Love Medicine Louise Erdrich
(Born as Karen Louise Erdrich; has also published under pseudonyms Heidi Louise and Milou North) American novelist, poet, memoirist, children's writer, and historian.
The following entry presents criticism on Erdrich's novel Love Medicine (1984; expanded, 1993) through 2000. See also, Louise Erdrich Criticism.
In the novel Love Medicine, Erdrich draws upon her Chippewa heritage to examine complex familial and sexual relationships among Native Americans and their conflict with white communities. Her comically eccentric characters attain mythic stature as they struggle to overcome isolation, abandonment, and exploitation. Although Erdrich's work often deals with issues of concern to Native Americans, critics have noted the universality of her themes, the poetic quality of her literary voice, and her engaging authorial presence. Initially published in 1984, Erdrich released a revised and expanded version of Love Medicine in 1993 to clarify events and relationships between characters, as well as strengthening links to her later works such as Tracks (1988) and The Bingo Palace (1994). Love Medicine remains critically and commercially popular and has earned a notable position in the canon of American literature.
Plot and Major Characters
Love Medicine features fourteen interconnected stories related by seven different members of the Kashpaw and Lamartine families of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa community. The first chapter of the novel, “The World's Greatest Fishermen,” opens with the death of June Kashpaw, who freezes to death as she tries to walk back to her reservation following a meaningless sexual encounter with a white oil worker. As the chapter progresses, Erdrich relates the reactions of June's relatives, children, and the Turtle Mountain community to her death, establishing the foundation for the rest of the narrative. The subsequent chapters are not arranged chronologically, but rather follow significant moments in the lives of her characters between the years of 1934 and 1984. The chapters “Saint Marie” and “Wild Geese” follow Nector and Marie Kashpaw, who at times act as June's parents following the death of her mother. Nector was sent to public school while his twin brother Eli stayed home on the reservation and, as a result, Eli has been unable to fully integrate himself into white culture. In Marie's early adolescence, she attempted a social climb by becoming a nun in a convent near the reservation. After battling with the sadistic Sister Leopolda, who believes that Marie is possessed by the Devil, Marie leaves the convent and marries Nector. Their marriage is tumultuous, and Nector later begins an affair with Lulu Nanapush, whose past is related in “The Island,” a chapter added to the 1993 expanded edition. “The Beads” opens in 1948 with June in her childhood just after Marie and Nector took her into their home. The chapters “Lulu's Boys,” “The Plunge of the Brave,” and “Flesh and Blood” all take place in 1957, primarily focusing on the strained relationships between Nector, the promiscuous Lulu, and the overly socially conscious Marie. “A Bridge” and “The Red Convertible” take place between 1973 and 1974 and follow Henry Lamartine, the son of Lulu and her former brother-in-law, Beverly. Henry is on his way back to the reservation, returning after being released from a Vietnam prisoner-of-war camp, when he meets Albertine, a niece of June's who is running away from home. The bonds between Nector, Lulu, and Marie are further explored in “Love Medicine” and “The Good Tears.” Lipsha Morrissey, who was 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 to death. “The Good Tears” ends with Lulu and Marie's reconciliation, with Marie acting as Lulu's nurse, putting the “tears” in her eyes following Lulu's cataract surgery and Nector's death. The final three chapters—“The Tomahawk Factory,” “Lyman's Luck,” and “Crossing the Water”—follow Lyman Lamartine, Nector and Lulu's son, and Lipsha, who discovers that June was his birth mother.
The stories in Love Medicine examine the lives of individuals in the Turtle Mountain community, tracking both their physical moves to stay or leave the reservation and their spiritual moves to accommodate a pervasive American culture or remain true to the lifestyle of their Chippewa ancestors. In part, the linked sections chart the health and success of the characters who are in the process of this movement. Chapters such as “The World's Greatest Fishermen” and “The Island” concentrate on a variety of thematic concerns such as abandonment, promiscuity, alienation, the devastating effects of alcoholism and suicide in Native American communities, and vicissitudes of familial relationships. Characters like Eli and Lyman reflect the displacement and isolation of Native Americans within American cultural, socioeconomic, and political landscapes. Eli isolates himself on the reservation, not acknowledging the presence of white culture, while Lyman dreams of building a casino to attract white gamblers to the area. However, the novel also focuses on more positive aspects of the tribal community, including the healing power of humor, familial and cultural bonds, compassion, hope, and redemption. Despite their lifelong struggle surrounding Nector—who tries to balance himself between white and Native American culture—Marie and Lulu are able to reconcile their differences and live together in the Native American retirement community. Critics have explored the archetypal image of the Native American trickster in Love Medicine, which Erdrich embodies in the characters of Lulu and Lipsha. Commentators have additionally noted that Erdrich's use of multiple narrators illustrates the complex relationships amongst the characters while also recreating the form of the Native American oral narrative.
Love Medicine has received an overwhelmingly positive critical assessment since its initial publication, earning several accolades and honors, including the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984. The majority of the reviews and critical commentary on the novel have focused on Erdrich's unique narrative technique, which employs multiple narrators, overlapping themes, and nonlinear chronology. This nontraditional structure has earned Love Medicine favorable comparisons to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom! Erdrich's continuing use and development of characters in the Turtle Mountain region has also been praised for its similarity to Faulkner's creation of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Some critics have complained that Erdrich's use of alternating narrators interrupts the narrative flow and makes the text needlessly confusing, while others have lauded Erdrich's characterization and the thematic links between the narrators. Placing Love Medicine within a specific literary genre has been widely debated among scholars and academics, with some alternately referring to the story as a novel, a collection of stories, or a short story sequence. Although Erdrich refers to each section as a “chapter,” reviewers have noted that many of the sections originally appeared in other publications as short stories. Hertha D. Wong has asserted that the structure of Love Medicine constitutes a “short story cycle,” noting that, “[a]lthough each of the short stories in Love Medicine is inextricably interrelated to a network of other stories beyond its covers, the sequence of stories within the book has its own coherence, just as each story has its own integrity.”