkner for the structure of Love Medicine. The use of such techniques had been unprecedented, and indeed Erdrich had been criticized by American Indian writer Leslie Marmon Silko for being more interested in technique than in the problems experienced by American Indians. This criticism assumes, however, that novels by American Indians should be specifically about American Indians. While Erdrich does touch on such concerns, including the forced division of lands according to the Dawes Act (1887) and subsequent land-purchase scandals, as well as abuse by the Catholic Church and high rates of alcoholism, these issues come through as background.
Erdrich’s main subject is love: romantic love and family love and the ways in which people come to terms with their emotional needs. When Nector marries Marie, he is still in love with Lulu, a love that never really fades; he marries Marie only because he feels obligated to do so. By contrast, Marie considers Nector as her means of escape from life in a poor family. She is determined to make him a person of substance within the community, for her benefit as much as for his. Only in the end do they both realize how much they do actually feel for one another. Gerry’s devotion to Dot and his family is what fuels his need to escape from prison.
Marie struggles to construct a concept of family that steps beyond formal ties, adopting those in need, for example. However, it is Lulu who manages to integrate a disparate group of children by a number of different fathers into a strong and loving family unit. Her family is not perfect, though; Henry, Jr.’s suicide comes as a result of post-traumatic stress, brought on by his experiences fighting in the Vietnam War. Lulu’s family troubles are not specific to American Indians; her family troubles resemble a much broader social problem.
By contrast, Marie’s family, later headed by Zelda and Aunt Aurelia, is held together by secrets and acts of concealment. Marie lacks Lulu’s warmhearted generosity and struggles to keep her family close. Only Lipsha moves between the two families, choosing finally to remain with the Kashpaws. Even so, it is worth remembering that even after June’s actions ultimately led another generation of her family to fragment, June was finally returning home. Her death led her family members to admit their secrets.