Critical Overview

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In view of the overwhelmingly positive reviews that Love Medicine continually receives, it is difficult to believe that publishers at first rejected the book. Only after Dorris promoted Love Medicine himself did Holt publish it in 1983. It immediately became a huge success. Reviewers believed that Erdrich's writing was comparable to Faulkner's and O'Connor's. They predicted a successful career for her. For example, Marco Portales said in the New York Times Book Review, “With this impressive debut Louis Erdrich enters the company of America's best novelists, and I'm certain readers will want to see more from this imaginative and accomplished young writer.” Jascha Kessler said in a radio broadcast, “I am glad to report that in 1984 a really first-rate novel by a young woman named Louise Erdrich appeared, and I think it is a book that everyone on the lookout for good, imaginative, rewarding writing will enjoy and admire.”

The fact that reviewers think that the book can appeal to everyone represents one of its best qualities: the universal nature of its themes. Love Medicine tells stories of enduring truths such as love and survival. Like all Americans, the Native Americans in the story struggle with problems on a daily basis. These families must cope with alcoholism, economic deprivation, and marital problems. Like all people, they seek solutions to these dilemmas while attempting to live normal lives. Cynthia Kooi says in Booklist, “Erdrich creates characters who … reveal the differences between individuals by the similarities of their society.…” Because the families in Love Medicine act so much like families everywhere, readers relate to them and their situations.

Reviewers also appreciate the skill with which Erdrich realistically portrays the lives of two Chippewa families who are attempting to foster their heritage while living in contemporary society. Jeanne Kinney notes in Best Sellers, “By showing their world impinging on the white world that surrounds them and by showing the white world impinging on them, the author leads us into another culture, her own.” Through a period of fifty years, readers become acquainted with seven members of the Kashpaw and Lamartine extended families. All characters hold Chippewa tradition close to their hearts in some way, while having to constantly fight poverty and racism. Even though the Native American culture and beliefs very subtly underlie the stories common to all people, Erdrich manages to provide a vivid picture of Native American society. Kooi says, “The book poignantly reflects the plight of contemporary Indians and at the same time depicts people the reader wants to be with a little longer.”

Erdrich presents her realistic characters living universal lives through prose that critics praise for its lyric quality. Even while the characters suffer, the joy and beauty that they experience emerges with a poetic sense. To accomplish this, Erdrich uses not only the characters' multiple voices but also language that, according to Bruckner in the New York Times, “convinces you you have heard them speaking all your life.…” The characters' stories resemble ballads. The characters, themselves, live through the vivid events, details, and attitudes offered by the individual speakers. Erdrich manages to use the combination of the characters' stories and their personal narration to create a community voice that, according to Kessler, “conveys the magic, the ancient mysteries and lore, the inner heart of the religious and of the traditional ways of thought and feeling of groups who have never been part of the European cultural experience.”

While most critics appreciate Erdrich's multi-voice style and the richness of her characters' language, some view these aspects of Erdrich's writing to be distracting....

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Gene Lyons says inNewsweek, “The first thing readers ought to be told about Louise Erdrich's novel Love Medicine … is that no matter what the dust jacket says, it's not a novel. It's a book of short stories … so self-consciously literary that they are a whole lot easier to admire than to read.… No central action unifies the narrative, and the voices all sound pretty much the same—making it difficult to recall sometimes who's talking and what they're talking about.” Robert Towers also criticizes Erdrich's style. He says in the New York Review of Books, “Love Medicine … is very much a poet's novel. By that I mean that the book achieves its effect through moments of almost searing intensity rather than through the rise, climax, and closing of a sustained action, and that its stylistic virtuosity has become almost an end in itself.” He, too, thinks the relationships among characters confuse the reader. Yet he credits Erdrich's ability to write dramatic, graphic scenes.

Most literary experts agree that Erdrich writes powerfully, chronicling events in the lives of a society about which most people know nothing. She is able to remain loyal to her heritage while maintaining her art; her writing appeals to everyone. Marco Portales says it best in the New York Times Book Review, “Ethnic writing—works that focus on the lives and particular concerns of America's minorities—labors under a peculiar burden: only certain types of people are supposed to be interested. Louise Erdrich's first novel, Love Medicine … dispels these spurious notions.”

In summary, Love Medicine continues to receive high marks, even though a few critics disagree with all the accolades. The book has won numerous awards, including the Sue Kaufman Prize for Best First Fiction (1983); the National Book Critics Circle award for year's best novelist (1984); the Virginia Scully Award for Best Book Dealing with Western Indians (1984); the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation (1985); and the Great Lakes Colleges Association prize for Best First Work of Fiction (1984).


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