Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 730 words.)
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The tribe, similar to but not the same as the extended family, is a cultural organization created by the action of Love Medicine. It is an action filled with the stories of various individual Chippewa, and their physical moves to stay or leave the reservation in North Dakota, and their spiritual moves to accommodate a pervasive American culture or remain true to the lifestyle and folkways of their Chippewa ancestors. In part, the linked short stories chart the health and success of characters who are in this process of movement, from the almost mythic time of “The Island,” the only story without a year below the title, to the stories of the Kashpaw and Nanapush grandparents' early lives in 1934 to the present of their grandchildren in 1984. Larger American historical events help measure the dilemmas of American/Native American identity and the health of the tribe itself, such as the American prosperity of the 1950s, the Vietnam war, and the radicalism of the late 1960s and 1970s.
The death of June Kashpaw early in the first story, “The World's Greatest Fishermen,” who freezes to death as she tries to walk back to the reservation during a spring snow following a meaningless sexual encounter with a drunken white oil worker, sets up the movements in time of the novel, as short stories and characters assess how this came to be, or the past, and how June's struggles in her life affect the future of her children and her family. The book begins in...
(The entire section is 300 words.)
The characters in Love Medicine exhibit distinct personality traits and live their lives accordingly. Yet, very strong ties exist among all the characters—the ties to their common families and heritage. For example, while Albertine has chosen to leave the reservation to study nursing, she is drawn back home upon hearing about her Aunt June's death. Back on the reservation, Albertine wants to connect with her grandfather, hoping to understand more of her heritage. She asks him questions about his days as an advocate for Indian rights, hoping that something she says will rekindle his memory. The other characters also tell their stories through their relationships to June. Thus, the familial bonds provide a common thread throughout Love Medicine, offering a universal theme to which everyone can relate.
Individual vs. Society
In addition to their ties to family, the characters in Love Medicine hold their cultural heritage close to their hearts. They try to live in contemporary society while keeping their Chippewa traditions alive. Lipsha Morrissey presents a good example. The family recognizes that Lipsha has the “touch,” that he possesses the ability to heal with his hands as many of his ancestors could. He tries to use his ability to make his grandfather love his grandmother again. Feeling at loose ends when he cheats on his potion for love medicine and his...
(The entire section is 844 words.)