The Story as a Form of Love Medicine

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Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine is a novel made up of several stories about the people that reside on a Chippewa reservation in North Dakota. The stories cover three generations, fifty years, and several families, and there are eight distinct narrators. Because the stories seem so loosely related, some critics have questioned whether the novel is truly a novel. Alan Velie suggests that it is, rather, a "collection of short stories, all of which deal with the same set of characters." Furthermore, Catherine Rainwater asserts that the novel is full of conflicting codes which lead the reader to expect one type of novel, and then frustrate that expectation by producing a very different sort of narrative. She claims, in fact, that "Erdrich's novels conspicuously lack plot in this traditional sense of the term. One need only ask oneself for a plot summary of Love Medicine to substantiate this claim. The novel seems rife with narrators (eight, to be exact, bereft of a focal narrative point of view, and replete with characters whose lives are equally emphasized."

But what unites these seemingly disconnected stories is the common theme of characters in search of love and in need of stories. Throughout the many stories that make up the novel, characters search for a "love medicine," a trick or a potion that will bring them the love they so desperately need. In the end, however, it is the stories themselves that prove to be the love medicine. As Margaret J. Downes notes, "Love and stories are both imaginative creations essentially aware of the presence of The Other, who responds as if this offered figment were real—who observes, judges, and participates, who willingly suspends disbelief and meets halfway." In Love Medicine it is the imaginative creation of stories which allow for the imaginative creation of love.

The first overt mention of a "love medicine" is from Lulu Nanapush. As a child she comes to live with her uncle Nanapush and his wife, Rushes Bear, a woman so renowned for her temper that she is said to have scared off a bear by rushing at it head on, with no weapon. Even the wild animal was afraid to face her, but old Nanapush seems to possess a strange power over her. Noting this, Lulu asks him, "What's your love medicine?… She hates you but you drive her crazy." Nanapush replies that his secret is, "No clocks. These young boys who went to the Bureau school, they run their love life on white time. Now me, I go on Indian time. Stop in the middle for a bowl of soup. Go right back to it when I've got my strength. I got nothing else to do, after all." But Lulu has already received the first clues that the real love medicine is not just Indian time, but Indian language and stories. As a young child bereft of her mother, Lulu has only the memory of her mother's voice to console her. She dislikes the "flat voices, rough English" which she hears spoken at the government school, and she longs for the old language and her mother's voice:

Sometimes, I heard her, N'dawnis, n'dawnis. My daughter, she consoled me. Her voice came from all directions, mysteriously keeping me from inner harm. Her voice was the struck match. Her voice was the steady flame. But it was my old uncle Nanapush who wrote the letters that brought me home.

The memory of her mother's spoken words provides Lulu with the love medicine which keeps her from inner harm, which allows her to continue loving her mother, even though she...

(This entire section contains 1944 words.)

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is gone, and to love herself, though she is motherless and without anyone to teach her love. Likewise it is her Uncle's command of the written language that brings her love a second time by bringing her to a loving home. The words of her mother and uncle are what allow Lulu to change from the child who "stumbled in (the) shoes of desire," longing for her mother and someone to guide her, into a woman who can say, "I was in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms." Their words give her the ability to love the world and herself. When she goes to live with Moses Pillager, she will again discover the power of stories. His life has already been dramatically affected by the story with which his mother fooled the spirits and kept him from sickness. But while this story kept him alive, it also made him into a ghost. When Lulu goes to the Island, however, she is able to reverse the spell of this old story by retelling it. She restores his voice to him, allowing him to finally speak his thought aloud to another person, and she undoes his mother's spell by finally speaking the name no one had been allowed to say: "He told me his real name. I whispered it, once. Not the name that fooled the dead, but the word that harbored his life.… I hold his name close as my own blood and I will never let it out. I only spoke it that once so that he would know he was alive." The same word which had to be hidden to keep him from death is now the name that harbors his life, and by knowing his story and speaking his name, Lulu can restore him to life. Her speech is the love medicine she brings to the island with her. The most obvious story about love medicine, of course, is the chapter entitled "Love Medicine," and once again this chapter is not just about love medicine but also about stories. When Marie Kashpaw asks her grandson Lipsha to find her a love medicine so that Nector will return her love and forget Lulu, Lipsha initially tries to think of traditional love medicines such as special seeds, frogs caught in the act of mating, or nail clippings. But the love medicine he finally settles on is pure fiction, as all love medicines must be. First he invents the idea for the love medicine, he sees a pair of geese and thinks that if he feeds the hearts of birds that mate for life to his grandparents that will surely be a powerful love medicine. When he fails to shoot the geese, he decides to buy two turkey hearts instead, and he convinces himself that the medicine will still work since it is faith that really matters:

I thought of faith. I thought to myself that faith could be called belief against the odds and whether or not there's any proof. How does that sound? I thought how we might have to yell to be heard by Higher Power, but that's not saying it's not there. And that is faith for you. It's belief even when the gods don't deliver.... Faith might be stupid, but it gets us through. So what I'm heading at is this. I finally convinced myself that the real actual power to the love medicine was not the goose heart itself but the faith in the cure.

He is, in essence, saying that a myth to believe in, something to "get us through" is more important and more powerful and traditional love medicine. And indeed, in this chapter, it is the story that proves to be the true love medicine. When Marie is convinced that Nector's ghost is returning because of the love medicine, Lipsha tells her the truth about the turkey hearts:

Love medicine ain't what brings him back to you, Grandma. No, it's something else. He loved you over time and distance, but he 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. It's true feeling, not no magic. No supermarket heart could have brung him back.

She looked at me. She was seeing the years and days. I had no way of knowing, and she didn't believe me I could tell this. Yet a look came on her face. It was like the look of mothers drinking sweetness from their children's eyes. It was tenderness.

Lipsha, she said, you was always my favorite.

Though his stories cannot cause his grandfather to fall in love with his grandmother, his words do work medicine between Lipsha and his grandmother. She feels the depth of his love for her in the words he speaks to ease her pain and in the stories and lies he creates to help her, and his words evoke from her a mother's love for him, the love he has longed for always. The story of Lipsha's mother is perhaps the most powerful example of the story as love medicine. All of his life he is told that his mother tried to drown him in the slough and that Grandma Kashpaw rescued him, although everyone else knows that June was his real mother and that Grandmother Kashpaw took him in because June was already married to Gordie when she became pregnant with Gerry's child. When Lulu tells him that he is the son of June and Gerry he is shocked. He does not, at first, know what to do with this powerful new story of his life. He "couldn't take it in." Lulu has given him "knowledge that could make or break" him, and he does not at first know which it will do. But as he pieces together the story of his life, the love medicine of the story begins to work its magic. He gets to know his father, and learns about his mother. He sees how miserable and bitter King, June's acknowledged son has become, and he makes peace with the story of his life. When Gerry says, "Enough about me anyhows … What's your story?" he is able to answer without bitterness. He can tell his story now, and his only "problem" is that he is running from the army police. In this instance, too, a story saves him, for Gerry is able to tell him that he, like all men in his family, will fail the army physical because of an irregular heart rhythm. Knowing the story of his past allows him to avoid a future of running needlessly. And finally, knowing the true story of his life, he is able to forgive and love the mother who gave him up and the grandmother who took him in:

I thought of June … How weakly I remembered her. If it made any sense at all, she was part of the great loneliness being earned up the driving current. I tell you, there was good in what she did for me, I know now. The son that she acknowledged suffered more that Lipsha Mornssey did. The thought of June grabbed my heart so, but I was lucky she turned me over to Grandma Kashpaw.

Knowing his story allows him to be reborn. The story functions as a love medicine, allowing him to love his mother, his grandmother, his father, and most importantly, himself. Speaking of Chippewa beliefs and myths, Victoria Brehm states, "They considered all stores to be true, whether they classified them as daebaudjimowin (chronicles from personal experience) or Auwaetchigum (what Western cultures describe as myths)." So, in love medicine, the personal stories and the cultural myths of these people are woven together and intermixed, but they are all "true" stones, and all can function as love medicines.

Source: Donna Woodford, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999. Donna Woodford is a doctoral candidate at Washington University and has written for a wide variety of academic journals and educational publishers.

Love Medicine: A Metaphor for Forgiveness

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Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine has been regarded as simply a collection of short stories, lacking in novelistic unity and overiding structure. Yet despite shifts in narrative style and a virtual cacophony of often individually unreliable narrative voices, Erdrich successfully weds structure and theme, style and content. For the novel is as much about the act of storytelling as it is about the individual narratives and the symbols and interrelationships which weave them together thematically. In Love Medicine, storytelling constitutes both theme and style. Erdrich repeatedly shows how storytelling—characters sharing their troubles or their "stories" with one another—becomes a spiritual act, a means of achieving transformation, transcendence, forgiveness. And in this often comic novel, forgiveness is the true "love medicine," bringing a sense of wholeness, despite circumstances of loss or broken connections, to those who reach for it. Moreover, the novel is in itself the stylistic embodiment of Erdrich's theme; as a series of narratives or chapters/stories shared with the reader, the work as a whole becomes a kind of "love medicine" of forgiveness and healing in its own right….

[T]he means by which Erdrich's characters learn to internalize and integrate past with present is through the transformative power of storytelling. A non-Native reader, or any reader, is not the sole audience to these stories, for it is the characters themselves who, within the course of the narratives, begin this recovery of stories as they move beyond gossip to share with one another intimate revelations of highly personal desires, guilts, and troubles. It is in the personal stories that the characters tell each other that the real spiritual force of the novel can be felt.

Stories as "love medicine," moreover, provide the alternative in the novel to the characters' struggles with experiences of alcohol abuse, religious fanaticism, or compulsive sex relations, as well as the spiritual havoc that these kinds of seductive but hollow "love medicines" wreak on human relations. But although Erdrich focuses on the Chippewa experience, the troubles her characters experience are not exclusively "Indian problems." Erdrich herself sees the novel in terms of its articulation of "the universal human struggle," and her characters, as Bo Schöler has said of other Native literary depictions of alcohol-related themes, are motivated by "complex and ultimately profoundly human causes." These are problems common to every society, and the solution she posits is relevant for both Native and non-Native cultures alike. Forgiveness in Love Medicine is thus of the everyday variety, that which is extended from a child to a parent, a wife to a husband, brother to brother. Moreover, for Erdrich, forgiveness is not explanation, not unconditional, not forgetting. It is the transformation that comes through the sharing and recovery of stories, and the giving up of the notion of oneself as victim….

The novel opens on Easter in 1981 with June Morrissey Kashpaw's thoughts and feelings, related in third person, as she commences upon the alcoholic binge which will lead to her death. June's death will affect all the other characters. In a radical revision of Christ's Easter resurrection, the death of this alcoholic Indian woman becomes the impetus which propels many of the other characters toward healing. In this scene, June is clearly reaching for something spiritual, something to hold on to in a life broken by divorce and disappointment. But she looks for her answers in a bar, and comes up empty. Intending to catch a noon bus for the reservation where she was raised, she stops at the invitation of a man to "tip down one or two." When she enters the barroom, the narrator tells us, "What she walked toward more than anything else was that blue egg in the white hand, a beacon in the murky air." Blue is the color of sky, of spirit and transcendence, signaling to her like a "beacon." But instead of the blue egg the man in the red vest peels her a pink one, thwarting her impulse and replacing it with the faded color of earth, of blood, of sexuality. When she drinks, it is "Blue Ribbon" beer and "Angel Wings," again symbolizing a frustrated spiritual instinct, and she says to the man, "Ahhhhh, you got to be. You got to be different." June seeks transformation through sex and alcohol, but the only metamorphosis they are able to bring is degradation and death.

The balance of chapter one shifts to the first person narrative of June's niece, Albertine Kashpaw, who introduces the theme of the recovery and sharing of stories. Albertine has been attending nursing school off-reservation, but returns several months after June's demise seeking a sense of completion with a death she cannot understand.

Albertine's denial of June's alcoholism may relate to her own psychic connection with June, a connection which becomes clearer in the central chapter entitled "A Bridge," where the narrative spins back to 1973. There we learn that Albertine takes a journey remarkably similar to June's own, one that, but for small differences, could have resulted in equally tragic consequences. The two journeys are contrasted in almost every detail. Albertine has taken the bus to run away from the reservation. It is another "harsh spring," if not Easter then close to it, for we learn it is "not yet May." Albertine also sees something which she compares to a "beacon," but unlike June, interprets this to be a "warning beacon." Where the man June meets only looks familiar to her, the man Albertine sees in the bus station turns out to be Henry Lamartine Junior, another Chippewa whose family is known to her from the reservation. June wears white, the color of death in Chippewa culture, and Albertine wears black. June drinks "Angel Wings" with a man who doesn't listen to her, while Henry romantically whispers to Albertine, "Angel, where's your wings." When June enters the ladies room, "All of a sudden she seemed to drift out of her clothes and skin with no help from anyone"; Albertine, on the other hand, feels her body "shrink and contract" while alone in the bathroom, and feels herself becoming "bitterly small." Perhaps the greatest difference between the two is that while June intends to stop drinking after "a few" but cannot, the younger Albertine still retains some control: "She had stopped after a few and let him go on drinking, talking, until he spilled too many and knew it was time to taper off."

But in the opening chapter, Albertine only alludes to these links. She says:

I had gone through a long phase of wickedness and run away. Yet now that I was on the straight and narrow, things were even worse between [my mother and me].

After two months were gone and my classes were done, and although I still had not forgiven my mother, I decided to go home.

What Erdrich shows here is that simply getting on "the straight and narrow" is not enough; that alone does not fill the spiritual void that leaves Albertine full of resentment. It is in fact only the beginning, just as Albertine's return to the reservation is only the beginning of the novel. And just as the car she drives has "a windshield wiper only on the passenger side" and "the dust [hangs] thick," her vision is still obscured. But once she arrives home, she initiates the recovery of stories that begins a transformation process….

Throughout the novel, the narratives balance and play off of one another, forming a crystalline structure with smoothly interwoven themes and symbols. And although each chapter is its own story, able to stand alone, taken all together the novel becomes a synergetic whole of chapters/stories about telling stories. The theme of storytelling as healing, as resolution, as spiritual, thus becomes incorporated into the structure of the novel itself. In contrast to the dust that obscures vision, and the water that drowns, in the final chapter the characters are humorously drinking 7-Up, and Lipsha says, "The sun flared"; with many stories told, nothing is forgotten, yet there is the strong sense of forgiveness and transformation.

Source: Lissa Schneider, "Love Medicine A Metaphor for Forgiveness," in Studies in American Literature, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 1-13.

Love Medicine: A Female Moby-Dick

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Published in 1984, Love Medicine is about a tribe of Indians living in North Dakota. Its author Louise Erdrich is part Chippewa and in the book returns to her prairie roots for her literary materials. Recently, Erdrich published another work entitled Beet Queen, also about the Red River Valley, and some of the same characters appear in both novels. Love Medicine is different from so much of Native American literature in that it is not polemic—there is no ax to grind, no major indictment of white society. It is simply a story about Indian life—its politics, humor, emptiness, and occasional triumphs. If Erdrich has a gift, it is the ability to capture the inner life and language of her people.

Since its publication, Love Medicine has won several national awards. Still, critics see in it a serious lack of unity—it was originally published as a series of short stories or vignettes. Also, some think it has little connection to authentic Indian values; students at the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota identified more with Giants in the Earth, Rolvaag's epic novel about white immigrants on the Dakota prairie. My contention is just the opposite, that the book does function as a whole, though this may not be immediately evident, and that the author is highly aware of Indian history and tradition, which emerge in subtle ways, helping us to understand the mystery of existence, whatever our color or ethnic origin.

While reading the novel it may help, strangely enough, to keep in mind another novel, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. These two works may seem far apart, one about the sea—"in landlessness alone lies the highest truth"—and the other about the Dakota prairie, the geographic center of North America. But one of Erdrich's characters, Nector Kashpah, sees himself as Ishmael—"call me Ishmael," he says, after escaping a particularly difficult situation. If one looks further into the matter, it becomes evident that there are many ways these two books are alike. First, they have similar episodic or disjointed structures. Then, the major characters in one story seem to draw upon those in the other. And through it all, the same motifs (e.g., water and fishing, wildness—particularly among the males, preoccupation with power as well as the importance of the heart, the alternating realities of life and death, concern with colors, especially white and red) appear again and again. Indeed, it may be that the truest unity and deepest values of Love Medicine come clear when juxtaposed with Melville's classic novel of the sea.

In regard to structure, Love Medicine begins with a short account, told in third person, of the death of June Kashpah in 1981 in the boomtown of Williston, North Dakota. Then the novel proceeds with many short, seemingly unrelated episodes—some descriptive/narrative, some dramatic—told from multiple perspectives, but all about life on and off the reservation over a period of fifty years (1934-1984). Each vignette centers on shattered family life and the alienation of individuals. The parts may indeed seem dissimilar, unless one views them in an organic way, much as Moby-Dick in 1850 represented a departure from the classic or three-part structure so common at that time. Moby-Dick, of course, is about the disintegration of a ship, not only physically, but spiritually, for the purpose of the voyage and the unity of the crew collapse, all because of Ahab's preoccupation with one white whale. It begins with Ishmael's narrative, but then switches to everything from descriptions of the whaling industry, to poetic monologues, to dramatic episodes both comic and tragic. The parts, though different, are interposed erratically and often unexpectedly, but in the end they work together toward the whole. And that is how one must view Love Medicine.

In both cases the circle, so indigenous to Indian life, governs all, though in the case of the structure of Love Medicine, it takes fifty years to see it. Moby-Dick starts with Ishmael's leaving New Bedford, contemplating many kinds of images of death (e.g., in the chapel, through Fr. Maple's sermon, in the Sprouter-Inn, in the prophecies of Elijah). Then, after the wreck of the Pequod (named after an extinct tribe of Indians), he surfaces in a circular vortex as he rises out of the chaos before coming home. In Erdrich's novel the action starts with June's death and then, after going back in time through a series of chaotic scenes dealing with Indian family life, circles back to the beginning when June's lost son Lipsha surfaces—rises psychologically and spiritually, not only to discover his real mother and family, but in his words to "cross the water, and bring her home."

Undoubtedly, Erdrich did not set out to write a book like Moby-Dick, but like Melville she writes about what she knows best—Indian life in this century—and like him she seeks through her characters the answers to some profound questions about human existence. It is in this context that she parallels in broad and general ways Melville's pattern of development, themes, characterizations, and motifs to create a virtual allegory of his work. In many ways her novel mirrors his, for her Dakota prairie can be as wild as his ocean typhoons, just as his sea can be as calm and dreamy as the midwestern prairie. Indeed, as we shall see, the motif of wildness runs through the novel, but the character most directly exhibiting this quality is Nector Kashpah, who sees himself as reliving Moby-Dick. Nector literally connects the various Indian families on the reservation, himself a Kashpah, he marries Marie Lazarre Morrissey, but never loses his passion for Lulu Lamartine, a promiscuous mother of a girl and at least nineteen boys, one of whom is Nector's.

Midway in the book Nector, a type of figure not uncommon in Melville because he is both comic and tragic, says:

I kept thinking about the one book I read in high school … Moby Dick, the story of the great white whale. I knew that book inside and out. I'd even stolen a copy from school and taken it home in my suitcase....

"You're always reading that book," my mother said once. "What's in it?"

"The story of the great white whale."

She could not believe it. After a while, she said, "What do they got to wail about, those whites?"

I told her the whale was a fish as big as the church. She did not believe this either. Who would?

"Call me Ismael," I said sometimes, only to myself. For he survived the great white monster like I got out of the rich lady's picture [he'd been paid by a rich lady to disrobe for a painting she called "Plunge of the Brave"]. He let the water bounce his coffin to the top. In my life so far, I'd gone easy and come out on top, like him. But the river wasn't done with me yet. I floated through the calm sweet spots, but somewhere the river branched.

Here is where he falls headlong again for Lulu.

One of the ironies of the novel is that Nector is not really Ishmael at all, but more like Ahab, in that he is an irrational figure who thinks he can control all worlds—the Kashpahs and the Lamartines, his wife's and his lover's. A member of a most respected family and the chairman of the tribe, Nector becomes the victim of his sexual passions, falling for Marie as she escapes from the Sacred Heart Convent, but equally possessed with the beautiful and lascivious Lulu, into whose waters he continually sails to satisfy his fantasies. He finally concludes:

I try to think of anything but Lulu or Marie or my children. I think back to the mad captain in Moby Dick and how his leg was bit off. Perhaps I was wrong, about Ishmael I mean, for now I see signs of the captain in myself.

In trying to burn a letter he's written to Lulu saying he is leaving Marie, he actually sets fire to Lulu's house—an event reminiscent of Ahab's burning masts in Moby-Dick—before returning sheepishly to Marie. In the end he dies a pathetic old man, one who has literally lost his mind and has "to have his candy." He chokes to death on turkey hearts, the ironic symbol of his erotic needs and manipulative ways.

The Ishmael who discovers the real "love medicine" is Lipsha Morrissey, the bastard son of June Kashpah—the one who brings Nector the hearts. Like Melville's narrator, he is a wanderer who has to discover in painful ways the meaning of his universe and how he fits. He has to find that his true mother is June, who dies on her way home crossing the prairie. He has to find that his brother is King, his boyhood tormentor, disrupted by the Vietnam War and as wild and torn as Nector….

But most of all Lipsha has to find that his father is the perennial criminal Gerry Nanapush, one of the older sons of Lulu Lamartine…. With this discovery late in the novel, Lipsha combines in his own person the larger symbolic family of the Chippewas. He does all this as a kind of innocent observer, like Ishmael, who only occasionally takes part in the action. But out of the death and destruction of his people he, unlike Nector-Ahab and his male counterparts, accepts the responsibility for his life and worth as he rises to the surface in the end. He is the one who truly "connects" all, for he completes the cycle begun by his mother whose spirit he now brings home.

If there is a parallel to Moby-Dick in Love Medicine, it is June Kashpah. She dies early in the novel, but like the great white whale, her presence pervades the entire story and gives it depth. She is not there and yet there. Sometimes she even "comes alive," as when Gordie thinks the deer in his back seat, stunned and yet moving, is June herself. Initially having run away from Gordie, June is hungry and picked up in Williston by a stranger, whom she thinks is "different," but after falling from his truck, perishes walking across the cold white prairie as she "came home." In this early vignette, Erdrich captures the bleakness and boredom at the center of so much Indian life in this century. It is that dark side of life, the side which preoccupies Ahab in Moby-Dick, something he equates through the white whale with an "inscrutable malice" behind the universe—a mask he wants to penetrate. Erdrich does not philosophize as much as Melville, but this concept of evil is a legitimate way of viewing the source of so many of the destructive aspects of Indian life depicted in Love Medicine. It is interesting that when June's inlaws—Gordie and Zelda and Aurelia—recall her life, one of the dominant incidents they remember is their trying to hang her, and her egging them on, like some kind of evil mind. Love Medicine, like Moby-Dick, is a type of journey to penetrate the enticing but illusive mask that conceals the mystery of evil.

As the story unfolds, however, we discover a beautiful side to June, much as Ishmael sees a mystifying and uplifting aspect to the white whale to counter Ahab's view. June has been raised by Eli, Nector's brother, the moral center of the novel, who lives in the woods and represents the old Indian past. At one point in the novel the irascible King insists that Eli have his hat, on which are the words the "World's Greatest Fisherman," for all agree Eli deserves it most. June is inevitably associated with Eli, with water, with fishing, with the good in the Kashpah history. All the Kashpah women admire June, as do her husband Gordie and son King, to whom she leaves money for a car. Like so many of the males, however, King's destructive wildness keeps him from being the responsible human being his mother wanted; this is left for Lipsha to achieve. June, then, is a driving force behind the Chippewa world, but the reader must pick between the beautiful and humanizing aspects of such a presence, and what Ishmael calls when reflecting upon the whiteness of the whale, "the all-color of atheism"—the possibility that behind the Indians' life patterns (which are now white patterns) is not much of anything at all….

[T]he characters—the Kashpahs, the Morrisseys, the Lamartines—whose stories stretch from 1934 to 1984, much as the characters on the Pequod evolve on the voyage to capture Moby-Dick….

Good human relationships are important to both authors, and if Ishmael crosses cultures in making friends with the pagan harpooner Queequeg (who like Eli in Love Medicine is a kind of noble savage), Albertine is herself a half-breed, red and white, the daughter of Zelda and the "Swede." She suffers because of her double-nature, but her return, like Ishmael's setting out, comes from her uneasiness and is an effort to escape loneliness and build human bridges. Curiously enough, Albertine has her own chaotic history, and just as Ishmael may be an innocent observer, but is taken in by Ahab's powerful dark influence, so is Albertine taken in. As Erdrich's story circles back in time we find that Albertine in 1973 at fifteen tries to run away from the reservation. She goes to Fargo, only to end up sleeping with Henry Lamartine Jr., one of Lulu's sons, on N. P. Avenue in the cheap Round Up Hotel. After making love, Albertine feels empty and wants to separate herself from him, whereupon he senses that she has "crossed a deep river and disappeared." In short, he needs her, and her horror pales beside his nightmare explosion. Like King, he has been damaged by the Vietnam War, and when he touches her the next day "weeping," she is now touched emotionally by the depth of their mutual loneliness.

In the beginning of the novel, however, Albertine returns to the reservation. Like Ishmael, she is not pure, but she has more distance than the others, having lived in a white woman's basement for some time away from home. Through her we meet Zelda and Aurelia. On the Pequod the chief mates, like Stubb and Flask, are skillful whalers, but not thinkers, and soon become extensions of Ahab's mind. The women of the reservation are also servants, but they are more free and happy people—like the harpooners in Moby-Dick who dine in an atmosphere of merriment following their humorless captain's meal. These women don't fight the system, run by the males, but they are basic to its existence—giving birth to the children, planting and growing the food, cooking and baking for the men—like Gordie and King and Lipsha, who unconsciously quarrel over and destroy the newly baked pies. Among the Nanapushes, Gerry leaves prison temporarily to impregnate Dot, who is then left to raise and feed the child. These women may be treated like dogs, as Ahab treats Stubb, but they keep the whole operation afloat. They maintain the land, encourage their men, survive catastrophe. The Pequod is a commercial enterprise where under contract the mates and harpooners follow their mad leader without question. The women in Love Medicine are not paid, but they keep the family itself intact, in spite of the alcohol, the violence, the abuse and misuse of one another.

Albertine identifies with these women—their fun, their hopes, but also their fears and worry about the men. In one of the most powerful scenes in Moby-Dick, Ishmael almost loses control of the ship as he gazes into the Try-Works (the red-hot pots of sperm oil), contemplating how intertwined are both the magnificent as well as the most hellish moments of life, even as the Catskill eagle flies high and yet at times swoops very low. Albertine-Ishmael, amid all the fighting and confusion, is worried about Lipsha and takes him for a walk in the fields, and gazing at the northern lights, she muses:

I thought of June. She would be dancing if there was a dance hall in space. She would be dancing a two-step for wandering souls [like Lipsha]. Her long legs lifting and falling. Her laughing face. Her sweet perfume the way all grown-up women were supposed to smell. Her amusement at both the bad and the good. Her defeat. Her reckless victory. Her sons.

So June, amid the high moments and the low, the bad and the good, gives substance to the Indians' quest for meaning. Lipsha will find himself in the end, but it is too early to know that now, and Albertine, his alter ego, can only hold his hand, and like Ishmael, try to keep the ship on course….

There are other major incidents in Love Medicine that pick up key threads in Moby-Dick, like the close relationship between madness and wisdom. Both King Jr. and Henry Jr. are affected mentally by the Vietnam War to the point they become violent souls. Henry Jr., after a long drive with his brother Lyman, who cannot save him, drowns himself in his red convertible. In Melville's story, the castaway Pip loses his mind when Stubb will not save him from the sea, but he returns in his madness to offer sharp, bitter wisdom to Captain Ahab, and from him the captain accepts it. In Erdrich's world where one generation fails, the next seems to succeed, as when King Howard Kashpah Jr. (King and Lynette's young son), after all his father's rage, learns to write his name, Howard Kashpah, in school on a red paper heart. The marker label says "PERMANENT," and the teacher tells him "that means forever." So Howard in his Pip-like childish wisdom undercuts the adult world around him to establish his own identity as a human being. In this way Howard parallels the growth in Lipsha Morrisey, the other son of June.

Colors, especially red and white, are also crucial in both novels, for they are a part of the very texture. White and red seem to go back and forth in Moby-Dick, as the red heat of the try-pots lights up the Pequod, just as do the tapering white candles or mastheads struck by lightning. In one case Ishmael philosophizes on life, while in the other Ahab commits himself to death. In Love Medicine the Indian is, of course, the redman living in a white world. June in the beginning has on a red nylon vest when the stranger in a white jacket "plunged down against her" with a "great wide mouth," as though she were entering the whale itself. Then there is the red convertible in which Henry Jr. drowns; the mark of white society, this is the machine that spells freedom, but it cannot solve basic human problems where so many are held psychologically captive.

Finally, there is the red of the heart itself—a powerful symbol in both novels. On the Pequod Ahab, just before the fatal chase, talks to Starbuck about the importance of the heart, family, love. His words are touching, coming from a man bent on destruction: "I … do what in my own … natural heart, I durst not … dare," he says. In Love Medicine both Lipsha and Howard come to know the meaning of the heart—Lipsha through the turkey hearts which kill his Ahab-like grandfather, and Howard through the paper heart on which he writes his name. Lipsha says that love means forgiveness, that it is not magic, but a "true feeling." Later, when he discovers in a card game his true father and sees himself as part of the larger family, he says, "The jack of hearts is me." These awakenings give a kind of tragic joy to a story pervaded by so many deaths.

Love Medicine, then, is a book about the prairie that examines the wild, chaotic lives of several Indian families whose lives on the reservation have immersed them in a dark and often violent existence, one that the author seems to equate with Ahab. It is a world created by a white—shall we say malicious—intelligence, except that behind the scenes hovers an amazing human being, June Kashpah, whose life and recent death still give meaning and hope to its members. Albertine-Ishmael goes back to that world to experience again the rage dramatized by her grandfather Nector-Ahab, as well as other violent males. But she also discovers the values sustained by women like her mother, Zelda, and Aurelia and Dot Adare, but especially by Marie and Lulu, who in spite of the men and the systems and the power, give dignity and spirit to an otherwise hollow and violent world.

Out of the chaos emerges, through Howard and Lipsha, possible new worlds, just as June would have wished. Indeed, Lipsha-Ishmael begins to see the importance of love within all the families and in this way "brings June home" as he (to use Nector's words) lets "the water bounce his coffin to the top" in the end. Love Medicine is a novel about the land, but one which has so many parallels to Moby-Dick that it draws tremendous power when placed beside Melville's classic novel about the sea.

Source: Thomas Matchie, "Love Medicine: A Female Moby-Dick," in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 478-91.


Critical Overview


Love Medicine Louise Erdrich