Summary and Analysis Chapter 1
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1363
June Kashpaw: A main character, an attractive woman traveling through North Dakota who is divorced from Gordie.
Andy: A mud engineer and the last person June talks to before she dies.
Albertine Johnson Kashpaw: June’s niece who is a medical student.
Zelda Kashpaw: Albertine’s mother.
Aunt Aurelia Kashpaw: Albertine’s aunt, Zelda’s sister; lives in the Kashpaw family’s main house on the reservation.
King Kashpaw: June and Gordie’s son, father of their grandchild, King Junior, and owner of the Firebird bought with June’s insurance money.
Lynette: King’s wife and mother of King Junior who is white and is always fighting with King. She dislikes the Kashpaw family.
King Junior Kashpaw: June’s grandson and King and Lynette’s son.
Grandma Kashpaw: Formerly Marie Lazarre, she is married to Nector Kashpaw. She is from a poor family of heavy drinkers and is the matriarch of the Kashpaw family.
Grandpa Nector Kashpaw: Eli’s twin, once a lively and vivacious man, who is now quiet and seemingly senile. As a youth, he attended boarding school and learned white ways.
Rushes Bear: Grandpa’s mother who married the original Kashpaw and received the original allotment of land, which was divided among her eighteen children.
Eli Kashpaw: Nector’s twin, a woodsman who also owns land on the reservation.
Gordie Kashpaw: Zelda, Aurelia, and June’s brother and King’s father. He is a heavy drinker.
Lipsha Morrissey: A foundling taken in by Grandma Kashpaw who is later disclosed to be June’s son.
Love Medicine, one of Louse Erdrich's most popular works, opens with June Kashpaw, a member of the Chippewa tribe. The Kashpaws grew up on reservation land, and although some have left the reservation, most of the family still lives near each other on the land allotted to them.
As the novel opens, June is broke and at the end of her rope. She has a bus ticket back to the reservation, but on her way out of North Dakota, she stops to have a drink with Andy, whom she does not know, though he looks familiar. It becomes clear that men pay June’s way wherever she goes, and she repays them with sex. At first, she struggles against the notion of continuing this pattern with another man. She briefly goes through a period in which she feels fragile and vulnerable, but she is relieved when she finally drives off with Andy into the cold night. After they have sex in Andy’s car, June walks off into the snow and dark and dies.
At this point, the narration focuses on Albertine, June’s niece. She receives a cold and unfeeling letter from her mother, Zelda, notifying her that June is dead. Albertine is away at medical school and knows that June wouldn’t have been caught in a snowstorm by accident. June, after all, “grew up on the plains. Even drunk she’d know a storm was coming.” Zelda thinks of June as a no-good gold-digger, but Albertine is quite fond of her aunt and mourns her. June was quite beautiful, and her search for a wealthy man to support her does not seem cheap to Albertine. Despite her anger with her mother, Albertine decides to return to the reservation that both she and June grew up on in order to deal with June’s death.
When Albertine enters her Aunt Aurelia’s kitchen, she finds Zelda and her aunt making pies. They had been talking about June’s shortcomings, but the talk quickly turns to Albertine’s shortcomings (mostly that she’s a career girl without a Catholic husband).
This discussion is interrupted by the arrival of King, June’s son, in a fancy red car. He is accompanied by his wife, Lynette, whom he continually threatens to hit, and his son, King Junior. Tucked in the backseat are Grandma and Grandpa Kashpaw. Grandpa Kashpaw is senile and left staring in the yard, while everyone else returns to the kitchen, where Grandma Kashpaw tells a story about how Zelda, Aurelia, and Gordie almost hung June, at June’s insistence. It becomes clear that King’s new car was bought with insurance money from June’s death. King drives off to get Uncle Eli, but no one thinks Eli will ride in the car. Eli especially misses June, and to him the car symbolizes her. Sure enough, King returns without Eli.
Gordie, June’s ex-husband and Albertine’s uncle, drives up with Eli after dinner. Gordie is quite drunk. Grandma Kashpaw and Zelda want to leave before the boys start drinking seriously, but warn everyone away from the pies. They leave and Albertine stays.
Shortly thereafter, Lipsha Morrissey enters and then leaves as soon as King begins insulting him. The conversation turns to Eli’s hunting prowess but is frequently interrupted as King insults Lynette. She runs outside and he chases her. She locks herself in the Firebird, which is June’s car, and King begins assaulting the car, trying to break-in. Gordie tries to stop King, and they hug while King cries.
Albertine and Lipsha go outside to drink, and the Northern lights spread out before them. Outside, Lipsha tells Albertine that King is slightly crazy and had once tried to take a potshot at him while they were out hunting. Albertine, completely drunk, tries to tell Lipsha that he is June’s son. However, Lipsha is so confident that any good mother would have claimed him. His insistence worries Albertine, and she begins to think that Lipsha may start hating June for abandoning him. Because she loves June and Lipsha, Albertine justifies not telling Lipsha who his mother is in order to preserve June’s memory. Albertine passes out and wakes to loud, clanging sounds. She and Lipsha run back up to the house and find King trying to drown Lynette in the kitchen sink. Albertine and Lipsha barely manage to stop him, and the pies are destroyed.
This chapter introduces the reservation and members of the Kashpaws, who grew up on the reservation. June Kashpaw is introduced as a central character to the novel. Although she dies early in the chapter, it is clear that June is not an angel. She uses her beauty and sex to get by in the world, and yet she is much more complicated than that. Her niece Albertine loves her because she was a caring and fun aunt, while Eli loves her because when June was little, she was good company and loved him in return. This first chapter makes it clear that everyone has a slightly different opinion of June and that June, although dead, is central to this book.
Grandma Kashpaw remembers a strange story about June, in which she tried to get the other kids to hang her, and that too complicates the idea of June’s identity. Since the reader knows, and Albertine suspects, that June chose to die, the story about June's earlier attempt at orchestrating her own death is eerily parallel.
Even in the midst of remembering the dead, however, the family shows itself to be quite energetic, even if they are rather strange. King fights with Lynette, Lipsha avoids being told who his mother is, and King’s father, Gordie, keeps him from assaulting the car that symbolizes June to all of them. The threads of violence, evasion, and love that run through the rest of the novel are all apparent in this family gathering. What is not said is as much a part of the conversation as what is said, and family history is a part of each interaction. Family history, for instance, explains the inadequacy of Zelda’s letter to Albertine, the reason why Lipsha runs from King, and why Eli won’t ride with King in the red car. Zelda’s letter didn’t include vital information, and she wrongly concluded that June’s death had been an accident; Lipsha has reason to believe King’s threats are real; Eli loved June and doesn’t want to defile his memory of her by riding about in the last thing she gave to anyone.