The Characters

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The physical tie between the characters is a piece of land originally allotted to Nector Kashpaw’s mother, Rushes Bear. Most of her children were assigned to parcels in Montana, but she managed to get a piece of North Dakota wheatland and live on it with her young twins, Nector and Eli. Nector went to boarding school, learned white reading and writing, and grew up to be Tribal Chair and a man of importance; Eli, hidden by his mother in a root cellar, lived in the woods and kept some of the old skills. These two men, who became adults in the 1930’s, represent the oldest generation in the novel; the women with whom their lives are entangled include Marie Lazarre and Lulu Lamartine. Marie went into a convent intending to become a saint; after marrying Nector, she compulsively takes in unwanted children. Lulu, with what seems equal compulsion, makes her own babies—eight boys, each by a different father, who grow up supporting, fighting, and caring for one another. Both Marie and Lulu know how to use power; Marie pushes Nector into becoming Tribal Chair, and Lulu, in a truly wonderful scene, forces the council not to sell her land by threatening to reveal publicly—right then in the meeting—who fathered each of her children. Both remain vivid personalities in their old age, strong and salty women using very different tactics to win what they desire.

The members of the middle generation are not quite so compelling; perhaps they are seen less clearly (none is actually a narrator for any extended story) or perhaps they are the generation that suffers most from the conflict between reservation ways and the modern world. June Morrissey Kashpaw dies in the first story; her discarded husband, Gordon Kashpaw, is the protagonist (though not the narrator) of the story “Crown of Thorns,” which is a careful, vivid, underplayed, and totally convincing portrait of delirium tremens. Lulu Lamartine’s son Gerry Nanapush spends half his adult life in prison after a three-year sentence for assault (he keeps escaping and being recaptured and doing additional time for escaping) before he makes the mistake of hiding out on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he inevitably kills a state trooper.

Albertine Johnson and Lipsha Morrissey, members of the youngest generation, are to a certain extent consciously searching for their roots and for a way to understand their ties to the past. Most of their generation has disappeared to Minneapolis or Chicago or somewhere even further beyond the pull of the house and land that form the gravitational center of the Kashpaw constellation. Both Lipsha and Albertine are still in the process of becoming. Albertine, in particular, can change quite dramatically from one story to the next, but despite her relatively small share of Chippewa genes and her sustained drive for education—she is studying medicine by the end of the book—she knows her own need for the bonds of blood and tradition. She tries to talk to her grandfather about tribal politics and how he got things done in the old days. Lipsha, who seems virtually impervious to any kind of teaching (he manages to mangle and misunderstand both the traditional skills he learns from Eli Kashpaw and the education he suffers in white schools) is a wonderfully naive narrator in the Huck Finn tradition. At the book’s end, however, he turns to home instead of lighting out for an individual destiny.

Characters Discussed

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Marie Lazarre Kashpaw

Marie Lazarre Kashpaw, the wife of Nector Kashpaw. A loving and long-suffering woman, biological mother of five children and mother...

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substitute to numerous others not her own, she is a kind of maternal ideal. She rears June and Lipsha Morrissey. Nector, when he meets her in 1934, calls her “a skinny white girl . . . pale as birch.” In her youth, she enters the Sacred Heart Convent as a means of escaping the reservation, but she later leaves. She marries and tolerates her husband’s infidelity, never giving up hope that she can have him exclusively. To that end, as an old woman she resorts to love medicine.

Nector Kashpaw

Nector Kashpaw, formerly a film actor and later tribal chairman on a Chippewa reservation in North Dakota. A man of divided impulses and loyalties, he loves his wife, Marie, but also has a passion for his first love, Lulu Nanapush Lamartine. His vacillations are both serious and comic. His wife claims credit for his political success, having nominated him as tribal chairman and kept him sober enough to do the job, and he cannot control his attraction to Lulu. As an old man, he chokes to death on Lipsha Morrissey’s love medicine.

Lulu Nanapush Lamartine

Lulu Nanapush Lamartine, a strong and willful woman, the object of many men’s desire, and the mother of eight children, including Gerry Nanapush. Her many sexual affairs and her political clashes with the tribal council make her something of an outcast. She has a lifelong love for Nector Kashpaw that is less a secret than she thinks. Her narrative in the penultimate chapter pulls together many of the novel’s threads.

June Morrissey Kashpaw

June Morrissey Kashpaw, the wife of Marie Kashpaw’s son Gordie. She dies in a blizzard on Easter morning, 1981, and becomes a focus in the memories of many characters by the strength of her influence on the Kashpaw, Morrissey, and Nanapush families.

Gerry Nanapush

Gerry Nanapush, a leader in the American Indian Movement. His fugitive status with the federal authorities makes him a heroic figure, and his connection with June Morrissey Kashpaw produces Lipsha. He reveals his paternity to Lipsha on the way to the Canadian border for his final escape.

Lipsha Morrissey

Lipsha Morrissey, a latter-day medicine man, June’s unacknowledged son, brought up by Marie and Nector Kashpaw. A gentle, naïve man, Lipsha plays the wise fool: “God’s been going deaf,” he says, “[Indian Gods] will do a favor if you ask them right.” His actions and observations bring to light many themes of love. He concocts a love potion for Nector at the request of Marie.

Albertine Johnson

Albertine Johnson, a nurse and later a medical school student. An intelligent and sensitive young woman, she sees the poverty of reservation life and the self-destructiveness of both men and women there. Her career ambitions do not end her love for them; her life is hope.

Henry Lamartine, Jr.

Henry Lamartine, Jr., a Vietnam veteran, the son of Lulu but not of Henry. His sexual encounter with his then-fifteen-year-old cousin Albertine shows how ravaged he is by his life as a soldier and a Native American. He drowns himself in front of his brother Lyman Lamartine.

Lyman Lamartine

Lyman Lamartine, another of Lulu’s sons, the half brother of Henry. He tries hard but unsuccessfully to help his brother out of his post-Vietnam trauma. They share a red convertible and long summer drives, including a trip to Alaska.

Sister Leopolda

Sister Leopolda, a nun in the Sacred Heart Convent. Her possessiveness and cruelty toward the young Marie constitute a unique variation on the theme of love.

Gordie Kashpaw

Gordie Kashpaw, the son of Marie and Nector. After the death of his wife, June, he is consumed by grief and guilt and turns to alcohol. He identifies a road-killed deer as June herself, confesses to her murder, and then wanders through an apple orchard, weeping, in another improvisation in the theme of love.


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While the second part of “The World's Greatest Fishermen” deals with the reactions of June's elders, children, and niece to her death, “Saint Marie” and "Wild Geese” deal with Nector and Marie Kashpaw, who at times acted as June's parents following the death of her mother. “Saint Marie” shows Marie in early adolescence prior to meeting Nector, as she tries to socially rise by becoming a nun in a convent near the reservation. She is encouraged and plagued by Sister Leopolda, who also appears in Tracks (1988). Marie tries to deny her Native American blood, which Leopolda, like early colonists to the New World, attempts to tie to Satanic influence. As Marie seems headed for sainthood through the lies of the psychotic Leopolda and her stigmata of abuse, Marie recovers her self-love and good sense and leaves the convent. Nector, unaware what has happened to Marie, encounters her outside. Since he has the arrogance to look down upon her socially, Marie seduces him, making sure that the nuns are able to see what she is doing.

“The Island,” not in the original Love Medicine, shows Lulu Nanapush, later Lamartine, running away from a government school for Indians where her language and culture are denied. Seeking rootedness in the tribe, Lulu goes to an island inhabited by Moses Pillager, a shaman and relative by whom she has a child, Gerry Nanapush, who appears in several later stories and The Bingo Palace. Unable to live Moses's traditional life on his island, Lulu leaves him for the reservation.

The first section of “The Beads,” whose action occurs in 1948, returns to June and her childhood. She has been taken in by Marie, now married and with children by Nector, who has become a leader of the tribe. When Marie breaks up a game of cowboys and Indians that has nearly resulted in the “Indian,” June, being hung, June, who wanted to be hung, leaves Marie and Nector for Nector's brother, Eli, who leads a more traditional Native American life. The second part of “Beads,” new to the 1993 edition of the novel, shows Marie bonding with Rushes Bear, her mother-in-law, who sends for a rival in love, Fleur Pillager, a character with a major role in Tracks, to assist Marie in a difficult birth. Marie shows a similar greatness of spirit with Lulu later in the book.

“Lulu's Boys,” “The Plunge of the Brave,” and “Flesh and Blood” all occur in 1957. They primarily deal with Lulu, who has had several children by several lovers, Marie, who has continued to take in children while pushing Nector to rise socially through tribal politics, and Nector, who has been attracted to Lulu since adolescence, thinking about marrying her prior to being seduced by Marie but loyal to Marie since she has helped him become a leader, protected him from alcoholism, and been a good wife. The only outsider is Beverly Lamartine, brother-in-law of Lulu, who attempts to take back to the Twin Cities Henry Junior, who Beverly thinks is his son. Which is the best environment for the child, the reservation or the white Twin Cities? Beverly, a peddler of self-help books directed at the children of the working poor, thinks he knows, comes back for the child, is seduced by Lulu, and leaves without the child. “The Plunge of the Brave” and “Flesh and Blood” focus on the beginning of Nector's affair of several years with Lulu, his decision to leave Marie, and his accidently burning Lulu's house down. Nector's ambition to build a factory to employ Chippewa causes him to try to force Lulu from her land. Although Nector wrote a farewell note to Marie, which she reads, she places the note back on the table, welcoming Nector back home following the fire, although making him wonder whether she read the note. Ambition and love, white success and tribal identity, are hopelessly fractured.

“A Bridge” and “The Red Convertible,” which occur in 1973 and 1974, deal primarily with Henry Lamartine, son of Beverly and Lulu, and his post-Vietnam experience. A former prisoner of war, Henry comes home after recently being released from a POW camp and picks up Albertine, niece of June, at this time a teenager running away from home. At the story's opening, Albertine seems a victim in the making, only to lose that role to Henry, who, as a Native American, thinks that he has killed people like himself in Vietnam. Although Henry uses Albertine, she comforts him. “The Red Convertible,” told by Nector's son with Lulu, Lyman Lamartine, describes Lyman trying to cheer Henry, his brother, by giving him a project, restoring a car they owned together and enjoyed prior to the war. Aware that Lyman has trashed their car to give him a way out of himself, Henry fixes the car, but he drowns on their first trip after the car's restoration, since he is unable to escape the memories that torment him.

“Scales” seems at first a comic story, with Gerry Nanapush, Lulu's oldest son, loosely patterned after Indian activist Leonard Peltier, escaping jail only to be arrested again. “Scales” is about justice, or the lack of it, for Native Americans. Gerry's original “crime” is fighting a white cowboy, and he is given a stiff sentence for it. As Gerry continues to escape and be recaptured, years are added to his sentence, until he is sent to a maximum security prison after being accused of murdering a federal agent. As Gerry's lover, Dot Adare, knits their baby's garments, the stitches are so tight that the clothes resemble “miniature suits of mail,” appropriate garb for this world.

“Crown of Thorns” and “Resurrection” both primarily deal with Gordie Kashpaw, one of the children of Marie and Nector, and the cause of his tormented alcoholism, his love of his dead cousin and wife, June. Gordie's drinking is spurred by June's death in 1981; his guilt and longing are so great that when he runs over a deer in his car while going for more alcohol, he projects her image onto the deer. As the deer revives in the back seat of Gordie's car, he strikes it with a tire iron, finally killing it, and then goes to the convent nearby, in drunken tears, to confess the slaying of June to a startled nun who expects to see a dead woman, only to discover a dead deer. “Resurrection” focuses on the patience and love of Marie in dealing with Gordie as she tries to help but also defend herself from her Lysol drinking, threatening son. In this story, one sees the memory that plagues Gordie as he recalls his honeymoon with June, an ecstasy scaled down and blunted for Native Americans in a white world. His inadequacy is a harbinger of the end of their marriage.

“Love Medicine” and “The Good Tears” deal primarily with the old age of Lulu, Marie, and the man they share, Nector Kashpaw. Lipsha Morrissey, raised by Marie, tries to heal the breach between Marie and Nector caused by Nector's attraction to Lulu in the retirement center in which they live. Unwittingly, as Marie tries to get Nector to eat the turkey hearts prepared by Lipsha as a love medicine, Nector chokes and dies, as humor and sadness fight for dominance. Lipsha, a loving young man, is more successful in dealing with Marie's grief as she imagines Nector's spirit visiting her in the evenings. Lipsha interprets this as “he [Nector] went off so quick he never got the chance to tell you how he loves you, how he doesn't blame you, how he understands.” “The Good Tears,” in which Lulu describes her past, ends with a reconciliation, as Marie acts as Lulu's nurse, putting the “tears” in her eyes following cataract surgery and the death of Nector.

“The Tomahawk Factory” and “Lyman's Luck” deal with the business struggles of Lyman Lamartine, Nector's son by Lulu and the brother of Henry in “The Red Convertible.” Lyman, as his father, Nector, before him, wants to provide Chippewa on the reservation with a livelihood, making museum quality Indian artifacts. While his ambition seems part of the American dream of personal success, it is undercut by Lyman's employees who think they are making worthless junk. They rebel, and Lyman's factory is destroyed when a fight breaks out between two employees, Marie and Lulu. Almost like Zorba's dance in Zorba the Greek (Nikos Kazantzakis, 1953), Lyman dances with Marie in a bar following the destruction. “Lyman's Dream,” a story describing Lyman's vision to set up a casino to attract white gamblers, is only adumbrated here. It is dealt with more fully in The Bingo Palace (1994), the last volume of what Erdrich has called her tetralogy.

“Crossing the Water” is really Lipsha Morrissey's story. When Lulu, who is Lipsha's paternal grandmother, tells Lipsha that June was his mother and Gerry his father, Lipsha discovers the identity of his true parents. This leads Lipsha to try to discover his true self in part by visiting a “legal” brother who had always treated him badly, King Kashpaw. King, a bully, liar, and cheat, had given evidence against Gerry, and on Lipsha's visit, Lipsha discovers this when Gerry returns to avenge this betrayal following still another escape from prison. As father and son, Gerry and Lipsha, play poker with King, the stakes are the car King bought with money from June's life insurance. The story ends with Gerry once again in flight from the law with his son aiding a getaway to Canada. “Crossing the Water,” a Jungian transformation, closes the novel with an epiphany of being for Lipsha, who, like Stephen Dedalus, finds a spiritual father. But while this father crosses the border to Canada, Lipsha crosses the water back to the reservation, bringing June's car, his inheritance, home.


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Uncle Eli
See Eli Kashpaw

Uncle Gordie
See Gordie Kashpaw

Henry Junior
See Henry Lamartine, Jr.

Henry Senior
See Henry Lamartine

Albertine Johnson
At the beginning of the story in 1981, Albertine Johnson—daughter of Zelda and granddaughter of Marie—is away from the reservation studying to be a nurse. She returns home upon hearing of her Aunt June's death. Once home, she tries to get Grandpa Kashpaw to recall his years as an Indian revolutionary.

Albertine has always been independent. In 1973, the fifteen-year-old runs away from home to Fargo, where she meets and sleeps with Henry Lamartine, Jr. In 1980, trying to decide what to do with her life, Albertine meets Gerry Nanapush and his girlfriend, Dot Adare. Albertine works on the construction sight with Dot until Dot delivers Gerry's baby.

Zelda Johnson
Zelda, sister to Aurelia and daughter of Marie, is Albertine's mother. Zelda was raised as June's sister. Zelda thinks Albertine should be married. She also criticizes June's son, King, for marrying a white girl when Zelda, herself, had been married to a Swede.

Aurelia Kashpaw
Aurelia, Albertine's aunt, is Marie's other daughter and Zelda's sister. She lives in the old homeplace on the reservation.

Eli Kashpaw
Eli Kashpaw, one of the youngest of Rushes Bear's twelve children, was raised in Indian ways while his brother, Nector, attended the white man's boarding school. Eli is Albertine's great uncle. Eli raises June after she leaves Marie's house. He remains a bachelor. While his brother Nector's mind has deteriorated, Eli's remains clear and sharp.

Gordie Kashpaw
First-born son of Marie and Nector, Gordie is the brother of Zelda and Aurelia and was raised as June's brother. He marries June, however, angering Marie. He and June have one son, King. Gordie truly loves June and is never able to deal with her death. He begins drinking one month after her death. In 1982, he dies from heartbreak and alcoholism in his mother's home.

Grandma Kashpaw
See Marie Kashpaw

Grandpa Kashpaw
See Nector Kashpaw

June Kashpaw
The story begins in 1981 with the final episode of June Morrissey Kashpaw's life. A long-legged, hardened Chippewa woman, June appears young to the casual observer. A close look, however, reveals her broken nails, ragged hair, and clothes held together by safety pins. June is the daughter of Lucille Lazarre Morrissey, the dead sister of Marie Lazarre Kashpaw (Grandma Kashpaw) June resides with Mane until she decides to go live with Eli. June marries Marie's son, Gordie, much to Marie's displeasure.

On one of her many leaves from Gordie, June meets a mud engineer, Andy, in a bar m Williston, North Dakota. She has dnnks with him, knowing that he will want to sleep with her afterwards. Tired of the routine she knows so well, June plays along until Andy passes out in his truck. June, drunk, decides to walk back to the reservation but never makes it. She dies in a snow-covered field.

King Kashpaw
King is the son of June and Gordie. King is married to Lynette, a white girl, and they have a son named King, Jr. (Howard). King wants to believe he is the only true son of June and torments Lipsha for most of his life. At the end of the story, Lipsha and Gerry both visit King and his family—reminding King of his acts against them and putting him in his place.

Marie Kashpaw
Marie grew up as Marie Lazarre, the daughter of drunken horse thieves, a Catholic girl who believed that Satan talked to her. One of the sisters who taught at Marie's school convinced Marie that Satan lived in her, and that the only way to be rid of him was to join the convent. Marie lived in the convent from 1931 until 1934, enduring physical and mental abuse from the sister, Leopolda, who had cajoled her into coming to the convent. When Leopolda stabs Marie with a fork and knocks her out with a poker, Marie finally finds a way to escape her abuse. She allows the other sisters to believe Leopolda's story that the injury in Marie's palm is actually the mark of Christ—the evidence of a miracle that has occurred in the face of Satan's work. With this lie, Marie holds a power over Leopolda that enables Marie to leave the convent. Marie meets Nector Kashpaw on the day she leaves the convent. Nector is a handsome Indian who is returning from shooting geese that he sells to the convent sisters. He throws Marie to the ground without thinking, and with one sexual act, seals his fate with Marie forever. While Nector really loves Lulu Nanapush, he marries Marie in 1934 and fathers her children—Gordie, Zelda, Aurelia—and raises the children they take in—Lipsha Mor-rissey and June Kashpaw.

Nector Kashpaw
Nector Kashpaw—son of Rushes Bear (Margaret Kashpaw), brother of Eli, and husband of Marie—attended boarding school as a young man, where he learned to read and write as well as the white man's ways. He represented his tribe well in his younger days, testifying in Washington for Indians' rights, getting a school and factory built, and saving his tribe's land. When the story opens in 1981, however, Nector Kashpaw has little memory of anything that has happened in the past.

In his lucid moments, Nector remembers his first meeting with Marie and wonders at the fact that he was unable to let her go. At that time in his life, he loved Lulu Nanapush, whom his own mother had raised. Yet he married Marie Lazarre, for which Lulu never forgave him. Nector, himself, could never forget Lulu. In 1952, realizing that he had to follow his heart, Nector begins a five-year affair with Lulu. The affair ends when Beverly Lamartine, Lulu's late husband's brother, arrives and becomes her lover. Nector gets Lulu kicked off her land, and as a result, Lulu ends the affair. He tries to forget her but ends up writing a letter to Marie telling her that he is leaving her. When he returns to Lulu's house and finds her gone, he burns her house down.

Beverly Lamartine
Henry Senior's brother, Beverly, appears at Henry's funeral and then again seven years after Henry dies. His secret motive for returning is to claim Henry Junior as his own so that he can “use” Henry Junior in his book-selling tactics. He succeeds in seducing Lulu and is the cause of the end of Lulu's affair with Nector Kashpaw.

Henry Lamartine
The man Lulu married out of “fondness,” Henry dies in 1950 when a train crashes into his car.

Henry Lamartine, Jr.
Henry Junior, son of Lulu (and probably Henry Senior), is not the same person when he returns from Vietnam. Having been a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, the Henry who returns from three years overseas is very different. He suffers from depression, but there is no help available for him on the reservation. He seems happier after he begins working on the red car that he loves. One night, however, he and Lyman get drunk, and Henry jumps into the river. When he doesn't reappear, Lyman tries to save him. Realizing that Henry has drowned, Lyman pushes the car into the river—leaving it there for his brother who loved it.

Lulu Lamartine
Lulu Lamartine loved Nector Kashpaw from the time that she was a young girl. When Nector married Marie instead, Lulu tried to put him out of her mind. She went to live with Moses Pillager, the crazy island man whose family had sent him to live in the land of the spirits. She bore him a son, Gerry, and returned to town to live. When Pillager did not follow her, she married a Morrissey out of spite. Later, she married Henry Lamartine because she was fond of him. Lulu had eight sons, none of whom were Henry's, and one daughter, Bonita, whose father was Mexican. The last of the eight boys was Nector's son, Lyman Kashpaw.

After Nector signed Lulu's land away, Lulu married Beverly Lamartine, Henry's brother, but did not live with him. She spent a few months living in a shack on her burned-out property until the tribe built a government house for her on a piece of land bought from a white farmer. After she had turned sixty-five and with eyesight failing, Lulu moves to the Senior Citizen's Center, where she and Nector have their last encounter with one another.

Lyman Lamartine
It is 1983. Lyman Lamartine, son of Lulu and brother to Henry Junior, has difficulty dealing with his brother's death. An astute businessman, Lyman begins to lose money, unable to bring himself out of his depression. A notice from the IRS prompts him to action, though. He goes to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and opens a factory. When the factory is destroyed as the result of rioting among its employees, he begins planning a Chippewa casino.

Marie Lazarre
See Marie Kashpaw

St. Marie
See Marie Kashpaw

June Morrissey
See June Kashpaw

Lipsha Morrissey
Lipsha was raised by Grandma Kashpaw, but he was June's son by Gerry Nanapush during one of June's separations from Gordie. Lipsha, however, goes through most of his life not knowing that June is his mother. Lipsha has special talents—an Indian medicine with which he was born. He decides to practice his medicine on his grandparents by concocting a love charm for them. When he “cheats” on the concoction, he believes he is the cause of his grandfather's death. His grandmother reassures him and gives him the beads that had belonged to his mother. He does not really understand the significance of the beads until Lulu Lamartine tells the nineteen-year-old that he is June's son. Lipsha decides to find and meet his father.

Lulu Morrissey
See Lulu Lamartine

Gerry Nanapush
Gerry Nanapush—the result of Lulu Nanapush's time with Moses Pillager—is a renegade, nearly as wild as his father is. Known for his numerous breaks from prison and his dedication to the American Indian Movement, Gerry keeps on the run from the authorities. He feels his true place in life is with his family in the bosom of his tribe. He finds it difficult to live the white man's life. On his last break from prison, he seeks out King to punish him for turning him in to the authorities.

Lulu Nanapush
See Lulu Lamartine