Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for 1984, Love Medicine is a truly impressive first novel. Author Louise Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa, was one of the first women students admitted to Dartmouth in 1972, and has published a collection of poetry. In Love Medicine, she not only opens up a new territory of contemporary Native American life and demonstrates a compassionate yet uncompromising attitude toward its people but also crafts a fascinating piece of fiction whose technique amplifies its theme.
Love Medicine is a series of stories. Many of them are quite independent; they have been published in Atlantic Monthly, Kenyon Review, Ms., North American Review, and in various prize-story collections. As independent stories, they have many virtues. One is the creation of language that reflects the age, education, attitude, and experience of each narrator. The images, phrasing, and vocabulary of the urbanized characters such as Beverly Lamartine differ from the language of those whose lives still center on the reservation; the expressions used by some people in the older generation (particularly Marie Lazarre) subtly suggest translation from thoughts that come in another language. Even in the youngest generation, Albertine Johnson, who has left the reservation to go to college, uses words quite differently from her cousin Lipsha, who has stayed behind.
As independent stories, also, each has a sharp focus, a clear narrative line reaching some resolution, and images that expose the event without intervening explanation. Nevertheless, impressive as the stories are, the novel created by weaving them together is stronger than any of its parts. The first story takes place in 1981, the second in 1934—and midway in the second story, the reader begins to understand that the young girl Marie Lazarre, who tells about fighting devils in the convent, is the same person as Grandma Kashpaw, who was fetched from the senior citizens home in the first story. As one tale follows another in a sequence that skips back and forth through the years, the reader has the pleasure of fitting together the jigsaw puzzle, teasing out the identities hidden in the various names that result from marriages, unwed parenthood, and children fostered by neighbors or relatives, and realizing, with sudden delight, that one is getting a second viewpoint on an incident already known from an earlier story. The layers of understanding created by the linked-story technique ensure that many readers will finish the last page, turn the book over, and start once more from the beginning in order to read each story with the added insight that grows from enlarged knowledge.
More significantly, in doing the work to trace relationships, keep track of the characters, and understand how they are tied together, the reader becomes a part of the linking and weaving that is the novel’s theme. The pleasure of solving puzzles is subordinate to this revelation of the bonds of love and mystery and anger, the desires and strengths and weaknesses that keep these people together, even though some are reservation bound, others thoroughly urbanized, and a few only fractionally Chippewa.
The physical center of the stories is a piece of land originally allotted to Nector Kashpaw’s mother, Rushes Bear. Most of her children were assigned to parcels in Montana, but she managed to get a piece of North Dakota wheatland and live on it with her young twins, Nector and Eli. Nector went to boarding school, learned white reading and writing, and grew up to be tribal chairman and a man of importance; Eli, hidden by his mother in a root cellar, lived in the woods and kept some of the old skills. These two men, who became adults in the 1930’s, represent the oldest generation in the novel; the women with whom their lives become entangled include Marie Lazarre and Lulu Lamartine. Marie goes into a convent intending to become a saint; after marrying Nector, she compulsively takes in unwanted children. Lulu, with what seems equal compulsion, makes her own babies—eight boys, each by a different father, who grow up supporting, fighting, and caring for one another. Both Marie and Lulu know how to use power; Marie pushes Nector into becoming tribal chairman, and Lulu, in a truly wonderful scene, forces the council not to sell her land by threatening to reveal publicly—right then in the meeting—who fathered each of her children. Both remain vivid into their old age, strong and salty women using very different tactics to win what they desire.
The middle generation is not quite so compelling—perhaps its members are seen less clearly (none is actually a narrator for any extended story) or perhaps they are the generation that suffers most from the dislocation between reservation ways and the modern world. June Morrissey dies in the first story, virtually whoring for her busfare back to the reservation. Her discarded husband, Gordon Kashpaw, is the viewpoint character (though not the narrator) of the story “Crown of Thorns,” which is a careful, vivid, underplayed, and thoroughly convincing portrait of delirium tremens. Lulu Lamartine’s son Gerry Nanapush spends half his adult life in prison after a three-year sentence for assault (he keeps escaping and being recaptured and doing additional time for escape) before he makes the mistake of hiding out on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he inevitably kills a state trooper.
Albertine Johnson and Lipsha Morrissey, from the youngest generation, are, to a certain extent, consciously searching for their roots and for a way to understand their ties to the past. Most of their generation have disappeared to Minneapolis or Chicago or somewhere even farther beyond the pull of the house and land that form the gravitational center of the Kashpaw constellation. Both Lipsha and Albertine are still in the process of becoming. Albertine, in particular, can change quite dramatically from one story to the next, but despite her relatively small share of Chippewa genes and her sustained drive for education—she is studying medicine by the end of the book—she knows her own need for the bonds of blood and tradition. She tries to talk to her grandfather about tribal politics and how he got things done in the old days. Lipsha, who seems virtually impervious to any kind of teaching (he manages to mangle and misunderstand both the traditional skills he learns from Eli Kashpaw and the education he suffers in white schools), is a wonderfully naïve narrator in the Huck Finn tradition. At the end of the book, however, he turns to home instead of lighting out for an individual destiny.
Because the stories are presented through their narrators, with no outside viewpoint to provide explanations, the evocation of Native American life is clean and subtle, without pandering to the picturesque or the sentimental. Here again, the book’s structure is used to alter the reader’s consciousness from within. For example, although June Morrissey Kashpaw dies in the first tale, her character is one of the threads that provides links among the people and the stories—various characters talk about her; there are questions about her own parentage and about the husband she left and the baby she never acknowledged; Gordon takes to drink after her death; Albertine’s mother and aunt tell their version of an incident from June’s childhood. In other words, Erdrich, beginning the novel within the literary conventions of a white cultural tradition, demonstrates that a person who is dead can remain an important presence for the living. From that point, it is only half a step to the other stories, the ones in which a dead person’s spirit actually appears.
Even though traditional ways are not glamorized, there is a sense of loss as they diminish. The family pattern that gives a woman a considerable amount of choice about who will father her children and how long her liaison with any particular man will last has a joyous (if semicomic) treatment in the case of Lulu Lamartine. In the next generation, however, June Morrissey seems more of a slut than an Earth Mother. The army, which in traditional sentiment and in the eyes of reservation boys, is a heroic experience that brings the Indian into his own, has a devastating effect on the Vietnam generation. Significantly, American Indian Movement hero Gerry Nanapush gives Lipsha Morrissey the gift of a blood tie that will free him from his decision to join the military.
The sense of place is also strong, though the setting is seldom described. The Kashpaw land is nearly off the edge of the map, in that part of North Dakota where the nearest city (the place to which Lipsha hitchhikes when he has an irresistible urge to play Space Invaders) is Winnipeg. The setting, like the story, reflects a jumble of old and new; the bare box cabins and the modern “Senior Citizens”; the Kashpaw house that no one really owns, but where everyone gathers.
There is a considerable amount of humor in the book. Some of it is raucous slapstick (the rest of the American public is slowly realizing that the wooden-faced Indian is a myth as well as a stereotype). More impressive are the flashes of wit that crystallize bits of Native American viewpoint. Eli sings “hunting songs used to attract deer or women.” Marie Lazarre says that as a girl she had “the mail-order Catholic soul you get in a girl raised out in the bush, whose only thought is getting into town.” Lipsha Morrissey discovers that Grandpa Kashpaw always shouts in church because God will not hear him otherwise:I sweat. I broke right into a little cold sweat at my hairline because I knew this was perfectly right and for years not one damn other person had noticed it. God’s been going deaf. Since the Old Testament, God’s been deafening up on us. I read, see. Besides the dictionary, which I’m constantly in use of, I had this Bible once. I read it. I found there was discrepancies between then and now. It struck me. Here God used to raineth bread from clouds, smite the Phillipines [sic], sling fire down on red-light districts where people got stabbed. He even appeared in person every once in a while. God used to pay attention, is what I’m saying.
The Chippewa gods, Lipsha continues, would still do favors if one knew the right way to ask—but the problem is that “to ask proper was an art that was lost to the Chippewa once the Catholics gained ground. Even now, I have to wonder if Higher Power turned it back, if we got to yell, or if we just don’t speak its language.”
The Chippewa viewpoint here, as elsewhere, sees many disadvantages of white ways; the Chippewa also (like humans almost everywhere) crave the material goods that seem to rain on hardworking white Americans. The only character who really romanticizes the Indian past is Lynette Kashpaw, the wholly white wife of one of the younger men. After several generations of interracial marriage and sexual encounter, blood in the strictest sense is not very important. To be Indian is, to a certain extent, a state of mind. The urbanized Cree Beverly Lamartine had parents who “always called themselves French or Black Irish and considered those who thought of themselves as Indians quite backward.” Albertine, however, though she describes herself as “light, clearly a breed,” always thinks of herself as Indian. “I raised her an Indian,” says her mother, “and that’s what she is.”
Love Medicine helps to decode that mystery along with the others. Like Lipsha Morrissey’s meditation on God, the book begins in high humor and grows steadily more somber and serious. It introduces a new voice and a new fictional territory; both are extraordinarily impressive. Despite aspects of sadness and bitter pain in the situation and despite the pettiness and brutality of some of the characters, Louise Erdrich has created a world of life, survival, love, and great power.