Compare the theme of Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich and "Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Love Medicine is a novel written by North American Indian writer Louise Erdrich while "Theme for English B" is a poem written by African American poet Langston Hughes. Love Medicine tells the story of broken lives and loves starting from the death in 1981 of the pivotal character, June Kashpaw. Erdrich then flashes back to the remotest beginning of June's story when in 1934 the aunt who raised her, Marie Lazarre Kashpaw, joins a convent at age fourteen. "Theme for English B" is the result of an assignment given to Hughes while in a college class for which a "true" page is requested by his non-African American professor. In the assignment, and in the poem the assignment turned into, Hughes contemplates the possibility and meaning of a true expression of self.

The pieces of literature share some themes in common. One of these is the theme of the individual against society. In Erdrich's work, this is demonstrated by the characters desire and effort to keep their Chippewa Indian traditions alive while living in contemporary America. In Hughes' poem, this is shown by his contemplation of being "the only colored student in my class" and of the fact that he is the only one in his class that takes the steps from the hill upon which his college sits down into Harlem instead of down into New York City--in the other direction.

Another common theme is that of culture clash. This clash is shown in the novel in one instance when Gerry hits a white man in a bar one night and is sent to prison. This clash is shown in the poem when Hughes contemplates that just as his white instructor doesn't want to be "part of" Hughes, Hughes does not want to be "part of" his instructor, "But we are, that's true!" This also ties in with the shared theme of race and racism. Erdrich writes that Gerry's prison sentence was "not bad for an Indian," pointing out the consciousness of and conflict between races, which results from and equally leads to racism. Hughes expresses the theme of race and racism when he writes about his instructor that "you're older--and white-- / and somewhat more free." He also wonders if his page will be "colored" ("So will my page be colored that I write?") while concluding that "it will not be white."

A related theme is that of identity. In the novel, Lipsha represents this theme as he grows up not knowing who his parents are and only feels a sense if identity when he meets his father Gerry and helps him escape. In the poem, the theme is represented by Hughes' contemplative musings about his own identity:

It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me--we two--you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me--who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records--Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn't make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.

Read the study guide:
Love Medicine

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