Love Medicine Essays and Criticism
by Louise Erdrich

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The Story as a Form of Love Medicine

(Novels for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 6,869 words.)