Love Medicine (Magill's Literary Annual 1985)
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...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The novel Love Medicine is told as a series of interrelated narratives, several of which appeared as short fiction in magazines such as Ms., Kenyon Review, Atlantic Monthly, and North American Review. Although many of the novel’s sections can stand alone as individual stories, it is the cumulative effect of these stories that gives the book its power and shape as a novel. Narrated by eleven different characters from two Indian families living in North Dakota, Love Medicine documents the encroachment of white civilization on an American Indian community. The search for sovereignty permeates the novel, and the loss of personal and political sovereignty is one of Erdrich’s major themes. The tales of these losses are largely told through the women of the families.
The story opens with June Kashpaw, an attractive Chippewa prostitute, deciding to return to the reservation on which she was reared. Before leaving Williston, North Dakota, however, June goes with one more client. Afterward, in a freakish Easter weekend snowstorm, she begins walking (although she has a bus ticket) back to the reservation and freezes to death. Although she is dead, June’s presence filters throughout the narratives that follow.
Physically, the book focuses on a piece of land originally allotted under the auspices of the Dawes Act of 1887 and the Indian Allotment Act of 1904 to Nector and Eli Kashpaw’s mother, Rushes...
(The entire section is 586 words.)
Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Love Medicine, which won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and was named the Los Angeles Times Best Novel of 1985, provides a uniquely feminine view of contemporary American Indian life. The female characters— especially Marie and Lulu—live and raise families and survive under adverse conditions. With the exception of June, the female characters (and the males who are not afraid to defy some traditional notions of masculinity) endure and actively shape the future. Even June, who is a troubled woman, has a deep influence on those around her. Erdrich depicts women who are neither Indian princesses nor squaws, the two stereotypes most often associated with American Indian women. Instead, she presents characters of both genders who are believable and complex.
The role of women in the cultural transitions experienced by the narrators of Love Medicine is an important but shifting one. For example, the family patterns of the Ojibwa give a woman a considerable amount of choice about who will father her children, and Erdrich gives this choice-making a joyous and occasionally humorous treatment in Lulu Lamartine. June Morrissey, however, is depicted as a largely unhappy woman who is a prostitute; the freedom to choose has overwhelmed her. Albertine Johnson, a member of the youngest generation, is understandably unsure of her place in either the white or Indian cultures. She is left with the task of defining her own life and role, since the past can no longer accommodate her and the future is uncertain.
The men are largely ineffectual as either leaders or providers, and only those men such as Lipsha and Eli, who are willing to recognize their feminine sides by acting compassionately or by nurturing, appear to be able to survive. By the end of the novel, the two strongest women—Marie and Lulu—have forged a bond that might have been formed earlier if they had not been divided by a man. By resisting the stereotyping of her characters and by honoring the multilayered oral traditions of Ojibwa storytellers, Erdrich has crafted a text that allows readers to explore and experience what it means to be an Indian.
Questions and Answers Chapter 1
1. How does June die?
2. Why does Albertine return to the reservation?
3. Why does Zelda have a low opinion of June?
4. Does everyone in the Kashpaw family have a low opinion of June?
5. Grandma Kashpaw tells a story about June and the other children (Aurelia, Gordie, and Zelda). Why does the story seem important to them now?
6. Why won’t Eli ride with King?
7. How do you know that King can be violent and untrustworthy?
8. What is Eli’s skill?
9. What does King have to be stopped from doing to June’s car?
10. Why doesn’t Albertine tell Lipsha that June was his mother?
(The entire section is 367 words.)
Questions and Answers Chapters 2 - 3
1. What does Marie respect about Sister Leopolda?
2. Why does Marie wish to escape her family reputation?
3. What is the attraction of joining the convent?
4. What is the cause of Marie's “stigmata”?
5. How does Sister Leopolda explain the wound to the other nuns?
6. What does Marie see that makes her stop reveling in being worshipped as a saint?
7. Why does Nector accuse Marie of stealing?
8. What does Marie show Nector that causes Nector to realize that no one will believe she forced him to have sex with her?
9. Where does Nector go with Marie?
10. Why does Nector fail to meet...
(The entire section is 344 words.)
Questions and Answers Chapter 4
1. How is June related to Grandma Kashpaw?
2. What strange behavior does June exhibit when she first arrives?
3. When does June begin to talk?
4. Who is June the most relaxed around?
5. Why does it seem natural that Eli and June would get along?
6. What characteristic traits do Marie and June share?
7. Why is there gossip about Marie? Is it true?
8. Where is Nector when he is not with his family?
9. Where does June choose to live at the end of the chapter?
10. What present does June leave for Marie?
1. June is Marie’s sister’s daughter, so...
(The entire section is 246 words.)
Questions and Answers Chapters 5 - 6
1. Why does Beverly think that Henry Junior is his son?
2. Why does Beverly return to the reservation?
3. Beverly does not even ask Lulu if Henry Junior is his son, much less speak to the boy. Why?
4. Why does Nector return to the reservation?
5. What circumstance brings Nector and Lulu together?
6. What past action does Nector apologize to Lulu for in the car?
7. What does Lulu say that makes Nector vow never to see her again?
8. What political situation does Nector have to apologize to Lulu for?
9. In his distress, while trying to win back Lulu and leave Marie, what does Nector set on fire?...
(The entire section is 355 words.)
Questions and Answers Chapter 7
1. Why doesn’t Marie think that Sister Leopolda, despite her self-deprivations and holy attitude, could be a saint?
2. Why does Marie decide to visit Sister Leopolda?
3. Why does Marie put on her good royal plum dress? Why is it a mistake?
4. Why does Marie initially feel pity for Sister Leopolda?
5. Why does Marie ask Sister Leopolda to bless her and Zelda?
6. What does Sister Leopolda do when she is supposed to be blessing Marie?
7. Why does Marie replace the note on the kitchen table under the salt canister instead of the sugar canister?
8. What reason does Marie give for Nector not being able to enter the...
(The entire section is 484 words.)
Questions and Answers Chapters 8 - 10
1. Henry Junior is mentally unsound because of his experiences in Vietnam. How does Albertine realize this?
2. Who bought the red Oldsmobile convertible?
3. Who owns the red Oldsmobile convertible?
4. Why does Lyman damage the convertible?
5. Does Lyman’s damage to the car and deception about how it happened have the effect he wants?
6. What do Henry Junior and Lyman have a fistfight over? Why?
7. How does Henry Junior die?
8. What in particular makes Dot want Gerry to return to her?
9. If Gerry is so good at escaping prisons, why is he always recaptured?
10. What act of Gerry’s...
(The entire section is 534 words.)
Questions and Answers Chapter 11
1. What caused Gordie’s slide into serious alcoholism?
2. In the house, what does Gordie do to try to defend himself from a ghost?
3. Why does Gordie flee his house?
4. Why does Gordie keep driving after hitting the deer?
5. What causes the second apparition of June?
6. Why does Sister Mary try to dissuade Gordie from confessing?
7. Gordie’s confession terrifies Sister Mary. Why?
8. Why does Sister Mary go outside?
9. What is Sister Mary unable to explain to Gordie?
10. Where is Gordie at the end of the chapter?
1. June’s death caused...
(The entire section is 346 words.)
Questions and Answers Chapter 12
1. What makes Lipsha special? Does he retain this trait throughout the novel?
2. What is love medicine?
3. How does Lipsha find out about Lulu and Grandpa Kashpaw?
4. Why do Grandma Kashpaw and Lipsha decide to use love medicine?
5. What is it about the hunt for geese that depresses Lipsha?
6. What spiritual error does Lipsha know he is making when he buys the turkey hearts?
7. What ultimately kills Grandpa Kashpaw?
8. Why does Lipsha confess that he bought the turkey hearts at the store?
9. Give one textually supported explanation for Grandpa Kashpaw’s appearance after death.
(The entire section is 418 words.)
Questions and Answers Chapter 13
1. Why did Lulu ignore Nector in town?
2. What does Lulu threaten the tribal council with?
3. Why is Lulu bald?
4. Where does Lulu live after her house burns down?
5. How is the tribal council shamed into giving Lulu land?
6. What happens between Beverly and Lulu in this chapter?
7. Where does Lulu run into Nector and forgive him?
8. What physical ailment does Lulu suffer from in this chapter?
9. Something supernatural happens to Lulu at the end of the chapter. What is it?
10. How does it come about that Lulu forgives Marie, and Marie forgives Lulu?
(The entire section is 311 words.)
Questions and Answers Chapter 14
1. Who tells Lipsha who his parents are? Why?
2. Lipsha chooses to enlist. Why then does he run from the army police?
3. Why does Lipsha have such a good chance of being able to meet Gerry?
4. What do Howard and Lipsha have in common?
5. How do King, Lynette and Lipsha learn that Gerry is free?
6. How has King infuriated Gerry?
7. Why doesn’t King want to bet the red car? Why does Lipsha want to win?
8. How does Lipsha change the odds of the card game?
9. Where does Gerry go when the police knock?
10. If Lipsha is fleeing the army police, why doesn’t he cross the border with Gerry?...
(The entire section is 367 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
Techniques / Literary Precedents
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. An in-depth look at the feminine in American Indian rituals, storytelling, and so on. This book provides good background information on Native American traditions.
Booklist. LXXXI, September 1, 1984, p. 24.
Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, November 27, 1984, p. 33.
Downes, Margaret J. “Narrativity, Myth, and Metaphor: Louise Erdrich and Raymond Carver Talk About Love.” MELUS 21 (Summer, 1996): 49-61. Compares the ways that Erdrich and Carver use...
(The entire section is 492 words.)