Love Medicine is a series of tales (many of them originally published independently) which explore the ties of blood, knowledge, love, and mystery that link three generations of Chippewa people. As independent stories told from the viewpoint of various members of the Kashpaw, Lamartine, and Nanapush families, the tales have many strengths. One is the use of language that subtly reflects 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) suggest translation from thoughts that come in another language. Even in the youngest generation, Albertine Johnson, who leaves the reservation to go to college, uses words quite differently from her cousin Lipsha, who stays behind.
Each story has a sharp focus, an interesting narrative line, and images that expose the event without intervening explanation. Furthermore, the novel created by weaving these tales 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, one pleasure for readers is simply 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 individual stories are fragmentary; the book does not attempt a complete history of the families. Most stories focus on a significant crisis, though some include background narration. In the first, June Kashpaw is picked up by an oil worker in a boomtown and then dies in the snow walking back toward the reservation; the subsequent sections of that story reveal (indirectly) the complicated reactions of her various kin. Several stories show, in bits, the triangular relationship between Marie Lazarre, Lulu Lamartine, and Nector Kashpaw, which began in 1934 and is not resolved until forty-eight years later, after Nector’s death. Other stories focus on Lulu’s sons, suggesting the damages wrought by conventions of manliness in both Indian and white society. The essence of the book, however, grows from the relationship between stories and from the reader’s ability to derive meaning from the reappearance of central thematic material.
A dazzling meld of Native American storytelling and postmodern literary craft, Louise Erdrich’s first novel, Love Medicine, was an immediate success. It quickly made the best-seller lists and gathered an impressive group of awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for best first novel, the Virginia McCormack Scully Prize for best book of 1984 dealing with Indians or Chicanos, the American Book Award, and the Los Angeles Times award for best novel of the year.
Sad and funny, realistic and lyrical, mystical and down-to-earth, the novel tells the story of three generations of four Chippewa and mixed blood families—the Kashpaws, Morriseys, Lamartines, and Lazarres—from the 1930’s to the 1980’s. Seven separate narrators tell their own stories in a discontinuous time line, each a puzzle piece of its own, but by the novel’s end there is one story, one jigsaw puzzle picture of lost identities and the often humorous but always meaningful efforts of a fragmented people to hold on to what is left to them.
The characters in Love Medicine experience individual forms of alienation caused by physical and emotional separation from the communal root of their existence. They contend with the United States government and its policies of allotment and commodities; the Catholic church, which makes no allowances for the Chippewas’ traditional religion; and with the seductive pull of life off the reservation, a life that cuts them off from the community whose traditions keep them centered and give them a sense of their identities. These three factors place the characters under the constant threat of loss of their culture. Erdrich makes this clear, but she presents the lives of her Native American characters as human experiences that readers who have no background in Native American cultures can readily understand. The three generations of characters in Love Medicine surface as human beings who deal with an unfair world with strength, frailty, love, anger, and most of all, a sense of humor.