Love Medicine Analysis
Erdrich’s Love Medicine invites its readers to experience the storytelling tradition of an American Indian tribe, the Ojibwa (also referred to as Chippewa), through its use of multiple narrators and resistance to strictly linear plot. There is no main character or focusing narrator; many speak, all with authority. The reader must fit together the pieces to construct the layers of understanding necessary to trace kinship and events. The weaving together of individual voices to form the communal whole is part of Erdrich’s theme. The diverse viewpoints function to reveal the ties of family and tribe as well as to point out how much has broken down between individuals and generations and has been lost, perhaps forever. Every event—June’s death, for example—is viewed differently by each narrator, and the complexity of that which may initially seem simple and straightforward is disclosed. The nature of time is not chronological or linear; it is cyclical and layered. Lipsha says when he comforts his Grandma Kashpaw after the death of Nector, “He [Nector] loved you over time and distance,” suggesting that past, present, and future are united in a profound way.
Although it is realistic in its detailing of contemporary American Indian life— including problems with alcohol, poverty, joblessness, and generational conflict—Love Medicine reflects the fact that powerful myths shape the lives of its narrators, though not in any stereotypical way. There are no rain dances, peace pipes, or sweat lodges in this novel. The only attempted “magic” is the “love medicine” of the title, which goes awry when a largely untrained practitioner—Lipsha—resorts to “an evil short cut” in the ritual, purchasing frozen turkey hearts when he finds it too difficult to procure the hearts of two wild geese. Instead of tribal gods and chanting medicine men, the moments of spirituality, magic, and myth occur within the patterns and enduring qualities of the natural world in the forms of water, fire, air, earth, and animals, all part of Ojibwa oral tradition.
Water, the major symbol in the book, is one of the elements that unifies the novel. The narratives themselves are fluid, flowing together to form the whole. Bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, and creeks are important to many of the interwoven tales. Five of the novel’s fourteen sections are titled with water references, including the first section, “The World’s Greatest Fishermen,” and the final section, “Crossing the Water.” Tears or their absence, boiling water, the lack of rain, and the frozen snow are only a few of the many mentions of water in its various forms throughout the book. Water is life giving, as when Marie helps restore Lulu to tears, but it can also be life destroying, as when Henry Lamartine, Jr., drowns himself or when June dies as she walks over the snow. Lulu Lamartine notes “how drowning was the worst death for a Chippewa to experience. . . . There was no place for the drowned in heaven or anywhere on earth.” A universal symbol, water is also associated with memory, and in its many guises it is carefully and consistently used by Erdrich throughout Love Medicine.
Other natural elements that appear include fire, which ritually purifies as well as destroys (Nector accidentally sets fire to Lulu’s house), and earth, in the form of dust, which permeates the air because of the lack of rain, and mud, resulting from a sudden abundance of water (Lyman comes to tell Lulu of the death of Henry, Jr., “with mud in his hair”). Fragility is expressed by yet another natural symbol—the egg and its shell. June is enticed by a man peeling a blue, hard-boiled egg in a bar. She is described as feeling fragile, and she pulls down her shell, as if to protect herself. King smashes pies in a fit of rage, and Albertine says she cannot repair the cracked and broken shells. Except perhaps for Eli Kashpaw and Lipsha Morrissey, the men seem unable to relate fully to...
(The entire section is 1,054 words.)