In Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich opens up a new territory of contemporary Native American life and demonstrates a compassionate yet uncompromising attitude toward its people. She also crafts a piece of fiction whose technique amplifies its meaning. In doing the work to trace out 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 secondary. What really matters are 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 have hardly any Chippewa blood.
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. Furthermore, 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, using only the literary conventions of a white cultural tradition, thoroughly and convincingly 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.
The book’s characters are nominally Catholic, but their Catholicism grows from mission schooling, which has merely damaged their traditional religion without really replacing it. Lipsha Morrissey, in the story from which the collection takes its title, suddenly thinks that he understands that Grandpa Kashpaw always shouts in church because God will not hear him otherwise. In a confused recollection drawn from his own reading of the Bible, Lipsha reasons that God has been growing progressively deaf since Old Testament times: He used to pay attention and perform miracles or strike down wrongdoers, but He has not done so in recent years. The Chippewa gods, Lipsha thinks, would still do favors if one knew the right way to ask—but the problem is that the right ways of asking were lost to the Chippewa once the Catholics gained ground. Thus, although traditional ways are not glamorized, there is a sense of loss as they diminish. The family pattern that gives a woman a good deal 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, the 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 Chippewa viewpoint here, as elsewhere, sees many disadvantages to 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 encounters, blood in the strictest sense is not really important. To be Indian is, to a certain extent, a state of mind. The urbanized Cree Beverly Lamartine had parents who called themselves French or Black Irish and considered those who thought of themselves as Indians quite backward. Albertine, however, although quite light-skinned and less than half Chippewa, always thinks of herself as Indian. The meaning of identity, the influence of past on present, and the sense of loss and confusion in people caught between a half-remembered tradition and an outsider role in the modern world are the book’s primary themes.