Ruth Doan MacDougall (review date 27 November 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: MacDougall, Ruth Doan. “Engaging First Novel Records 50 Years on a Chippewa Reservation.” Christian Science Monitor 77, no. 3 (27 November 1984): 33.

[In the following review, MacDougall praises Erdrich's characterizations in Love Medicine, calling the work “a funny, mystical and down-to-earth” novel.]

I grew up with [my mother] in an aqua-and-silver trailer, set next to the old house on the land my great-grandparents were allotted when the government decided to turn Indians into farmers. … The main house, where all of my aunts and uncles grew up, is one big square room with a cooking shack tacked onto it. The house is a light peeling lavender now, the color of a pale petunia.

This is the family home of the Kashpaws on a Chippewa reservation in North Dakota, and the speaker is Albertine Johnson, one of the many narrators of this fine first novel [Love Medicine], which spans the years between 1934 and 1984.

Chapter by chapter, voices chime in and stories intertwine:

Marie, Albertine's grandmother, grows from a naive young girl—“The length of the sky is just about the size of my ignorance”—to a woman determined to make something out of her husband, raising her own children and taking in strays, which include her niece, the doomed June.

Handsome Nector, Marie's husband, is a twin whose mother let him go to school while hiding Eli, his brother, from the authorities. “In that way she gained a son on either side of the line. Nector came home from boarding school knowing white reading and writing, while Eli knew the woods.” Nector is fond of drinking and gambling, but eventually Marie reforms him, rejoicing, “Now I was solid class. Nector was tribal chairman.” Yet Nector succumbs to another vice, his first love, Lulu Lamartine.

Delcares Lulu, “I was in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms.” She has eight sons by eight different fathers to prove it. The story of one of these sons is a powerful tale about reaction to being a Vietnam POW; the high-spirited story of another son is about daredevil escapes from the police. Both stories involve prisons in the outside world, where the sons are as trapped as they were on the reservation.

The Indians' plight is always implied, and on rare occasions it is also stated, with a passionate tone sheathed in irony. “I never let the United States census in my door,” Lulu remarks, “even though they say it's good for Indians. Well, quote me. I say that every time they counted us they knew the precise number to get rid of.”

The Kashpaws' and the Lamartines' lives continue to interweave even in a senior citizens' home. By the end of the book, we have a kaleidoscope of images that stay with us, among them: Marie's children being put to bed, fitted “together on the rollaway, neat puzzles of arms and legs”; Marie in a frenzy, peeling every potato in the house when she learns of Nector's infidelity; the love medicine itself, in literal and figurative forms; commodity rice, commodity beef, and perhaps the only seduction scene ever caused by surplus butter.

Lyrical and funny, mystical and down-to-earth, Love Medicine entrances.

Louise Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 1175 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 ofLove 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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Linda Taylor (review date 22 February 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Taylor, Linda. “On- and Off-Reservation.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4273 (22 February 1985): 196.

[In the following review, Taylor compliments Erdrich's narrative structure and examination of issues relevant to Native Americans in Love Medicine.]

Set in North Dakota and depicting the lives of the sometimes loosely connected, sometimes over-connected members of the Kashpaw and Lamartine families. (Chippewa Indians interbred with white trash), Love Medicine is a novel about survival, about going home (both locally and metaphysically), about true and false spirits (gods, demons, powers). With seven narrators and an occasional word from the authorial voice, Louise Erdrich covers fifty years (1934-84) of her characters' on- and off-reservation lives. The narratives overlap; they are composed of memories and current events. Each narrator is innocent about, while contributing to, the wider significance of the book. So, Nector Kashpaw, in his forties in 1957, tells how the priest at his high school “would teach no other book all four years but Moby Dick,” and of how he identified with Ishmael:

For he survived the great white monster like I got out of the rich lady's picture. 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.

Later, when Nector has left his wife, Marie, for Lulu Lamartine, he thinks, while waiting for her to return home:

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. I bend over and pick up a tin can and crush it flat. For no reason! A bit later I bang the side of her house until my fist hurts. I drop my head in my hands. I tell her out loud, to get back quick. I do not know what I will do if she doesn't.

She doesn't, and Nector (accidentally?) burns down her house and returns to Marie.

Erdrich also borrows Melville's symbol of the crushing opponent, the omnipotent enemy. The monster's whiteness is significant, for, while this is a novel that concentrates on individuals, the politics of being an American Indian are not forgotten. Lulu, for instance, discusses the question of land:

If we're going to measure land, let's measure right. Every foot and inch you're standing on, even if it's on the top of the highest skyscraper, belongs to the Indians. That's the real truth of the matter.

Penned in by the State and the target of Catholic missions (the Sacred Heart Convent is just up the hill; they all attend mass), the Indians find themselves “shouting” at a government and a god that is “deafening up on us.” Senile Nector yells his Hail Marys in church; “King [smashes] his fist in things, Gordie [drinks] himself down to the Bismarck hospitals”; Gerry Nanapush “was mainly in the penitentiary for breaking out of it”; Marie Kashpaw wrestles with Sister Leopolda for her talismanic spoon—acts which are reminders of the impotent rage of Ahab. Lipsha Morrissey recognizes that communion with the old gods is not what it was: “an art that was lost to the Chippewas once the Catholics gained ground.” As for the alternative: “Was there any sense in relying on a God whose ears was stopped? Just like the government?” The great white monster is exploitative. Earlier, Nector has told how a film company and a rich artist had wanted his body: to die and fall off a horse; to be the naked subject of the Plunge of the Brave (into a churning, cascading river). “The greater world,” he says, “was only interested in my doom.”

Death, rather than doom, pervades the novel. While the characters do keep bouncing to the surface in their coffins (and, like the original Ishmael, they are all, of course, outcasts) when their lives are obsolete, they have the capacity to embrace oblivion like their old tribal forefathers: Henry Lamartine sits in his car on the railroad track; Henry Junior dives into a swirling river; Nector purposely chokes to death; and June Kashpaw begins an epic march “home”:

Even when it started to snow she did not lose her sense of direction. Her feet grew numb, but she did not worry about the distance. The heavy winds couldn't blow her off course. She continued. Even when her heart clenched and her skin turned crackling cold it didn't matter, because the pure and naked part of her went on.

Death for the Indian, like the Catholic, is not the end, but, while Sister Leopolda, the terrifying “saint” who had fought the young Marie's demons with a window pole, a poker, a bread fork and scalding water, looks forward only to a transfigured afterlife, many of the Indian characters experience timeless moments in their earthly lives. They recognize, heathenishly, the forces of nature; they have a sense more of mutability than of salvation: Lipsha, for instance, on the dandelion (and the Indians), “The spiked leaves full of mother's milk. A buried root. A nuisance people dig up and throw in the sun to wither. A globe of frail seeds that's indestructible.”

This richly complex first novel is an expert combination of teller's tales, family saga, tribal consciousness, and of reportage on the anomalous position of the Red Indian in modern society. While the threads (with the book's shifts in time and voice) are initially hard to follow, there is a real sense for the reader, at the end, of having acquired much more than a sum of the book's parts.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Jacklight (poetry) 1984

Love Medicine (novel) 1984; expanded edition, 1993

The Beet Queen (novel) 1986

Tracks (novel) 1988

Baptism of Desire (poetry) 1989

The Crown of Columbus [with Michael Dorris] (novel) 1991

The Bingo Palace (novel) 1994

The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year (memoir) 1995

Grandmother's Pigeon [illustrations by Jim LaMarche] (juvenilia) 1996

Tales of Burning Love (novel) 1996

The Antelope Wife (novel) 1998

The Birchbark House (juvenilia) 1999

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (novel) 2001

Master Butchers Singing Club (novel) 2002

Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country (memoir and history) 2003

Original Fire: Selected and New Poems (poetry) 2003

William Gleason (essay date 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Gleason, William. “‘Her Laugh an Ace’: The Function of Humor in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine.American Indian Culture and Research Journal 11, no. 3 (1987): 51-73.

[In the following essay, Gleason examines how humor is used as a metaphor and as a tool for emotional growth in Love Medicine.]

We have one priceless universal trait, we Americans. That trait is our humor. What a pity it is that it is not more prevalent in our art.

—William Faulkner

Many early reviewers of Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine treat the novel as though it were at heart a tragic account of pain. They see Erdrich as merely a recorder of contemporary Indian suffering, as an evoker of her characters' “conflicting feelings of pride and shame, guilt and rage—the disorderly intimacies of their lives on the reservation and their longings to escape.”1 These critics classify Love Medicine as “a tribal chronicle of defeat,”2 a “unique evocation of a culture in severe social ruin,”3 and an “appalling account of … impoverished, feckless lives far gone in alcoholism and promiscuity.”4 Each of these descriptions betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the novel; any reckoning of Love Medicine as an ultimately tragic text begs contradiction.

To be sure, the book contains much that is painful. Its unifying vision, however, is one of redemption—accomplished through an expert and caring use of humor. Erdrich's characters by novel's end are not far gone, but close to home; she evokes a culture not in severe ruin, but about to rise; she chronicles not defeat, but survival. Love, assisted by humor, triumphs over pain.

The humor in Love Medicine is protean. Laughter leaks from phrase, gesture, incident, situation, and narrative comment equally. Much of what is funny seems subtly so, but farce, slap-stick, and outright joke-telling by no means remain absent. In many ways, humor mirrors hurt in this novel, broad or sharp. After King and Lynette wheel up to Aurelia's house with King Jr. bundled in the front seat and Grandma and Grandpa Kashpaw stuffed into the tiny back, for example, we quickly understand that Grandpa's perceptive powers have precipitously diminished. He does not realize that the car has stopped, does not notice things that happen right in front of him, and does not recognize his own house or granddaughter:

Lynette rolled out the door, shedding cloth and pins, packing the bare-bottomed child on her hip, and I couldn't tell what had happened.

Grandpa hadn't noticed, whatever it was. He turned to the open door and stared at his house.

“This reminds me of something,” he said.

“Well, it should. It's your house!” Mama barreled out the door, grabbed both of his hands, and pulled him out of the little backseat.

“You have your granddaughter here, Daddy!” Zelda shrieked carefully into Grandpa's face. “Zelda's daughter. She came all the way up here to visit from school.”

“Zelda … born September fourteenth, nineteen forty-one …”

“No, Daddy. This here is my daughter, Albertine. Your granddaughter.”

I took his hand.5

“Shrieked carefully” here is delightful, as is the deadpan understatement of “This reminds me of something.” Indeed, much humor threatens to slip by unnoticed. King buys a “big pink gravestone” for his mother's plot before purchasing his blue Firebird with the insurance money (page 21). And Dot's hair must be ferociously comic. Albertine mentions that “by the cold months it had grown out in thick quills—brown at the shank, orange at the tip. The orange dye job had not suited her coloring” (page 159). Gerry Nanapush is a “six-foot plus, two-hundred-and-fifty pound Indian” who nevertheless tries to hide behind a “yellow tennis player's visor” in a dimly lit bar (pages 160, 156). When Gerry later escapes from the local cops by squeezing through a hospital window and jumping three stories onto the police car hood, he is sufficiently emboldened to “pop a wheelie” on his motorcycle before disappearing (page 169).

Words play games in this novel, too. Albertine's nursing student textbook is “spread out to the section on ‘Patient Abuse’” (page 7). We are not quite sure how funny this is intended to be; narratively we have just found out that June is dead. But by the time we reach Nector's (“Grandpa” in the first chapter) recounting of his pose for Plunge of the Brave we know that words—especially when they lead to Indian-white confusions—can be very playful. “Disrobe,” commands the “snaggletoothed” painter with “a little black pancake on her head” (page 90). Nector “pretended not to understand her. ‘What robe?’ (he) asked” (page 90). Another “famous misunderstanding” occurs when Nector tells Rushes Bear about Moby Dick:

“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?”

(page 91)

Lipsha's word perversions entertain. For example, regarding malpractice suits: “I heard of those suits. I used to think it was a color clothing quack doctors had to wear so you could tell them from the good ones” (page 203). When Marie (“Grandma” in the first chapter) tells the children at Nector's funeral that “she had been stepping out onto the road of death,” Lipsha asks “was there any stop signs or dividing markers on that road” (page 210). And when he relates the story of the “little blue tweety bird” that flew up Lulu's dress and got lost (never, apparently, to come out alive), he christens it a “paraclete” (page 201).

Much humor is slyly sexual. When Beverly Lamartine recalls the strip poker game that he, his brother Henry, and Lulu once played, Lulu tells him something he never knew: “It was after I won your shorts with my pair of deuces and Henry's with my eights, and you were naked, that I decided which one to marry” (page 82). And moments later: “‘Some men react in that situation and some don't,” she told him. ‘It was reaction I looked for, if you know what I mean’” (page 83). After Nector and Marie couple on the slope between the convent and the town (we are never quite sure who seduces whom) she sneers, “I've had better” (page 61). Dot and Gerry beget little Shawn “in a visiting room at the state prison. Dot had straddled Gerry's lap in a corner the closed-circuit TV did not quite scan. Through a hole ripped in her pantyhose and a hole ripped in Gerry's jeans they somehow managed to join and, miraculously, to conceive” (page 160).

Two other forms of humor deserve attention: slapstick and sarcasm. Examples of the former cavort throughout the novel, though often in contexts that are not entirely humorous. Lipsha's moment of revelation concerning his father, for instance, is triggered—without comment—by an empty bottle of rotgut flipped over someone's shoulder that hits him “smack between the eyes” (page 247). When Marie is a young girl at the convent and decides to treat Sister Leopolda to an ovenlike taste of hell, things backfire comically: “She bent forward with her fork held out. I kicked her with all my might. She flew in. But the outstretched poker hit the back wall first, so she rebounded. The oven was not so deep as I had thought” (page 53). In the midst of Lulu and Nector's laundry tryst, washers and dryers shaking and moaning in the background, Lulu's poodle-like wig jumps off her head and spoils the moment. “Not only that,” Lipsha tells us, “but her wig was almost with a life of its own. Grandpa's eyes were bugging out at the change already, and swear to God if the thing didn't rear up and pop him in the face like it was going to start something” (page 197). Lipsha terms Lulu (now bald, but somehow elegant) an “alien queen” (page 197). Had he told her to her face it might be insulting; here it is merely quick (and slick) description, to modify Clifford Geertz for a moment.

Sharp barbs, however, do fly through Love Medicine, and they can be crudely amusing. For example, Zelda, rather pointedly to Lynette, concerning Albertine: “‘She's not married yet,’ said Zelda, dangling a bright plastic bundle of keys down to the baby. ‘She thinks she'll wait for her baby until after she's married’” (page 23; italics Zelda's). Or Marie to Leopolda, post-oven fiasco: ‘“Bitch of Jesus Christ!’ I shouted. ‘Kneel and beg! Lick the floor!’” (page 53). And Marie, teasing the neighborhood gossip-cows with their own bad lives: “How's your son? Too bad he crossed the border. I heard he had to go. Are you taking in his newborn?” (page 70).

Mary Douglas suggests that humor always contains an element of aggression, that jokes subvert, and therefore comedy attacks control.6 Though she is critical of Henri Bergson's theory of laughter for failing to account for certain types of humor, she would likely agree with him that some humor is “above all, a corrective. Being intended to humiliate, it must make a painful impression on the person against whom it is directed.”7 But surely vengeance and intimidation are not at the root of all humor in Love Medicine.

To consider other explanations for what I have been offering as funny in the novel, let us turn first to John Huizinga. In Homo Ludens Huizinga argues that play structures inform nearly all human activity, including law, religion, philosophy, and art. “Play,” he explains, “is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is ‘different’ from ‘ordinary life.’”8 when Beverly creates a fantasy world in which Lulu's boy Henry Jr. becomes his son, he is engaged in almost pure play. Though he has never seen Henry Jr. in person, Beverly believes he is, biologically, his son (having slept with Lulu, his brother's widow, a week after Henry Senior's death). He uses a single prop—the boy's photograph, willingly supplied each year by Lulu—to weave a persuasive daydream that doubles as a shrewd marketing pitch. Beverly convinces working-class parents around Minneapolis to buy enrichment workbooks for their kids by telling tales of Henry Jr.'s self-initiated success. In fact, “with every picture Beverly grew more familiar with his son and more inspired in the invention of tales he embroidered, day after day, on front porches that were to him the innocent stages for his routine” (page 78).

The fabled Henry Jr. succeeds as student, athlete, and social-climber, clearing “the hurdles of class and intellect with an ease astonishing to Beverly” (page 78). Unfortunately, Henry Jr. becomes too real, and the boundary between fantasy and reality blurs perceptibly in Beverly's mind. When he drives back to the reservation to claim the boy he is at first unable to pick him out from among Lulu's shuffling octet. Each child “was Henry Junior in a different daydream, at a different age” (page 80).

When play becomes too “real,” confusion intrudes. June's mock-hanging—at best darkly comic—is nearly the novel's most tragic scene. June, Gordie, Aurelia, and Zelda are out “playing in the woods,” when Zelda runs shrieking back to Marie: “‘It's June,’ she gasped. ‘Mama, they're hanging June out in the woods!’” (page 67). When Marie arrives at the place on a dead run, she “saw Gordie was standing there with one end of the rope that was looped high around a branch. The other end was tied in a loose loop around June's neck” (page 67). They protest that they were only playing, but Marie refuses to believe their “lies.” Until June speaks up:

“You ruined it.” Her eyes blinked at me, dry, as she choked it out. “I stole their horse. So I was supposed to be hanged.”

I gaped at her.

“Child,” I said, “you don't know how to play. It's a game, but if they hang you they would hang you for real.”

She put her head down. I could almost have sworn she knew what was real and what was not real, and that I'd still ruined it.

(pages 67-8)

The tension dissipates a moment later when June mutters “damn old bitch” under her breath and Marie summarily packs her mouth with soap flakes (page 68).

Henry Jr. as an adult is a character for whom non-play displaces the ludic. When we first see him as a boy, he is engaged in mock-play, learning to “cradle, aim, and squeeze-fire” a.22, with a jug as his target (page 85). Later we discover he has been to Vietnam, where, after nine months of jungle combat, he is captured by the NVA. And although Huizinga cogently argues that a rooted element of play is agon, or competitive struggle, and that war therefore can still be a game, he admits that “modern warfare has, on the face of it, lost all contact with play” (Homo Ludens, page 210). It certainly has for Henry Jr., an American Indian with “almost Asian-looking eyes” sent to the Orient to kill Asians (page 83). In “A Bridge,” Henry is bitter, violent, jumpy. He relives confused Vietnam scenarios in the real world of Fargo. Albertine with her runaway's bundle looks to him like a Vietnamese refugee—or is she a terrorist?—carrying a loosely wrapped package of possessions or, potentially, explosives. Henry still wears his “dull green army jacket” (page 132). In the hotel where he and Albertine rent a room for the night he takes a “violent dislike” to the “lazy motherfucker” clerk: “‘I could off this fat shit,’ he told himself” (page 136). When he sees Albertine crouching over her belongings in the bathroom, he imagines her as the hemorrhaging village woman he was once supposed to interrogate. And he has told Albertine, apparently, about the war: “He said those men took trophies. Skin pressed in the pages of a book” (page 135). War as contest here has gone perversely evil. “When the combat has an ethical value,” Huizinga points out, “it ceases to be play” (Homo Ludens, page 210). No longer capable of restful sleep, let alone meaningful play, Henry explodes, shrieking, when Albertine touches him the next morning. Inside of a year he will commit suicide.

King Kashpaw's own “Vietnam” experience is comically chiastic to Henry's “He's no vet,” Lipsha assures us in the first chapter (page 36). But King seems to think he is: “Like I was telling you, I was in the Marines. You can't run from them bastards, man. They'll get you every time. I was in Nam” (page 253). King's daydream is, in fact, quite elaborate, in spite of Lipsha's skepticism:

“BINH,” he popped his lips. “BINH, BINH.”

That was the sound of incoming fire exploding next to his head.

“Apple, Apple?”

“What, Banana?”

“Over here, Apple!”

That was what he and his buddy, who King said was a Kentucky Boy, used to call each other, in code.

“How come you didn't just use names?” I asked between gulps. “What difference?”

“The enemy.” He glared at me. He was getting into the fantasy.

“They're a small people.” He put his hand out at Howard's height. “Hard to see.”

(pages 253-4)

“There is yet another use of the word ‘play,’” Huizinga suggests, “which is just as widespread and just as fundamental as the equation of play with serious strife, namely, in relation to the erotic” (Homo Ludens, page 43). Sexual play frisks through this novel, but the edges between eroticism and war frequently blur. During June's roadside encounter with slick-vested Andy, “she let him wrestle with her clothing,” and then ends up with the crown of her head “wedged … against the driver's seat” (pages 4-5). King and Lynette, after a drunken evening in which he nearly drowns her in the kitchen sink, instinctively modulate from rage to sex: “They got into the car soon after that. Doors slammed. But they traveled just a few yards and then stopped. The horn blared softly. I suppose they knocked against it in passion” (page 39). Roaring car heaters, moreover, accompany the “auto” eroticisms of both June and her son. When Lulu and Beverly make love after Henry Sr.'s funeral, we sense the agonistic component for both parties:

Then passion overtook them. She hung onto him like they were riding the tossing ground, her teeth grinding in his ear. … Afterward they lay together, breathing the dark in and out. He had wept the one other time in his life besides post combat, and after a while he came into her again, tasting his own miraculous continuance.

(page 87)

Henry Jr. and Albertine's love-making is nearly brutal; after ejaculating “helplessly, pressed against her, before he was even hard”—excited by Albertine's fear, we are told—Henry pins her face down on the bed and takes her harshly from behind (pages 140-1). Sex can become ritualized (as when Nector follows the same routine with Lulu—meat to dogs, in through window, wash hands, make love, leave before dawn: a veritable “clock-work precision of timing”—for five years (page 101). Or passion can turn into the repressed rage of latent lesbianism (as in Leopolda, whose vicious scalding of Marie as an example of Satan's “hellish embrace” is followed by “slow, wide circles” of ointment rubbed into Marie's naked back (pages 49, 51).

Sigmund Freud believes that all love objects serve as “mother-surrogates,” and he argues for a model of humor as a release, or free discharge of emotional energy.9 Jokes can occasion freedom from anxiety, or simply from the burden of being grown up. Many Indian societies feature comic figures whose roles work precisely in this way: the Western Pueblo kachinas, for example, or the heyokas of the Lakota. The reversing humor of the latter is especially prevalent in Love Medicine. According to John Fire Lame Deer, a heyoka “is an upside-down, backward-forward, yes-and-no man, a contrary-wise.”10 “A heyoka does strange things,” acknowledges Lame Deer. “He says ‘yes’ when he means ‘no.’ He rides his horse backward. He wears his moccasins or boots the wrong way. When he's coming, he's really going.” Lyman Lamartine tries to renew his brother Henry's interest in their red convertible by taking a hammer to its underside and “making it look as beat up as (he) could” (page 149). Howard Kashpaw (King Jr.) curiously inverts proper cereal-making sequence, pouring the milk into the bowl first, then the cereal. “‘He does it all backwards,’ observed King” (page 252). Lipsha even sees Howard as a sort of sacred clown: “Howard didn't say nothing. He carried the bowl and the box of cereal very carefully in to the television. It was like he was going to make a religious offering” (page 252).

Lipsha, who later prepares himself a backwards bowl of cereal, is in his own way a holy fool. He is a modern pinball medicine man, who believes he has “the touch” (page 190). “I know the tricks of mind and body inside out without ever having trained for it,” he asserts. “It's a thing you got to be born with. I got secrets in my hands that nobody ever knew to ask” (pages 189-90). In the Lakota system a man need merely dream of lightning, “the thunderbirds,” to become a heyoka. Lipsha doesn't exactly do this, but early in the novel he does lay out under the night sky with Albertine, watching the Northern lights: “At times the whole sky was ringed in shooting points and puckers of light gathering and falling, pulsing, fading, rhythmical as breathing” (page 34).

But he's not especially diligent about his medicine, particularly in acquiring the two goose hearts for Marie's love charm. (Lipsha is probably better at Space Invaders than ritual healing.) And the medicine he does provide—two frozen turkey hearts—misfires horribly, killing Nector in a ludicrously sad choking scene. When Marie tells Lipsha that Nector had come back to her after death, Lipsha says his “head felt screwed on backwards” (page 212). Even some of Lipsha's diction recalls Lame Deer's earthy phrasings, as in “I don't got the cold hard potatoes it takes to understand everything” (page 195).

Nector himself is another candidate for heyoka status, although more as someone affected by contraries than in the strictly magical sense. He is a man trapped by opposites, caught between the conflicting worlds of Marie and Lulu. Sitting hand in hand with Marie, after their co-seduction on the hill, he narrates his internal contradiction: “I don't want her, but I want her, and I cannot let go” (Love Medicine, page 62). He feels the same toward Lulu after deciding to leave her forever: “No sooner had I given her up than I wanted Lulu back” (page 104). He is a marvelously inappropriate churchgoer, who turns the normally hushed tone of the Catholic sanctuary into an evangelical shouting contest. “He shrieked to heaven,” Lipsha says, “and he pleaded like a movie actor and he pounded his chest like Tarzan in the Lord I Am Not Worthies. I thought he might hurt himself” (page 194). He even converts the Virgin's name to his wife's: “HAIL MARIE FULL OF GRACE” (page 194). And in true heyoka fashion, on the topic of his “second childhood,” he tells Lipsha “I been chosen for it. I couldn't say no” (page 190).

Another pan-Indian character who pops up in the novel is the untiring Trickster. Paul Radin terms Trickster the oldest of all figures in American Indian mythologies, perhaps in all mythologies.11 He (or she) is typically depicted as wandering, hungry, highly sexed, ageless, and animal-named. Many characters in Love Medicine act Tricksterian; the men in particular roam, eat, and love their way through the book. King warms up the topic by relating a little Trickster-style tale. First he claims that he once “shot a fox sleeping” through “that little black hole underneath (his) tail” with a bow and arrow, no less (page 29). Then: “But I heard of this guy once who put his arrow through a fox then left it thrash around in the bush until he thought it was dead. He went in there after it. You know what he found? That fox had chewed the arrow off either side of its body and it was gone” (page 30). Though the details Lyman offers from the summer trip he and Henry make to the Northwest are scanty, they suggest a typical Trickster journey. Henry and Lyman simply wander, stopping to eat and sleep, or, say, pick up a girl from Chicken, Alaska. And drive her home. When it gets cold, they leave. Marie is moderately mischievous when she tries to drop-kick Leopolda into the oven, and more so when she switches Nector's farewell note from the salt can to the sugar jar. Nector fantasizes playing Trickster after he poses for Plunge of the Brave, imagining himself surviving the jump and being washed to safety. He also revels in the way that loving Lulu lets him assume different forms: “I could twist like a rope. I could disappear beneath the surface. I could run to a halt and Lulu would have been there every moment” (page 100).

Lulu herself is a critical nexus for Trickster behavior. She sleeps with Old Man Pillager (Trickster is also known as “Old Man,”12 and “Pillager” is as good a tag as any for his scavenging ways), and their union spawns Gerry Nanapush, a paradigmatic modern Trickster figure. Lulu's no prankish slouch herself; in her “secret wildness” she dallies with men for the sheer exhilarating pleasure of it (page 218). When Beverly visits her he is bewildered by her magical homemaker's touch, noting her pin-neat rooms and particularly her preparation of dinner: “She seemed to fill pots with food by pointing at them and take things from the oven that she'd never put in. The table jumped to set itself. The pop foamed into glasses, and the milk sighed to the lip” (page 86).

But Gerry is Trickster, literally. Alan R. Velie records that “the Chippewa Trickster is called Wenebojo, Manabozho, or Nanabush, depending on how authors recorded the Anishinabe word.”13 This Trickster (as is true for most tribes) is able to alter his shape as he wishes, and, says Gerald Vizenor, “wanders in mythic time and transformational space.”14 He is, Vizenor explains, a “teacher and healer in various personalities,” but is also capable of “violence, deceptions, and cruelties: the realities of human imperfections” (The People Named The Chippewa, page 4). The first time we meet the adult Gerry he performs a miraculous escape: though spotted by Officer Lovchik in the confines of a “cramped and littered bar. … Gerry was over the backside of the booth and out the door before Lovchik got close enough to make a positive identification” (pages 155-6). But even as a boy, we are told, Gerry had Lulu's ways in him:

He laughed at everything, or seemed barely to be keeping amusement in. His eyes were black, sly, snapping with sparks. He led the rest in play without a hint of effort, just like Lulu, whose gestures worked as subtle magnets. He was a big boy, a born leader, light on his feet and powerful. His mind seemed quick. It would not surprise Bev to hear, after many years passed on, that this Gerry grew up to be both a natural criminal and a hero whose face appeared on the six-o'clock news.

(page 85)

Early in his career as natural criminal Gerry gets arrested, breaks out of prison, gets re-arrested, and so on. “He broke out time after time,” Albertine tells us, “and was caught each time he did it, regular as clockwork” (page 160). He seems to escape primarily because he can, so skilled are his metamorphic abilities, and the escape-recapture cycle becomes ritualized Trickster play. “He boasted that no steel or concrete shitbarn could hold a Chippewa, and he had eel-like properties in spite of his enormous size. Greased with lard once, he squirmed into a six-foot-thick prison wall and vanished” (page 160). He shows up at Dot and Albertine's weigh shack without a sound and “cat-quick for all his mass” (page 165). Then he and Dot “by mysterious means, slipped their bodies into Dot's compact car” (page 166). While the two reunited behemoths are absent, Albertine daydreams an indulgent Trickster scene, combining food, animals, and sex:

I pictured them in Dot's long tan trailer house, both hungry. Heads swaying, clasped hands swinging between them like hooked trunks, they moved through the kitchen feeding casually from boxes and bags on the counters, like ponderous animals alone in a forest. When they had fed, they moved on to the bedroom and settled themselves upon Dot's kingsize and sateen-quilted spread. They rubbed together, locked and unlocked their parts.

(page 167)

At the end of the novel, supposedly up to three-hundred-twenty pounds, Gerry noiselessly (except to Lipsha, who senses him) scrabbles his way up the skylight shaft into King and Lynette's grubby Twin Cities kitchen. By then teaming with Lipsha to defeat King in a quick card game (“five-card punk,” Gerry says), Gerry unwittingly re-enacts a classic Chippewa Trickster story. For, according to legend, Manabozho/Nanabush journeys until he meets his principle enemy, “the great gambler,” whom he defeats, saving his own life and the spirit of the woodland tribes from “the land of darkness” (The People Named The Chippewa, pages 4-6). Is it any surprise that a Road Runner cartoon has been playing in the apartment? Or that Lipsha roots for “old Wiley Coyote?” (Love Medicine, 251). Gerry then vanishes without a trace when the police barge in. As Lipsha drives off in his newly-won car, he gets to “waxing eloquent” about Gerry as Trickster:

I knew my dad would get away. He could fly. He could strip and flee and change into shapes of swift release. Owls and bees, two-toned Ramblers, buzzards, cotton-tails, and motes of dust. These forms was interchangeable with his. He was the clouds scudding over the moon, the wings of ducks banging in the slough.

(page 266)

Gerry can take on animal forms, but animals that ludicrously enact human activity—such as the poker-playing bulldogs pictured in King's garish velvet wall-hanging—seem to me a particularly “white” touch in the novel. To be sure, red and white paths do cross, at times with humorous results. Zelda, whose rule is “never marry a Swedish,” has undone herself by marrying two (page 14). The Morrissey who fathers June and brings her to Marie when his wife dies is a white trash “whining no-good” (page 63). Dot delights in telling the fooled Lovchik that “no one's been through all night,” and then asks him in mock seriousness what he thinks of “Ketchup Face” as a name for her child (page 156). “Making sense of other people is never easy,” Keith Basso opens Portraits of “The Whiteman,” “and making sense of how other people make sense can be very difficult indeed.”15 Thus Nector pretends not to understand the painter's instructions to disrobe, and is about to help her undress when she starts “to demonstrate by clawing at her buttons” (page 90). Nector, updating Custer's opinion of the value of Indians to accommodate modern cinema, declaims, “the only interesting Indian is dead, or dying by falling backwards off a horse” (page 91).

Gerry has a particularly hard time making sense of the United States judicial system, getting convicted in a case he thought

would blow over if it ever reached court. But there is nothing more vengeful and determined in this world than a cowboy with sore balls, and Gerry soon found this out. He also found out that white people are good witnesses to have on your side, because they have names, addresses, social security numbers, and work phones. But they are terrible witnesses to have against you, almost as bad as having Indian witnesses for you.

(page 162)

Lyman, having smashed up the red convertible, acidly recalls the joke about what reservation roads and government promises have in common—holes. And Lulu, perhaps echoing Vine Deloria's suggestion that what Indians really need from whites is a “cultural leave-us-alone agreement,” refuses to let the United States census in her door: “I say that every time they counted us they knew the precise number to get rid of” (page 221).16

Armed, then, with some notions of what gives humor its torque in Love Medicine, key questions remain: Why is Erdrich writing a humorous book? How does laughter relate to what the novel tries to accomplish? To formulate answers we need first to contextualize the novel's aims. “I don't know what purpose I had in mind,” says Erdrich herself in a 1985 interview, “except to write as honestly as possible, and to resolve things for a few characters. I wanted to tell a story, so if I told it, that's done.”17 But in a subsequent article on a writer's “sense of place” for the New York Times Book Review, she elaborates the duty of her fellow Indian authors: “Contemporary Native American writers have … a task quite different from that of other writers I've mentioned. In the light of enormous loss, they must tell stories of contemporary survivors while protecting and celebrating the cores of cultures left in the wake of the catastrophe.”18

Love Medicine is a redemptive, regenerative, celebratory text that begins with characters separated by time and space and family relationships and gradually pulls some of them home. The novel opens off the reservation with June “walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota, killing time before the noon bus arrived that would take her home” (page 1). June is “aged hard,” but feeling fragile: she is liable to “fall apart at the slightest touch” (pages 1, 4). But she pulls herself back together and by the end of the first section, as snow falls, she “walked over it like water and came home” (page 6). What of her comes home, though, is problematic, because she dies on the way in a sudden storm. Apparently her spirit endures, for the image of June the survivor returning home—in spite of death—pervades the book. Right up, in fact, to the closing scene, in which Lipsha, June's son, discovers “there was nothing to do but cross the water, and bring her home” (page 272).

A passel of interrelated stories brings the reader home in the novel. Five not-so-distinct clans (Nanapush, Lamartine, Lazarre, Morrissey, Kashpaw) vie for narrative dominance until coalescing—literally as well as figuratively—in Lipsha. Love Medicine spans fifty years and four generations, played out by a sometimes bewildering array of characters; but the themes of survival, endurance, redemption, and regeneration prevail. June, we discover, was a quintessential survivor: as a child alone in the bush she sucked pine sap to stay alive. Marie survives Leopolda's scalding and vengeful stabbing and is even transformed, briefly, into a saint. She later survives Nector's attempt to throw her over for Lulu, redeeming him with her love; “I did for Nector Kashpaw what I learned from the nun. I put my hand through what scared him. I held it out there for him. And when he took it with all the strength of his arms, I pulled him in” (page 129).

But this enduring is a difficult business. The weight of adversity, of heartache, of sorrow threaten to crush hope flat, or at least wear it down by degrees. Marie sees an analogy in the action of waves when she touches June's beads:

It's a rare time when I do this. I touch them, and every time I do I think of small stones. At the bottom of the lake, rolled aimless by the waves, I think of them polished. To many people it would be a kindness. But I see no kindness in how the waves are grinding them smaller and smaller until they finally disappear.

(page 73)

And Lipsha, when he believes Marie has herself crumpled under the pressure of Nector's death, expresses the same idea in similar terms: “You think a person you know has got through death and illness and being broke and living on commodity rice will get through everything. Then they fold and you see how fragile were the stones that underpinned them. You see how instantly the ground can shift you thought was solid” (page 209).

A legacy of devastation menaces Love Medicine's characters, and some succumb. Henry Jr., for example, epitomizes those Indians Paula Gunn Allen describes in The Sacred Hoop as victims of alienation: “These are the most likely to be suicidal, inarticulate, almost paralyzed in their inability to direct their energies toward resolving what seems to them an insoluble conflict.”19 Allen identifies the principle literary symbol of this lack of power as “tonguelessness” (The Sacred Hoop, page 138); Henry, we recall, approximates this when he silently bites through his lip while watching television. And yet, Allen says, Indians do survive:

We survive war and conquest. We survive colonization, acculturation, assimilation; we survive beating, rape, starvation, mutilation, sterilization, abandonment, neglect, death of our children, our loved ones, destruction of our land, our homes, our past, and our future. We survive, and we do more than just survive. We bond, we care, we fight, we teach, we nurse, we bear, we feed, we earn, we laugh, we love, we hang in there, no matter what.

(The Sacred Hoop, page 190)

Laughter is not merely a by-product of survival, it is a critical force behind it. Northrop Frye, pointing out humor's regenerative effect, notes that “something gets born at the end of comedy.”20 Freud approaches this differently, describing humor as a defense mechanism and suggesting that we use it to “withdraw the energy from the ready held pain release, and through discharge change the same into pleasure.”21 Julia Kristeva argues that “laughing is a way of placing or displacing abjection.”22 Yet each of these theories buttresses Tim Giago's simple observations at the end of a column on Indian humor in The Lakota Times: “It has been said that humor pulled the Jewish and Black people through the hard times. It is said they could not have survived without it. Well, the moral of this column is, if you want to see some real survivors, just sit in on an Indian joke session. There's nothing in this world that can top it!”23

How does humor promote endurance? The explanation seems twinned to humor's binate nature. Laughter can wound, or it can bond. One power destroys, the other builds up. Faced with five hundred years of physical, cultural, and spiritual genocide, Indians seek to steal power from their aggressors through inversion: by turning hatred to humor, the weakness of suffering is transformed into the strength of laughter. This a-versive power, according to Allen, is not only infinitely renewable but discoverable in the natural world:

For however painful and futile our struggle becomes, we have but to look outside at the birds, the deer, and the seasons to understand that change does not mean destruction, that life, however painful and even elusive it is at times, contains much joy and hilarity, pleasure and beauty for those who live within its requirements of grace.

(The Sacred Hoop, page 163)

What Allen finds interesting about the use of humor in American Indian poetry (and I believe her comments apply to fiction as well) “is its integrating effect: it makes tolerable what is otherwise unthinkable; it allows a sort of breathing space in which an entire race can take stock of itself and its future” (The Sacred Hoop, page 159).

In Love Medicine certain scenes yield dramatic instances of such “breathing space.” Consider those which hover precipitously between comedy and tragedy. Erdrich graphically prefigures these moments during Gordie's telling of the Norwegian joke. An absurd variant on a standard joke pattern, it relates the stupidity of the Norwegian during the French Revolution who explains to his executioners how to repair their guillotine. But each section of the joke is interrupted by King's screams at Lynette outside. The evening is already tainted with a certain sad ugliness (King has earlier announced “You'd eat shit” to Lynette, page 29), but now it teeters toward violence. Each time King screams, Gordie pauses. After the second round of “Fuckin' bitch!” Albertine wonders whether they should stop the joke and go out (page 32). But Gordie continues to the joke's end, and only then does he, Albertine, and Lipsha investigate.

Comedy and tragedy each have their say, but only the development of the novel will uncover a victor. The gallows humor is nearly played for keeps during June's lynching (although chronologically it precedes the Norwegian joke). As Gordie and Aurelia hang June, the child in apparent earnest says, “you got to tighten it … before you hoist me up” (page 67). Though we as readers know that June survives, the situation is still potentially horrible. By the end of the scene, however, comedy supplants tragedy.

This is not always the case. Before Henry Jr. drowns himself, he and Lyman oscillate between laughter and anger. They fight when Henry rips the arm off Lyman's “class act” jacket; then, punch-drunk, they dissolve into hysterics (page 152). The brothers drain a cooler of beers, but Henry's mood turns again. Lyman tries to bring him around with more humor:

“You're crazy too,” I say, to jolly him up. “Crazy Lamartine boys!”

He looks as though he will take this wrong at first. His face twists, then clears, and he jumps up on his feet. “That's right! he says. “Crazier 'n hell. Crazy Indians!”

I think it's the old Henry again. He throws off his jacket and starts swinging his legs out from under the knees like a fancy dancer. He's down doing something between a grouse dance and a bunny hop, no kind of dance I ever saw before, but neither has anyone else on all this green growing earth. He's wild. He wants to pitch whoopee! He's up and at me and all over. All this time I'm laughing so hard, so hard my belly is getting tied up in a knot.

(page 153)

As Lyman experiences the pleasure (and pain) of intense laughter, Henry decides to jump in the water to “cool me off!” (page 154). Lyman soon realizes that his brother is being taken away, without apparent resistance, by the current. Henry's last words, spoken in a normal voice across half a river under a darkening sky, devastated: “‘My boots are filling,’ he says” (page 154). And then he's gone.

Humor doesn't help Henry endure, at least not long enough. It does, however, help Marie and Lipsha after Nector dies at the end of his tragi-comic choking scene. (The novel's other choker is Henry, who laughs like “a man choking” when he comes back from Vietnam, page 148). Nector gags when Marie slugs his back to get him to eat the love medicine. Lipsha narrates this esophageal misfire as pure stand-up comedy: “You ever sit down at a restaurant table and up above you there is a list of instructions what to do if something slides down the wrong pipe? It sure makes you chew slow, that's for damn sure” (page 207). Even as his restorative powers fail, Lipsha jests with death: “Time was flashing back and forth like a pinball machine. Lights blinked and balls hopped and rubber bands chirped, until suddenly I realized the last ball had gone down the drain and there was nothing” (page 208). But when Marie stumbles, Lipsha's heart and mind short-circuit: he thinks she's going to die too. She does not, and his humor reconnects.

At Nector's funeral, the family reconnects, leading Lipsha to a redemptive understanding of tragedy: “Once you greet death,” he says, “you wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won't ever come by such a bargain again” (pages 213-4). As the chapter closes, Lipsha is digging dandelions—and reconnects powerfully with the ground: “I felt (the sun) flow down my arms, out my fingers, arrowing through the ends of the fork into the earth” (page 215). Each dandelion is “a globe of frail seeds that's indestructible” (page 215). But what else is laughter? Or life? In Chippewa mythology a dandelion is a reminder of something lost. When a chief named Shawandasse waited too long to court a lovely girl, she became a spirit maiden, whose dissipating halo turned into the seeds of this “yellow-crowned flower.”24 Thus Lipsha sees his new perspective on life confirmed in the “secret lesson” of a dandelion, which to others is merely a weedy nuisance (page 215).

Other images in the novel are similarly double-acting. Water, and its cognate, the color blue, both share humor's ability to cut two ways. Blue can be a positive color (a “blue day” is a good day for the Chippewa, and blue is the North Dakota Indian color for the moon, thunder, water, and the west),25 or it can be negative (the “blues”). Both, like humor, are curiously connected with displacement. Objects viewed through “blue” water become distorted, while Kristeva points out in Desire in Language that blue may have a perceptual “noncentered or decentering effect.”26 Water, furthermore (which Erdrich calls Love Medicine's “main image”27), can cleanse or drown. Water claims a few victims in this novel, notably June (in the form of snow) and Henry Jr., and attempts to grab a few more, including Gordie (in the form of alcohol) and Hector (in both “Plunge of the Brave” and “Flesh and Blood”). But water is for Erdrich ultimately a symbol of “transformation (walking over snow or water)” and “transcendence,” because it allows life to go on.28 Allen notes that “the most important theme in Native American novels is … transformation and continuance” (The Sacred Hoop, page 101). She goes on to explain water's role: “The nature of the cosmos, of the human, the creaturely, and the supernatural universe is like water. It takes numerous forms; it evaporates and it gathers. Survival and continuance are contingent on its presence. Whether it is in a cup, or a jar, or an underground river, it nourishes life” (The Sacred Hoop, page 101). Water properly navigated can bring one safely home. Thus Marie (whose name encodes the sea: mare) pulls Nector in over the deepening lake between them at the end of “Flesh and Blood.” And Lipsha crosses the water and brings the novel home.

Erdrich reinforces the novel's movement through her narrative style. She playfully and coherently blends Indian and Western technique to produce a work of swirling, singing prose. Many contemporary Indian novelists have crafted their writing to reflect tribal concepts of time (timelessness) and space (multi-dimensionality). Allen points out, for example, that “achronicity is the favored structuring device of American Indian novelists since N. Scott Momaday selected it for organizing House Made of Dawn” (The Sacred Hoop, page 147). There are many ways to describe traditional tribal narrative, several of which suit Love Medicine. For example, Thomas B. Leckley writes in The World of Manabozho:

Indian folklore is a great collection of anecdotes, episodes, jokes, and fables, and storytellers constantly combined and recombined these elements in different ways. We seldom find a plotted story of the kind we know. Instead, the interest is usually in a single episode; if this is linked to another, the relationship is that of two beads on one string, seldom that of two bricks in one building.29

(italics mine)

Or Allen argues in The Sacred Hoop:

Traditional American Indian stories work dynamically among clusters of loosely connected circles. The focus of action shifts from one character to another as the story unfolds. There is no “point of view” as the term is generally understood, unless the action itself, the story's purpose, can be termed “point of view.”

(pages 241-2; italics mine)


The patchwork quilt is the best material example I can think of to describe the plot and process of a traditional tribal narrative.

(page 243; italics mine)

Erdrich, the contemporary Western artist, plays these traditional patterns into a narrative that doubles back and darts forward, recalling Cree storyteller Jacob Nibènegenesábe's conventional tale opening: “Usá puyew usu wapiw” (“I go backward, look forward”).30 For Erdrich begins her novel in 1981, then shifts to 1934. The rest of the book proceeds fairly chronologically (in the end circling back to and beyond its beginning), but within tales events are told and re-told (or pre-told) until the meaning flows in all directions at once. Thus in Love Medicine what M. M. Bakhtin called “double-voiced discourse” becomes double-vision; a traditional patchwork becomes a powerful and sacred star quilt.31

Within this fabric, place and naming become very important. These concepts link in the Cree world, as Howard Norman points out in Wishing Bone Cycle; “To say the name is to begin the story.”32 Names bring alive what has happened; names affect behavior. In Love Medicine characters' names place them in their own history and in relation to other characters. Thus in “The World's Greatest Fisherman”—set in 1981—Marie is “Grandma,” exclusively. In “Saint Marie” she becomes her 1934 mail-order Catholic soul Marie self, squaring off against Leopolda. But the reader cannot know that Grandma is Marie until she encounters Nector on the convent slope in “Wild Geese.” And Albertine, in “A Bridge,” sees an Indian-looking soldier who remains anonymous for three pages until he emerges as Henry Jr., back from Nam. In such ways Erdrich tangles the skein of lives in the novel a little, then shakes it loose, then tangles it again. By the end the web is smoothed out and traceable: ends reconnect, patterns are relaid. Achronicity plays an important role here, since, Allen says, it “connects pain and praise through timely movement, knitting person and surroundings into one” (The Sacred Hoop, page 150).

“We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time,” writes T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets.33 We began with an invocation of critics, literary folk who seem to misread Love Medicine, unlike the tribal people who, Erdrich points out, tend to focus first on its humor.34 Perhaps the latter group reacts as do many people in the novel, and laughs out of place, or in “inappropriate” spots. Erdrich's characters keep chuckling, especially when—by rights—they shouldn't. But that is precisely the nature and function of Love Medicine's compassionate humor: it heals, it renews, it integrates, it balances. It belongs, in short, where it should not. “Belonging is a basic assumption for traditional Indians,” comments Allen, and “narratives … that restore the estranged to his or her place within the cultural matrix abound” (page 127). For Lipsha, “belonging was a matter of deciding to,” and Love Medicine thus restores an estranged son to his mother and grandmother (page 255). Finally, Erdrich herself, through the project of this novel, demonstrates a special kinship to one of her own favorite authors: William Faulkner. For it is Faulkner—no stranger to humor—who accepted the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature by noting that a writer's aim is “to help man endure by lifting his heart.”35


  1. Gene Lyons, “In Indian Territory,” Newsweek 105, no. 6 (Feb. 11, 1985): 70-1, reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism 39 (1986): 132.

  2. Kirkus Reviews 52, no. 16 (Aug. 15, 1984): 765-6, reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism 39 (1986): 128.

  3. Ibid., 128.

  4. Robert Towers, “Uprooted,” The New York Review of Books 32, no. 6 (April 11, 1985): 36-7; in Contemporary Literary Criticism 39 (1986): 133.

  5. Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine (1984: reprint New York: Bantam, 1985), 16.

  6. Mary Douglas, “The Social Control of Cognition: Some Factors in Joke Perception,” Man 3 (1968): 361-76.

  7. Henry Bergson, “Laughter,” in Comedy, ed. Wylie Sypher (New York: Doubleday, 1956), 187.

  8. John Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, 2nd ed. (Boston: Beacon, 1972), 28.

  9. Sigmund Freud, “A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men,” Jarbuch, BD. II (1910); reprinted in Benjamin Nelson, ed., On Creativity and the Unconscious (New York: Harper, 1958), 166.

  10. John Fire (Lame Deer) and Richard Erdoes, Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions: The Life of a Sioux Medicine Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 225.

  11. Paul Radin, “The Wakdjunkaga Cycle and Its Relation to Other North American Indian Trickster Cycles,” in The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Shocken, 1972), 164.

  12. Kenneth Lincoln, Native American Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 122.

  13. William Jones and Truman Michelson, eds., Ojibway Texts (Leyden: E. J. Bruss, 1917), and Basil Johnson, Ojibway Heritage (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), cited in Alan R. Velie, “Beyond the Novel Chippewa-Style: Gerald Vizenor's Post-Modern Fiction,” in Four American Literary Masters (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982), 131.

  14. Gerald Vizenor, The People Named the Chippewa: Narrative Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 3.

  15. Keith Basso, Portraits of “The Whiteman” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 3.

  16. Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins (London: Collier-Macmillan Ltd., 1969), 27.

  17. Jan George, “Interview with Louise Erdrich,” in North Dakota Quarterly 53, no. 2 (Spring 1985): 246.

  18. Louise Erdrich, “Where I Ought to Be: A Writer's Sense of Place,” in New York Times Book Review (July 28, 1985): 25.

  19. Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 135.

  20. Northrop Frye, “The Mythos of Spring: Comedy,” in Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 170.

  21. Sigmund Freud, “Wit and the Various Forms of the Comic,” in Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious, reprinted in A. A. Brill, ed., Sigmund Freud: The Basic Writings (New York: Random House, 1938), 802.

  22. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 8.

  23. Tim Giago, “Nothing Can Top Indian Joke Session,” in Notes from Indian Country 1 (Pierre: State Publishing Co., 1984), 238.

  24. Chippewa Tales, retold by Wa-be-no O-pee-chee, 2nd ed. (Los Angeles: Wetzel Publishing Co., 1930), 38.

  25. Gertrude Jobes, ed., Dictionary of Mythology Folklore and Symbols. (New York: Scarecrow Press, 1962), vol. 1, 229.

  26. Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez, ed. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 225.

  27. Hertha D. Wong, “An Interview with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris,” in North Dakota Quarterly (Winter 1987): 210.

  28. Ibid., 210.

  29. Thomas B. Leckley, The World of Manabozho (New York: Vanguard, 1965), 7-8.

  30. Howard A. Norman, trans. The Wishing Bone Cycle: Narrative Poems from the Swampy Cree Indians, 2nd ed. (Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson, 1982), 135. For a further discussion of “Usá puyew usu wapiw,” see Kenneth Lincoln, Native American Renaissance, 127.

  31. M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 324.

  32. Howard A. Norman, trans. The Wishing Bone Cycle: Narrative Poems from the Swampy Cree Indians, 2nd ed. (Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson, 1982), 49. Norman here is quoting Samuel Makidemewabe, a Swampy Cree elder.

  33. T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952), 145. These lines are from part five of the “Little Gidding” section.

  34. Hertha D. Wong, “An Interview with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris,” 214.

  35. William Faulkner, “Address Upon Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature,” New York Herald Tribune Book Review (Jan. 14, 1951): reprinted in Essays, Speeches & Public Lectures by William Faulkner, ed. James B. Meriweather (New York: Random House, 1965), 120.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Beidler, Peter G. “Three Student Guides to Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine.American Indian Culture and Research Journal 16, no. 4 (1992): 167-73.

Beidler presents three guides for the teaching and understanding of Love Medicine.

Reid, E. Shelley. “The Stories We Tell: Louise Erdrich's Identity Narratives.” MELUS 25, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 2000): 65-86.

Reid discusses the function of Erdrich's “identity narratives,” drawing particular attention to Love Medicine.

Wong, Hertha D. “Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine: Narrative Communities and the Short Story Sequence.” In Modern American Short Story Sequences, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy, pp. 170-93. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Wong argues that Love Medicine is neither a novel nor a collection of short stories, but rather functions as a short story sequence.

Additional coverage of Erdrich's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 10, 47; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 114; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 41, 62; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 39, 54, 120; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 152, 175, 206; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural, Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Poetry; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Native North American Literature; Novels for Students, Vol. 5; Poetry for Students, Vol. 14; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 14; Something about the Author, Vol. 94; and Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Ed. 2.

Nora Barry and Mary Prescott (essay date winter 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Barry, Nora, and Mary Prescott. “The Triumph of the Brave.” Critique 30, no. 2 (winter 1989): 123-38.

[In the following essay, Barry and Prescott examine gender and social roles within Native American communities in Love Medicine, contending that “Erdrich challenges the romantic vision of Native Americans as destined for cultural oblivion.”]

In Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984, native American Nector Kashpaw recalls modeling for the painting Plunge of the Brave. “There I was, jumping off a cliff, naked of course, down into a rocky river. Certain death.” The painting represents a common romanticized white perception of native Americans. When Nector goes on to say “that the greater world was only interested in my doom,” he is recognizing this long-standing historical attitude. “The only interesting Indian is dead, or dying by falling backwards off a horse” (91). As if to prove the validity of Nector's claim, even sympathetic reviewers of the novel such as Scott R. Sanders see Erdrich's characters as “doomed Chippewas” (Sanders 9).1

Nector Kashpaw, for one, has other plans. “I'd hold my breath when I hit and let the current pull me toward the surface, around jagged rocks. I wouldn't fight it, and in that way I'd get to shore” (91). More importantly, Erdrich challenges the romantic vision of native Americans as destined for cultural oblivion. To fully comprehend the vitality and promise of Nector and Erdrich's other characters, it is important to recognize the context of native American culture. Erdrich's novel really celebrates native American survival and credits spiritual values with that survival. In this presentation of these spiritual values of men and women, Erdrich reworks Paula Gunn Allen's notion of complementary, gender-based ritual traditions.

Every part of the oral tradition expresses the idea that ritual is gender-based, but rather than acting as a purely divisive structure, the separation by gender emphasizes complementarity. The women's traditions are largely about continuity, and men's traditions are largely about transitoriness or change. Thus, women's rituals and lore center on birth, death, food, householding, and medicine (in the medical rather than the magical sense of the term). … Man's rituals are concerned with risk, death, and transformation. …

(Allen 82)

Erdrich modifies Allen's notion of complementarity by focusing on the failure of rituals and traditions that divide according to gender. According to Erdrich's holistic vision, survival and continuity depend upon a character's ability to internalize both the masculine and the feminine, the past and the present.

It is apparent in Love Medicine that rituals and traditions that are exclusively male will no longer work. For instance, through King Kashpaw, Henry Lamartine, Jr., and Gordie Kashpaw, Erdrich presents the failure of the warrior tradition. Although King brags of his exploits in Vietnam, both his half-brother Lipsha Morrissey and his cousin Albertine Johnson strongly suspect him, and his wife Lynette admits that he was never there. “‘He never got off the West Coast’” (239). King's empty bravado debases a tradition that welcomed a warrior's accounts of his accomplishments but at the same time demanded that those accounts be accurate. But Vietnam would not have provided King with the experience that he is entitled to as a potential culture hero. After all, Henry Junior actually faces combat in Vietnam but has no rich stories to tell, nor can he communicate the horror that he did experience. He cannot tell Albertine, for instance, about seeing himself in the face of a dying Vietnamese woman.

You, me, same. Same. She pointed to her eyes and his eyes. The Asian, folded eyes of some Chippewas. She was hemorrhaging.

Question her.

Sir, she is dying, sir.

“And anyway, what could I have asked? Huh? What the hell?”.

Albertine was looking at him, staring at him. He realized he had spoken out loud.


His memory is fixed both on the untraditional attack upon a woman and upon the likeness between the victim and himself, a Chippewa warrior fighting a white man's war. Henry carries his memory like “shrapnel deep inside of him, still working its way out, [enough] to set off the metal detector in the airport” (134). Because Henry is denied the ritual catharsis of recounting his exploits when the warrior tradition of the past does not agree with the present reality of an untraditional war, his memories explode and destroy him.

Like Henry, Gordie Kashpaw is haunted by the memory of using his boxer's hands, the vestiges of a warrior tradition, against a woman and by losing “the big one” (173). “He'd been a boxer in the Golden Gloves. But what his hands remembered now were the times they struck June,” his wife (172-73). Gordie's hands embody his power, but traditional outlets for his power are not available to him. What is more, he fails when he attempts to adapt his skill to the contemporary white ritual of boxing. As a result his hands “managed to do an alarming variety of things while he was not looking” (173). King, Henry Junior, and Gordie are doomed, but only because they are fixed upon their inabilities to measure up to the demands of traditional masculine ritual, and because they are unable to imagine anything else for themselves.

For Erdrich, Nector Kashpaw is a pivotal character, one who has accumulated some of the complements so necessary to survival. He avoids the romanticized doom of the warrior in Plunge of the Brave by relying upon others, including his brother Eli. Nector has been alienated from native American tradition because his mother chose to send him to the white man's school. This decision has enormous repercussions, for Nector acquires the skills necessary to be recognized by whites as a successful twentieth-century native American leader in his role as tribal chairman. Eli, however, is the rightful heir to leadership in a traditional sense and stands as a reminder of Nector's loss. “Eli has second sense and an aim I cannot match, but he is shy and doesn't like to talk. In this way it is a good partnership. Because I got sent to school, I am the one who always walks into town and sells what we shoot” (57). Fortunately for Nector, a failed hunter, Eli possesses the traditional education and skill necessary to the hunter-provider. Eli's familiarity with hunting ritual links Nector to a tradition that he would otherwise never know. Through Nector and Eli, Erdrich is reworking the familiar native American motif of twins as complements and competitors.2

Nector's eventual loss of mind and memory in old age may seem like retribution for his compromise with the white world. After all, he has apparently turned his back upon the Chippewa way of life in favor of survival, status, and accommodation to white government. Erdrich, however, reveals that Nector was maneuvered into his position by his mother and then Marie. The novel strongly suggests that Nector's withdrawal from reality may in fact be one of the few choices that he makes for himself. Nector's grand-daughter, Albertine, sees his apparent senility not as the price he has to pay for succumbing to the temptation of power but rather as absolution. “Perhaps his loss of memory was a protection from the past, absolving him of whatever had happened. He had lived hard in his time. But he smiled into the air and lived calmly now, without guilt or desolation” (18). Another member of Albertine's generation, Lipsha Morrissey, interprets Nector's condition as the result of a conscious choice. “So I figure that a man so smart all his life … would know what he's doing by saying yes. I think he was called to second childhood like anybody else gets a call for the priesthood or the army or whatever. … No, he put second childhood on himself” (190-91). In a sense Nector's second childhood is a renewal, a reclamation of his Chippewa heritage of solitariness.3 Once again, Eli exemplifies the tradition. Even as a young man Eli prefers the woods while Nector goes into town to spark the girls. His withdrawal is a way of life recognized by Nector's wife, Marie.

I thought of Eli, how he had gone quieter and hardly came out of the woods anymore. He would not come around. He never thought of women. He was like a shy animal himself when he got trapped in a house.

Then I said right out loud in that bedroom, “He's a man!”


Each brother has chosen his own retreat; the two are more alike in old age than they have ever been.

Erdrich is subtly using Nector's second childhood, his second chance, to reaffirm her larger message that not all Chippewas are doomed. Nector's personal triumph is qualified, however, because it causes enormous loss and suffering among his family. Marie, for instance, “mourned him like the dead” (192). And Albertine's questions about the past go unanswered. “Grandpa shook his head, remembering dates with no events to go with them, names without faces, things that happened out of place and time. Or at least it seemed that way to me” (18). Nector's valuable memories are unavailable to his interested heirs because ultimately he cannot reconcile the past—his native American heritage—with the present in a healthy way. Like Henry Junior, Nector cannot express his memories, and his inability deprives his grandchildren of part of their rightful inheritance. For Erdrich, past and present must be complementary. She demonstrates her feeling by highlighting Nector's loss and by juxtaposing that loss against the gains experienced by characters who holistically incorporate the past into their present.

Eli Kashpaw, confident, secure, and respected by the members of his family, is grounded in the complementarity that Erdrich values so highly. He is a memorial to the past, for he lives traditionally in his old age, ignoring modern influences that have threatened and distracted Nector, Henry, Gordie, and King. As a hunter, Eli is unmatched. As Gordie puts it, “Say Albertine, did you know your Uncle Eli is the last man on the reservation that could snare himself a deer?” (27). He continues to brag on Eli's behalf, as though the family shared in the accomplishment of a man who could still practice the old skills. “‘Only real old-time Indians know deer good enough to snare,’ Gordie said to us. ‘Your Uncle Eli's a real old-timer’” (28). Only Eli still remembers the old Cree language and oral traditions. Faced with the monumental Eli, King has to confess that he has never shot a bow. When King replaces Eli's old hat with his own that proclaims “World's Greatest Fisherman,” “Eli sat calmly underneath the hat. It fit him perfectly. He seemed oblivious to King's sacrifice …” (31). Eli is appropriately oblivious to King's sacrifice and retreat because the hat is a simple, expected, and ritualistic acknowledgment of Eli's power. King's white wife, Lynette, completely misses the point of the gift, of course, and eventually snares back the hat. Lynette is ignorant of Eli's significance and the tradition of generously giving away what is valuable to the giver.

Additionally, Eli's manliness can accommodate the nurturing behavior that Allen would probably associate with the rituals of food and householding that she attributes to women. He adopts June, and besides sharing with her his knowledge of the woods, he mothers her in a way that she can trust.

When June lived with him she'd slept on the cot beside the stove, a lump beneath the quilts and army blankets when he came in to get her up for the government school bus. Sometimes they'd sat together looking out the same window into cold blue dark. He'd hated to send her off at that lonely hour. Her coat was red.


Eli's behavior is unorthodox and encourages gossip because in his relationship with June he demonstrates complementary male and female ritual. The distinction between Eli and Nector is clear on this point, for Nector suffers from the pressure of providing for his brood and has no time to complement his responsibilities with the pleasures of nurturing and householding:

After a few years the babies started walking around, but that only meant they needed shoes for their feet. I gave in. I put my nose against the wheel. I kept it there for many years and barely looked up to realize the world was going by, full of wonders and creatures, while I was getting old baling hay for white farmers.


Because Nector has been caught up in a ritual that white society has traditionally reserved for men, he senses that he is missing experiences that Eli's way of life allows. Living as a hunter-trapper, Eli can enjoy Nector's children during the spring and summer, when the furs are thin, teaching them in his soft voice “how to carve, how to listen for the proper birdcall, how to whistle on their own fingers like a flute” (69).

Nector's wife, Marie Kashpaw, is one of Erdrich's strongest characters because her life, like Eli's, is a blending of two complementary gender-based traditions. Her life includes risk, transformation, householding, and medicine, as well as an integration of past and present. Her participation in womanly ritual is obvious in her willingness to absorb orphan children into her own family. Her role in the novel is most prominent, however, when she is taking risks and drawing upon the past. Marie, rather than Nector, undertakes the quest for a vision in adolescence.4 The vision is unorthodox, since her guardian spirit is Sister Leopolda, a sadistic Roman Catholic nun, but Erdrich makes it clear that Marie's vision, incorporating power and compassion, guides her at crucial points for the rest of her life. By the end of “Saint Marie,” she is worshipped as a saint just as she had envisioned, although her stigmata are fraudulent. Interestingly enough, the adoration she enjoys foreshadows the status she gains as Nector Kashpaw's wife. But the most compelling feature of Marie's vision is her capacity to pity Leopolda, her torturer, even as she gloats over the ironic fact that Leopolda has canonized her to hide her own crimes.

My heart had been about to surge from my chest with the blackness of my joyous heat. Now it dropped. I pitied her. I pitied her. Pity twisted in my stomach like that hook-pole was driven through me. I was caught. It was a feeling more terrible than any amount of boiling water and worse than being forked.


Her battle with her vision appears to have left Marie with enormous power, for she immediately snares Nector. She leaves the dust and the deadliness of the convent behind and opts for life, for Erdrich hints that Gordie may well have been conceived on Marie's way home. She practices the compassion that her vision teaches her when she takes in homeless children, most significantly June and Lipsha, and when in her old age she helps Lulu, her rival, regain her sight. In traditional fashion she reacquaints herself with her vision at a crucial time; her second encounter with Leopolda prepares her to forgive Nector's attempt at desertion and to accept him back.

Upon hearing that Sister Leopolda is dying, Marie revisits the convent after twenty-three years to show off her position and her refined daughter Zelda. Sister Leopolda is unimpressed, though, and soon the two are locked in another power struggle. Marie focuses on the insane nun's spoon, which seems to represent her power. “I wanted that spoon because it was a hell-claw welded smooth. … It had power. … If I had that spoon I'd have her to stir in my pot. … I'd have her helpless in the scar of my palm” (120). Marie tries to trick Leopolda into giving up the spoon, but the nun reads Marie's mind and they fight almost to the death in a combat that is clearly spiritual in its significance.

… She clung to the iron handle with both hands and kept grinning into my face. I grinned back at her, just to even things, and that was when I felt she got the better of me, for suddenly my face stretched and the air around me flattened. On her breath, in which I kneeled, was the smell of turned earth. Her gaze, in which I struggled, was a deep square hole. Her strength was the strict progress of darkness.

“Hold on!” I yelled, frightened, for it seemed just as if I was falling fast into her eyes and would be covered up by flowers and clods of earth unless she pulled me back.

And she did pull. She stood me up, and then I sat down on the bed with her. Once I was there I let go of the spoon.


The passage makes it clear that Leopolda is Marie's antagonist, but at the same time she is an essential spiritual guide, pulling Marie up from darkness and death. Marie gains from this experience and in turn pities a shocked and terrified Nector, pulling him home. “So I did for Nector Kashpaw what I learned from the nun. I put my hand through what scared him. I held it there for him. And when he took it with all the strength of his arms, I pulled him in” (129). As with Marie's first encounter with Sister Leopolda, out of the vision comes the power Marie needs. To readers unfamiliar with the tradition of the vision quest, Marie's clashes with Leopolda may seem horrific. But, while the horrors of Henry Junior's warrior experience cannot be salvaged by tradition, Marie's visions can, and the horror becomes transformed into positive power for Marie.

Lulu Lamartine is Marie's powerful counterpart, her lifelong rival for Nector's affection, and, ironically, her companion in old age. Lulu is a worthy adversary because she is as effective at complementarity as Marie is. The two characters mirror one another in their role as mother, in their ability to take risks, in their way of blending past and present, and in their wielding of power in old age. Lulu challenges the tribe when her land is in danger of being sold to a manufacturer of tomahawks, fearing the threat to the old way of life that the factory represents. “It was the stuff of dreams, I said. … The United States government throws crumbs on the floor, and you go down so far to lick up those dollars that you turn your own people off the land” (223). Lulu alone seems mindful of the conflict between the old values and the influences of the white standard of economic success. It is not surprising then that Lipsha tells Lulu's son Gerry Nanapush years later that “people were starting to talk, now, about her knowledge as an old-time traditional” (268).

Lulu serves as a conduit between past and present for other characters, including Bev Lamartine, Nector, and Lipsha. When Bev returns to claim the seven-year-old boy that he believes is his son, she helps him recapture the kind of life-renewing passion that they had enjoyed years earlier even as they grieved over her husband Henry's death. She heals the rift between past and present for Nector when she accepts his apology for abandoning her in favor of Marie. Erdrich dramatizes this healing and rekindling of their love in a scene that is comic and reminiscent of ritual at the same time.

“So your butter's going to melt,” she says, then she is laughing outright. She reaches into the backseat and grabs a block. It is wrapped in waxed paper, squashed and soft, but still feels fresh. She smears some on my face. I'm so surprised that I just sit there for a moment, feeling stupid. Then I wipe the butter off my cheek. I take the block from her and I put it on the dash. When we grab each other and kiss there is butter on our hands.


The healing oil is a kind of love medicine, mending a wound that has divided past and present, Lulu and Nector. Most significantly, Lulu reconciles past and present for Lipsha when she reveals the truth about his parentage. She recognizes both Lipsha's need to know that his mother did not try to murder him and his need to accept June as his mother rather than Marie. Lulu encourages Lipsha to enrich his present by confronting his past in the person of his father, Gerry Nanapush.

The structure of the novel highlights Lipsha's reconciliation with his mother and with the past, for June opens Love Medicine and her son closes it. The prose that describes Lipsha's journey home with the car, his inheritance for June, echoes Erdrich's final description of June. “The morning was clear. A good road led on. So there was nothing to do but cross the water, and bring her home” (272). June undertakes a similar journey when she walks into the blizzard. “The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home” (6). Although June appears only briefly and dies in the opening pages of the novel, Erdrich uses June to dramatize the tension between masculine and feminine ritual, past and present.

June inhabits a netherworld between the masculine and feminine; her life lacks structure because she feels no connection to either tradition, nor can she blend the two. Throughout her life, she wanders into the worlds of masculine and feminine ritual inconsistently. As a child, she participates in masculine ritual with Eli, wearing a hat just like his. “They went into the woods with their snares and never came home empty-handed” (69). Marie observes June's identification with Eli and traces it back to the incompetence of June's mother, who had completely neglected the child and fostered a mistrust of women. “It was a mother she couldn't trust after what had happened in the woods. But Eli was different” (69-70). June does not become Eli, however, nor is she ever comfortable with the feminine rituals of wives and mothers. Her marriage with Gordie is on-again-off-again, so she is not always available to her son King. She gives her second son, Lipsha, to Marie to raise, watching him grow only from a distance. Her efforts to succeed in the white world as beautician, secretary, clerk, and waitress fail, too. It is understandable that June feels dislocated in these traditionally feminine roles. On the other hand, when she is with Gerry Nanapush she demonstrates a shred of housekeeping ritual. “‘She liked order. We'd live in motels. She would always arrange the room real neat, put everything away, make the bed every morning even though they'd strip it that afternoon’” (269). Although she is apparently unaware of it, the chaos in June's life is the result of a fragmented gender identity. Eventually June breaks, inwardly and outwardly. “As time went by she broke, little by little, into someone whose shoulders sagged when she thought no one was looking, a woman with long ragged nails and hair always growing from its beauty-parlor cut. Her clothes were full of safety pins and hidden tears” (8). Because June tries early to adopt a woodlands tradition that is no longer workable in most cases—Eli is an exception—she cannot carry into her adult present the life that made her childhood secure.

June cannot securely reconcile her past with her present in life, but Erdrich prepares us for a resolution in June's death through references to Easter. Erdrich uses Easter in a familiar way to represent reconciliation and transcendence. When Easter eggs appear in the story, they carry the usual symbolic significance, suggesting June's metamorphosis, her progress toward transcendence. Erdrich establishes June as egg-like early in her encounter with Andy the mud engineer. “He peeled an egg for her, a pink one, saying it matched her turtleneck. She told him it was no turtleneck. You call these things shells. He said he would peel that for her, too, if she wanted, then he grinned at the bartender and handed her the naked egg” (2). Her likeness to the colored egg establishes June's fragility, for while the egg's shell offers protection, it still is easily broken and peeled away. Although June is accustomed to being picked up, she is vulnerable because she clutches at the possibility that her experience with this man will be different from the others. “The eggs were lucky. And he had a good-natured slowness about him that seemed different. He could be different, she thought” (3). As the afternoon wears on, her optimism fades and she senses her own fragility. “She was afraid to bump against anything because her skin felt hard and brittle, and she knew it was possible, in this condition, to fall apart at the slightest touch” (4). This perception leads to a further illumination, akin to a vision, revealing an inner self that is strong and pristine.

But as she sat there, something happened. All of a sudden she seemed to drift out of her clothes and skin with no help from anyone. Sitting, she leaned down and rested her forehead on the top of the metal toilet-roll dispenser. She felt that underneath it all her body was pure and naked—only the skins were stiff and old.


At this moment, June's doorknob, which she carries with her for security to ensure that no one will break into her room, rolls out of her purse. The doorknob, an egg that is hard as stone, acts as a kind of personal medicine, warding off fragility.5 “She put it in the deep pocket of her jacket and, holding it, walked back to the booth through the gathering crowd. Her room was locked. And she was ready for him now” (4). This vision of her metamorphosis both sustains her and predicts her transcendence. She finally leaves Andy, falling out of his truck—“It was a shock like being born” (5)—and immediately decides to set out for home on foot. The old ways of her past become her present as she evaluates the conditions of wind and earth. “A Chinook wind, she told herself. She made a right turn off the road. … So she stepped on dry ground where she could and avoided the slush and rotten, gray banks. It was exactly as if she were walking … to Uncle Eli's warm, man-smelling kitchen” (6). June turns her back on the white conveniences of bus, truck, and even highway. She now has a direction, literally and spiritually, which leads to her transcendence. It is, however, ironic that when June calls upon the knowledge of her past, she mistakes an impending blizzard for the warm Chinook.

Even when it started to snow she did not lose her sense of direction. Her feet grew numb, but she did not worry about the distance. The heavy winds couldn't blow her off course. She continued. Even when her heart clenched and skin turned crackling cold it didn't matter, because the pure and naked part of her went on.

The snow felt deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home.


Although June dies, Erdrich's description includes no sense of death. The references to Easter and walking upon the water instead suggest miracles and magic. And, of course, June lives in her family's memories and in the repercussions of death, which are central to the novel. In her transcendence, June finally seems comfortable with her past and her present; she feels secure, solitary, and she has a direction. Her confidence contrasts with the discomfort that is apparent when she enters the bar to begin the sordid courtship ritual with Andy, who is already peeling eggs. “Although the day was overcast, the snow itself reflected such light that she was momentarily blinded. It was like going underwater. What she walked toward more than anything else was the blue egg in the white hand, a beacon in the murky air” (2). June is ready to play a part, but she is out of her element, working her way through dark water into a sinister situation.6 When she rejects Andy, she walks over the water, defining herself through risk, transformation, and death, the elements of men's ritual.

Although she has managed to integrate her past with her present and is no longer trapped between the rituals of two genders, June is not one of Erdrich's whole characters, capable of blending masculine and feminine ritual. Gerry Nanapush, on the other hand, lives holistically because he can integrate past and present and acknowledge the significance of the feminine. He combines the tradition and magic of his father, Old Man Pillager, and mother, Lulu Lamartine, with a modern political sensibility. Just as Marie Kashpaw's vision modifies tradition so that it is compatible with twentieth-century experience, Gerry brings the warrior tradition up to date as one of the leaders in the American Indian Movement, the “famous Chippewa who had sons wrote for him, whose face was on protest buttons, whose fate was argued over in courts of law, who sent press releases to the world” (258). Gerry also is Erdrich's modern equivalent of ancient Trickster, defiant against authority, mischievous, capable of appearing and disappearing almost at will, living beyond the norm, yet tolerated and even revered on the reservation. He is a leader, clown, and father-creator, according to Lipsha's descriptive litany.

Gerry Nanapush, famous politicking hero, dangerous armed criminal, judo expert, escape artist, charismatic member of the American Indian Movement, and smoker of many pipes of kinnikinnick in the most radical groups.

That was … Dad.


Gerry mimicks Trickster's all-inclusiveness, so it is not surprising that his manner is sometimes feminine.7 “So many things Gerry did might remind you of the way that a beautiful courtesan, standing naked before a mirror, would touch herself—lovingly, conscious of her attractions” (166). Erdrich's suggestions about Gerry's feminine component are unmistakable. More importantly, though, Gerry appears at crucial times so that he might participate in feminine ritual. His connections with birth are strong; he fathers Dot's child Shawn in spite of the difficult circumstances. “The child, for example, had been conceived in a visiting room at the state prison. Dot had straddled Gerry's lap in a corner the closed-circuit TV did not quite scan. Through a hole ripped in her pantyhose and a hole ripped in Gerry's jeans they somehow managed to join and, miraculously, to conceive” (160, our italics). To attend the birth of the child, Gerry fashions one of his miraculous escapes from prison.

When Gerry meets his son Lipsha for the first time at the end of the novel, he is attending a difficult birth of sorts. Lipsha has learned from his grandmother, Lulu, that June and Gerry are his parents, information that Lulu understands will “‘make or break’” him (245). Apparently Lipsha is on his way toward being broken when, overwhelmed by feelings of shame, he enlists in the army. Vision saves him, however, because he recognizes that the warrior tradition as it now exists is false and will fail him. Then the awareness that he wants to meet his father coincides with his cry for a vision.8

So I let the tears fall, my hands shredding the bag, until the face of Old Grand Dad was revealed and the clerk told us to take it outside. By then I was half smashed. Everything seemed to hang in a sharp-edged silence. It was there, before the peeled, kicked-up doorway of the Rudolph Hotel that I got the word on what I should do.


Lipsha receives the word when an old Sioux warrior's empty whiskey bottle hits him between the eyes. Drawing on the power he has inherited from Old Man Pillager, Lulu, and Marie, he envisions that Gerry will escape from prison soon, and he goes to the Twin Cities to meet him. When Gerry materializes at King's apartment, he discreetly acknowledges Lipsha as his son. “The way he laughed, and then the slow method his eyes took me in by notches, when he was back to himself again, gave me reason to believe that he knew whose son he looked at” (260). During the card game with King, Lipsha and Gerry cooperate by using Lulu's crimping system to cheat King out of his inheritance. Later Gerry, an accomplished escape artist, comforts his troubled son and saves Lipsha, a deserter now, from the army police by showing him an escape route.

“Look here,” he said. “I didn't have to go in the army because my heart is slightly fucked. It goes something like ti-rum-ti-ti instead of ta-dum.

“Oh,” I said. “Lucky for you.”

“Lucky for you too.”

I kept on steering.

“You're a Nanapush man,” he said. I could feel him looking at me. I could feel the soft, broad, serious weight of all his features. “We all have this odd thing with our hearts.”

He put a hand out and touched my shoulder.

There was a moment when the car and road stood still, and then I felt it. I felt my own heart give this little burping skip.


Gerry launches Lipsha into the world, giving him a new start, and Erdrich's language emphasizes the younger man's rebirth as well as an integration with the universe that comes with the awareness of his identity.

So many things in the world have happened before. But it's like they never did. Every new thing that happens to a person, it's a first. To be a son of a father was like that. In that night I felt expansion, as if the world was branching out in shoots and growing faster than the eye could see. I felt smallness, how the earth divided into bits and kept dividing. I felt the stars. I felt them roosting on my shoulders with his hand.


Lipsha experiences a symbolic birth, attended by Gerry, who appropriately participates in a ritual that is fundamentally womanly.

Evidence suggests that Lipsha has inherited his mother's feminine features and his father's attention to womanly obligations. Albertine recalls King's teasing Lipsha for his girl-eyes and notices his strong resemblance to June. “Lipsha was June's boy, born in one of those years she left Gordie. Once you knew about her and looked at him, it was easy to tell. He had her flat pretty features and slim grace …” (8). Just as Gerry's grace is a small sign of his larger connection with what is womanly, Lipsha's appearance complies with his attention to womanly roles. He sweeps and cleans on the reservation, functions customarily performed by women, and his caring for the old ones deviates from the masculine ritual of the hunter-provider toward the feminine ritual of caretaking. Lipsha appears to be in no danger of becoming trapped in the masculine rituals that have become dead-ends for King, Gordie, Henry Junior, and Nector.

Erdrich reenacts folklore tradition through Gerry and Lipsha, particularly the figures of Trickster and the unpromising hero. By calling upon ancient types, Erdrich injects vitality into a situation where her Chippewas appear to be doomed. To grasp the extent of their power, it is necessary to understand how these characters reflect their ancient ancestors. The unpromising hero, according to the myths, is an orphan raised by an old woman, sometimes his grandmother. Although it eventually becomes apparent that he is the son of a powerful spirit, he demonstrates no power at the beginning and is considered a person without significance. Having been given certain tools by an old woman the unpromising hero often embarks upon a journey that presents a series of trials. After successfully overcoming these trials, he returns to his people as a culture hero.9 Lipsha's experience parallels the formula, for Marie takes him in and becomes for all practical purposes his grandmother. He is unaware of his powerful grandfather, Old Man Pillager, and his magical father, Gerry Nanapush. Lipsha himself confesses that Grandma Kashpaw “used to call me the biggest waste on the reservation and hark back to how she saved me from my own mother, who wanted to tie me in a potato sack and throw me in a slough” (189). He shows some promise, however, because he has the power to heal. It is apparent in the section “Love Medicine,” though, that Lipsha is not yet a mature caretaker of his power. He dares to try to work the potent love medicine that would revive passion between Marie and Nector, but when the ancient prescription proves too difficult to follow, he improvises and bungles.10 “I ignored all the danger, all the limits … so I played with fire. I told myself love medicine was simple. I told myself the old superstitions was just that—strange beliefs” (202-03). His toying with tradition has serio-comic consequences, resulting as it does in Nector's demise. Lipsha's growth begins after Nector's death, when two old women impel him on his search for his place in the scheme of things. First Lulu offers Lipsha significant information about his heritage and teaches him how to cheat at cards. Then by broadly hinting that Lipsha should help himself to her savings, Marie provides the means for the journey that will present the trials he needs to overcome if he is to progress. With the help of his trickster father, Lipsha gambles for his just inheritance and wins the car that his half-brother King bought with June's insurance money.11

Traditionally the new culture hero returns home with prizes or gains them from the tribe as recognition of his new status. Lipsha's great prize is his awareness of himself, his sense of belonging and of being a real person. Even though he has the car to show for passing his tests, his triumph is internal. It consists of being a man who will never be trapped by rituals exclusive to men and who has the capacity of reconciling his present with his past. In addition to gaining a father and a heritage, he learns that his mother's behavior requires no forgiveness. “I tell you, there was good in what she did for me, I know now. The son that she acknowledged suffered more than Lipsha Morrissey did. The thought of June grabbed my heart so, but I was lucky she turned me over to Grandma Kashpaw” (272). Lipsha's reconciliation of past and present takes on social significance through his potential as practitioner of the old medicine. But he will probably go back to his sweeping and cleaning, unlike the traditional culture hero, whose manly power manifests itself in his honored status.

Lipsha's return to an apparently menial life is no more an indication of the profundity of his experience than baby Shawn's weightlessness can accurately account for the power that she may well have inherited from her father, Gerry, and his grandparents, Old Man Pillager and Lulu. Albertine and Dot decide to weigh Shawn on the state-mandated scales used to control the weight of trucks on the highways.

She was such a solid child, she seemed heavy as lead in my arms. I placed her on the ramp between the wheel sights and held her steady for a moment, then took my hands slowly away. She stared calmly into the rough distant sky. She did not flinch when the wind came from every direction, wrapping us tight enough to squeeze the very breath from a stone. She was so dense with life, such a powerful distillation of Dot and Gerry, it seemed she might weigh about as much as any load. But that was only a thought, of course. For as it turned out, she was too light and did not register at all.


Dot and Albertine's perception of Shawn's weight is not necessarily an illusion simply because she does not register on the scales. Babies cannot be weighed on truck scales, and Shawn's power cannot be measured quantifiably or in terms that white culture depends upon so heavily to accurately describe a particular reality. Rational, empirical thinking patterns cannot comprehend the medicine emanating from Old Man Pillager and descending to his son Gerry and his grandchildren Lipsha and Shawn.12 Similarly, Erdrich establishes Lulu and Marie as women of great power, although they appear to be two rather pathetic elderly ladies in an old folks' home. Nector's personal triumph over the masculine rituals dictated by the white power structure could be misunderstood because it wears the guise of senility. Nor could conventional white culture register the weight and power of Eli Kashpaw's traditional life any more than it could understand June's ultimate transcendence.

In Love Medicine, Erdrich forces readers to peer into the breach that separates two ways of viewing the world and human experience. Her native American characters may not appear to carry any weight even for sympathetic, astute readers unfamiliar with the possibilities that native American culture allows, for such readers may be trapped in the white culture's mythology of the Indian so romantically dramatized in Plunge of the Brave. Rather than showing readers a civilization in decline, Erdrich offers a vision of a culture that continues to evolve. Even as she posits that the old gender-based rituals of hunter and warrior are no longer fulfilling, she draws upon the rich tradition of folklore and vision to offer characters a promising context for growth—one that is contemporary and ancient at the same time. It is ironic, of course, that the rich imaginative life represented by vision and folklore, a life that conventional, American, white culture would not put at a premium, provides Erdrich with a route through which her art can work. Just as important, vision and folklore are valuable resources for characters to call upon as they develop identities. Marie, for instance, understands the significance of her vision and the role of Sister Leopolda in her life. Gerry glories in his trickster identity, and Lipsha, the unpromising hero, finally recognizes that his power is no mere superstition but instead is part of his inheritance.

I have some powers which, now that I think of it, was likely come down from Old Man Pillager. And then there is the newfound fact of insight I inherited from Lulu, as well as the familiar teachings of Grandma Kashpaw on visioning what comes to pass within a lump of tinfoil.


Lipsha is an evolving person and by the end of the novel he can describe his evolution and that of his beloved culture in terms that are concrete and cosmic. Standing over the boundary river that he must cross to reach the reservation, he recalls that “I'd heard that this river was the last of an ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the Dakotas and solved all our problems. It was easy to still imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves, but the truth is we live on dry land” (272). Erdrich's novel acknowledges those who are dying in the waves or hiding beneath them, but ultimately draws its meaning from the characters learning how to live on dry land.

When characters call upon tradition to guide their lives, they reconcile the distant and recent past with the present. Erdrich seems to argue for the value of experience that is all of a piece, and this holistic view is compatible with her emphasis upon rituals and roles that are not gender-based. Characters trapped in or between gender-based roles are unfulfilled. Those who take advantage of the fluidity between past and present and are free enough to incorporate into their experience rituals complementing the gender-based behavior that is expected of them will survive and even triumph.


  1. Sanders' views echo Marco Portales' evaluation in the New York Times, which mentions the “unpromising, uncertain future” unfolding before Erdrich's younger characters. Additional reactions to Love Medicine by such reviewers as Dee Brown, Ursula Le Guin, Karl Kroeber, Kathleen Sands, and Linda Ainsworth appear in Studies in American Indian Literatures 9:1 (Winter 1985).

  2. Complementary and/or competitive twins appear in many North American mythological traditions including the Chippewa. See Victor Barnouw, Wisconsin Chippewa Myths and Tales and Their Relation to Chippewa Life (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1977) 15, 75 as well as Paul Radin and A. B. Regan, “Ojibwa Myths and Tales,” Journal of American Folklore 41 (1928): 84-86.

  3. Ruth Landes discusses the solitariness of the traditional Chippewa hunter in Ojibwa Religion and the Medíwiwin (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1968) 5.

  4. The vision quest was particularly important for adolescent males. However, when discussing the role of vision of Ojibway tradition, Landes notes that there were some exceptions for females. She also elaborates on the importance of the vision quest in learning and in securing “mystic protection” (21-39). Barnouw also discusses this important ritual (8).

  5. Stones are often emblems of a spiritual manito bond, but such emblems also can be man made. These emblems objectify the spiritual bond and are tools enabling a vision to work (Landes 38).

  6. In the Chippewa tradition underwater creatures are associated with misfortune (Landes 28-31). Barnouw interprets water and water monsters as symbols of the unconscious and of repression in the Chippewa tradition (245n).

  7. Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz in American Indian Myths and Legends (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984) describe Trickster as “A rebel against authority and the breaker of all taboos. He is what the best-behaved and most circumspect person may secretly wish to be. He is … at the same time imp and hero—the great culture bringer who can also make mischief beyond belief, turning quickly from clown to creator and back again. … In an ordered world of objects and labels he represents the potency of nothingness, of chaos, of freedom—a nothingness that makes something of itself. There is great power in such a being, and it has always been duly recognized and honored by Indian people” (335). In his commentary “On the Psychology of the Trickster” in Paul Radin's The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Schocken Books, 1972) C. G. Jung notes that even Trickster's “sex is optional despite its phallic qualities: he can turn himself into a woman and bear children” (203).

  8. Landes describes “crying for pity” as an important aspect of the Ojibway vision quest (21). Paula Gunn Allen analyzes the numerous references to this wide-spread ritual by contemporary native American authors throughout The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986).

  9. John Bierhorst summarizes the qualities of these Cinderella types in The Mythology of North America (New York: William Morrow, 1985) 156-60. More elaborated details appear in Robert H. Lowie, “Studies in Plains Indian Folklore,” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 40:1 (1932). For an Ojibwa tale that follows the unpromising hero pattern see Radin and Regan (70-76).

  10. Lipsha's failure to follow the traditional formula appears to be a variation on the familiar bungling-host tales associated with Trickster. Bierhorst summarizes elements of these tales (13).

  11. The unpromising hero often traditionally faces a gambling trial where his life is at stake. An Ojibwa version appears in Radin and Regan (61).

  12. Old Man Pillager, whose power is respected and feared by the characters in Love Medicine, admirably reflects the description by Landes of the cultural and social position of powerful old Medís (44-59).

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Barnouw, Victor. Wisconsin Chippewa Myths and Tales and Their Relation to Chippewa Life. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1977.

Bierhorst, John. The Mythology of North America. New York: William Morrow, 1985.

Erdoes, Richard and Alfonso Ortiz. American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1984.

Jung, C. G. “On the Psychology of the Trickster.” The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. Ed. Paul Radin. New York: Schocken Books, 1972.

Landes, Ruth. Ojibwa Religion and the Medíwiwin. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1968.

Lowie, Robert H. “Studies in Plains Indian Folklore.” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 40:1 (1932).

Portales, Marco. “People with Holes in Their Lives.” Rev. of Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich. New York Times 23 Dec. 1984, 6.

Radin, Paul and A. B. Regan. “Ojibwa Myths and Tales.” Journal of American Folklore 41 (1928): 84-86.

Sanders, Scott R. “Comments on the Art of Louise Erdrich.” Studies in American Indian Literature 9:1 (Winter 1985).

Louise Flavin (essay date fall 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Flavin, Louise. “Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine: Over Time and Distance.” Critique 31, no. 1 (fall 1989): 55-64.

[In the following essay, Flavin asserts that Love Medicine is a novel about “disintegration and breaking connections, and of bonding and restoration.”]

Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine appeared in 1984, just fifteen years after the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to N. Scott Momaday for his novel of contemporary Indian American life, House Made of Dawn. Momaday's novel is generally recognized as setting off the renaissance of written imaginative native American works that followed in the next two decades. This span of years saw the publication of works by native Americans D'Arcy McNickle (The Surrounded and Wind from an Enemy Sky), Leslie Silko (Ceremony), and James Welch (Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney), among others.

The sudden appearance of so many novels by native American writers coincides with the social and political activism that dominated Indian life in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of the novels written during this period have as their theme the sociopolitical problems of native Americans—problems associated with poverty, alcoholism, education, and jobs (Standiford 168-69). They also deal with specific Indian American issues, such as reservation life and the problems of relocation and termination. Often, the conflict in the novels arises out of the native American concern for connectedness with the land and the interrelatedness of all life. When the Indian American moves off the reservation and begins life in a culture essentially different from his own, the results can be disastrous. Likewise, alienation from tribal customs and a historical past creates conflicts for the Indian who relocates in an environment away from the reservation. According to William Bevis, white American novelists approach the subject of relocation in a way that is distinct from the approach of Indian American writers (582). The classic American novel is a “leaving” plot, a movement by an individual toward freedom, independence, growth, and fulfillment away from his original home and society. The typical native American story, however, has a “homing” plot. In these stories the hero finds fulfillment, personal growth, and value in returning home, in finding himself in his cultural past among his own people. As Bevis says, “In all these books, Indian ‘homing’ is presented as the opposite of competitive individualism, which is white success” (584-85). To the Indian American, tribalism is more than just home and family: “To Indians tribe means family, not just bloodlines but extended family, clan, community, ceremonial exchanges with nature, and an animate regard for all creation as sensible and powerful” (Lincoln 8). Fulfillment for the Indian American, according to Bevis, results from unification with his native society, his cultural past, and his inherited place (586). Thus, many contemporary native American novels have as their “homing” plot the return of the hero to his tribe and the renewal of self through connection with these three elements.

Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, always compassionate and sometimes comic, looks at Indian American reservation life in a less optimistic light. In this novel, the returning Indian finds that the tribe has disintegrated, the past has been forgotten, and the reservation lands no longer support a livelihood. For some Chippewa who grew up on the North Dakota reservation that provides the novel's setting, leaving home is the road to fulfillment. Albertine Johnson, for one, runs off to Fargo as a young girl, eventually completes her education in nursing, then continues her studies to become a doctor. Her narratives reveal a secure, self-defined individual who has survived the life outside. But her success is an exception to the rule, for the characters in this story seem to find neither preparedness for life on the outside nor happiness by remaining on the reservation.

The story centers on the family of Nector and Marie Kashpaw and their relationship to Lulu Lamartine and her children. The story is at once one of disintegration and breaking connections, and of bonding and restoration. The novel has no single point of view, but its fourteen chapters contain six different first-person narrators and the limited omniscience of five other characters. Presenting the story from so many different points of view suggests not tribal or family unity but separation and difference At the same time, the points of view, in a Faulknerian way, are unified around the subject of one family. The presentation of these diverse points of view accentuates the theme of the breakdown of relationships, while showing the unique tie the family and reservation life have for these people.

Likewise, the setting is not limited to a single location. In addition to the reservation, we see King's apartment in Minneapolis, Henry Jr.'s hotel room in Fargo, and the frozen fields outside Williston where June walks to her death. The time span is fifty years. The first story is set in 1981, the year of June Kashpaw's death. The next story goes back to 1934 and the chance meeting of Marie Lazarre and Nector Kashpaw on the hill outside the convent. The stories that follow are in chronological order and end two years after the death of Nector by choking. This last story, set in 1984, returns to the subject of June, as Lipsha Morrissey learns she is his mother and Jerry Nanapush his father.

The socioeconomic problems of the Indian American are not the essential focus of the stories, although many familiar subjects are treated. In the typical native American plots of the novels of the previous decades, a protagonist is involved in a struggle to find identity and fulfillment, and the process of loss and recovery constitutes the story line. The conflict is often between native American and white, with the struggle ending in tragedy for the Indian. Love Medicine, however, has no central conflict or protagonist. Instead of a clearly defined conflict, the novel portrays a variety of characters attempting to love and survive in a world where God and the government seem to have forsaken them. Left to their own devices, many of them—the men especially—flounder. Lipsha Morrissey provides the philosophy that underlies these characters' lives and experiences when he asks, “Was there any sense relying on a God whose ears was stopped? Just like the government? I says then, right off, maybe we got nothing but ourselves. And that's not much, just personally speaking” (195). Lipsha has little to rely upon, for even his grandmother calls him “the biggest waste on the reservation” (189), but he is not alone in feeling that he has been abandoned with limited resources. Gordie Kashpaw has a feeling not only that the Indian American has been left to himself, but that the system is actually rigged against him. His insight comes as he tries to unlock his trunk while on a drunken escapade to escape the memory of his dead wife, June:

Everything worked against him. He could not remember when this had started to happen. Probably from the first, always and ever afterward, things had worked against him. … He had never really understood before but now, because two keys were made to open his one car, he saw clearly that the setup of life was rigged and he was trapped.


Believing that doom is inevitable, Gordie puts up little resistance. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as his life is reduced to brawling and alcoholism until he drives his wife away and loses her to the frozen plains.

While the men in the novel accept inevitable doom in their lives, the women approach the same reservation world with a different outlook. The novel is clearly feminist in its depiction of the two strong women who raise families in adverse situations and, in the end, bond with each other after their children are raised and the man they both had loved has died. Marie and Lulu not only survive but look back on their lives with satisfaction, having endured without the support of a strong male figure or the help of God or the government.

Nector Kashpaw exemplifies the ineffectuality of male leadership on the reservation. Although he is elected tribal leader, it is Marie who nominates him and keeps him sober so he can perform his duties. Nector makes only a few decisions about his life; the rest have been made for him. Lulu says, “He had brains and heart to spare but never had to use them for himself. He never fought. So when his senses started slipping he let them dribble out” (229). Lulu professes to having loved Nector all her life, but she never married him because “he dawdled.” While courting Lulu, he runs into fourteen-year-old Marie Lazarre fleeing the convent and Sister Leopalda. He attempts to stop her from escaping with what he believes are stolen altar linens but in the process ends up having sex with her, committing himself to marriage with the offer of the wild geese. But Nector does not accept responsibility for his actions. Instead he says, “And then I am caught, I give way. I cannot help myself” (61). He tells Marie, “You made me! You forced me!” (62). Nector takes no responsibility for the bad things that happen to him, nor can he account for the fortunate things that come his way. Having the stereotypical look of the brave Indian warrior, he is offered a bit part in a Western movie and poses for the classic portrait Plunge of the Brave, which hangs in the capital state house. Nector's evaluation of his situation is simple: “I never wanted much, and I needed even less, but what happened was that I got everything handed to me on a plate” (89).

The one decision he makes is to leave Marie for Lulu, not knowing that Lulu has decided to marry her brother-in-law, Bev Lamartine. Nector assesses his situation one afternoon when stillness settles over him:

It seems as though, all my life up till now, I have not had to make a decision. I just did what came along, went wherever I was taken, accepted when I was called on. I never said no. But now it is one or the other, and my mind can't stretch far enough to understand this.


Nector is saved from his decision when he inadvertently sets fire to Lulu's house. It is clearly an accident, but, true to character, Nector denies responsibility: “I see that I do nothing to help the fire along. … I have done nothing” (109). Nector is not victimized by his indecisiveness; instead, he profits from the help of others. Lulu calls him greedy for taking his pleasure, “his candy,” wherever he can get it, pleasing himself first and letting the rest look out for themselves: “He always did have to have his candy come what might and whether Lulu or Marie was damaged by his taking it. All that mattered was his greed” (231). His character is one with the waters, an image often associated with Nector: he flows with the current and generally through fertile grounds.

The other male characters, descendants of Nector or Lulu, are seldom as fortunate. The same sense of separation from things Indian and tribal, a separation from values and customs of the past, haunts the lives of Howard “King” Kashpaw, June and Gordie's son, and Gerry Nanapush, Lulu's oldest son. When June dies, her insurance money is left to King because, as Grandma Kashpaw says, “he took after her the most” (22). His wife Lynette says, “His mom gave him the money … because she wanted him to have responsibility. He never had responsibility. She wanted him to take care of his family” (33). Instead, King buys an expensive sportscar with a tape deck and all the other features. His return to the reservation for June's funeral is marred by drunkenness and quarrels with his wife and family. King inherits June's wildness and independence, marrying a white woman and leaving the reservation to live in Minneapolis. He lies about seeing action in Vietnam. His step-brother Lipsha tells Albertine that King once took a potshot at him while the two were out hunting. Lipsha, who grew up with King, says, “You can't never predict when he'll turn” (35). King's nature is violent, resulting in a full-scale battle when his aunts and grandmother leave the house to visit June's grave. King attempts to drown Lynette, battles with his father Gordie, and insults his half-brother Lipsha. The pies, so lovingly baked by his aunts and grandmother, are smashed by the fighting men. After Albertine fails to restore the broken pies, she observes, “once they smash there is no way to put them right” (39). Like the pies, the lives that King smashes with his bitterness and violence cannot be mended. His son, who prefers to be called Howard rather than King, finds an identity separate from his father's, and, when troopers raid their Minneapolis apartment looking for Jerry Nanapush, Howard Jr., betrays his father to them.

King has ambitions to greatness, calling himself “King” and “the world's greatest fisherman,” but this ambition is only talk. He tells Lipsha, “I'm gonna rise. … One day I'm gonna rise. They can't keep down the Indians” (252), but in the same breath he blames others for his failure: “You'd think the Indians that got up there would look out for their own! Once they start earning twenty-five, thirty grand they move off in a suburb and forget about their cousins. They look down on you” (253). King apparently has forgotten his own betrayal of Gerry Nanapush, gaining his confidence and betraying him to the authorities for money. The dog-eat-dog world he complains about is of his own cruel making.

The most famous Indian on the reservation is the fugitive Gerry Nanapush. His son Lipsha describes him as “Gerry Nanapush, famous politicking hero, dangerous armed criminal, judo expert, escape artist, charismatic member of the American Indian Movement, and smoker of many pipes of kinnikinnick in the most radical groups. … That was … Dad” (248). Gerry has complete disregard for the law, believing instead in a personal system of justice. His initial conflict, a barroom brawl with a white cowboy, leads to his incarceration and education in the ways of the criminal:

He admitted it [prison] had done him some good when he was younger, hadn't known how to be a criminal, and so had taken lessons from professionals. Now that he knew all there was to know, however, he couldn't see the point of staying in a prison and taking the same lessons over and over.


Gerry's political activism on the Pine Ridge Reservation leads to the murder of a federal agent. He eventually flees to Canada with the help of his son Lipsha, an exile that reunites him with his girlfriend and young daughter.

Unlike King Kashpaw, Gerry, who has attained notoriety for murder and other crimes, is treated with much awe and respect by both the Indian tribe and his own family. His mother Lulu says, “They're all jealous of Gerry Nanapush on this reservation” (244); later she says of her famous son, “[i]n and out of prison, yet inspiring the Indian people, that was his life. Like myself he could not hold his wildness in” (227). Gerry's life and inspirational deeds are not chronicled in the text; instead, he is portrayed as nonviolent and gentle, a giant of a man with a large heart for his own people. Lipsha describes him as “suave, grand, gigantic” (166), “enormous, gentle” (258). Gerry, unlike King, does not blame anyone else for his lot in life. Instead, he sees his fate as being like a hand dealt to him in poker: “We got dealt our hand before we were even born, and as we grow we have to play as best as we can” (263). Gerry plays his as a fugitive, always on the run but never in a hurry. He fights a system of white laws that have branded him a criminal, when all he wants in life is freedom to be with his family and friends, freedom to live out his time with some dignity. King, the violent one, is allowed to live and raise his family in freedom, while Gerry, the gentle criminal, is forever a fugitive.

Another casualty of the reservation is Henry Lamartine, Jr., Lulu's son, who takes his own life as his father had, although for a different reason. Henry Sr., unable to tolerate his wife's continued unfaithfulness, parks his car on the railway tracks to end his misery. Henry Jr. returns from Vietnam where he had been a prisoner of war, and he is unable to put the war behind him. In spite of the efforts of his brother Lyman to restore his interest in life, Henry admits, “I can't help it. It's no use” (152). Henry and his brother have a drunken picnic, and Henry walks into the river and drowns. He is less a victim of reservation life than of a war that is not of his own making. The Indian brave no longer fights for his own land and food but in a foreign war in which he has no stake.

One of the survivors of reservation life is Lipsha Morrissey, abandoned by his mother June and raised by “Grandma” Kashpaw. Lipsha narrates two central chapters—one gives the novel its title, and the other ends the book and is a link to the opening chapter and the death of June. Lipsha, “the biggest waste on the reservation” (189), says of himself, “the thing I know how to do best in this world, the thing I been training for all my life, is to wait. Sitting there and sitting there was no hardship on me” (201). Lipsha has trouble in school but says he quit for “the betterment of [his] mental powers” (269). He has no profession and no future, and he contents himself with caring for Grandma Kashpaw, now living at the Senior Citizens' Center.

Lipsha recognizes that life on the reservation is bleak, more so than ever before. He bemoans the loss of faith in the Chippewa gods and the inefficacy of praying to the Catholic god, who does not seem to hear. The absence of an attentive god is part of the problem of the Indian Americans, according to Lipsha:

I looked around me. How else could I explain what all I had seen in my short life—King smashing his fist in things, Gordie drinking himself down to the Bismarck hospitals, or Aunt June left by a white man to wander off in the snow. How else to explain the times my touch don't work, and farther back, to the old time Indians who was swept away in the outright germ warfare and dirty-dog killing of the whites. In those times, us Indians was so much kindlier than now.


In the absence of a god, Lipsha attempts to help his family and friends by restoring the primitive art of witch doctoring. He believes himself to have healing powers, which he calls “the touch.” He even quits school because he believes that formal education interferes with his ability to heal. But Lipsha's resorting to the superstitious rites of the past is proven ineffectual, comic, and even destructive. He attempts to heal the rift between his grandparents by having them eat the raw heart of a wild goose. Since wild geese mate for life, Lipsha believes that eating the goose heart will lessen the separation that has developed between his grandparents over Nector's affair with Lulu. His attempt to work love medicine is made comic when he fails to shoot a wild goose and resorts to using a frozen supermarket turkey heart. The final deflation comes when old Nector Kashpaw chokes and dies trying to swallow the heart.

Instead of the “healing touch,” Lipsha works a different kind of “love medicine.” As he compassionately tells his grandmother:

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.


Lipsha is a type of gentle love child, more the son of Gerry Nanapush than of the wild June he never knew. Gerry tells him that he will not have to serve in the army because like his father, “we all have this odd thing with our hearts,” a physical defect in the Nanapush line. More accurately, Lipsha has a loving, affectionate nature that is repelled by violence and pain. Even Grandpa Kashpaw identifies the “defect” in Lipsha when he jokingly compares him to the giant snapper that tows them around the lake. Lipsha objects to the comparison: “I ain't no snapper. Snappers is so stupid they stay alive when their head's chopped off” (209). Grandpa's reply explains the comparison: “That ain't stupidity. Their brain's just in their heart, like yours is.” Lipsha's real insight, his gift, is the strong feeling of a man raised on love but feeling rejected because he never knew his mother.

The priestess of love—the saint in the story—is Marie Lazarre Kashpaw. As a young girl, Marie's ambition was to escape reservation life by joining the convent. Marie says, “I had the mail-order Catholic soul you get in a girl raised out in the bush, whose only thought is getting into town” (41). Marie prays for a vocation so she will be accepted into the Sacred Heart Convent on the hill. After her grueling battle with the sadistic Sister Leopalda, Marie escapes back down the hill and finds her life's vocation in young Nector Kashpaw. Her ability to spring back from adversity sets her apart from many others on the reservation, who turn to acceptance as a much easier path. Nector describes her after their encounter on the hill as “rail-tough and pale as birch, her face loose and raging beneath the white cloth … Marie is the kind of tree that doubles back and springs up, whips singing” (59). When Marie loses two of her children, she takes in orphans—her niece June and later June's sons, Lipsha and Howard. When her husband succumbs to alcoholism, she weans him back into sobriety. When his life lacks purpose and meaning, she gets him elected tribal leader. When he chases after Lulu Lamartine, she forgives him and saves his dignity when he returns home. Her saintliness lies not in deprivation and asceticism, nor in the self-promoting sadomasochism of Sister Leopalda, but in the humane everyday acts of caring for others. She tells Leopalda, “I've been good to my neighbors. I fed my children from my own mouth. I kept Nector from hurting himself” (119).

Marie is the embodiment of the saintly virtues of compassion, forgiveness, and love. Even her rival Lulu is forgiven in the end. After Lulu's operation to restore her vision, Marie comes to put the drops in her eyes, saying, “There's a pattern of three lines in the wood,” a reference to the three lives that were affected by Lulu's affair with Nector. She helps Lulu to feel for others when she forgives her, saying, “Somebody had to put the tears into your eyes” (235). Forgiving her husband's lover as she had forgiven her husband, caring for Lulu in her time of need, and sharing with her the loss of Nector make Marie a saint on earth.

The most tragic character in the novel is June Kashpaw, a figure more often on the perimeter of others' lives than clearly a center of focus. June Kashpaw's final night begins the novel. Her last affair with a drunken oil boomer outside a Williston, North Dakota, bar ends with her death as she attempts to walk home in a snowstorm. While her death was not defined as a suicide, anyone familiar with the intensity of a North Dakota snowstorm would know the risk involved in such a venture. While June's body dies in the snow, “the pure and naked part of her went on. … The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home” (6).

June's story is one of abandonment and tragedy. When her mother dies in the bush, June survives by eating pine sap. Marie sees that she is more like the rugged Eli Kashpaw—“The woods were in June” (65)—but she has Marie's resiliency and ambition to have something more than the life fate hands her. She marries her cousin Gordie but separates from him repeatedly. She gives birth to two children, one by Gordie and one by Gerry Nanapush, but abandons them to Marie and Nector. June, like her children Lipsha and Howard, is a lost soul. Paula Allen, writing in The Sacred Hoop, identifies the problem of growing up without knowing one's mother:

Failure to know your mother, that is, your position and its attendant traditions, history, and place in the scheme of things, is failure to remember your significance, your reality, your right relationship to earth and society. It is the same as being lost, isolated, abandoned, self-estranged, and alienated from your own life.


June's attempts to make something of her life—as a beautician, a secretary, a waitress or salesclerk, a wife and mother—become the story of failure: “As time went by she broke, little by little, into someone whose shoulders sagged when she thought no one was looking, a woman with long ragged nails and hair always growing from its beauty-parlor cut. Her clothes were full of safety pins and hidden tears” (8). Albertine Johnson memorializes her dead aunt and the life she had led:

She would be dancing if there was a dance hall in space. She would be dancing a two-step for wandering souls. Her long legs lifting and falling. Her laugh an ace. 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.


June was a hard-living, hard-loving woman who wanted beauty and love in her life. She was the victim of a cold world where some survive through stamina and grit, such as Lulu and Marie, and others fall through the cracks, such as Henry Jr. and his father.

June's death is recorded in the first pages of the novel, but she is recalled at the novel's end by her son, Lipsha. He is driving the car purchased with June's insurance money, and he stops to look into the river that bounds the reservation:

How weakly I remembered her. If it made any sense at all, she was part of the great loneliness being carried 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 than Lipsha Morrissey did. The thought of June grabbed my heart so, but I was lucky she turned me over to Grandma Kashpaw.


Lipsha has reconciled himself to abandonment by June and accepted the knowledge that the gentle criminal Gerry is his father. Lipsha will not be consumed by depression, by loss, by drowning and destruction. Instead, he returns to the reservation to face his life with a sane and philosophical outlook. He thinks about the river as he drives home in King's car, the car reverenced as though it were June herself, and rejects the idea of suicide:

I'd heard that this river was the last of an ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the Dakotas and solved all our problems. It was easy to still imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves, but the truth is we live on dry land. I got inside. The morning was clear. A good road led on. So there was nothing to do but cross the water, and bring her home.


Lipsha has learned that we have to face problems, but we live on dry land and do not let them overwhelm us until we drown. His future may not be a bright one, but he has as his model the enduring saintliness of Grandma Kashpaw to inspire him.

Louise Erdrich's story is not one of continuity, relatedness, and harmony with the land and nature, with culture and tradition—the “Universal Life Continuity” that shapes much native American fiction (Standiford 180). Instead, she depicts a cultural milieu where the sacred ceremonies, tribal rituals, and Indian cultural identity have disappeared. Eli Kashpaw is the last man on the reservation who could snare a deer, who knew how to skin a skunk and knew the ways of the woods. His twin, Nector, educated in the schools, loses his mind and cannot remember the history of his tribal battles to tell his granddaughter. Much of the reservation land allotted to the Indians has been sold to whites “and lost forever” (11). Thus, the connectedness to the land has disappeared, the means to make a living is gone, and the younger generation—King Jr., Albertine, Gordie, Lipsha, and others—must find work off the reservation or stay there and flounder.

Erdrich's Love Medicine, while untraditional in many ways, gives a compassionate humanistic account of the lives of reservation Indians without glorifying their culture yet without demeaning them in their weaknesses and failure. Through comic deflation, Erdrich is able to present realistically their unique characters and situations, focusing upon the Indian American as a race with definite problems but with the same enduring nature as all Americans.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Bevis, William. “Native American Novels: Homing In.” Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Eds. Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987. 580-620.

Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: Bantam, 1984.

Lincoln, Kenneth. Native American Renaissance. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.

Standiford, Lester A. “Worlds Made of Dawn: Characteristic Image and Incident in Native American Imaginative Literature.” Three American Literatures. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr. New York: MLA, 1982. 168-96.

Marvin Magalaner (essay date 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Magalaner, Marvin. “Louise Erdrich: Of Cars, Time, and the River.” In American Woman Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, pp. 95-108. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1989.

[In the following essay, Magalaner maintains that Erdrich's primary focus in Love Medicine is on her characters and their relationships within the Turtle Mountain community.]

Love Medicine marks a new approach to the treatment of the American Indian in fiction. Louise Erdrich's Chippewa families on a twentieth-century reservation in the West bear no resemblance to the solemn “braves and squaws” of cowboy and Indian days. There's not a horse in the novel, not a peace pipe, and only a brief reference to nonfunctioning tribal gods. Where there is religion, it is Catholic; where there is hunting, it is by white police seeking Indian escapees from prison; where there is violence, it is from Indian family squabbles, husbands against battered wives, fathers caught in child abuse, and drunks in blind attacks against the animals they once venerated.

The noble savage becomes in this book, realistically enough, the ignoble citizen, reduced by externally imposed economic circumstances and the blandishments of media persuasion to a mean, degraded lowest common denominator of existence. Tonto no longer rides the plains beside the Lone Ranger's Silver. In an ironic shift, Albertine, the young student nurse in the novel (who ruminates that “Patient Abuse” can be interpreted two ways by Indians) drives back to the reservation in her “Mustang” car, soon to encounter her cousin, King, who arrives in his “Firebird.”1

Yet Louise Erdrich in Love Medicine is attempting no historical panorama or sociological tract or study of ethnic relationships. The reader may legitimately infer the presence of these elements; the author's emphasis lies elsewhere. Her primary concern is to delineate the human condition as exemplified in two Chippewa families whose members' lives are recorded in fiction at critical moments, often in the words of narrators in the family, sometimes in the words of an unknown omniscient narrator. Erdrich stresses the interaction of family members as well as the relationship between two families, the Kashpaws and the Lamartines, but always to her the characters are more important than the trends or principles they may embody.

Her people are a strange and lively lot: the prostitute June, no longer young, who dies walking drunkenly through a snowstorm after a sexual encounter; Lipsha, her son, convinced that he has the “touch” necessary to dispense Love Medicine; Lulu, whose eight sons have eight different fathers; Sister Leopolda, who tries with boiling water and an iron hook to force the Devil out of young Marie Lazarre, later the Grandma Kashpaw of the novel; and many others equally vivid in their bizarre behavior.

Allowing characters of this ilk to act upon, and to interact with, one another should have produced a wild novel, replete with slapstick scenes, grotesque confrontations, weird, inexplicable visions, abnormal sexual interludes, and violent exchanges—and that is what indeed happens. June's husband, Gordie, drunkenly runs over a deer, which he then shoves into the rear seat of his car, only to become convinced that the animal is the wife he thinks he has murdered in his rage. June's son, King, also far-gone with drink, wildly attacks his own car in which his wife, Lynette, has locked herself to prevent being hurt by her husband. Senile Grandpa Kashpaw and promiscuous old Lulu Lamartine clumsily attempt a sexual liaison in the Senior Citizens Building's laundry room as young Lipsha watches. Or little Howard, King's son, enthusiastically betrays his father's presence to the police outside the apartment door by crying, “King's here.”

Yet the effect of Love Medicine on the reader is anything but wild, outlandish, surrealistic. Quite the opposite, though the happenings may individually exhibit these qualities, the effect of the whole is cathartic; as a prose poem, it establishes an emotional equilibrium associated with writing of a high order.

The answer lies perhaps in Louise Erdrich's ability to place the petty, sensational lives of her characters in delicate balance with the enduring, changeless qualities of nature: air, sky, dust, water, snow, dandelions, darkness. This she accomplishes through her skillful employment of imagery and symbol. I should like here to examine at some length how she does this in a few illustrative instances.

In an interview published in Belles Lettres, Louise Erdrich confirms what any perceptive reader of Love Medicine does not take long to discover—that the controlling element of the novel is water,2 as in her second novel, The Beet Queen, it happens to be air. Simply based on the frequency with which water is mentioned in the story, there is no doubt that the author has decided to concentrate on that element not merely in the development of plot but, beyond that consideration, in everything that has to do with the telling of the tale.

Though Erdrich's authorial control is unobtrusively apparent at every point, the events of the book seem to flow with the fluidity of a liquid. That the author decides to begin the action of the book with June's life and death in 1981, then take the story back to 1934 and return it in stages to periods of time after 1981, requiring a shimmery, ebb-and-flow movement temporally, may account in part for the choice of this element. It is no accident that the novel begins with Easter and June (the person and the month), before we are allowed to learn of June as a youngster and of the family events that occur after June's death.

In addition, Louise Erdrich's unusual decision to have successive chapters, and even sections of chapters, narrated by different characters lends to the novel a fluid mixture of voices, of speech patterns, of grammatical inflections, and of points of view quite unusual in fiction. Even Virginia Woolf, in The Waves, though she establishes set speeches by her six characters, has all of them speak in the sophisticated, literary voice of Virginia Woolf. In Love Medicine, on the contrary, we flow from the polished musings of Marie Kashpaw as she visits the dying Sister Leopolda to the jarring teen lingo of Lipsha Morrisey. In Marie's words: “I sat with her a long while, in silence. The earth was so mild and deep. By spring she would be placed there, alone, and there was no rescue. There was nothing I could do after hating her all these years” (122). And Lipsha's: “I never really done much with my life, I suppose. I never had a television” (189).

As has been said, the most pervasive image in Love Medicine is unquestionably water, in its numerous manifestations. Most obviously, the references are to bodies of water—rivers, lakes, brooks. But Louise Erdrich deals also in less cosmic terms with the image: the ability to shed tears or the curse of being unable to cry; the use of boiling water to exorcise the Devil from young Marie's body; the lack of rain, which leads to the pervading presence of dust as a realistic environmental factor and a rather obvious symbolic aura.

This paramount concern with water leads in turn to several associated though subsidiary motifs involving the relationships of her characters to water. The man ironically named King sees the body of water as engulfing him and associates himself with the smallest and most fragile of its denizens. “‘Minnows,’ he said. ‘It's like I'm always stuck with the goddamn minnows. Every time I work my way up—say I'm next in line for the promotion—they shaft me. … Stuck down at the bottom with the minnows.’” … “‘I'm gonna rise,’ he said.” ‘One day I'm gonna rise. They can't keep down the Indians. Right on brother, huh?’” (252)

The title of the first chapter, “The World's Greatest Fishermen,” reveals the opposite facet of the motif, however ironically it may be interpreted. Traditionally, man has needed access to a river or ocean or stream to sustain life and to build a civilization. Only by making good use of nature's bounty (the water itself, the fish and other sea creatures for sustenance, the current for transportation, the tributaries for irrigation, and so on) has man been able to survive and to advance himself and his descendants. Especially in American historical lore has the availability of water, and its exploitation by indigenous Indian tribes, been central. The image of the Indian in a canoe holding aloft a fish just pulled from the waters below is almost a cliché of American art.

In Erdrich's novel, though King owns the hat identifying its owner as one of “The World's Greatest Fishermen,” it is clear immediately that in King's physical and emotional state it is most unlikely that he could even hold a fishing pole, much less be successful in a battle with a fish at the end of his fishing line. Indeed, the bankruptcy of this contemporary Indian as fisherman (or breadwinner or head of household or transmitter of cultural arts and skills) is one of the incontrovertible points of the book. It is fitting, therefore, that he should abdicate his “King”-ship and, in a mock coronation scene, confer the crown on Eli, the only Indian in the family to follow the old ways, to live alone in his cottage in the woods, unsullied by an education in reservation schools (30).

Whatever else the river means in this context, it must be viewed as an element that no longer offers immediate sustenance to those who have lost the touch. As life-giving water brings death to Phlebas, the drowned Phoenician sailor in Eliot's “The Waste Land,” so it swallows up Henry, the overwhelmed war veteran in Love Medicine. And Nector (Grandpa Kashpaw), a relic from an earlier generation, believes that he will survive the raging waters, as Ishmael and Ahab believe in Moby-Dick, but, senile and broken near the end, he appears buffeted by the forces of life he can no longer control.

In fact, the crucial moments in Nector's long life are narrated significantly through employment of the water metaphor. When his wife, Marie, describes a particularly meaningful sexual reconciliation with him in the early years of their marriage, Nector actually becomes a body of water. Marie thinks: “I went down beneath his hands and lay quiet. I rolled with his current like a stone in the lake. He fell on me like a wave. But like a wave he washed away, leaving no sign he'd been there” (72). Having compared herself to a stone in the lake, Marie expands the analogy on the next page. “I think of small stones. At the bottom of the lake, rolled aimless by the waves. … But I see no kindness in how the waves are grinding them smaller and smaller until they finally disappear” (73). Interestingly, in the course of another reconciliation between Marie and Nector, the husband returns drunk just after the wife has waxed the floor of their home, “which rolled and gleamed like a fine lake between us” (129). At a later point in the novel, Nector recalls his having posed in youth for a painting called Plunge of the Brave, in which he jumps off a cliff into a “rocky river.” “I knew,” he ruminates, “that Nector Kashpaw would fool the pitiful rich woman that painted him and survive the raging water.” He will “let the current pull me toward the surface” and “get to shore” (91).

Nector's attempt to divide his time between two women, his wife Marie and his childhood sweetheart Lulu, is similarly described in aqueous terms. He is “swept” from one woman to another. “I only trusted that I would be tossed up on land when everyone who wanted something from Nector Kashpaw had wrung him dry” (102). The emotional conflict provoked by his having to choose between the two women is only resolved by a solitary late night drive to the lake and a swim. “I gave her [Lulu] up and dived down to the bottom of the lake where it was cold, dark, still, like the pit bottom of a grave. … Perhaps I should have stayed there. … But I didn't. The water bounced me up. I had to get back in the thick of my life” (103).

Finally, after Nector's (Grandpa Kashpaw's) funeral, Lipsha Morrisey's grief is couched in another metaphor of water. “As I lay there, falling asleep, I suddenly felt Grandpa's presence and the barrier between us like a swollen river” (213).

It should be manifest then that, whatever its merits, Louise Erdrich is exploiting the water theme for all it is worth. Space limitations preclude extensive treatment of the motif as applied to the other characters of the novel—to June, walking over the snow “like water” to her death; to King, trying to drown his wife by holding her head down in the kitchen sink; to Henry, deliberately drowning himself in the lake; to Lipsha, who doesn't want to be “like foam throwed off the waves of the lake, spin drift, all warped and cracked like junk and left to rot” (247).

The question still to be faced is why the author selected water in Love Medicine as the central metaphor. Even a casual reading of the history of the Ojibway (Chippewa) Indians impresses the reader with the pervasive presence and importance of water in their everyday lives and in the life after death prepared for them by the Great Spirit. Rivers, streams, lakes, oceans, ponds abound in the literature of the Ojibways as required for the existence of the nation; indeed, wars are fought over the possession of choice land with free access to water. When a group moves from one location to another, the availability of a body of water for transportation, for fishing, for drinking is paramount in the selection of a new site. Indian life, in the absence of a body of water, is thus unthinkable.

As George Copway reports, the goodness of the divine creator is evidenced in his concern to provide water for his people. “Benevolent Spirit … who made the earth. … His benevolence I saw in the running of the streams, for animals to quench their thirst and the fishes to live.”3 In fact, material things are seen as ephemeral while Nature remains eternal. “Nature will be Nature still while palaces shall decay. … yes Niagra will be Niagra a thousand years hence! the rainbow … shall continue as long as the sun, and the flowing of the river. While the work of art, however impregnable, shall in atoms fall.”4 Further, in his history of the Ojibway Indians, William Warren tells how the soul departs the body at death and proceeds west until it reaches a “deep, rapid stream of water, under a bridge,” in a land of spirits full of “clear lakes and streams.”5 Given such frequent reiteration of the religious and historical affinity of the Chippewa people with water, it is not surprising that Louise Erdrich chooses to build her novel around that element.

But life off and on the reservation for Erdrich's characters in the mid-twentieth century may no longer be energized by the blandishments of nature or the promise of the life beyond. The only instance in the book in which the author refers to Indian Gods is recited, tongue in cheek, by Lipsha.

Now there's your God in the Old Testament and there is Chippewa Gods as well. Indian Gods, good and bad, like tricky Nanabozho or the water monster, Missepeshu, who lives over in Lake Turcot. That water monster was the last God I ever heard to appear. It had a weakness for young girls and grabbed one of the Blues off her rowboat. She got to shore all right, but only after this monster had its way with her. She's an old lady now. Old Lady Blue. She still won't let her family fish that lake.

Our Gods aren't perfect, is what I'm saying, but at least they come around.


Deities, Christian or Indian, seem anachronistic in the century of Vietnam and the Holocaust. Religious ecstasy has been replaced by the worship of the beer can, which one of the characters crushes into icon shape and sets up for adoration. Dust, rather than water, has encroached upon the reservation in actuality and in symbolic import. The myth of the Benevolent Spirit is losing ground to the myth of the car, while true healing by the Gods is giving way to Lipsha's mumbo-jumbo medicine.

Though the spiritual power of water is thus diminished in Love Medicine, its power as a symbol and as a presence remains. The river, for instance, endures as a direct link between the Indian past and the less ennobling present. “I'd heard that this river was the last of an ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the Dakotas and solved all our problems.” Lipsha continues, “It was easy to still imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves; but the truth is we live on dry land” (272). The river also remains an awesome power for life and death—a power even greater than that of the car in modern existence. “Drowning,” the reader is told in Love Medicine, “was the worst death for a Chippewa to experience” (234). At the same time, living without the proximity of water is a dreaded fate.

Finally, Louise Erdrich is aware of water as embodying time and memory—elements that determine to a considerable extent the content and the shape of her novel: the multivoiced narration, the generational approach, the jumbled time sequence, the choice of motif and metaphor, and the pattern of symbolic associations that makes the book so rich.

If water is the all-pervasive symbolic link with the past, with time past and to come, and with the natural environment, then the unnatural present is epitomized by the automobile. Louise Erdrich did not have to invent the symbol. More than half a century earlier, Aldous Huxley had commented on a shift in deity from Our Lord who art in Heaven to our Ford which art in Detroit. Evelyn Waugh had followed with a scene in which racing cars careen wildly around a circular track in an effort to return to the starting point first—a futile exercise in getting nowhere fast. And Flannery O'Connor in her stories often employs the image of the motorcar for whatever emotional mileage she can get out of it.

In Love Medicine the car is used by the author as a multipurpose tool to exhibit her Indian families adjusting (or failing to adjust) to their twentieth-century role. Required for life on and off the reservation, the car is at once as familiar as a hat or as a grocery bag, but, at the same time, invested with a mystique that engenders the awe and respect once reserved for venerated natural spirits. “It was as if the car was wired up to something. As if it might give off a shock when touched” (22). It is to the interior of this car that Lynette flees to take sanctuary from the threat of physical violence posed by King's drunken anger; and it is on this car that King takes frustrated revenge, seeking to get at his wife inside (32). The car, incidentally, is a Firebird, formerly an object of religious adoration by the Chippewa Indians.

From the beginning of the novel to the end, the car is there at moments of heightened intensity and dramatic climax—moments when life and death hang in the balance. In the first section of the opening chapter, the mud engineer's car is the scene of June's sexual encounter and the place where she becomes drunk enough to die in the snow shortly afterward. Indeed, though she seems unimpressed by the sexual prowess of her partner, it is the car itself that appears to acquire erotic characteristics. The heater's controls accidentally activated by the groping couple, “she felt it open at her shoulders like a pair of jaws, blasting heat, and had the momentary and voluptuous sensation that she was lying stretched out before a great wide mouth. The breath swept across her throat, tightening her nipples” (5). The car, personified, has its way with her (as the water monster had with the Blue maiden) as she lies ritually prone, “slipping along the smooth plastic seat” as on a sacrificial altar. And all this on the Easter weekend.

Fittingly, the final scene of the book, narrated by June's son, Lipsha, involves several of the same elements. Driving the car he has won from his brother, King, in a poker game (a car purchased with insurance money King received at his mother's death), Lipsha notices damage done to the car's exterior. “There was nicks and dents in the beautiful finished skin. I ran my hand up the racy invert line of the hood” (266). As his senses experience sensual enjoyment, his mind concentrates on the flight from the police of his father, Gerry Nanapush. “I knew my dad would get away. He could fly. He could strip and flee and change into shapes of swift release. Owls and bees, two-toned Ramblers, buzzards. … These forms was interchangeable with his” (266). Gerry, however, is not flying. He is at that moment hiding in the car trunk. “He was curled up tight as a baby in its mother's stomach, wedged so thoroughly it took a struggle to get him loose” (267). But if one's form is “interchangeable” with “two-toned Ramblers,” it is no far stretch of the imagination to see his birth in the womblike depths of a Firebird car trunk. Gerry, constantly on the run from the police, is thus depicted as the offspring of a car; Lipsha's mother, June, as the sexual partner of one; and her legacy to their son, Lipsha, through King's bad luck at poker, the car bought with the insurance proceeds. It is highly significant that in this car the son, Lipsha, is atoned with the father at last, as it speeds toward the border and freedom.

It is perhaps unnecessary to multiply instances in the story in which the use of the car is central. When Lulu's husband, Henry, decides to take his life, he stops his car on the railroad tracks and waits for the death that swiftly claims him under the wheels of an even more imposing iron monster. When Lulu Lamartine determines that she will have Nector in middle age, as she has seduced him in youth, she invites him into her car for the attempt. Young Henry Lamartine calmly walks into the river to his death, overcome by his experience in the Vietnam War, at which point his brother, Lyman, drives their red convertible into the river, perhaps as tribute to the river god, perhaps as an offering to his drowned brother. For whatever motive, this swallowing up of the shiny, metallic new god by the hungry mouth of the old is an obvious but appropriate way for Erdrich to join the two.

The most dramatic and jarring employment of the car in the novel occurs in the “Crown of Thorns” chapter. Gordie, drunk, invokes the shade of his dead wife, June, by uttering her name. In horror he flees the apparition in his car, running down and injuring a deer on the highway. Having decided to drive off with the carcass of the animal, he discovers that he does not have the key to the locked car trunk, at which point he sees “clearly that the setup of life was rigged and he was trapped” (179). He is forced, therefore, to wedge the doe into the backseat. On the journey the deer revives and, through the rearview mirror, stares back at Gordie. “She saw into the troubled thrashing woods of him. … She saw how he'd woven his own crown of thorns” (180). Gordie kills her for good this time with repeated blows of a crowbar, but then, in a moment of dazed illumination believes that “he'd just killed June”: “She was in the backseat, sprawled, her short skirt hiked up over her hips” (181). The enormity of his presumed act leads him to Sister Mary Martin for confession and then to flight from the authorities. “They heard him crying like a, drowned person, howling in the open fields” (188). The animal has become a person, the person an animal.

The life in which Gordie and his contemporary fellows are trapped is represented as a car to whose locks the owner does not possess all the required keys—a hurtling, mechanical object driven drunkenly and unsteadily from point to point. It is not that the natural has been abandoned by the modern Indian; the natural has been perverted. To the actors nothing is what it seems to be. The “World's Greatest Fishermen,” the mighty hunters, are reduced, as in Gordie's situation, to running over their prey and then bashing in the head with a tire iron. The hunted animal takes on human, noble qualities so lacking in the hunters. The deer's “look was black and endless and melting pure” (180). In the logical next step, to Gordie the animal is transformed into a human being, his dead wife, June, who had previously been described by the author as a “wild” thing. The vision of the deer-as-June that he experiences in the car, her clothing awry, sprawled on the vinyl seat, is very much a replay of the opening scene of the book in which June's animallike sexual encounter in the mud engineer's car is described. But even if the wife-June-prostitute echoes had not been introduced by Louise Erdrich, the incongruous and grotesque image of a deer perched upright like a human being in the backseat of a car—of the natural reduced to the unnatural, of the eternal placed in juxtaposition to the dated and the mechanically limited (was the car a used 1963 Buick?)—would have been more than enough to drive home the point. Maybe it is not even necessary for the author, in the final sentence of the episode, to depict Gordie as transposed into the hunted beast, “howling in the open fields.”

It should be pointed out, incidentally, that Erdrich's fascination with the car as symbol extends to her second novel as well. In The Beet Queen, the most unusual section is the attempt of Dot's mother and Mary Adare to force Sita's body, stiff with rigor mortis, into their delivery truck and their subsequent ride in the parade of the Beet Queen, upright corpse and all, through the center of town. More than once, the interior of a car is described as a “cave,” as a means of escape, of isolation, of enclosure, or of entrapment.

In Love Medicine imagery of enclosure abounds, partly, it seems clear, to highlight the dilemma of the Indian characters, savages now forced into tameness by material progress, by regimentation in the armed forces, by life on a reservation, by confinement in a prison, by employment in the tiny, stifling weighing hut, and even, as has been said here, by the necessity to adapt to the automobile. Only Eli, kept out of school by his mother and sheltered from “civilizing” influences, retains a measure of openness to nature and his tradition. From the very beginning of the book, the reader is confronted by this unmistakable motif. Though June and her pickup are in a bar drinking “Angel Wings,” she must stumble on all-too-human legs to a bathroom stall and lock herself in. She even carries with her the doorknob of her room as the only sure way to keep the door locked in her absence. The second section begins with June “not only dead but suddenly buried” in the last enclosed space of all. Further on in the novel, describing Gerry and Dot's unborn child, Erdrich reinforces the motif. “The child was as restless a prisoner as its father, and grew more anxious and unruly as the time of release [from the womb] neared. As a place to spend a nine-month sentence in, Dot wasn't much. Her body was inhospitable. … The child was clearly ready for a break and not interested in earning its parole” (163-64). Whether the sense of enclosure is physical or emotional, it seems to be shared by members of both the families in the book. Nector is trapped in his mind. Lipsha is forced to witness Grandpa's sexual fumblings with Lulu in the laundry room when he finds his tactful withdrawal cut off. Lulu experiences entrapment in her burning house, while Gerry temporarily entombs himself in the car trunk of King's automobile. Finally, it is interesting to note that even June, liberated from her boarding house room, freed from the toilet stall, released from the mud engineer's car, a “free” spirit no longer confined to her skin and bones, is yet compelled to appear to her husband at his call, presumably from the grave, trapped as a wifely spirit for all time.

Reinforcing the theme of enclosure and entrapment as early as the second paragraph of the novel and extending to the end is the employment of the shell motif. That its first appearance should be in connection with colored eggs on the counter of a sleazy bar during the Easter weekend (on which the body of Christ was nailed to a cross but on which He also attained the ultimate freedom through resurrection into Heaven) must be noted. June's sex customer is first seen “peeling” a blue egg—the “beacon” toward which June walks for the last assignation of her life. The small talk between them is almost too obviously pointed. He offers to peel a pink one for her because “it matched her turtleneck.” She corrects him, saying that her vest is called a “shell.” “He said he would peel that for her too.” The sexual innuendos serve to reveal June as egglike and fragile but enclosed in a shell that permits her to ply her trade indifferently. When she locks herself in the bathroom stall (a substitute for her shell), she recalls her client's hand “thumbing back the transparent skin and crackling blue peel.” Sitting in the stall, “she seemed to drift out of her clothes and skin with no help from anyone,” and she feels her body “pure and naked—only the skins were stiff and old.” In the car, as the mud engineer removes June's slacks, Erdrich tells the reader that the fabric “crackled with electricity and shed blue sparks when he pushed them down,” to balance perhaps with the description of the aftermath: after releasing the car door, June falls out “into the cold. It was a shock like being born. But somehow she landed with her pants halfway up.” She adjusts her clothing and “pulled her shell down.” At this point June plows through the drifts toward the reservation undaunted. “June walked over [the snow] like water and came home” (2-6).

The mixture of the vaguely religious and the specifically carnal in Love Medicine, focused on the peeling and unpeeling of Easter eggs, would not in itself sustain the motif for almost three hundred pages; Erdrich, however, supports the early allusions throughout the story. Her characters are almost all desirous of shedding their bodies to live as spirits. Marie has a vision of passing through walls. Nector leaves his body for a new one. Lulu, hemmed in by arms and legs, looks “forward to getting past them.” Her hope is to “be out there as a piece of the endless body of the world feeling pleasures so much larger than skin and bones and blood” (226). Even Dot's baby longs to break out of the womb.

In her enthusiasm for the motif, Erdrich mentions shells as often as she can. The Easter eggs and June's sweater as shells have been mentioned. But the reader is also aware of Marie's toenails as “pink ocean shells” (40); Eli “had to save on my shells,” (28) thinking how expensive ammunition was. And King, in his wild drunken rage, destroys the fruit pies so lovingly prepared by Zelda and Aurelia. “Bits of jagged shells were struck to the wall and some were turned completely upside down.” Though Albertine tries to reconstruct the pies, she is unsuccessful, for “once they smash there is no way to put them right” (37-38).

In a novel of human relationships and the interactions between two families over a generation, the use of the egg and eggshell motif is very appropriate. Grandma Kashpaw is referred to as a hen or as a chicken on more than one occasion. The book is a chronicle of love and hate, of violence and sexual reconciliation, of attraction and repulsion, of attempts to connect and retreats to isolation. No wonder then that “peeling” and “shell” have such wide application throughout the story. Robert Frost's comments in “Mending Wall” on the dual use of a wall both to wall in and to wall out are particularly apposite here. Interesting too is the fact that among the Ojibway Indians a giant shell, associated with the sun and with its setting and rising over water, is a major component of the religion—though its relevance in Love Medicine is tenuous.6

Louise Erdrich's novel is rich in much more than the vivid and poignant story she has to tell. Though on the surface it deals with simple people working out their daily lives in elemental flashes of love and hate and primitive violence, this is no Wild West adventure yarn. Rather, the narrative material is moulded with aesthetic precision, even when the narrator of the passage is untutored, ungrammatical, and illogical. The overriding aim appears to be the recreation of two families over a long period of time, for the basic unit of Chippewa life, as Erdrich sees it, is just that family structure. There may be constant strife among family members, there may be marked contrasts between the younger generation and the older, but the sense of belonging to the family is evident throughout, both in the memory of the family members and in their reactions to immediate familial crises.

Indeed, the images I have chosen to deal with here seem designed to advance the theme of family and to effectuate its presentation. The flowing of water has long been associated with the operation of memory. In Love Medicine the Chippewa family line, as well as the lines of the Kashpaws and the Lamartines, is filtered to the reader through the memory flow of family members: a quick-running stream of remembrance here, a slow and deliberately muddy flow of recollection there. Just as effectively, [the movement of the young Chippewas from fishing and swimming to reckless driving in automobiles signals the encroachment of a mechanical and impersonal civilization upon the natural environment of the families. It is but a step from that conclusion to the author's pervasive interest in closed spaces (particularly, the interior of automobiles) as the logical and pernicious consequence of the families' retreat from nature.] Louise Erdrich's employment of such imagery enormously enriches the novel in a work of artistic patterning at its best.


  1. In this essay page numbers from Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine are given in parentheses in the text.

  2. Nan Nowik, “Belles Lettres Interview,” Belles Lettres 2 (Nov.-Dec. 1986): 8-9.

  3. George Copway, “The Life of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh,” in Touchwood: A Collection of Ojibway Prose, ed. Gerald Vizenor, Many Minnesotas Project Number 3 (Minnesota: New Rivers Press, 1987), 47.

  4. Ibid., 50.

  5. William Warren, “History of the Ojibway Nation,” in Touchwood: A Collection of Ojibway Prose, 20.

  6. Ibid., 22-23.

Robert Silberman (essay date 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Silberman, Robert. “Opening the Text: Love Medicine and the Return of the Native American Women.” In Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures, edited by Gerald Vizenor, pp. 101-20. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Silberman places Love Medicine within the context of late twentieth-century Native American literature, arguing that Erdrich's novel signals a break with traditional modern Native American narratives.]

Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine opens with June Kashpaw, middle-aged Chippewa woman, wasting time in the oil boom town of Williston, North Dakota while waiting for a bus that will take her back to the reservation where she grew up. She allows herself to be picked up by a white man in a bar; after a short, unsatisfying (for her) bit of lovemaking in his pickup, she takes off, cutting across the snowy fields as a storm begins to hit. There is a narrative break and then we learn that she has frozen to death.

This opening immediately establishes a relationship between Love Medicine and a well-known group of works by Native American authors: D'Arcy McNickle's The Surrounded, N. Scott Momaday's The House Made of Dawn, Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, James Welch's Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney. These works are central texts in Native American literature, bearing a striking family resemblance to one another.

Reduced to bare essentials, they tell of a young man's troubled homecoming. The opening line of The Surrounded sounds the theme: “Archilde Leon had been away from his father's ranch for nearly a year.”1 The book's title proclaims the outcome; in the final line of the text Leon extends his hands to be shackled. From The Surrounded a clear line can be drawn to the later works by Momaday, Silko and Welch, in effect defining the backbone of contemporary Native American fiction.

Given this closely related body of texts, Native American literature seems made to order for recent developments in literary criticism and critical theory. The writings of McNickle, Momaday, Welch, Silko and others seem especially amenable to the analytical and interpretive preoccupations of such broad movements as structuralism and deconstructionist criticism. The many shared elements in the works, as well as the equally telling differences, make them a perfect case study for the analysis of combinations, oppositions and inversions beloved in structuralist criticism. Though not engaged in a technical, philosophical debate, Native American writers reveal an obsessive concern with the relation between speech and writing that is worthy of the deconstructionist critics. Finally, this body of literature incorporates among its major social and political concerns a preoccupation with origins, marginality and otherness that would have delighted Foucault. Notwithstanding the focus in these books on a central individual, the writers address broad historical relations between groups as well as individual psychology, dramatizing for example the conflicts between tribal peoples and institutional authorities such as the police, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the church. In such a context questions of language and discourse—Indian language(s) versus English, native forms of expression versus nontribal literary forms such as the novel—are inevitably questions of power.

It is possible to speculate on the reasons that the narratives of McNickle, Momaday, Silko and Welch take the form they do and hold such a central place in Native American literature. One could consider McNickle and Momaday in relation to Harold Bloom's theories of influence, or the relation of the works to the broader tradition of the bildungsroman, a common enough form for writers of first novels. One could consider the problem sociologically and historically, with McNickle first and then Momaday, Welch, and Silko marking a distinctive point in assimilation and education, moving in the crosscurrents between oral tradition and the Western literary tradition. Then there are obvious practical reasons: using a young man's rite of passage (or failed rite of passage) provides a central dramatic conflict that makes the individual's dilemmas representative of tensions shared by the larger community.

With such a clearly defined tradition, it is not difficult to see any new Native American novel as a response to the assumptions governing these books, different as they may be in detail. To write a historical novel like James Welch's Fools Crow may mean entering or criticizing an alternative tradition such as the historical romance, which like the bildungsroman has its own genealogy, in this context running from James Fenimore Cooper and Karl May to Hanta Yo. Similarly, Gerald Vizenor's decision to write satirical trickster narratives, short stories in length only, is implicitly a comment on the mainstream tradition in Native American writing. That tradition is marked by a relatively conservative brand of literary realism in spite of its unmistakable discomfort with the conventions of realism and its occasional experimentalism and pursuit of a transcendental frame of reference.

The beginning of Love Medicine therefore signals a recasting of the tradition represented by the other works even as it partly continues to work within the older conventions and share many of the same concerns: the consequences of an individual's return or attempted return to the reservation, the significance of home and family, the politics of language and the relation between speaking and writing. Love Medicine has its own distinctive style characterized by the use of multiple narrators and a relaxed, informal approach that is, like June Kashpaw herself, good-humored and graceful yet hard-bitten. Love Medicine has little of the violence and stark, tough landscape that characterize the work of McNickle, Momaday, Welch and Silko; perhaps that can be ascribed to a Midwestern, as opposed to a Western sensibility. All the same, if in its opening Love Medicine suggests a move away from McNickle, Momaday, Silko, Welch and company, in the end (perhaps understandably) it moves more centripetally as the similarities with the other authors becomes increasingly evident. Yet Love Medicine remains a striking achievement, in part because of its subtle balance between a willingness to present a new approach marked by a narrative openness and the need to address important if familiar topics and find a satisfactory form of closure.

The narrative at once departs from the earlier novels in several key ways. The central figure is a woman, not a man. The return, the first step, does not lead to a prolonged series of encounters and soulsearching that make up the body of the work and ultimately prove defeating or redeeming; instead June's first step is her last. The narrative does not develop directly out of the problems caused by a return; it arises out of questions raised by the failed return. Somewhat in the manner of a murder mystery, the death becomes a means of exploring not only the victim's life but the lives of those around her. Love Medicine could have been called “Who Killed June Kashpaw?” or rather “What Killed Her?” since the responsibility and guilt are shared by many individuals embedded in an entire way of life, a complex mesh of biographical and historical factors. The remembrance of the death wells up from time to time, as when June's son King in the middle of a fight with his wife suddenly breaks into sobs and screams at his father, “It's awful to be dead. Oh my God, she's so cold.”2 The sadness observed in the young June's eyes by the woman who took her in as a child (68) underlies the entire text. It is its fundamental subtext, even with Erdrich's wonderful comic sense: June's presence, that is, her absence, haunts the book. The oppressive weight of her death is not exorcised until the final page.

With June Kashpaw's death, more lyrical but no less surprising in terms of narrative conventions than the murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in the shower in Psycho, Erdrich immediately decenters the novel; unlike the earlier novels Love Medicine has no sustaining central consciousness or protagonist. Part of the shock arises from the fact that the narrative begins neutrally but then clearly leans toward Jean's point of view:

She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved. Probably it was the way she moved, easy as a young girl on slim hard legs, that caught the eye of the man who rapped at her from inside the window of the Rigger Bar. He looked familiar, like a lot of people looked familiar. She had seen so many come and go. … She wanted, at least, to see if she actually knew him.


While the descriptions of the man's actions and statements remain objective, the narrative keeps moving toward the woman's point of view: “She couldn't help notice. … He could be different, she thought. … It was later still that she felt so fragile” (3-4). Though identified as “Andy,” the man remains “he,” while the narrator refers to the woman familiarly as “June.”

Following the embarrassing experience in the pick-up, bordering on comedy but too unpleasant for laughs, the first section ends with a dream-like poetic figure: “The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, and June walked over it like water and came home” (6). Abruptly, the second section undercuts the redemptive imagery:

After that false spring, when the storm blew in covering the state, all the snow melted off and it was summer. It was almost hot by the week after Easter, when I found out, in Mama's letter, that June was gone, not only dead but suddenly buried, vanished off the land like that sudden snow.


This statement in the first person—the speaker is June's niece Albertine Johnson—establishes the narrative style for the novel: a collection of interlocking narratives each focusing on a different narrator or major character, yet all ultimately related to that original event—the death of June Kashpaw. The characters often tell their own stories, not only explaining their relationship to the dead woman but also spinning out a larger web of relationships that appear as a comment on her death, thereby providing the context in which it can be understood. June Kashpaw is referred to occasionally in these personal narratives but she is rarely central until the concluding section. Although some characters are deliberately prevented from taking over the narrative voice—for instance June's unsympathetic son, King, and her sympathetic lover, Gerry Nanapush—there is neither a continuous omniscient narration nor a central character. Instead, the role of narrator moves freely from character to character, moving forward and backward in time as well. The opening chapter takes place in 1981, the second in 1934, the fourteenth and final one in 1984. Thus the novel takes on the character of a jigsaw puzzle; different areas are filled in at different times. Spatial and temporal order follows a logic of development apart from simple chronology or the existence of any individual character; for example the chapter describing June's husband, Gordie, appears past the book's midpoint, though it picks up only a month after June's death.

Michael Wood once remarked that Faulkner was a key figure for many of the Latin American writers of the “Boom” (Vargas Llosa, Donoso and above all García Márquez) because he demonstrated that novels could be formally experimental works of modern art while not abandoning the traditional concern with social description.3 Faulkner after all wrote family sagas, historical novels portraying communal life from generation to generation. Faulkner is a favorite author of Erdrich's; Love Medicine has more than a passing resemblance to As I Lay Dying,Absalom, Absalom and The Sound and the Fury.4 Whether or not Erdrich was directly influenced by the Latin Americans, and in particular, by García Márquez, her work uses some of the same methods and at times a similar tone. The constant shifting of point of view and the chronological jumps in the narrative make divergent versions of a single event possible, introducing a modernist sense of relativism and discontinuity as well as a good deal of ironic humor.5 The attempt to hang June as a child appears twice, once in Albertine's narrative (19-20) and once in Marie Kashpaw's (67-68); the appearance of Beverly Lamartine at Lulu Nanapush's house is told first by a neutral narrator (75-6), and later by Beverly's rival for Lulu's affections, Nector Kashpaw, who describes Beverly as “a slick, flat-faced Cree salesman out of Minneapolis … a made-good shifty type who would hang Lulu for a dollar” (102). As this bit of invective suggests, the language used in Love Medicine is not radical at all. Though not without some poetic passages, as one would expect from the author of Jacklight, the text generally avoids the difficulty characteristic of so much modern literature; the language used to tell the story is a lively combination of down-to-earth colloquialism and occasional literary flourishes. Throughout Love Medicine one of Erdrich's key concerns is narrative agility and speed, as in García Márquez; confronted by alternative narrative media such as television and movies these authors resort to an armory of devices that would make Dickens proud. Like García Márquez, Erdrich uses the artful proleptic tease:

At the time her [Lulu Lamartine's] hair was still dark and thickly curled. Later she would burn it off when her house caught fire, and it would never grow back.


It would not surprise Bev to hear, after many years passed on, that this Gerry grew up to be both a natural criminal and a hero whose face appeared on the six o'clock news.


And she delights in making the story seem more immediate by shifting the narrative from the past tense into a dramatic present tense. This technique is used with Nector Kashpaw, who loses his memory thereby becoming the perfect embodiment of a conflation of past and present: “Anyway, once I got to town and stopped by the tribal offices, a drunk was out of the question. An emergency was happening.”

And here is where events loop around and tangle again:

It is July. The sun is a fierce white ball. Two big semis from the Polar Bear Refrigerated Trucking Company are pulled up in the yard of the agency offices, and what do you think they're loaded with? Butter. That's right. Seventeen tons of surplus butter on the hottest day in '52.


Or again, later in the same chapter: “No sooner had I given her up than I wanted Lulu back. … It is a hot night in August. I am sitting in the pool of lamplight at my kitchen table.” (104)

Such devices date back at least to Victorian melodrama, as do some of the thematic concerns such as the fascination with matters of paternity and maternity. These are serious matters: The novel concludes when a sympathetic character, Lipsha Morrissey, discovers the true identity of his mother (June Kashpaw) and his father (Gerry Nanapush). His meeting with his father is as important for the narrative as some of the great recognition and reunion scenes in classical literature, such as the recognition of Odysseus' scar and his reunion with Telemachus in the Odyssey. But typically for Erdrich, this climactic scene is played in a low-key comic fashion. It takes place in a kitchen in the [Twin] Cities, over a card game. The father and son recognize their shared kinship in part because they both learned to cheat at cards from their mother/grandmother, Lulu Lamartine. The comic side of the scene is complemented, however, by their intense awareness of the missing mother and lover, June Kashpaw. They are playing with her other son, King, for a car purchased with the insurance money from her death; as the game progresses Lipsha (the narrator for this section) reviews the life of father, mother and son before bringing the story full circle:

I could see how his [Gerry's] mind leapt back making connections, jumping at the intersection points of our lives: his romance with June. The baby given to Grandma Kashpaw. June's son by Gordie. King. Her running me off. Me growing up. And then at last June walking toward home in the Easter snow that, I saw now, had resumed falling softly in this room.


With the family history clear at last, the disruption caused by the death can now be overcome. And so the meeting of father and son leads to a fairytale, Hollywood ending: the son helps the fugitive father escape to freedom across the Canadian border, and the father tells the son of a genetic heart defect, so that Lipsha is freed from the need to either make good on his enlistment into the Army or continue his flight from the authorities.

This resolution suggests how Erdrich takes apart and puts back together the traditional narrative. Instead of a man it is a woman returning home at the beginning. She dies immediately; but the traditional dilemma of the individual—home as freedom versus home as trap—reappears tied to a mystery of identity which is resolved favorably. The son meets his father who successfully escapes, while the son resolves an identity crisis and returns from his wanderings with a newly found peace of mind. The last word of the novel, significantly, is “home.”6

Georg Lukacs described the novel as the form “like no other,” expressing a “transcendental homelessness.”7 In Love Medicine the concern with home informs the entire narrative, as Erdrich rings the changes upon the term, which is by no means always identified with a condition of bliss. Albertine (in some ways a double for her Aunt June) is both ambivalent and matter-of-fact in describing her return to the reservation after her aunt's death: “Just three miles, and I was driving down the rutted dirt road, home” (11). But she immediately finds herself in the middle of a squabble between her mother and her Aunt Aurelia:

“June was all packed up and ready to come home. … She walked out there because … what did she have to come home to after all? Nothing!”

“Nothing?” said mama piercingly. “Nothing to come home to?” She gave me [Albertine] a short glance full of meaning. I had, after all, come home, even if husbandless, childless, driving a fall-apart car.


The family get-together sours. Near the end of Albertine's narrative King and his wife have a massive fight; as they go out leaving the kitchen a shambles the wife says, “You always get so crazy when you're home. We'll get the baby. We'll go off. We'll go back to the Cities, go home” (39). There's no place like home—but which one?8

Clearly, home in Love Medicine is an embattled concept, as ambiguous as June Kashpaw's motives in attempting her return. When Lipsha tells his father that at last he's “home free,” Gerry Nanapush immediately contradicts him: “No,” he said … I won't ever really have what you'd call a home” (268). As his son realizes, Gerry is a man on the run. But he is strong and self-confident, unlike Henry Lamartine, Jr., a tragic figure whose return from the Vietnam War makes him an updated version of earlier figures such as Tayo in Ceremony. His brother, Lyman Lamartine, says, “When he came home … Henry was very different, and I'll say this: the change was no good” (147).

Like House Made of Dawn and Ceremony,Love Medicine seems to fall on the optimistic, ultimately upbeat side of the great divide governing the Native American novels of homecoming.9 Yet Erdrich's multivoiced, multicharacter narrative method enables her to establish a complicated system of narrative balance. Thus, if two favored figures escape in a kind of romantic fantasy, another perishes; Henry Jr. drowns before he can sort out any of the confusion caused by his war experiences. The gentle Lipsha benefits from discovering the identity of his father, regaining his special “touch” in both healing and card playing; but Lyman Lamartine gains nothing from the knowledge that Nector Kashpaw was his father. His mother, Lulu, sees his problem:

“You know what,” he sighed after a while. “I don't really want to know.”

Of course, he did know that Kashpaw was his father. What he really meant was there was nothing to be done about it anymore. I felt the loss. I wanted to hold my son in my lap and let him cry. Even blind, a mother knows when her boy is holding in a painful silence.


Writers such as McNickle move in the direction of high tragedy. Their world is oppressive and fatalistic, a throwback to the naturalism of Wharton's Ethan Frome or Zola's La Bête Humaine. At times the declarative sentences make the prose seem carved from blocks of stone: the narrative provides an immutable record of an implacable fate. Momaday and Silko, in contrast, see ceremony as a means of escaping nature, of leading life and art toward transcendence. With her poet's voice Erdrich often moves away from the mundane and the matter of fact, but she rarely explores exalted realms of the spirit: a vision of the northern lights shared by Lipsha and Albertine is perhaps the one notable exception. Indian ritual has no place in Love Medicine except in the “touch” of Lipsha, presented satirically when he replaces goose hearts with store-bought frozen turkey hearts, and watches his “patient” choke to death. Filtered through the survivors' point of view, the ghost returns as a melancholy apparition, not a horrific incubus from the afterlife. (Here is one more similarity with the tone and manner of García Márquez, who favors an equally sad image of the afterlife.) Erdrich seems to find the profane more interesting if not more desirable than the sacred; she is a worldly author and it is difficult not to suspect that she agrees with Lipsha, possibly the most sympathetic character of all, when he says:

Our Gods aren't perfect … but at least they'll come around. They'll do a favor if you ask them right. You don't have to yell. But you do have to know, like I said, how to ask in the right way. That makes problems, because to ask proper was an art that was lost to the Chippewas once the Catholics gained ground. Even now, I have to wonder if Higher Power turned it[s] back, if we got to yell, or if we just don't speak its language.


This is an ambivalent attitude to say the least: one part faith and two parts doubt and disappointment. Lipsha's brief comment about Catholicism is not elaborated upon except as Catholicism is presented in a broadly satirical manner, especially in the character of an intimidating hell-fire and brimstone nun, Sister Leopolda, a figure out of Fellini. (I am thinking in particular of Juliet's childhood experience in the convent in Juliet of the Spirits.)

Erdrich, on balance, is essentially a comic writer. Most of the key moments in Love Medicine are comic ones, from the fateful encounter between Nector Kashpaw and Marie Lazarre, played out as a love scene complicated by the presence of two dead geese tied to Nector's wrists, to the card game between King, Gerry and Lipsha. Even a houseburning is grotesquely comic, an accident perhaps, but certainly not the mean-spirited Snopes vengeance in Faulkner's “Barn Burning.” Erdrich's characters often move into melancholia or wistful reminisce, as when the high-spirited and assertive Lulu Lamartine (i.e., Libertine), the novel's version of the Wife of Bath, admits that “It's a sad world, though, when you can't get love right even after trying it as many times as I have” (218). With the death of June Kashpaw, Erdrich immediately establishes her awareness of the bleak side of existence; even sweet-natured Lipsha comments that the marked deck was appropriate for “the marked men, which was all of us” (259). Yet the story never lingers on the tragic, returning again and again to a bemused, ironic view of the comic incongruities of parents and children, friends and lovers. In the end, though the love medicine proves fatal to Nector, there is a reconciliation between the rivals, Marie Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine, Nector's wife and his mistress, in the senior citizen's home. All passion spent, Lulu says, “for the first time I saw exactly how another woman felt, and it gave me deep comfort, surprising” (236). The passage ends with a sweet—perhaps too sweet—vision of harmony as Marie puts drops in Lulu's eyes: “She swayed down like a dim mountain, huge and blurred, the way a mother must look to her just born child” (236).

In Walter Benjamin's famous essay on Leskov, “The Storyteller,” Benjamin proclaims that the death of storytelling and its replacement by the novel represented the death of true human communication and wisdom.11 The villain is the book, which replaces the companionship that exists between teller and listener with the distance between the isolated writer and the equally isolated reader. In most Native American literature the book is not embraced but accepted as a necessary evil: story and storytelling are the ideals. In “The Storyteller's Escape” Silko writes, “With these stories of ours / we can escape almost anything / with these stories we will survive.”12

Setting the oral against the written, storytelling against novel-writing, indicates a romantic approach to art and life, a literary vision of a fall from a Golden Age to an impersonal present. After all, storytelling might be regarded as a representation of experience with no special status. Nevertheless it is the impression of presentness and of presence, of social intimacy and communion that matters, and in Love Medicine Erdrich subtly shapes the narrative to create a sense of immediacy. The characters themselves almost at once demonstrate the effects of storytelling, for it is storytelling that animates the women in the kitchen after June's death: their recollection of the youthful hanging episode, a playful yet symbolic anticipation of her fate, brings them all to life, giggling and “laughing out loud in brays and whoops … waving their hands helplessly” (21).

The opposition between speech and writing in Native American fiction may not exist in the same conceptual framework as the opposition between speech and writing in the philosophical and theoretical discourse of Derrida and contemporary literary theory. Still, the problem of language and an appropriate language for writing about Native American experience remains fundamental in these works. Thus in Ceremony, Silko frames her narrative with sections that are poetic and ritualistic. Similarly, Momaday frames House Made of Dawn with traditional ceremonial introductions and conclusions. These mixed forms straddle Native American and Western forms of expression. There are other signs of the central problems of language and form in the incorporation of episodes involving historical texts, such as the journal in House Made of Dawn and the repeated play between characters who speak English and those who speak tribal languages.

In Love Medicine Erdrich takes a different approach to the relation between native forms and the Western literary tradition. Her work, like the work of Silko and others, seems at times to aspire to the status of “pure” storytelling. This goal would make the literary text appear to be a transcription of a speaker talking in the first person present tense, addressing a clearly defined listener. Thus in several of the narratives the speaker addresses a “You.” This can become too insistent, a tic rather than a sign of sincerity, as when Lipsha remarks, “I told you once before” (195), or Lulu Lamartine plays confidante with the reader by saying, “Nobody knows this” (218). Yet the attempt at seeming intimacy does move the text in the direction of an informal, colloquial prose. The liveliness of Love Medicine has less to do with some formal notion of speech as utterance than its success as dialogue capturing just plain talk—kitchen-table talk, bar talk, angry talk, curious talk, sad talk, teasing talk.

But in a printed text, the return of the literary is inevitable; all the devices that stylistically mark the pursuit of immediacy are in the end visible as literary devices.13 Using the first person present tense as a substitute for third person past tense “omniscient” narration, or using colloquial diction and sentence structure as opposed to more elaborate, artificial forms must be judged within the context of a range of possibilities that govern all “realistic” prose. Erdrich's artfulness is evident for example in several beautifully sustained metaphors which appear independently in the narratives of different characters, notably a fishing image connected to Nector Kashpaw's failing memory that first appears in Albertine's narrative and then migrates into Lipsha's (193, 208, 209).

The naturalness of Erdrich's characters is as much a construction as the skill at creating a convincing voice that led Hemingway to see in Twain's Huckleberry Finn the start of a genuine American literary tradition—an anti-literary, seemingly informal American style based on colloquial expression.

There are precedents of sorts for much of what Erdrich accomplishes in Love Medicine in the Latin Americans, in Faulkner, in Edgar Lee Masters and Thornton Wilder, in the fascination during the past three decades with oral history—from Studs Terkel, to the Vietnam oral histories, to Black Elk Speaks—and in the Raymond Carver-Bobbie Ann Mason school of writing, with its seemingly affectless but extremely stylized tragi-comic glimpses of lower middle-class life. In each case literature attempts to free itself of the literary, as if any intervention or mediation by an author were inevitably a falsification, and only a supposed transcription could capture the truth. This literary antinomianism seems distinctly American.

Love Medicine, as its title suggests, is centered in the relationships between lovers and families. Yet because Erdrich moves away from the narrow focus of the earlier novels toward the historical novel and the family saga, she is able to touch upon economic and political matters in an extremely effective way. There are characters who can make money and characters who can't; and since at least one character is engaged in tribal politics there are some sharp things said about how things get done on the reservation. More pointed are some observations made in passing by the characters in the course of their dramatic monologues, beginning with Albertine Johnson's bitter remark in the aftermath of her aunt's death on “rich, single cowboy-rigger oil trash.” To these types she says, “an Indian woman's nothing but an easy night” (9). Shortly thereafter Albertine's notes that “The policy of allotment was a joke” (11). Such asides run through the multiple narrative without ever coming to a head in the action. In Love Medicine, the Native Americans speak and after the appearance of the unfortunate Andy right at the start the whites are all but invisible, pushed to the margins, except for the caricature of the rich lady who makes Nector Kashpaw famous as a naked warrior in a painting, The Plunge of the Brave. There are no political confrontations perhaps partly because the skepticism is directed internally, as in the case of Lulu Lamartine's battle with the tribal council to keep possession of her house. Even Gerry Nanapush, a colorful, sympathetic and rebellious desperado leader of the American Indian Movement, is presented by his son, Lipsha, with more than a touch of amusement: “Gerry Nanapush, famous politicking hero, dangerous armed criminal, judo expert, escape artist, charismatic member of the American Indian Movement, and smoker of many pipes of kinnikinnick in the most radical groups. That was … Dad” (248). (The passage where Lipsha addresses the question of his father's guilt in relation to the killing of a federal agent at Pine Ridge is one of the few unconvincing sections in the novel, a too-neat cop-out (269).)

One of the peculiar aspects of Erdrich's writing, even more evident in The Beet Queen, is her presentation of history. In Love Medicine individual sections are dated and tied to various before-and-after events in the convoluted sexual/personal relations linking the many characters, but there is little sense of an outside historical framework. With the exception of a few historical references, the episodes of the thirties could take place in the fifties or eighties. This may show that Erdrich is not interested in circumstantial social realism. But Love Medicine becomes historical and political through the personal, such as when Henry Jr. goes to Vietnam and Gerry joins the American Indian Movement.

Such a concentration on personal, family matters may be intentional, but the sense of being removed from political events is a powerful statement about marginality and disenfranchisement while also suggesting a preferred concern with the personal and private life of the community. Lulu Lamartine, a tough political commentator, mentions the forced migrations of the Chippewa from the far side of the Great Lakes, but she says only that the story her grandmother used to tell “is too long a story to get into now” (222). She then returns to her own refusal to move from her house. This is a typical Erdrich maneuver; she has inserted a broad political and historical point, then channeled the narrative back to a seemingly personal issue. The focus in Love Medicine on family may reflect an eighties concern with domesticity and “roots” and personal heritage; King's wife, Lynette, “with a quick burst of drunken enthusiasm,” says to one of the older Kashpaws, “Tell 'em. … They've got to learn their own heritage. When you go it will be gone!” (30) Much later Lipsha refers to his search for his father as his “quest” saying, “I had to get down to the bottom of my heritage” (248).

Erdrich, however, does not present a rose-colored view of an ideal nuclear family in the manner of television series such as Little House on the Prairie or the Depression-era drama The Waltons, but rather a completely unsentimental view, both affectionate and angry, of an extremely complicated extended family. And central to that vision of the family is a history that is largely unspoken in Love Medicine but that appears at times in personal terms through memory: the memory that exists in the hands of June's husband leading him to drink when they remind him of the feel of her body (172); the memory that plagues Gerry Nanapush and makes him go see her son King so that he can be reminded of her through King's features (262). In the final turn to memory and history Erdrich opens up her text, and not only by using multiple narrators, multiple narratives. The move is temporal as well. Storytelling brings everything into the present. But Erdrich hints at a more comprehensive truth that goes back beyond the death of June Kashpaw to a larger source of woe: one that explains why the Chippewa move west of the Great Lakes to a home on the reservation that drives them into a cycle of departure and return.

By the time Erdrich concludes the story of the Kashpaws, Lamartines and Nanapushes (the extended story of the tragedy of June Kashpaw), it is clear that she has circumscribed her story temporally, no matter how relatively open it may seem in terms of narrative technique and range of feeling. In a sense all Native American writers are historical writers, their kinship based on the shared assumption that history holds the key to understanding contemporary Native American life. Behind the immediate problems of home, family and paternity (or maternity) stands the unanswerable past. Max in The Surrounded proclaims to Archilde, “We've got to plan something. We won't let it end for you, like you thought. We'll make a new beginning!” But the last spoken lines in the book are those of Parker, the agent, scornfully telling Archilde, “It's too damn bad you people never learn that you can't run away. It's pathetic.” What they can't run away from is less a physical location than a historical situation. That accounts for the pain in Jim Loney when he realizes that there is no place where “pasts merged into one and everything was all right and it was like everything was beginning without a past. No lost sons, no mothers searching.” He adds, damningly, “There had to be that place, but it was not on this earth.” The individual stories of the protagonists in Native American fiction meet in the collective history. They embrace Tayo's awareness in Ceremony that “His sickness was only part of something larger” as well as the bitterness at the end of Fools Crow when the title character realizes that change, loss and unhappiness are to be the fate of his people, and that their only consolation will be in stories telling them of “the way it was.”14

In Love Medicine Erdrich is concerned with the experience of the Chippewa in the mid-twentieth century. The story leaves largely untold the parallel story of the whites and the historical background of events. It is not at all surprising that, having concentrated in Beet Queen on the German side of her heritage and the bleak beauty and twisted emotional universe of the Plains, Erdrich wrote Tracks, a historical novel on an older generation, the ancestors of the characters in Love Medicine.15


  1. D'Arcy McNickle, The Surrounded (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1964) 1. cf. Winter in the Blood (New York: Penguin, 1986); where the main character observes right at the start, “Coming home was not easy anymore,” 2.

  2. Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine (New York: Bantam Books, 1984), 33. All page references are to this edition and will hereafter be provided in parentheses in the text.

  3. Professor Wood made his remarks as the featured speaker at a meeting in the late 1970s of The Columbus Circle, the organization for graduate students in American Literature at Columbia University.

  4. In the retrospection of As I Lay Dying; in the idea of the novel as conversation of Absalom, Absalom; in the expressionistic use of point of view in The Sound and the Fury, and more. Erdrich expressed her admiration for Faulkner's early writings in an interview with Amy Ward, “The Beet Generation,” University of Minnesota Daily, October 29, 1986: 18.

  5. The only real exception occurs in pages 237-239 when the narrator is Howard Kashpaw (also “King Junior” and “Little King”), whose impressionistic, youthful point of view recalls Joyce's experimentation in adopting the point of view of the young Stephen Daedalus at the beginning of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Faulkner's method in using Benjy Compson as a narrator in The Sound and the Fury. But Erdrich's style is not as extreme.

  6. The last line, Lipsha's “So there was nothing to do but cross the water, and bring her home” (272) picks up on the final line in the opening section as June walks over the snow like water. Since the passage contains no clear antecedent for “her,” there is a kind of echo of June's presence as well as a play on a colloquial phrase (as in “let 'er rip”). The fusing of antecedents is also used in Henry Jr.'s narrative when Albertine merges in his mind with a Vietnamese woman: “She was hemorrhaging” (138). (Albertine seems to be something of a loose strand in the plot; she disappears from the action after her encounter with Henry Jr. in Fargo, though she is mentioned in a bit of conversation between Lipsha and Gerry, with Lipsha referring to her as “the one girl I ever trusted” (270). One of the characteristics of “open” form is a refusal to tie up loose ends and account for all the characters in the manner of the “classical” nineteenth-century novel; but in this case it seems simpler to regard Albertine's absence as a result of Erdrich's method, which brought together short stories as the basis for the novel.)

  7. Georg Lukacs, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971) 41. Lukacs is deliberately playing upon a statement by Novalis, “Philosophy is really homesickness” (quot. 29).

  8. Erdrich's poem “Family Reunion,” Jacklight (New York; Henry Holt, 1984) offers a brief glimpse of a gathering similar to the one that greets Albertine when she returns home following the death of her Aunt June. But it is the first line of the next poem in the volume, “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways,” that expresses the essential idea: “Home's the place we head for in our sleep” (11). The line recalls the dialogue between husband and wife in Robert Frost's “The Death of the Hired Hand”:

    “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
    They have to take you in,”
    … … … … … … … 
                                                                                                        “I should have called it
    Something you somehow haven't to deserve.”

    (The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem [London: Jonathan Cape, 1967] 38)

    The relation between Erdrich's poetry and her fiction is a fascinating one (as is the relation between the short stories as individual entities and as sections of Love Medicine). Love Medicine goes far beyond the poem “A Love Medicine” in Jacklight, a good poem marred by the overwrought description of masculine violence (“she steps against the fistwork of a man. / She goes down in wet grass and his boot plants its grin / among the arches of her face” (7); male mistreatment Erdrich handles in a more complex and subtle fashion with Andy and others in the novel.

    As a revision and expansion of the sequence of poems “The Butcher's Wife” Jacklight,The Beet Queen (New York: Henry Holt, 1986) seems less than successful. In this case the poetry goes beyond the novel, especially in the dark, bitter quality in a line like “Something queer happens when the heart is delivered” (in “That Pull from the Left,” 41-42). I suspect that one reason the book founders is that it is not really about characters and events but about what one character, Karl Adare, describes as “the senseless landscape” (318), that is, about the unreal existence induced by living in the kind of place described so prosaically by another character, Wallace Pfef: “I live in the flat, treeless valley where sugar beets grow. It is intemperate here. My view is a flat horizon of grays and browns” (160). In Love Medicine the fields are described as “casual and lonely” (79); in Jacklight Erdrich repeatedly stresses an almost metaphysical aspect of the landscape, as when she has the speaker in “Clouds” note that “The town stretches to fields” (43) and goes on to proclaim:

    We lay our streets over
    the deepest cries of earth
    And wonder why everything comes down to this:
    The days pile and pile.
    The bones are too few
    and too foreign to know.
    Mary, you do not belong here at all.
    Sometimes I take back in tears this whole town.
    Let everything be how it could have been, once:
    A land that was empty and perfect as clouds.


    This lament for “this strange earth / we want to call ours” (45) suggests both the strong response to the landscape and the failure of The Beet Queen to present an adequate picture of the relation between character and environment, to capture the emotional tension bred by such surroundings. As a dark satirical portrait of small town life, Omensetter's Luck by William Gass seems more successful; as an image of life on the Great Plains—heavenly, hellish, beautifully empty—Terrence Malick's film Days of Heaven suggests more convincingly the haunted mood induced by the vast expanses. The Beet Queen, in a character like Karl Adare, seems to be caught between the quaintly idiosyncratic ironies of a work like Ragtime and the more compelling concern with evil that marks the writings of Flannery O'Connor.

  9. Winter in the Blood is something of a special case. Alan Velie, in Four American Indian Masters (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982) 90-103, discusses the book as a comic novel, using “comic” in a slightly unusual sense, one concerned with notions of character (i.e., with the nonheroic) as well as with a humorous tone. I basically agree with his reading of the novel as a work that uses a sense of irony to play comedy against tragedy with unsettling results. It may be a comedy, but it's not a happy book.

  10. In this passage, Lipsha also states that June was “left by a white man to wander off in the snow” (195). This would no doubt be how the incident appeared to June's relatives. Lipsha's statement presents another demonstration of the effect of multiple perspectives, though in this case the reader has been given an apparently privileged, “correct” view. It is also another example of the subtle introduction of essentially political issues and assumptions into a book that appears focused on personal matters.

  11. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books) 83-109.

  12. Leslie Marmon Silko, Storyteller (New York: Seaver Books, 1981) 247.

  13. In “Writing and Revolution” Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967), Roland Barthes discusses the artificiality and “convention of the real” in the Naturalist aesthetic, which he describes as “loaded with the most spectacular signs of fabrication,” and “a literature which has all the striking and intelligible signs of its identity” (73, 74, 76). Native American writing, in its efforts to attain the condition of speech, has developed a set of what might be called “conventions of the oral,” including the use of the present tense and the use of the first person with “you.” These are signs of fabrication and therefore of the literary status of the text, especially when occasional statements assigned to a character suggest the consciousness of the hidden narrator. This is most obvious when the author is most literary—usually by introducing the kind of metaphorical language that, as Barthes never fails to point out, constitutes one of the most obvious signs of a literature straining to affirm its identity. (See, for example, “Is There Any Poetic Writing?” Writing Degree Zero, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967) 47, where he speaks of “the ritual of images.”)

    For a sharp dissection of the “epidemic” use of the present tense in contemporary fiction, see “A Failing Grade for the Present Tense” William Gass, New York Times Book Review October 11, 1987: 1, 32, 36-38.

  14. The Surrounded, 159, 296-97; The Death of Jim Loney (New York: Harper & Row, 1979) 175; Ceremony (New York: Penguin, 1986) 125; Fools Crow (New York: Penguin) 358-60.

  15. Erdrich represents not the death of the author but, in her collaborative efforts with her husband, Michael Dorris, the birth of authorial twins. I don't wish to discuss at length the third product of their collaboration, the novel published under his name, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (New York: Henry Holt, 1987); but in the context of the discussion of Love Medicine a few observations are in order. The multiple narratives, moving back in time from youngest to oldest, from the present to a deep secret buried in the past, seems less lively than the comparable overlapping in Love Medicine. The duplication of episodes is not entirely compensated for by the insights gained from different perspectives. The use of the first person once again provides immediacy, but at the price of keeping the reader's understanding anchored within a narrowly defined consciousness; the characters' reliance on soap opera as a standard form of references suggests both an attempt at a realistic portrayal of contemporary working class life and a lack of sureness in defining a point of view toward the melodramatic plot, which seems part I Love Lucy and part Peyton Place. As a story of three women, the book continues the Erdrich/Dorris righting of the literary balance the sexes initiated in Love Medicine and continued in Beet Queen; but the male characters are once again less interesting than the women. Finally, the book displays a fascination with the idea of storytelling, here regarded not so much as some grand social ritual but as an instrument of survival. For example Rayona, the youngest of the three narrators, tells an inquisitive priest that her mother is dead and her father is an airplane pilot, neither of which happens to be true. (The most outrageous of all the examples of this kind of story-in-a-pinch-operators in the novels is Sister Leopolda in Love Medicine. She saves herself after she has skewered Marie Lazarre by proclaiming the girl's wounds the results of a divine miracle.) Dorris has the last, oldest narrator, Aunt Ida, announce at the beginning of her narration that she will tell the story her own way, then add:

    And though I can speak their English better than they think, better than most of them, I prefer my own language. I use the words that shaped my construction of events as they happened, the words that followed my thought, the words that gave me power. My recollections are not tied to white paper. They have the depth of time.


    A powerful statement of the antiliterary position, but a curious one to read on a printed page, in English.

Lydia A. Schultz (essay date October 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Schultz, Lydia A. “Fragments and Ojibwe Stories: Narrative Strategies in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine.College Literature 18, no. 3 (October 1991): 80-95.

[In the following essay, Schultz explores the function of multiperspectivity in Love Medicine.]

In the early part of the twentieth century, multiperspectivity in fiction was seen as elitist and experimental. Many modernist works—T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925), William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929)—use multiperspectival narration to depict the world as fragmentary, disrupted, and chaotic. Modernist uses of multiperspectivity generally draw on “metanarratives” in which one or more characters can control and order the fragments of the world, but only as individuals and with great difficulty. There is no sense that any single perspective can convey cultural truths or that any individual's perception can work toward or participate in a communal vision.

On first glance Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine (1984) seems to employ multiperspectivity as modernists have used it. Love Medicine appears to depict the world as a chaotic place beyond any communal organization; in fact, this disorderliness is the focus of some reviewers' reactions to the novel. One such critic, Newsweek reviewer Gene Lyons, vehemently proclaims that “no matter what the dust jacket says, it's not a novel. It's a book of short stories” (70). Lyons further finds fault with Erdrich's use of multiple narrators, saying that “her inexperience as a storyteller shows throughout. Love Medicine has as many as a half dozen first-person narrators, and several stories are told in the third person. No central action unifies the narrative” (71). Another critic, Robert Silberman, asserts that “Love Medicine has no sustaining central consciousness or protagonist” (104). On the surface, the subject matter of Love Medicine appears to support this vision of the novel as a modernist text. The various sections, focusing on the interactions between the two extended Native American families of the Kashpaws and the Lamartines, show a world that often does seem disrupted and brutal.

But while the structure of Love Medicine may impress one as conventionally modernist, the understanding to which Erdrich leads her reader subverts the traditions of multiperspectivity. Erdrich directs readers into examining their own attitudes toward Native Americans by making them go through the heuristic task of unifying her text, a task that becomes necessary precisely because of her choice of multiperspectivity as her narrative method. She challenges her readers to see how they fit into the world and to recognize how they both take themselves too seriously and yet judge themselves too gently. Her “fragments” draw on both Euro-American and Native American oral narrative techniques such as first-person narration, direct addresses to “you,” and the use of the present tense; as a result, she encourages readers to look at her various narratives as oral stories. Although Silberman claims that “Indian ritual has no place in Love Medicine except in the ‘touch’ of Lipsha” (109), a look into Native American culture, and specifically Ojibwe culture, clearly reveals that Erdrich has modified the dominant form of multiperspectivity by bringing to it the oral traditions and communal beliefs of her marginalized culture.1

Erdrich believes that her work is necessarily influenced by both familial and tribal traditions of storytelling. Storytelling was a family pastime; Erdrich says, “I loved my parents' stories … I was hungry for knowledge about their lives before I knew them” (Nowick 9). Both of her parents—a German-American father and a Chippewa mother—worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Wahpeton, North Dakota, and lived on the fringes of the culture about which she writes. Her parents encouraged her to engage in storytelling; she recalls, “My father used to give me a nickel for every story I wrote, and my mother wove strips of construction paper together and stapled them into covers. … Mine were wonderful parents; they got me excited about reading and writing in a lasting way” (“Erdrich” 146-47). Her tribal heritage has also shaped her view of narrative and its purpose. In “A Writer's Sense of Place” Erdrich observes that “in a tribal view of the world, where one place has been inhabited for generations, the landscape becomes enlivened by a sense of group and family history. Unlike most contemporary writers, a traditional storyteller fixes listeners in an unchanging landscape combined of myth and reality” (34). This outlook on the storyteller's connection to her audience begins to indicate how Ojibwe philosophy might inform Love Medicine.

Yet labeling Erdrich as “ethnic” or Native American can cause a whole collection of problems. As Mary V. Dearborn has noted in Pocahontas's Daughters, “Ethnicity has always been defined as otherness; the other is always ethnic” (16). Erdrich tries to counteract such labeling in her fiction by meeting the needs of the part of her audience that comes from within the dominant culture; she believes that “a writer needs for his or her characters to have something in common with the reader” (“Sense” 38). Erdrich attempts to avoid being exoticized by making her characters recognizably human above all else. Dearborn further points out that “authorship is always at issue for the ethnic woman writer” (15); because so many writings by women of color were ghostwritten or heavily edited by members of the dominant culture, the works of such women are subject to careful scrutiny for “validity.”2 Again, Erdrich challenges the labels imposed by the dominant culture. She undercuts the sanctity of individual authorship by publicly acknowledging her husband, Michael Dorris, as her collaborator, with whom she “co-conceives” her works.3 In her 1986 interview with Kay Bonetti, Erdrich claims that she and Dorris have a “joint vision”: “As the work has gone by … we're seeing out of the same set of eyes. … We think each other's thoughts.” In a later interview with Bill Moyers, Dorris attributes their collaboration in part to the communal nature of Native American culture and to the tendency of Native American languages to be “we” based rather than “I” based. Erdrich therefore redefines the issue of authorship by refusing to “possess” her/their texts in the way dominant American culture expects.

Erdrich's heritage as a Native American provides her with a world view that differs substantially from mainstream American, or European-inherited, views. Vine Deloria, Jr., attributes such differences in part to the tribalism of Native American peoples: “Tribalism looks at life as an undifferentiated whole. Distinctions are not made between social and psychological, educational and historical, political and legal. The tribe is an all-purpose entity which is expected to serve all areas of life” (264-65). Paula Gunn Allen likewise delineates in The Sacred Hoop some of the tribal traits that many Native American cultures share. The concept of organizing perception in a hierarchical system, in which some elements are subordinated to or dependent upon others, is alien to most Native American cultures. Instead, Allen observes, “Those reared in traditional American Indian societies are inclined to relate events and experiences to one another” (58-59). This relational structuring, in which elements are of equal weight, holds true for Native American perceptions about time as well. As in many oral cultures, Native Americans see time as a cyclical part of a repeating pattern, rather than a linear and sequential graph. Similarly, they differ from most Western peoples in that they do not distinguish between the material and the spiritual (59). In short, unlike most European-derived cultures, American Indian cultures do not construct their world views out of a series of binary oppositions (60). All these views work to form the “sacred hoop”; as Allen explains,

The concept [of the sacred hoop] is one of singular unity that is dynamic and encompassing, including all that is contained in its most essential aspect, that of life. … these people acknowledge the essential harmony of all things and see all things as being of equal value in the scheme of things, denying the opposition, dualism, and isolation (separation) that characterizes non-Indian thought.


This vision of the essential unity of all things casts the use of a fragmented or multiple narration in a new light. Rather than serving as a comment on how chaotic the world has become, this form—in the hands of a Native American writer such as Erdrich—can instead convey trust in a communally shared belief in cosmic harmony.

This trust arises from the sense in Native American societies that the oral tradition serves as the repository of cultural values and beliefs. Allen finds that it “has prevented the complete destruction of the web [of identity], the ultimate disruption of tribal ways. The oral tradition is vital; it heals itself and the tribal web by adapting to the flow of the present while never relinquishing its connection to the past. Its adaptability has always been required, as many generations have experienced” (45). Its adaptability has proven essential in preserving American Indian culture since the European colonization of North America. According to Allen,

The oral tradition … has, since contact with white people, been a major force in Indian resistance. It has kept the people conscious of their tribal identity, their spiritual traditions, and their connection to the land and her creatures. Contemporary poets and writers take their cue from the oral traditions, to which they return continuously for theme, symbol, structure, and motivating impulse as well as for the philosophic bias that animates our work.


These spoken words, these traditional uses of language, are powerful and compelling because they “articulate reality … that reality where thought and feeling are one, where speaker and listener are one, where sound and sense are one” (Allen 71).

Traditional folktales serve similar roles within Ojibwe culture. Ojibwe tales often take on their meaning through repeated tellings over a series of sittings. Erdrich's use of analogous situations—the confusing deaths, the marriages, the names of children—works to repeat these elements of the culture, creating a cyclic pattern in the novel. These repetitions pick up on the Ojibwe tradition of telling a tale in a variety of ways instead of giving direct answers to questions. In Love Medicine, Erdrich's variations on a theme do more than retell the same story from multiple perspectives; they also provide an answer to her readers' implicit question of what it is like to be Native American. But rather than giving the direct answer that a dominant-culture reader might expect, Erdrich enables that reader to experience how an Ojibwe storyteller might answer the question.

Basil Johnson, who has carefully analyzed the Ojibwe culture's use of storytelling, explains,

A story well told should have at least four levels of meaning: enjoyment, moral teaching, philosophic, and metaphysical.

To foster individuality and self-growth children and youth were encouraged to draw their own inferences from the stories. No attempt was made to impose upon them views. The learner learned according to his capacity, intellectually and physically. Some learned quickly and broadly; others more slowly and with narrower scope. Each according to his gifts.


The multiple narrations in Love Medicine, then, work to tell the story in a variety of ways, ways that can have meaning for a variety of people. Stories and the oral traditions were not merely pleasant diversions for the Ojibwe people; as one Ojibwe tribal member has observed: “It is said that the oral traditions of Anishinable peoples regulate our life. That is how we communicate with each other. The oral tradition of our people is a tradition given to us by our forefathers and given to them by their forefathers before them” (Aitken iv). Even contemporary Ojibwe teachers such as Gerald Vizenor use the methods of storytelling to solve problems within the community; at a reading at the University of Minnesota, Vizenor blended readings from his autobiography with impromptu stories as a way of responding to the questions that the audience asked. The information passed on through the oral traditions, then, has not been stagnant or immutable. In fact, traditional Ojibwe culture posits the need for adapting to changing conditions, because “the Creator told the Anishinable that when new methods of life, living and communicating with each other were needed they should look around. Knowledge is all around you” (Aitken iv). Not surprisingly, Erdrich incorporates the rich legacy of Ojibwe oral traditions and teaching methods into Love Medicine. Her narrative strategy demands that her readers seek that knowledge by working to integrate the components of the text and to recognize the cyclic patterns it contains.

Within an Ojibwe world view the deaths of Henry Lamartine, his namesake (but not his biological son) Henry, Jr., and June Kashpaw do not suggest an ambiguous vision of the world, as they would in the dominant culture. Henry, his truck stopped on a railroad track, is hit by a train. Henry, Jr., a Vietnam veteran and former POW, drowns in a river that he voluntarily wades into, calmly observing that his boots are filling with water. These deaths serve merely as the physical conclusions to lives that are already spiritually dead. Lulu Lamartine recognizes that her son Henry, Jr., has “the same dead wide stare” that she had seen on a corpse in her childhood (227). Lulu believes that her husband and son kill themselves because they no longer feel alive. But rather than publicly acknowledging that these men are destroyed by their inability to cope with their situations, she maintains the sense of communal harmony and accepts the labels of “accidents” because she “knew what people needed to believe” (228). At this point she chooses to preserve what community remains on the reservation rather than to risk its loss by exposing how it has been corrupted by the dominant culture's values.

June's death serves a different purpose. June dies in a freakish late-spring snowstorm during her long homeward trek overland, a trip she chooses to make on foot even though she has a bus ticket. Although this episode may seem to indicate a world in which humanity and nature are at odds, her death instead becomes a mythic, connecting theme in the novel. Her love—physical as well as emotional—shapes the lives of characters in all generations. As reviewer Marco Portales explains, “Her memory and the legacy she passes on to her family prompt various relatives and acquaintances to recall their relationships with her and to reminisce about their own lives. June's death is thus the event that fires Love Medicine” (6). June helps to restore a sense of unity to these people's lives. Even though she may have failed in her physical attempt to return home, by the end of the novel she has achieved a metaphorical homecoming when thoughts of her bring together the community she sought.

Another apparently chaotic element—how children in this novel are named and raised—makes sense within an Ojibwe framework. Lulu, for example, has eight sons: “The three oldest were Nanapushes. The next oldest were Morrisseys who took the name Lamartine, and then there were more assorted younger Lamartines who didn't look like one another either” (76). The names that these characters bear reflect their cultural, not biological or familial, identity. Johnson explains the traditional Ojibwe considerations in naming a child: “An elder, usually a grandparent of the infant, conferred the name at the request and invitation of the parents. … The name was especially cherished because it was in the nature of a gift of the people, bestowed through an elder and because it was in the nature of a reputation, unlike any other, and therefore unique” (121). This idea of people's names being their reputations is clearest in Erdrich's novels in her use of the surname “Nanapush.” The characters do not simply inherit this surname, as is usual in the dominant American culture. Rather the name is consciously given to each person who bears it.

“Nanapush” is derived from the name of an Ojibwe trickster, Nanabozho or Nanabushu.4 In Ojibwe folktales Nanabushu is a mix between a manitou (spirit person) and a human being, a trickster who can take on various physical forms. He is credited with providing the gifts of humor and storytelling to the Ojibwe people. In these tales, when Nanabushu is a human being, he makes mistakes in behavior; Johnson notes that “as an Anishinabe, Nanabush was human, noble and strong, or ignoble and weak” (20). Clothed-in-Fur and Other Tales, a series of traditional stories collected and analyzed by Thomas Overholt and J. Baird Callicott, shows Nanabushu learning that if he overcomes his arrogance, follows instructions carefully, and contributes to the communal good, he will gain the blessings offered by the manitous (152). Overholt and Callicott explain, “The general point of the [Nanabushu] tale[s] seems to be that what we might refer to as cultural competence (sharing, dependency, obedience to the rules given by the manitous) pays off in tangible ways, while neglect of these cultural values, manifesting itself in greed, disobedience, and overconfidence, endangers one's existence” (158). As a character in Ojibwe folktales, Nanabushu not only learns how he fits into the world with respect to other powers, but also challenges the other members of the community to recognize how they form part of the sacred hoop of existence.

The way in which this name works into Erdrich's novels—through old Nanapush, Lulu, and Gerry—proves that a name provides a more important heritage than “blood.” In Tracks (1989) old Nanapush gives Lulu his name for the official church records, even though he is not a biological relative. He serves as Lulu's cultural or spiritual grandfather, who bequeaths to her the culturally affirming role and reputation of Nanapush. In Love Medicine Lulu comes to embody the values that the Nanabushu of the folktales has to learn. She shares her physical love with men because for her it is a life-affirming act: “I'm going to tell you about the men. There were times I let them in just for being part of the world. I believe that angels in the body make us foreign to ourselves when touching. In this way I'd slip my body to earth, like a heavy sack, and for a few moments I would blend in with all that forced my heart” (217). Over time, Lulu comes to rely on her sons and they on her, as when they effortlessly move her into the senior citizens' complex (228-29); she depends on their assistance, and they depend on her to serve as the central feature of their world. And like Nanabushu, she must learn to reject the negative attributes of greed and overconfidence, which she discovers in Nector Kashpaw.

Lulu's role as trickster is most clear when she is being threatened with eviction by the tribe, under the leadership of Nector. She attends the tribal meeting and confronts the other members of the community with their hypocrisy—with their intention to rob her and her children of the land their ancestors have lived on for years, only to build a factory to manufacture plastic Indian souvenirs. But the confrontation on cultural grounds is not enough to win her case. She overcomes the whispers in the room by quietly looking around and saying, “I'll name all of them. … The fathers … I'll point them out for you right here” (224). By pointing out their moral failings in calling her inaccurate names for acting on her sexuality when they were often participants, Lulu manages to make a roomful of people squirm by threatening to “name” them accurately and thereby forces them to see themselves more clearly.

Lulu passes this Nanapush heritage on to her son Gerry Nanapush. Of all her sons, Gerry is the most similar to her (84). He fits into this Nanabushu role by often taking on the physical attributes of the trickster's most common animal form—a great rabbit. Like the rabbit, Gerry magically escapes through holes and windows to evade imprisonment. He too values the communal aspects of life, so much so that he keeps escaping from prison to participate in that community. He works to reclaim a sense of unity among Native Americans by becoming a radical politician within the American Indian Movement (AIM). He wants to embrace all that life has to offer, going out of his way to form and return to a family in spite of his constant flight from the authorities.

This Ojibwe emphasis on community is additionally supported by the way that children are raised in this novel. Marie Kashpaw regularly takes in other people's children, even though she has many of her own to deal with. It is as if Marie, named for the Virgin Mary (Tracks 133), is symbolically cast in the role of mother. In an interview, Erdrich has explained that “informal adoption is common in Native American cultures” (Nowick 9); as a result, these mixed households indicate a persistent struggle to preserve the communal good by caring for future generations.

Rejecting communal Ojibwe values to accept such dominant American values as Western religion causes characters to find themselves isolated and alone. Sister Leopolda personifies what goes wrong when Catholicism meets the reservation. She clearly rejects her Ojibwe upbringing (as seen in Tracks), but she cannot behave in ways that coincide with modern Catholic practices, either. While training the potential novice Marie Lazarre (later to become Marie Kashpaw), Leopolda scalds her, hits her head with a poker, and impales her hand with a sharp fork, all because she thinks that Marie has “the Devil in [her] heart” (47). Her treatment of the girl is even more terrifying given the knowledge we gain in Tracks—that Leopolda is Marie's biological mother. Through Sister Leopolda, Erdrich satirically demonstrates how the white folks' religion fails to make sense of the world for Ojibwes; it appeals primarily to American Indians who are already distancing themselves from their own community.

Even people within the dominant American culture cannot use Western religion to aid Native Americans in need. The kindly Sister Mary Martin desperately wants to give relief and comfort to Gordie, June's ex-husband. Increasingly alcoholic after June's death, Gordie has never given up his love for her and feels personally responsible for her fate, even though her death in the snowstorm results from a self-willed act. In a drunken stupor Gordie hits a deer with his car and puts it into the back seat. He metaphorically transforms the animal into June and mistakenly thinks he is a murderer. He goes to Sister Mary Martin to confess his “crime.” But when she sees the physical reality of the situation—that Gordie has killed not a person but a deer—she finds herself overwhelmed by its absurdity:

At the first sight of it, so strange and awful, a loud cackle came from her mouth. Her legs sagged, suddenly old, and a fainting surge of weakness spread through her. … Suddenly and without warning, like her chest were cracking, the weeping broke her. It came out of her with hard violence, loud in her ears, a wild burst of sounds that emptied her.


Gordie runs away when he hears her reaction. Sister Mary Martin might have intended to help him but cannot provide the comfort that he needs. As a member of the dominant culture, she cannot understand the relational thought process he is experiencing. For Gordie, accidentally hurting the deer is relationally the same as killing June: June and the deer—in their woodland physicality—have become the same for him. Both are wild creatures, subject to no authority or control; both are “pure and naked” (6) in the way they respond to the world's stimuli. Sister Mary Martin literally cannot see the analogy; for her, under a hierarchical European-based system, humans are inherently different from and more important than animals. She cannot comprehend why Gordie has reacted to this situation in the way that he did. And Gordie cannot find help through her for the same reasons. He needs someone who can perceive the world through his eyes, at least enough to recognize the Native American logic underlying his perceptions.

As depicted in Love Medicine, Western religion is primarily either detrimental or ineffectual for Native Americans. It usually fails to influence American Indians positively because, as one Ojibwe tribal member has stated,

These missionaries and the non-tribal peoples who landed on the continent of North America thought they could improve upon our life. They tried to improve, but what they really did was to help take the land from the Indians, help take the language from the Indians, help take the culture from the Indians, and help take the Indian from the Indians.

(Aitken xii)

In the characters of Sister Leopolda and Sister Mary Martin, however, Erdrich modifies this view and suggests that Western religion only harms those Native Americans who choose to embrace it wholesale. Those who accept only the aspects of the religion that reinforce their world view, such as the adult Marie and her daughter Aurelia, manage to coexist with Catholicism without being absorbed or rejected by it.

Other Western religious and cultural constructs that also intrude on traditional Native American culture are fidelity and monogamy. One of the central characters in Love Medicine, Nector Kashpaw, is trapped within the morality of the dominant culture because he loves Lulu but feels compelled to marry Marie. He lives much of his adult life torn between his need for both women. Lulu, although she marries several times, harbors a persistent love for Nector—a love that turns to bitterness when he tries to evict her from her home, but that returns when she encounters him in his senility at the senior citizens' complex. To illustrate the cultural imposition inherent in this situation, Erdrich lets us see what might have been. After Nector's death, his widow Marie and his lover Lulu become friends who take over and run their housing complex, controlling the other residents with their cooperative power. Because Western religions and dominant culture demand monogamy, these women have been forced into adversarial roles. The friendship that develops after Nector's death allows us to see what might have happened if Nector had been able to marry both women, as Ojibwe culture condoned. Outside the confines and labels of Western culture, these women could and do become allies who work together to build a community.

This recognition of community and its importance in Ojibwe culture can also explain the individual characters in the novel who might seem to be misfits. The characters who try to assimilate, such as King and Beverly, are failures in the views of both cultures. King Kashpaw, legitimate son of Gordie and June, strives for financial success in the dominant culture, but constantly finds himself “stuck down at the bottom with the minnows” (252). A Vietnam-era veteran, King is unable to hold a steady job and has been in and out of prison. Although these characteristics make him a failure in the eyes of the dominant culture, he also fails in Ojibwe terms because his reaction to the death of his mother seems callous and self-centered: he uses the insurance money that he receives at June's death not to do good for the community, but to indulge his personal desire for a new sports car.

Beverly Lamartine, Lulu's brother-in-law and bigamist husband, also attempts to assimilate. He sells cheap school workbooks door to door in the working-class neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul by telling people how his son (although actually the photograph he uses as illustration shows his nephew) has improved upon his humble social beginnings with these workbooks. Beverly's legal wife, a white woman, takes him to visit her family only in the height of summer, when they can admire his perfect “tan.” Beverly fails because he assumes a falsely humble role to “succeed” in the white world, without ever gaining the success he hopes that mock humility will bring. He and King are misfits, not because they are American Indians, but because they attempt to deny that heritage. They become “apples”—“red on the outside, white on the inside” (259)—belonging to neither world.

But those who accept their heritage while still participating in the modern world, like Gerry and Lipsha, become almost militantly heroic, in spite of appearing to be misfits by Euro-American standards. Unlike King and Beverly, Gerry and Lipsha adapt without assimilating, thereby remaining true to their Ojibwe heritage. Gerry constantly escapes from prison because according to his personal code of justice, he has finished paying for his crime. He assumes the status of folk hero to the Native American community because by escaping from prison, he is essentially eluding the confines of dominant white American culture. He openly accepts his role as folk hero and trickster by becoming active in the leadership of AIM, challenging his people to seek a clear cultural identity. At the novel's close Gerry once again escapes from prison, this time to meet his wife Dot and their daughter in Canada. In this way he exhibits his dedication to a Native American world view—national borders, a construct of the dominant culture, cannot modify his behavior or restrict his movement.

Lipsha too accepts his heritage. While his naïveté and malapropisms seem ridiculous, Erdrich employs this humor primarily to highlight his youth. His are the typical teenage attempts to be connected to his heritage; he is convinced that he is special, that he has the gift of being a modern-day medicine man. He pursues self-knowledge and personal identity with the vague enthusiasm that only a teenager could manifest. Although he drops out of high school, Lipsha reads widely: his “cousin” Albertine, in describing him, says that he “knew surprising things. He read books about computers and volcanoes and the life cycles of salamanders. Sometimes he used words I had to ask him the meaning of, and other times he didn't make even the simplest sense” (36). He establishes his personal connection to the Ojibwe community by using traditional methods to deal with problems—not by directly applying those methods, but by developing his own solutions within their guidelines.

Lipsha's most notorious effort as a medicine man provides the title for the novel. Marie and Lipsha independently discover that Nector has attempted to renew his relationship with Lulu, who has moved into the senior citizens' complex. (Marie has the knowledge of their past affair to make her suspicious; Lipsha finds Lulu and Nector in mid-act in the laundry room.) Because Marie believes in the boy's skills, she approaches him about making a “love medicine” to make Nector love her again. Lipsha decides that Nector and Marie need to eat the hearts of a pair of geese, since the birds mate for life. When he finds hunting for the wild geese too difficult and uncomfortable, he resorts to buying frozen turkeys at the local grocery store to get the hearts for the medicine, a humorous commentary on how disrupted the transmittal of cultural knowledge has become.

Although Lipsha fails to get the results he intends from administering his medicine—Nector chokes on the raw heart Marie feeds him and dies—he does successfully heal the love between the couple. When Marie feels herself visited by Nector's spirit after his death, she is certain that only the “love medicine” brings him back. But Lipsha convinces her that his medicine was a fake: he tells her, “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 understands. It's true feeling, not no magic. No supermarket heart could have brought him back” (214). In this way, Lipsha does have the special “touch” he claims to have; he reassures Marie that her relationship with Nector had a strength and a reality of its own. And although he seems undirected and aimless, he always focuses on contributing to the communal good, working to assuage the aches of old people and doing odd jobs around the senior citizens' housing complex. Lipsha seems to know what older people need to hear, and he connects himself to the old ways by spending time with them.

Lipsha learns about his biological parentage from Lulu, who again serves as the Nanabushu figure. After Nector's death, Lulu decides that the time has come for Lipsha to know that Gerry and June were his parents. In the exchange, Lipsha at first wants to deny that Lulu is his biological grandmother, that he shares in this Nanapush heritage. But then he notices that “Lulu Lamartine and Lipsha Morrissey had the same nose. Hers was little, semi-squashed in, straight and flat. Mine was a bigger, flatter version of hers down to the squashed-in tip” (243). After learning who he is in the physical sense, Lipsha reaches out to find himself in the metaphorical sense. His first attempt—joining the army—seems misguided even to himself. Before officially passing the physical, therefore, he flees to Minneapolis to meet up with his now-known family—his half-brother King and, unexpectedly, his father, Gerry.

The evening these three men spend together brings Lipsha and the novel back into the Ojibwe cultural circle. In a poker game, Lipsha wins the car that King had bought with June's insurance money, symbolically establishing his relationship with the mother he never knew as his mother. When the police arrive to haul the fugitive Gerry back to jail, Gerry disappears rabbitlike out of the apartment window, only to turn up hidden in the trunk of the car as Lipsha drives it away. The concluding scene of the novel picks up on the Nanabushu heritage that Gerry and Lipsha share. When Lipsha explains that he is running from the army, Gerry starts to laugh. He tells his son not to worry: “‘Look here,’ he said, ‘I didn't have to go in the army because my heart is slightly fucked. It goes something like ti-rum-ti-ti instead of ta-dum. … You're a Nanapush man,’ he said. … ‘We all have this thing with our hearts’” (270-71). Through the trickster qualities of these Nanapush men, Erdrich plays a double joke on American culture. Although declared “unfit” by the United States Army, these men gain heroic status precisely because of their “hearts.” By following their hearts, Gerry and Lipsha can adapt to the modern world and remain Chippewas, neither assimilating into the dominant culture as King and Beverly have nor being destroyed by its militarism like Henry Lamartine, Jr.

Love Medicine as a whole, then, takes on the cyclic pattern of Ojibwe culture. The novel's form becomes circular, with each of the narrative sections internally coherent while contributing to the cumulative power of the whole. The novel ends much as it begins: a character decides to reject the solitary approach to life that he or she has temporarily adopted, in order to return to the Ojibwe community. But with the sense of connectedness that Lipsha has gained, he has better prospects for success than June did. Multiperspectivity does not serve as the sign of uncertain, individual solutions that it is in dominant American culture. Instead the multiple narrators are part of the hooplike repetition and variation of Chippewa storytelling. Erdrich has said that she “prefers a first-person narrative, for both its immediacy and its expressiveness” (Nowick 9)—the very characteristics that connect oral narrators to their audience.

This technique also links Love Medicine to a long-standing tradition of Native American autobiography. Most Native American autobiographies were collected by ethnographers who listened to people relating their life stories. In American Indian Women Gretchen M. Bataille and Kathleen Mullen Sands record the demands that the editor of such documents faces:

The post-collection job of the recorder-editor is first one of structuring the narrative material into a pattern of what the nontribal audience perceives as a logical sequence. The nonsequential oral process in itself suggests that structural interpretation is an essential element of Indian autobiography. Not until the relationship[s] of all the elements of the oral narrative are discovered can the meaning emerge. It is the job of the editor to order fragmented experience in time and in relation to narrative viewpoint and intention.


Erdrich's use of first-person narration gives the reader a sense that her characters are telling their life stories. But rather than imposing a mediator—a narrator to serve as our editor—she encourages us as readers to find that relational viewpoint, to learn to think as her characters think.

As a result, we start to learn that the nonlinearity of time, space, and narration does not necessarily reinforce a view of the world as disrupted, but rather that it can challenge that view. We accept what Allen asserts: “The American Indian sees all creatures as relatives (and in tribal systems relationship is central), as offspring of the Great Mystery, as cocreators, as children of our mother, and as necessary parts of an ordered, balanced, and living whole” (59). The various segments in Love Medicine provide us with a spectrum of Native American characters, all of whom have distinctive points of view. Erdrich answers our implicit question of “What is it like to be Native American?” by debunking the idea that there is such a thing as a Native American view, by helping us to acknowledge that there is not even a single Chippewa view. In reading this novel we develop the ability to fit narratives together, building one upon the other, until we begin to see the world through a collection of Ojibwe eyes, through a communal and tribal perspective.

Silberman's assertion that Love Medicine “leaves largely untold the parallel story of whites” to the contrary (115), Erdrich gains our support as readers precisely because her text partakes of both dominant culture and Ojibwe culture. Her use of multiperspectivity enables her to reach a mass audience, to speak to that audience in a language that it recognizes. In this familiar structure she can thus involve readers in perceiving Ojibwe culture. As Susan Lanser observes, “Human perception is shaped not only by our position in the physical world but by all that creates individual and collective identity, just as our identity may be continually reshaped by what we see” (3). Erdrich is clearly trying to make us “see” Native Americans by working at the boundary between the dominant culture's fragmenting use of multiperspectivity and the Native American unifying use of storytelling techniques. The multiperspectivity in Love Medicine presents the unity and internal logic of Ojibwe ontology while retaining a portion of the bleakness that the technique connotes in its typical modernist usage. This dual function of multiperspectivity makes sense given that Erdrich sees herself as a “citizen of both nations” (World)—of Chippewa culture and the dominant American culture. While she accepts that she is called a Native American writer, she emphasizes that all writing done by Americans, regardless of their ethnicity, is American writing (Bonetti interview).

By working at this “front line” of literature, Erdrich exposes the mass audience both to an otherwise alien culture and to the experience of having a dual ethnicity. She draws on her dual heritage by using a dominant American form to enable her readers to “see” modern Native Americans, whom, like the film makers in Love Medicine, we have often seen only as features of the historical past, falling off their horses and dying. Deloria finds that “to be an Indian in modern American society is in a very real sense to be unreal and ahistorical” (2). This sense of unreality arises because we Americans from the dominant culture resist updating our impressions; as Jane Tompkins explains, “My Indians, like my princesses, were creatures totally of my imagination, and I did not care to have any real exemplars interfering with what I already knew” (59). Tompkins establishes that most Americans cherish this primarily fictional view of American Indians and do not care “where they [are] or what they [are] doing now” (60). This resistance to “seeing” Native Americans grows out of the dominant culture's reluctance to recognize its colonial and genocidal policies toward Native Americans. By keeping American Indians part of the past, we absolve ourselves from dealing with them as an existing people.

Erdrich is not so willing, however, to grant the dominant culture absolution. By getting us to employ various Ojibwe points of view, she makes us perceive how the members of that culture have been marginalized by dominant American cultures. Barbara Johnson makes clear why these works at the boundaries between cultures are needed: “Difference is a misreading of sameness, but it must be represented in order to be erased. The resistance to finding out that the Other is the same springs out of the reluctance to admit the same is Other. … Difference disliked is identity affirmed” (323). In Love Medicine Erdrich's first-person narratives enable us to find that sameness, to see the Other because she is like us. Erdrich explodes our internalizations of the “noble savage” myth by forcing modern Native American life before our eyes. In the process, we cannot avoid acknowledging what dominant culture has done to Native Americans.

Erdrich sees teaching people about Native Americans as part of her goal. Preserving American Indian stories and making people aware of the various cultures is imperative: “Contemporary Native American writers have before them a task quite different from that of non-Indian writers. In light of enormous loss, they must tell the untold stories of contemporary survivors, while protecting and celebrating the cores of cultures left in the wake of the European invasion” (“Sense” 41). In her novels, Erdrich wants readers to see just how much the politics of being marginalized is integrated into her characters' lives: “Obviously, politics influences people's lives in every conceivable human way in this book [Love Medicine], but we hoped it would be more affecting and more obvious maybe to people to have them see it from the human point of view rather than making political statements every time someone turned around” (Bonetti interview). Erdrich works to make her readers aware of these political realities in a form the mass audience finds palatable and accessible—fiction.

In Love Medicine Erdrich achieves what Tzvetan Todorov believes should be a primary goal of modern ethnic studies: “The restricted universality of the past should be opened up as much as possible, until it is able to account for both the diversity of cultures and the differences which exist within one culture” (374). Erdrich accomplishes this by making what is unfamiliar to members of the dominant culture—Chippewa people and their experiences—familiar by allowing us into the minds of numerous characters. She also makes the familiar—dominant American culture—unfamiliar by making us perceive it through those same Chippewa eyes.

By bringing a marginalized culture to a mainstream audience, Erdrich opens up the possibility of greater understanding. We must not dwell merely on our differences, Todorov explains; we must also see that we are “united by a common human identity, and it is this which renders possible communication, dialogue, and, in the final analysis, the comprehension of Otherness—it is possible precisely because Otherness is never ‘radical’” (374). By eliciting her readers' involvement in Love Medicine, Erdrich enables people to see their shared humanity. She thus works to make dominant culture more inclusive by redefining what it means to be American.


  1. The names “Ojibwe” and “Chippewa” are used interchangeably in this essay. Erdrich herself uses “Chippewa,” but both are transliterations of the same word, which means “drawn or puckered up.” When speaking their own language, members of this tribal group call themselves “Anishinabe” or “the people” (Warren 36-37).

  2. Consider the example of Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), which many scholars considered a fictional slave narrative most likely written by Lydia Maria Child until Jean Yellin carefully documented and substantiated the details of the text in her 1987 edition.

  3. Erdrich asserts that their connection in part derives from Dorris's similar background—he too has a mixed heritage of Native American and Euro-American cultures. Dorris is a professor of Native American studies at Dartmouth College.

  4. Ojibwe folktales have been collected in a variety of books: Johnson's Tales the Elders Told, Dorothy M. Reid's Tales of Nanabozho, Ignatia Broker's Night Flying Woman, Vizenor's Summer in the Spring, and Thomas W. Overholt and J. Baird Callicott's Clothed-in-Fur and Other Tales. I focus on the Overholt and Callicott collection because it provides the tales within a cultural analysis.

Works Cited

Aitken, Larry P. Preface and Introduction. Information Relating to Chippewa Peoples, in Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Ed. Timothy G. Roufs and Larry P. Aitken. Duluth: Lake Superior Basin Studies Center, 1984. iv-xiv.

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Bataille, Gretchen M., and Kathleen Mullen Sands. American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984.

Dearborn, Mary V. Pocahontas's Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan, 1969. Rpt. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1988.

Erdrich, Louise, and Michael Dorris. Interview with Kay Bonetti. Audiocassette. May 1986. Columbia: American Audio Prose, 1986.

———, and Michael Dorris. Interview. A World of Ideas. With Bill Moyers. Videotape. Minneapolis, 10 May 1989.

———. Love Medicine. New York: Bantam, 1985.

———. Tracks. New York: Harper, 1989.

———. “A Writer's Sense of Place.” A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest. Ed. Michael Marton. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1988. 34-44.

“Erdrich, Louise.” Contemporary Authors. Vol. 114. Detroit: Gale, 1985.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. “Race,” Writing, and Difference. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Johnson, Barbara. “Thresholds of Difference: Structures of Address in Zora Neale Hurston.” Gates. 317-28.

Johnson, Basil. Ojibway Heritage. New York: Columbia UP, 1976.

Lanser, Susan Sniader. The Narrative Act: Point of View in Prose Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Lyons, Gene. “In Indian Territory.” Rev. of Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich. Newsweek 11 Feb. 1985: 70-71.

Nowick, Nan. “Interview: Louise Erdrich.” Belles Lettres 2.2 (1986): 9.

Overholt, Thomas W., and J. Baird Callicott. Clothed-in-Fur and Other Tales: An Introduction to an Ojibwa World View. Lanham: UP of America, 1982.

Portales, Marco. “People with Holes in Their Lives.” Rev. of Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich. New York Times Book Review 23 Dec. 1984: 6.

Silberman, Robert. “Opening the Text: Love Medicine and the Return of the Native American Woman.” Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Literatures. Ed. Gerald Vizenor. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1989. 101-20.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “‘Race,’ Writing, and Culture.” Gates. 370-80.

Tompkins, Jane. “‘Indians’: Textualism, Morality, and the Problem of History.” Gates. 59-77.

Vizenor, Gerald. Reading and Lecture. University of Minnesota. Minneapolis, 22 May 1990.

Warren, William W. The History of the Ojibway People. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1984.

Louis Owens (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Owens, Louis. “Erdrich and Dorris's Mixedbloods and Multiple Narratives.” In Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, pp. 192-224. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Owens discusses the dominant thematic concerns of Love Medicine, particularly the novel's examination of race and religion.]

Despite the importance of N. Scott Momaday's Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn in 1969, no American Indian author has achieved such immediate and enormous success as Louise Erdrich with her first novel, Love Medicine. A best-seller, Love Medicine not only outsold any previous novel by an Indian author, but it also gathered an impressive array of critical awards including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1984, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award for Best First Novel, the Virginia McCormack Scully Prize for Best Book of 1984 dealing with Indians or Chicanos, the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and the L.A. Times award for best novel of the year.

Why such astounding success for an author writing about a subject—Indians—in which Americans had previously shown only a passing interest (and that predominantly in the romantic vein mined by non-Indian authors)? The answer to such a question delves into the heart of Louise Erdrich's achievement with Love Medicine as well as her very popular second and third novels, The Beet Queen (1986) and Tracks (1988). And to examine Erdrich's fiction closely is also to explore that of her husband/agent/collaborator, Michael Dorris, whose first novel, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987), has also been received with enthusiasm by readers and critics.1

Like almost every other Indian novelist, Louise Erdrich is a mixedblood. A member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa band, Erdrich is of German, French, and Chippewa descent. She was born in Minnesota and grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her parents taught in the Wahpeton Indian School. In her novels, Erdrich draws upon both her mother's Chippewa heritage and her experiences as the daughter of a Euramerican growing up in middle America. Both the wild reservation bushland and the weathered edge of the North Dakota prairie permeate her novels, stamping their character upon Indian and non-Indian alike. “When you're in the plains and you're in this enormous space,” Erdrich has stated, “there's something about the frailty of life and relationships that always haunts me.”2

In her published novels—the first three of a planned quartet—Erdrich weaves genealogies and fates as characters appear and reappear in successive, interconnected stories. This web of identities and relationships arises from the land itself, that element that has always been at the core of Native Americans' knowledge of who they are and where they come from. Central to Native American storytelling, as Momaday has shown so splendidly, is the construction of a reality that begins, always, with the land. In Erdrich's fiction, those characters who have lost a close relationship with the earth—and specifically with that particular geography that informs a tribal identity—are the ones who are lost. They are the Ishmaels of the Indian world, waiting like June Kashpaw to be brought home. Imagining her role as a storyteller, Erdrich has explained: “In a tribal view of the world, where one place has been inhabited for generations, the landscape becomes enlivened by a sense of group and family history. Unlike most contemporary writers, a traditional storyteller fixes listeners in an unchanging landscape combined of myth and reality. People and place are inseparable.” In laying out her fictional terrain, a coherently populated geography often compared to that of William Faulkner, Erdrich tells stories of survival, as she has also explained: “Contemporary Native American writers have therefore a task quite different from that of other writers. … In the light of enormous loss, they must tell the stories of contemporary survivors while protecting and celebrating the cores of cultures left in the wake of the catastrophe (cultural annihilation). And in this, there always remains the land.”3 Perhaps it is, in part, Erdrich's positive emphasis upon survival that has endeared her to the reading public. Though the frailty of lives and relationships and the sense of loss for Indian people rides always close to the surface of her stories, Erdrich's emphasis in all three novels is upon those who survive in a difficult world.

Like every other Native American novelist, Erdrich writes of the inevitable search for identify. “There's a quest for one's own background in a lot of this work,” she has explained. “One of the characteristics of being a mixed-blood is searching. You look back and say, ‘Who am I from?’ You must question. You must make certain choices. You're able to. And it's a blessing and it's a curse. All of our searches involve trying to discover where we are from.” She has commented upon her own identity as a writer conscious of both her Indian heritage and her somewhat insecure place in the American mainstream: “When you live in the mainstream and you know that you're not quite, not really there, you listen for a voice to direct you. I think, besides that, you also are a member of another nation. It gives you a strange feeling this dual citizenship. … It's kind of incomprehensible that there's the ability to take in non-Indian culture and be comfortable in both worlds.”4

The seemingly doomed Indian or tortured mixedblood caught between worlds surfaces in Erdrich's fiction, but such characters tend to disappear behind those other, foregrounded characters who hang on in spite of it all, who confront with humor the pain and confusion of identity and, like a storyteller, weave a fabric of meaning and significance out of the remnants.

Love Medicine is an episodic story of three inextricably tangled generations of Chippewa and mixedblood families: the Kashpaws, Morriseys, Lamartines, and Lazarres. In fourteen chapters, seven narrators weave their many stories into a single story that becomes, very gradually, a coherent fabric of community—a recovered center. Along the way, Erdrich's masterful use of discontinuous and multiple narrative underscores, formally, the displacement and deracination that dominate her narrators' tales while at the same time forcing upon the reader his or her own sense of radical displacement and marginality. Ultimately, however, the fragmentated narratives and prismatic perspectives of the novel emphasize not the individual anguish of an Abel, Jim Loney, Cecelia Capture, Chal Windzer, Archilde Leon, or most other protagonists of Native American novels, but the greater anguish of lost communal/tribal identity and the heroic efforts of a fragmented community to hold on to what is left.

Love Medicine begins with an illumination of liminality—a conflation of Christian religion and Native American mythology, of linear/incremental time and cyclic/accretive time—on the “morning before Easter Sunday.” Like the traditional trickster narrative, the story opens with the protagonist, June Kashpaw, on the move: “June Kashpaw was walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota, killing time before the noon bus arrived that would take her home.”5 Soon, the character around whom this novel will cohere is dead, and it is ironic that June is attempting to “kill” time—to break the entropic grip of linear, Western time—while it is precisely this time that is killing June, the historical time that has eroded a Chippewa sense of identity just as it has overseen the loss of the Chippewa's traditional homeland. Rather than return from her desperate life to the reservation, June walks deliberately into a blizzard and accepts her death. Like Tayo's mother and Helen Jean in Silko's Ceremony, June is one of those women who have washed up in the no-woman's-land of prostitution on the parasitic edge of the reservation, displaced and alone. When she decides to go with one of the roustabouts from a bar rather than return home, she thinks, “The bus ticket would stay good, maybe forever. They weren't expecting her up home on the reservation” (3). With a bus ticket that will never expire, and no expectations, June assumes the role—like trickster—of a permanent traveler, infinitely dislocated with no family/community/tribe to expect her return. Her fragmentation is emphasized when Erdrich writes: “And then she knew that if she lay there any longer she would crack wide open, not in one place but in many pieces” (5). As with virtually every other aspect of June, this fear of cracking into “many pieces” represents a kind of dialogic, a hybridized utterance that can be read in two ways. In a Euramerican context it underscores June's alienation, approaching schizophrenia, her loss of a centered identity. Fragmentation in Native American mythology is not necessarily a bad thing, however. For the traditional culture hero, the necessary annihilation of the self that prefigures healing and wholeness and a return to the tribal community often takes the form of physical fragmentation, bodily, as well as psychic deconstruction.

With no family to draw her home, June deliberately chooses death, for as Albertine Johnson tells us in the novel's second chapter, “June grew up on the plains. Even drunk she'd have known a storm was coming” (9). Raised by her Great-uncle Eli, the one character in the novel who never loses touch with either earth or identity, June knows where, if not who, she is: “Even when it started to snow she did not lose her sense of direction” (6). And Erdrich ends the first chapter with the words, “The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home” (6). She comes home to an “unchanging landscape … of myth and reality,” the feminine Christ-figure resurrected as trickster, the fragmented culture hero made whole within memory and story, returning through the annual cycle of Easter/spring—death/resurrection—to her Indian community as mythic catalyst.

Erdrich begins Love Medicine with a subtle displacement of time and an invocation of peripatetic trickster, “going along.” Just as the traditional trickster's role is not only to upset and challenge us but also to remind us—obversely—of who we are and where we belong, June will figure throughout the novel as a touchstone for the other characters. Just as the tribal community in Ceremony desperately wants Tayo's lost mother to come home, the response of characters throughout Love Medicine to June's loss will underscore each character's sense of identity within the tribal community and, concomitantly, each character's potential for survival. And just as trickster transcends both time and space as well as all other definitions, June does indeed “kill time” as she moves freely, after death, in the thoughts and stories of the other characters. Jay Cox has noted June's resemblance to trickster, suggesting perceptively that June is the “chaotic everything” to all the characters in Love Medicine and that “June's death in the first chapter does little to impede her spirit from going along throughout the novel.”6 When, at the end of the novel, Lipsha Morrissey crosses the water to “bring her home,” we know that Lipsha has finally arrived at a coherent sense of his place within the community (including the land itself) from which identity springs. And at the novel's end another trickster will be on the move as Gerry Nanapush heads across the “medicine line” into the depths of Canada, telling Lipsha, “I won't ever really have what you'd call a home” (268). Lipsha, son of the two powerful characters with whom the novel opens and closes—June Kashpaw and Gerry Nanapush—ends the novel on a note of profound resolution of identity.

By the time June walks away from the car toward her death, it is very likely after midnight and therefore officially Easter Sunday, the day the “snow fell deeper … than it had in forty years.” By invoking Easter, Erdrich brings into the novel the myth of the crucifixion and resurrection, an analogy ironically underscored when she writes that June's ejection (with her pants pulled halfway up) from the warm car into the cold “was a shock like being born” (5). By associating June with both Christ and trickster, Erdrich underscores the twin elements that will make whole the fragmented lives of the novel: the commitment beyond the self that lies both at the heart of the Christian myth and, very crucially, at the center of the American Indian tribal community where individualism and egotism are shunned and “we” takes precedence over the “I” celebrated in the Euramerican tradition, and, just as important, a refusal to acquiesce to static definitions of identity. When she writes that “June walked over it like water and came home,” Erdrich merges an image of Christ with the primary element that will figure prominently throughout the book: water. Erdrich has said, “In Love Medicine the main image is the recurrent image of the water—transformation (walking over snow or water) and a sort of transcendence. … The river is always this boundary. There's a water monster who's mentioned in Love Medicine. It's not a real plot device in Love Medicine. It become more so in Tracks. … We really think of each book [of the planned quartet] as being tied to one of the four elements.” In the same interview, Erdrich and Dorris point out that the central elemental image in The Beet Queen is air, while in Tracks it is earth.7 As in House Made of Dawn, this beginning is also the novel's ending, a circularity familiar to Native American storytelling, and it underscores the important place of water imagery in Chippewa storytelling, an importance understandable for a people whose traditional homeland was once the region of the Great Lakes.

Our first encounter with a family in the novel comes through Albertine in the second chapter.8 After describing her relationship with her mother as “patient abuse,” Albertine arrives home simply to be ignored at first by both mother and aunt. Albertine is one-half Swedish, the daughter of a white father who abandoned his wife and child at Albertine's birth, an Anglo outcast “doomed to wander” (the quintessential Euramerican condition of eternal migration). Albertine's mother is Zelda, one of the daughters of Nector Kashpaw and Marie Lazarre. Marie, a mixedblood who insists, “I don't have that much Indian blood,” is from a family considered white trash by their Indian neighbors. Albertine, who thinks of herself as “light, clearly a breed,” is approximately one-quarter Chippewa, but she identifies as Indian, complaining bitterly about allotment and following Henry Lamartine down the street just because he looks Indian.

Though Albertine has run away in the past and has apparently flirted with the kind of disastrous life that killed June, she is the character in the novel who, among those of her generation, is most secure in her identity, a certainty provided, ironically, by her mother, who says defiantly, “I raised her an Indian, and that's what she is” (23). Zelda, married for the second time to a Scandinavian husband and living in a trailer on the edge of the reservation, is the one who has the strength and certainty to retrieve her father, Nector, from the clutches of Lulu Lamartine and the one capable of providing her daughter with a sense of self lacking in many of the novel's characters. Albertine's strength comes from this unshakable knowledge of who she is and from her awareness that the past is a formative part of the present. Albertine emphasizes the power of the past—through stories—to inform the present when she says of June: “She told me things you'd only tell another woman, full grown, and I had adored her wildly for these adult confidences. … I had adored her into telling me everything she needed to tell, and it was true, I hadn't understood the words at the time. But she hadn't counted on my memory. Those words stayed with me” (15-16). The past permeates the present, coexisting through cyclical temporality within the spatial reality of the Native American world, staying with us, telling us in a single breath where we have been, where we are, and where we are going. As nearly every Native American author has sought to demonstrate, the loss of the past means a loss of self, a loss of order and meaning in the present moment, and an inability to contemplate a future that is part of that moment. Storytelling serves to prevent that loss; it bears, as Michel Foucault has said, “the duty of providing immortality.”9

It is Albertine who understands the motivation of her great-grandmother, old Rushes Bear, in keeping Eli at home while allowing Nector to be educated at the government school. “In that way,” Albertine explains, “she gained a son on either side of the line” (17). And it is Albertine who points out that Eli, who “knew the woods,” had stayed mentally sharp while Nector's “mind had left us, gone wary and wild” (17). When Albertine, always seeking stories of the past, asks Nector to “tell me about things that happened before my time,” the old man just shakes his head, “remembering dates with no events to go with them, names without faces, things that happened out of place and time” (18). Schooled by the government to be a bureaucrat, Nector has been molded into chairman of his tribe by his ambitious wife, Marie, but he has retained only the meaningless ciphers of dates and names that have neither bearing nor mooring in Albertine's world. He has become a victim of mechanical, entropic, historic time, while his brother has remained alert to the reality of his more traditional life on the other side of the time-line. Finally, it is Albertine who puts June's (as usual, contradictory) accomplishment into perspective for us when she intones: “Her defeat. Her reckless victory. Her sons” (35). June's sons are King and Lipsha, one recognized and damned, the other abandoned and saved.

Lipsha is June's reckless victory, just as her legitimate son, King, epitomizes her defeat and the defeat of all the failed characters in the novel. Throughout most of the novel Lipsha does not know who his parents are; he lacks an identity and even believes of his mother that she “would have drowned me” (37). When Albertine comes close to telling him the secret of his mother, Lipsha refuses to hear, saying, “Albertine, you don't know what you're talking about.” He goes on to declare, “As for my mother … even if she came back right now, this minute, and got down on her knees and said, ‘Son, I am sorry for what I done to you,’ I would not relent on her” (36). Ultimately, Lipsha will relent on her; like Tayo in Ceremony, he will forgive his mother for abandoning him; and by bringing her home, he will come home to a knowledge of who he is. When Albertine asks, “What about your father? … Do you wish you knew him?” Lipsha replies, “I wouldn't mind” (37). At the end of the novel Lipsha will meet his father, Gerry Nanapush, and he will realize that his own healing “touch” has descended most powerfully from Old Man Pillager, the shaman who is the trickster's father and who will figure prominently in Tracks.

Gerry Nanapush, described by Lipsha as a “famous politicking hero, dangerous armed criminal, judo expert, escape artist, charismatic member of the American Indian Movement, and smoker of many pipes of kinnikinnick in the most radical groups” (248), is the most unmistakable trickster of the novel, bearing the traditional name of the Chippewa trickster, nanapush or nanabozhu. Impossible to contain, a shapeshifter capable of impossible physical feats, when he arrives at King's apartment to confront the stoolie who has informed on him, Nanapush speaks the classic trickster line: “‘I want to play,’ said Gerry very clearly and slowly, as if to a person who spoke a different language. ‘I came to play’” (262). Gerry Nanapush is “mainly in the penitentiary for breaking out of it,” (“breaking out” is, of course, trickster's modus vivendi) and, according to Lulu, “In and out of prison, yet inspiring Indian people, that was his life. Like myself he could not hold his wildness in” (227). Nanapush is a culture hero and shaman/trickster. At the same time, Nanapush, who, according to Albertine “shot and killed … a state trooper” on the Pine Ridge Reservation (170), bears a strong resemblance to American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, imprisoned for the alleged murder of two FBI agents at Pine Ridge. In an interview, Erdrich described her response when she attended Peltier's trial: “When the jury came back with that guilty verdict, I stood up and screamed. It was a real dislocation growing up thinking there was justice, and then seeing this process and knowing they were wrong in delivering that verdict.”10

Like so many other characters in fiction by Indian writers, Lipsha's quest is for a sense of self and authenticity. Lulu Lamartine, his grandmother (whom Lipsha describes as “the jabwa witch”) and a female trickster, finally forces him to listen to the story of his parentage. About his mother, June, Lulu says, “She watched you from a distance, and hoped you would forgive her some day” (244). About his father, Lulu says, “There ain't a prison that can hold the son of Old Man Pillager, a Nanapush man. You should be proud that you're one” (244). Finally, Lulu sees directly to the heart of Lipsha's strangeness, saying, “Well I never thought you was odd. … Just troubled. You never knew who you were. That's one reason why I told you. I thought it was a knowledge that could make or break you” (244-45). Upon learning of his heritage, Lipsha muses: “I could not help but dwell upon the subject of myself. … Lipsha Morrissey who was now on the verge of knowing who he was” (244). Seeking his father, Lipsha declares, “I had to get down to the bottom of my heritage” (248), and once he sits down to play cards with his father, Lipsha says, “I dealt myself a perfect family. A royal flush” (264). Lipsha has learned to mark the cards from his grandmother, Lulu Lamartine, and Gerry recognizes the feel of trickery on the deck: “Those crimps were like a signature—his mother's” (260). And, as the patterns of his heritage and identity become clear, Lipsha deals, saying, “I dealt the patterns out with perfect ease, keeping strict to Lulu's form” (263).

Finally, when he learns that Lipsha is on the run from the military police, Gerry works his magic, beginning with an affirmation of his son's identity: “‘You're a Nanapush man,’ he said. … ‘We all have this odd thing with our hearts.’” Nanapush reaches out a hand and touches his son's shoulder, and Lipsha says, “There was a moment when the car and road stood still, and then I felt it. I felt my own heart give this little burping skip” (271). With a “heart problem,” Lipsha will fail his physical and be exempted from the military, and to his father's relief he will not have to become a fugitive. The “odd thing” about Nanapush hearts is, of course, their ability to care deeply for others, individuals and Indians as a whole. This is the “love medicine” of the novel, as Lipsha comes to realize after Nector's blackly comic death when Lipsha tells Marie, “Love medicine ain't what brings him back to you, Grandma. … 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. … It's true feeling, not magic” (214).

In the figure of Nector, tribal chairman and patriarch of the Kashpaws, who are “respected as the last hereditary leaders” of the tribe (89), Erdrich introduces the clichéd view of the “vanishing American.” Nector has been in a Hollywood movie. “Because of my height,” he says ironically, “I got hired on for the biggest Indian part” (89). The biggest Indian part, however, isn't much: “‘Clutch your chest. Fall off that horse,’ they directed. That was it. Death was the extent of Indian acting in the movie theater” (90). Nector escapes from cinema death to the wheat fields of Kansas, where he is paid to pose for a painter. “Disrobe,” the artist says, and Nector, stalling for time, replies, “What robe?” The painting that results is entitled Plunge of the Brave and shows a naked Nector leaping to his death in a raging river. Nector, who possesses perhaps the most subtly ironic sense of humor in the novel, concludes: “Remember Custer's saying? The only good Indian is a dead Indian? Well from my dealings with whites I would add to that quote: ‘The only interesting Indian is dead, or dying by falling backwards off a horse’” (91). Nector says finally, “When I saw that the greater world was only interested in my doom, I went home on the back of a boxcar. … I remembered that picture, and I knew that Nector Kashpaw would fool the pitiful rich woman that painted him and survive the raging water. I'd hold my breath when I hit and let the current pull me toward the surface, around jagged rocks. I wouldn't fight it, and in that way I'd get to shore” (91). Nector recognizes the epic and tragic role white America has reserved for the Indian, a role in which, as Bakhtin pointed out, the hero must perish. For Indians who go to the movies or read novels, it would indeed appear that the greater world is interested only in their doom, and Nector articulates the direction of Indian characters in nearly all novels by Indian authors when he says, “I went home.” Going home to reservation, family, tribe, or simply an Indian identity is the way Native Americans create “another destiny or another plot.”11

Nector also articulates here the strategy he will follow throughout the course of his life: he goes consistently with the current, never fighting very strongly if at all. Thus he ends up married to Marie Lazarre because she simply takes him, forcing him to abandon at least temporarily his true love, Lulu Lamartine. Thus he allows Marie to manipulate him into the tribal chairmanship and a somewhat stable and respectable life. And thus he is swept late in the novel into Lulu's passionate current for a brief time before being towed to anchorage at home by his determined daughter, Zelda. “Call me Ishmael,” Nector says, taking the line from Moby-Dick, the only book he has read. “For he survived the great white monster,” Nector explains, “like I got out of the rich lady's picture. 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” (91-92).

What Nector fails to understand about Ishmael is that Melville's narrator survives for two primary reasons. The first is that he alone is able to see both good and evil—he is the “balanced man” aboard the cursed Calvinist ship named for the Pequots, a tribe slaughtered by the colonists in the name of a monomaniacal Calvinist vision. And the coffin that bounces Ishmael to the surface of the sea belongs to Queequeg, the Indian to whom Ishmael is bound by a shared bed and pipe. Ishmael floats atop the symbol of Queequeg's doom as Melville's novel ends. If Nector is Ishmael the survivor, it is at the expense of his Indian self. And it is clear in the novel that Nector, though he is an effective bureaucratic leader for the tribe, has lost a great deal. When he signs the letter evicting Lulu from her home, he assumes no responsibility for the act, saying, “As tribal chairman, I was presented with a typed letter I should sign that would formally give notice that Lulu was kicked off the land” (104). Lulu is being evicted so that a factory making “plastic war clubs” and other false Indian “dreamstuff” (in Lulu's words) can be built. Lulu's perspective is the Indian one: “If we're going to measure land, let's measure it right. Every foot and inch you're standing on, even if it's on the top of the highest skyscraper, belongs to the Indians. That's the real truth of the matter” (221).

When he comes to the agonizing decision to leave Marie for Lulu, Nector says, “It seems as though, all my life up to now, I have not had to make a decision. I just did what came along … But now it is one or the other, and my mind can't stretch far enough to understand this” (106). In coming to a decision, Nector has attempted to confront the monsters in his life for the first time when he takes off his clothes and dives into the lake: “I swam until I felt a clean tug in my soul. … I gave her [Lulu] up and dived down to the bottom of the lake where it was cold, dark, still, like the pit bottom of a grave. Perhaps I should have stayed there and never fought. … But I didn't. The water bounced me up” (103). In diving deep into the lake, Nector has dared the water monster, Missepeshu, who, according to Lipsha, “lives over in Lake Turcot” (194). And as a Chippewa he has assumed even greater risk, for as Lulu explains, “drowning was the worst death for a Chippewa to experience. By all accounts, the drowned weren't allowed into the next life but forced to wander forever, broken shoed, cold, sore, and ragged. There was no place for the drowned in heaven or anywhere on earth” (234).

In spite of his official position with the tribe, and despite the fact that he is, as Lipsha points out, a kind of Indian monument unto himself, Nector is, like the Ishmael with whom he identifies, one of the novel's cultural outcasts. Nector wanders mentally between Indian and white worlds, eventually retreating to a second childhood where responsibility will never be forced upon him. In contrast, Eli, who has lived closer to the traditional Chippewa ways, knows precisely who and where he is to the end. In Eli the past is alive, and King's white wife, Lynette, perceives this when she shrieks, “Tell 'em Uncle Eli. … They've got to learn their own heritage! When you go it will all be gone!” (30). It is Eli who shows Nector's progeny “how to carve, how to listen for the proper birdcall, how to whistle on their own fingers like a flute,” and it is Eli who remembers how to hunt in the old ways.

In Love Medicine, the searing pain of Indian lives found in such novels as House Made of Dawn,Ceremony,Winter in the Blood,The Death of Jim Loney,Sundown,The Surrounded,The Jailing of Cecelia Capture, and others is not as immediately evident. Lives and loves fail in Love Medicine, but not with the whetted edge found in fiction by most other Indian authors. Deracination is the crucible in which identities are both dissolved and formed, but the suffering is kept at a distance through the constantly shifting narrative and surface complexity of the text. Caught up in the tangled lives of mixedbloods who have the foolishness, cruelty, and courage to love whom they will and abandon what they must, the reader experiences the human comedy of these generations. But the non-Indian reader is not made to feel acutely, as he or she is in other Indian novels, a sense of responsibility for the conditions portrayed. Unlike many other works by Native Americans, Erdrich's first novel does not make the white reader squirm with guilt, and this fact may well have contributed significantly to the book's popularity with mainstream American readers. However, to say that Erdrich does not foreground the oppression and genocide that characterize white relations with Indians over the centuries is not to say that Love Medicine ignores that aspect of Indian consciousness. Formally, the novel's fragmented narrative underscores the fragmentation of the Indian community and of the identity which begins with community and place; and the fragmentation of this community, the rootlessness that results in an accumulation of often mundane tragedies among the assorted characters, subtly underscores the enormity of what has been lost.

In addition to this subtle fabric of alienation, deracination, and despair that forms the backdrop for the often darkly comic drama in this novel, Erdrich provides brief glimpses of more pointed Indian resentment. Even Lipsha, troubled by a tangled identity but also perhaps the most compassionate character in the novel, can be very bitter, musing upon “the old time Indians who was swept away in the outright germ warfare and dirty-dog killing of the white,” and admitting, “Oh yes, I'm bitter as an old cutworm just thinking of how they done to us and doing still” (195). Albertine, heading home, declares, “The policy of allotment was a joke. As I was driving toward the land, looking around, I saw as usual how much of the reservation was sold to whites and lost forever” (11). The Catholic Church itself comes in for a severe scourging in the form of Sister Leopolda, the mad nun who tortures Marie Lazarre and struggles with Satan. Leopolda, as we discover in Tracks, is the mother who abandoned and never acknowledged Marie, the Indian who denied her Indianness, the demented murderer of her daughter's father, and the Christian who never relinquished her belief in Missepeshu, the lake monster of Matchimanito. Though Father Damien in Tracks will redeem the church considerably, in Leopolda we are confronted with evidence as damning as that McNickle presents in The Surrounded. About this thread in Tracks, the “prequel” to Love Medicine, Erdrich has said, “There are two major Catholic figures in Tracks, Pauline [Leopolda] and Father Damien. Pauline took over the book. She's every aspect of Catholicism taken to extremes. … There's no question that the church on reservations has become more tolerant, and that there have been many committed priests who fought for Indian rights. But the church has an outrageous view on women—damaging and deadly.”12

Erdrich does not ignore the racism and brutality of Euramerica's dealings with Indian people, but for the first time in a novel by a Native American author, she makes the universality of Indian lives and tragedies easily accessible to non-Indian readers. Kashpaws and Morrisseys and Lazarres and Lamartines are people readers can identify with much more easily and closely than they can with an Archilde, Able, or Tayo. These tangled lives are not so radically different from the common catastrophes of mainstream Americans, certainly no more so than those dreamed up by a Faulkner or Fitzgerald. And yet no reader can come away from Love Medicine without recognizing the essential Indianness of Erdrich's cast and concerns.


  1. Despite obvious stylistic differences between A Yellow Raft in Blue Water and Louise Erdrich's three novels, both Erdrich and Dorris insist that each of their novels has been to some extent a collaboration. In a 1989 conversation with me, Michael Dorris said simply, “We've worked very closely together on each of the novels,” and in a published interview, he explained: “The process of everything that goes out, from book reviews to magazine articles to novels, is a give and take” (Sharon White and Glenda Burnside, “On Native Ground: An Interview with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris,” Bloomsbury Review 8 [1988]: 17).

  2. J. H. Tompkins, “Louise Erdrich: Looking for the Ties That Bind,” Calendar Magazine, Oct., 1986, 15.

  3. Louise Erdrich, “Where I Ought to Be: A Writer's Sense of Place,” New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1988, 1, 23.

  4. Joseph Bruchac, ed., Survival This Way, 77, 79, 83.

  5. Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine, 1 (subsequent references to the novel will be identified by page number in parentheses in the text).

  6. Jay Cox, “Dangerous Definitions: Female Tricksters in Contemporary Native American Literature,” Wicazo Sa Review 5, no. 2 (1989): 19.

  7. Herta D. Wong, “An Interview with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris,” North Dakota Quarterly 55 (1987): 210.

  8. While it is tempting to see in Albertine a version of the author, Michael Dorris has declared, “There's the assumption that because this character has some education, she must be Louise. And it's certainly not” (Wong, “Interview,” 206).

  9. It should be noted, of course, that Foucault says at the same time that the “authored” work “now possesses the right to kill, to be its author's murderer” (Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” in Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, eds., Contemporary Literary Criticism, 264).

  10. Tompkins, “Louise Erdrich,” 15.

  11. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, 7.

  12. Laurie Alberts, “Novel Traces Shattering of Indian Traditions,” Albuquerque Journal, Oct. 23, 1988, G-8.

Greg Sarris (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Sarris, Greg. “Reading Louise Erdrich: Love Medicine as Home Medicine.” In Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts, pp. 115-45. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Sarris offers a critical reading of Love Medicine, using Erdrich's text to explore aspects of Native American literature.]

“Your grandmother didn't want to be Indian,” my Auntie Violet remarked as she put down the photograph of my grandmother I had given her. She leaned forward in her chair, as if for a closer inspection, one last look at the picture, then sat back with resolve. “Nope,” she said, “that lady wanted to be white. She didn't want to be Indian. I'm sorry to tell.”

I shuffled through the assorted black and white photographs I kept in a plastic K-Mart shopping bag. They were pictures I had taken from my grandmother's family album. I handed Auntie Violet another picture, hopeful that she would change her mind, discern something similar, something good, Indian. We were all related, after all. We shared the same history: the invasions by the Spanish and Russians, the Mexicans, and the Americans. We shared the same blood: my father's great-grandfather Tom Smith, my grandmother's grandfather, was married at one time to Auntie Violet's great-grandmother, the Kashaya Pomo matriarch Rosie Jarvis. My grandmother grew up among her grandmother's people, the Coast Miwok who lived south of the Russian River in Sonoma and Marin counties, and she had lived in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Violet and many of my other relatives identified as Kashaya Pomo grew up on the Kashaya Reservation in Kashaya Pomo territory north of the Russian River. I wanted desperately to know everything I could about my grandmother whom I had never known. Grandpa Hilario, her husband, didn't know that much about her Indian background, only where she was from. “Take what pictures you want,” he said as I looked through her album. “Maybe those ladies up there [at Kashaya] can tell you something.”

Violet held the picture close to her face, scrutinizing. She adjusted her glasses, then carefully placed the photograph in the neat line of photos she was making before her on the kitchen table. She reached for her cigarettes. “Nope,” she said. “You see, Greg, those Indians down there, those south people, they lost it a long time ago. Those ones around there. Shoot, they don't have no one speaking their language now. They speak more Spanish, Mexican. A few of them, they didn't even want to be Indian. They're mixed, light-skinned.”

Violet stopped talking to light her cigarette. She pushed the pack of cigarettes to Auntie Vivien who sat directly across from me. Violet was at the head of the table. It was late, around one in the morning. We often visited, talked about people and places until sunup. Now I was sharing the pictures and what I learned from my grandfather during my recent visit with him. In the quiet of the room, in those spaces between our words, I heard loud music coming from a neighbor's house. The heavy bass sounded through Auntie Violet's trailer home walls. I looked down at her clean white-and-orange-flowered oilcloth. Up here on the reservation, on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere, at least forty long, winding miles from Healdsburg, the nearest town, and all this noise.

“Drinking, fighting each other,” Vivien said, as if reading my thoughts. Vivien was quiet, to the point.

“No,” Violet said, exhaling a cloud of smoke, “a few of them people down there, they would ignore us if they seen us in town. Those Bodega ones, especially. Act too good, act white, them people. Like that guy, what's his name. YOUR cousin, Greg. Now he wants to be Indian. But, oh, his mother. Stuck up. Used to be she see us Indians and laugh at us. And what's she got? Who is she?”

Auntie Violet didn't say all that she could have just then. I knew the stories, the gossip that one group armed themselves with against the other. Indians, I thought to myself. “Indians, you know how we are,” my Miwok cousin once said.

I opened the plastic bag, then closed it. What I was sensitive to, what made me uncomfortable, was Auntie Violet's dismissive tone. I knew she loved me; she and Uncle Paul were like parents to me. But wasn't my grandmother a part of me also? Wasn't there some common ground that could be talked about?

“But my grandmother didn't like white people,” I protested. “Look, she married a Filipino. In those days a Filipino was considered low as an Indian. And Grandpa Hilario is dark.”

“Well, she might not liked whites, but she must not liked herself, too. She didn't want to claim all of what she was. Those people, well, besides they had no Indian upbringing really. No language. I know those people. Laugh at us, but others are laughing at them. To whites they're nothing either.”

Violet shifted in her chair, tugged at the ends of her white cotton blouse. “Viv,” she said, “remember what's his name's mother, how she act when she seen us downtown that time? I felt like saying … I just wouldn't lower myself to THAT level.”

Just then a woman screamed from the house across the way. There was a loud crash, a spilling of things, as if a table had been overturned, and the music stopped.

“Oh,” Violet sighed, blowing smoke. “How embarrassing. Gives Indians a bad name.”

I looked down at the oilcloth and the Tupperware bowls of leftovers from dinner. Beans, fried chicken, salad, a plate of cold tortillas. Auntie Violet's pink poodle salt-and-pepper shakers. I looked at her row of my grandmother's photographs. My grandmother, Evelyn Hilario, looking up to Auntie Violet in at least a half-dozen different ways. All of us, I thought, fighting each other. I reached into the plastic shopping bag for another photograph, one where my grandmother might look more “Indian.”

Families bickering. Families arguing amongst themselves, drawing lines, maintaining old boundaries. Who is in. Who is not. Gossip. Jealousy. Drinking. Love. The ties that bind. The very human need to belong, to be worthy and valued. Families. Who is Indian. Who is not. Families bound by history and blood. This is the stuff, the fabric of my Indian community. It is what I found in Louise Erdrich's Chippewa community as I read Love Medicine.

In the first chapter of the novel Albertine Johnson comes home to her reservation after hearing the news of her Aunt June's death. Albertine is one of Erdrich's seven narrators whose interrelated stories readers follow throughout the novel. The death of June Kashpaw becomes the occasion around which the narrators tell their stories, stories that chronicle in a variety of ways life on and around the North Dakota Chippewa reservation. As Albertine comes home, readers witness with her the general reservation setting and the interpersonal dynamics of her family. When I found Albertine caught in the middle of her mother and aunt's bickering about who was white and who was Indian, I immediately thought of the time I came home and spent the night showing Auntie Violet picture after picture of my grandmother. So much seemed familiar.

“That white girl,” Mama went on, “she's built like a truckdriver. She won't keep King long. Lucky you're slim, Albertine.”

Jeez, Zelda!” Aurelia came in from the next room. “Why can't you just leave it be. So she's white. What about the Swede? How do you think Albertine feels hearing you talk like this when her Dad was white?”

“I feel fine,” I said. “I never knew him.”

I understood what Aurelia meant though—I was light, clearly a breed.

“My girl's an Indian,” Zelda emphasized. “I raised her an Indian, and that's what she is.”

“Never said no different.” Aurelia grinned, not the least put out, hitting me with her elbow. “She's lots better looking than most Kashpaws.”

(LM [Love Medicine] 23)

The bickering about who and what is or is not Indian is not the only phenomenon about Albertine's Chippewa reservation and family that made me think of home. There is the drinking and associated violence. And the bickering, gossiping, and drinking Albertine introduces readers to in the first chapter continue throughout the novel. The general scene readers walk into with Albertine does not change particularly, even though, as some critics (McKenzie 1986; Gleason 1987) suggest, certain characters seem to triumph over it. Images and sounds, bits and pieces of conversations, people and places from home and from the novel came together and mixed in my mind. Albertine in a bar, “sitting before [her] third or fourth Jellybean, which is anisette, grain alcohol, a lit match, and a small wet explosion in the brain” (LM 155). My cousin Elna seated in the neon light of an Indian bar on lower Fourth Street in Santa Rosa. Marie Lazarre Kashpaw responding to the gossip about her: “I just laugh, don't let them get a wedge in. Then I turn the tables on them, because they don't know how many goods I have collected in town” (LM 70). My Auntie Marguerita: “Ah, let them hags talk. Who are they? Just women who kept the streets of lower Fourth warm.” “My girl's an Indian.” “Your grandmother didn't want to be an Indian.” Albertine jumping on June's drunken son King and biting a hole in his ear to keep him from drowning his wife in the kitchen sink and the fighting that follows and the cherished fresh-baked pies getting smashed: “Torn open. Black juice bleeding through the crusts” (LM 38). The loud crash, a spilling of things, as if a table had been overturned.

Drinking, fighting each other.

I began asking questions, if at first only to sort things out. Are these two communities, one in northern California and one in North Dakota, really that similar?1 Are these conditions and scenes the same for all American Indians? Is this situation the common ground, finally, on which over three hundred different nations and cultures meet? Is there more to see and know about this situation than Erdrich has painted? Where does all of this come from, this bickering, this age-old family rivalry and pain?

This last question brought me back to the feuding families in Love Medicine: the Kashpaws, the Lazarres, the Lamartines, and the Morrisseys. They reflected in their quarrels and pain my own relatives and the families on the Kashaya reservation feuding with other Kashaya families and with Coast Miwok families from the southern territories.

I thought again of the history of the Kashaya and the Miwok families. The Coast Miwoks in the southern territories suffered cultural and political domination early on. The Spanish missionized the Coast Miwoks and broke apart most of the tribes early in the nineteenth century. The northern Indians, the Kashaya Pomo who were colonized by the Russians, were not affected in the same ways. The Kashaya were virtually enslaved by the Russians, but they were not converted to Christianity, nor were they broken apart as a tribe. The Miwoks learned Spanish and changed their ways earlier and faster than the Kashaya Pomo to the north. They had to. No wonder the Coast Miwok people “don't have no one speaking their language now.”2 No wonder my grandmother wasn't Indian in ways Auntie Violet is. Still, what the Coast Miwok and Kashaya Pomo people have in common, albeit in somewhat different forms and situations, is that history of cultural and political domination by European and Euro-American invaders. Today so much of our pain, whether we are Kashaya or Miwok or both, seems associated with that history, not just in our general material poverty but also in the ways we have internalized the domination. Low self-esteem. A sense of powerlessness. Alienation from both past and present, the Indian world and the white world, and from the ways the two worlds commingle. We often judge ourselves in terms of the dominator's values (“laughing at ‘Indians’”) or create countervalues with which to judge ourselves (“they act white”; “they're mixed, light-skinned”). We internalize the oppression we have felt and, all too often, become oppressor-like to ourselves.

So one answer, at least, to my question regarding the origins and perpetuation of family bickering and pain at home is internalized oppression. I began seeing signs of internalized oppression as I remembered again people and events at home on the Kashaya Pomo reservation and in the town of Santa Rosa. Our quarrelling, name-calling, self-abuse. And when I looked back at Love Medicine, I found the same signs reflected from my community. And couldn't this be the case? Just as Erdrich's Indian community reflected in ways my Indian community, might not my community with its history reflect that of Erdrich's in her novel? After all, the Chippewa Indians, on whose stories Erdrich's fiction is based, suffered European and Euro-American domination also.

But to answer my question about whether the concept of internalized oppression as I see it pertaining to my community can be applied to Erdrich's fictional Chippewa community, I must turn back to my first questions. Are the two respective Indian communities really that similar? Is life on and around the Kashaya Pomo reservation the same as life on and around Erdrich's fictional Chippewa reservation? Are the conditions and scenes I have noted about both my community and Erdrich's in Love Medicine the same for all American Indian communities? I think of Auntie Violet arranging photographs of my grandmother and seeing in the photographs what she wanted to see, what she knew to be true, and of how I might be doing the same thing with respect to Love Medicine. How might I be perpetuating biases, limiting communication and understanding, rather than undoing biases and opening communication and understanding? My community and that in Erdrich's text do not exist side by side, nor do they necessarily reflect one another in the manner I describe, independently of me. As a reader, and ultimately as the writer of this book, I position the mirror so that certain reflections occur. I am the reader of both my community and the written text. How am I reading? Am I merely projecting my experience and ideas from my community onto the text? Am I thus framing or closing the text in ways that silence how it might inform me? What about the cross-cultural issues between Kashaya Pomo culture and Chippewa culture? What do I know of Chippewa life? Again, are these two different communities really so similar that I can make generalizations suitable for both?

Current discussion regarding reading cross-cultural literatures centers on these same questions. How do we read and make sense of literatures produced by authors who represent in their work and are members of cultures different from our own? If, say, we compare and contrast themes or character motivation, how are we comparing and contrasting? What of our biases as readers? What of the ways we hold the mirror between a canonical text such as Hamlet and a text such as Leslie Silko's Ceremony? Can we read these different texts in the same ways? In this [essay] I want to continue relating how my reading of Love Medicine helped me to recognize and think about (and ultimately talk about) what Erdrich's character Albertine Johnson felt as the “wet blanket of sadness coming down over us all” (LM 29). To relate the story of my reading, I must also discuss my own reading, asking how I read or how anyone reads American Indian literatures written by American Indians. Remember, as many of my questions suggest, my being Indian does not necessarily privilege me as a reader of any and all American Indian texts. My discussions and stories, then, while concerned with my reading of Love Medicine, contribute to current discussions regarding reading of American Indian literatures in particular and cross-cultural literatures in general.

What makes written literatures cross-cultural depends as much on their content and production as on their being read by a particular reader or community of readers. Many Americans from marginal cultures with specific languages and mores write in a particular variety of English or integrate their culture-specific language with an English that makes their written works accessible in some measure to a large English-speaking readership. These writers mediate not only different languages and narrative forms, but, in the process, the cultural experiences they are representing, which become the content of their work. Their work represents a dialogue between themselves and different cultural norms and forms and also, within their text, between, say, characters or points of view. This cross-cultural interaction represented by the texts is extended to readers, many of whom are unfamiliar with the writers' particular cultural experiences and who must, in turn, mediate between what they encounter in the texts and what they know from their specific cultural experiences. As David Bleich observes regarding literature in general, the texts are both representations of interaction and the occasion for interaction (418). Of course this general truth can become more pronounced and obvious in situations where literatures that represent cross-cultural experiences in their content and production are read by readers unfamiliar with the experiences.3 And here the questions surface regarding how readers respond to what they encounter in texts. In their practices of reading and interpretation do they reflect on their making sense of the texts? Do they account for their interaction with what constitutes the content and making of the written texts? In their practices of reading are they limiting or opening intercultural communication and understanding, undoing biases or maintaining and creating them anew?

Scholars who study American Indian oral literatures have become increasingly aware of the fact that the oral texts they read have been shaped and altered not only by those people (for the most part non-Indian) who have collected, translated, and transcribed them but also by the Indians who have told them to these people. As noted, Arnold Krupat defines narrated Indian autobiographies, where a recorder-editor records and transcribes what was given orally by the Indian subject, as original bicultural compositions (31). His definition holds for many, perhaps most, of the American Indian oral texts—songs, stories, prayers—read and studied. Scholars such as Dennis Tedlock and Barre Toelken account for and question their encounters with both the Indian speakers from whom they collect texts and the texts themselves, which they transcribe and attempt to understand.4 At its best their work provides a record of the various dialogues they have with the Indians and the Indians' texts. Readers have an account of how these scholars collected the Indian material and how their transcriptions and analysis continue the life of the material in given cross-cultural ways.

Such is rarely the case for Indian literatures written in English by Indians, or for what I am calling in this essay American Indian written literatures.5 Most critics neither question nor account for the ways they make sense of what they encounter as readers of these written literatures. Some critics do consider the ways certain Indian writers mediate, or make use of, their respective cultural backgrounds or specific themes considered to be generally “Indian.” But these critics do not seriously consider or reflect upon how they are making sense of and putting together the writers' cultural backgrounds and the writers' texts. They attempt to account for the interaction represented in the texts, but not for their own interaction. They might, for example, attempt in their various approaches to locate and account for an “Indian” presence or “Indian” themes in a text, but they do not consider how they discovered or created what they define as Indian. Citing Michael Glowinski's observation about so much contemporary literary criticism, Bleich notes that critics provide “a history of the literature, while rejecting [their] own historicity” (402). The result is that they do not see how their practices of reading and interpretation are limiting or opening intercultural communication and understanding. They don't see themselves and their work as an integral and continuing part of the cross-cultural exchange. Their practices are characterized by one-sided communication: they inform the texts, but the texts do not inform them and their critical agendas, or at least not in ways they make apparent.

Lester A. Standiford, in his essay “Worlds Made of Dawn: Characteristic Image and Incident in Native American Imaginative Literature,” notes that “it is important that we seek a greater understanding of [Native American imaginative written] literature” (169) and that to gain a greater understanding we must not enforce “old assumptions on those new aspects of a literature that draws from sources outside the Anglo-American heritage” (170). Standiford's strategy for approaching and, subsequently, for helping other readers gain a greater understanding of these cross-cultural texts is to use a generalization gleaned from his studies about Indians and their literatures to find and hence account for that in the texts which is “Indian.” Standiford writes:

I will be speaking of contemporary Indian American poetry and fiction according to this archetypal concept of the poet as shaman who “speaks for wild animals, the spirits of plants, the spirits of mountains, of watersheds” (Snyder, p. 3). If you must have a worldly function of the poet, base it on this example from Snyder's remarks: “The elaborate, yearly, cyclical production of grand ritual dramas in the societies of Pueblo Indians … can be seen as a process by which the whole society consults the non-human powers and allows some individuals to step totally out of their human roles to put on the mask, costume, and mind of Bison, Bear, Squash, Corn, or Pleiades; to re-enter the human circle in that form and by song, mime, and dance, convey a greeting from that other realm. Thus a speech on the floor of congress from a whale” (p. 3). … Poetry that speaks with the voice of the whale resounds with the true power of Indian American imaginative literature.


Standiford typically moves thus from a generalization about Indians to a citation from an Indian or authoritative non-Indian to support and make legitimate his use of generalization to identify and understand things Indian in the text(s). He then further generalizes or restates the previous generalization, eventually returning to the written Indian text(s). See the pattern again within the following paragraph:

Here [in Durango Mendoza's short story “Summer Water and Shirley”] the key to understanding is the Native American concept of the great and inherent power of the word. Because the boy [in Mendoza's story] can force his will out through his thoughts and into words, he succeeds in his task. This sense of the power of the word derives from the thousands of years of the Native American oral literary tradition. From its labyrinthine and tenuous history the word arrives in the present with inestimable force. As Scott Momaday points out in his essay “The Man Made of Words,” the oral form exists always just one generation from extinction and is all the more precious on that account. And this sense of care engendered for the songs and stories and their words naturally leads to an appreciation of the power of the word itself.


Using a similar strategy, Paula Gunn Allen, renowned Laguna Pueblo/Sioux literary critic and poet, summarizes (interprets) what she saw in Cache Creek Pomo Dreamer and basket-weaver Mabel McKay and in Kashaya Pomo Dreamer and prophet Essie Parrish and then makes generalizations based on what she saw to further develop and support what she calls a “tribal-feminist” or “feminist-tribal” (222) approach to Indian women's written literatures. Allen says that “the teachings of [Mabel McKay and Essie Parrish] provide clear information about the ancient ritual power of Indian women” (204). She summarizes what she heard Mrs. McKay say during a basket-weaving demonstration as follows:

Mrs. McCabe [sic] spoke about the meaning of having a tradition, about how a woman becomes a basketmaker among her people—a process that is guided entirely by a spirit-teacher when the woman is of the proper age. It is not transmitted to her through human agency. For Mrs. McCabe, having a tradition means having a spirit-teacher or guide. That is the only way she used the term “tradition” and the only context in which she understood it. Pomo baskets hold psychic power, spirit power; so a basketweaver weaves a basket for a person at the direction of her spirit guide.


Allen then summarizes what she heard from Mrs. Parrish on a “field trip with [Allen's] students to the Kashia7 Pomo reservation” (203) and what she heard and saw in the documentary films on Mrs. Parrish and Kashaya religious activities:

In one of [the films], Dream Dances of the Kashia Pomo, [Essie Parrish] and others dance and display the dance costumes that are made under her direction, appliquéd with certain dream-charged designs that hold the power she brings from the spirit world. She tells about the role of the Dreamer, who is the mother of the people not because she gives physical birth (though Essie Parrish has done that) but because she gives them life through the power of dreaming—that is, she en-livens them. Actually, the power of giving physical birth is a consequence of the power of giving nonmaterial or, you might say, ‘astral’ birth. …

The Dreamer, then, is the center of psychic/spiritual unity of the people. … In another film, Pomo Shaman, Mrs. Parrish demonstrates a healing ritual, in which she uses water and water power, captured and focused through her motions, words, and use of material water, to heal a patient. She demonstrates the means of healing, and in the short narrative segments, she repeats in English some of the ritual. It is about creation and creating and signifies the basic understanding the tribal people generally have about how sickness comes about and how its effects can be assuaged, relieved, and perhaps even removed.


Allen relates other observations she has about Indian women and shamanism from a few other tribes (e.g., Kiowa) and proclaims finally:

One of the primary functions of the shaman is her effect on tribal understandings of “women's roles,” which in large part are traditional in Mrs. McCabe's [sic] sense of the word. It is the shaman's connection to the spirit world that Indian women writers reflect most strongly in our poetry and fiction.


It seems that in Allen's strategy to develop and support a tribal-feminist or feminist-tribal approach to American Indian women's written literatures—an approach that can both locate an Indian (woman) presence in the texts and critique patriarchal tendencies to suppress Indian women's power and subjectivity—she replicates in practice what she sets out to criticize. Allen does not question how she reads each of the Pomo women's words and performances she translates and discusses in her scholarship. She does not examine the women's particular histories and cultures to inform her ideas regarding what she saw and heard. She says these women provide “clear information about the ancient ritual power of Indian women,” but in actuality the Dreaming and other related “ancient” or “traditional” activities associated with Mabel McKay and Essie Parrish that Allen cites to substantiate her claims are tied to the nineteenth-century Bole Maru (Dream Dance) cult, a revivalistic movement discussed in Chapter 4. Though many, if not most, of the more recent Dreamers have been women, the first Bole Maru Dreamer, Richard Taylor, and many of the earlier Dreamers were men. The Kashaya have had four Dreamers in this order: Jack Humbolt, Big José, Annie Jarvis, Essie Parrish. My grandmother's grandfather, Tom Smith, who was half Coast Miwok and half Kashaya Pomo, was one of the most influential Dreamers and doctors throughout the Coast Miwok and southern Pomo territories. How does what Essie Parrish demonstrates in her healing show “the basic understanding the tribal peoples generally have about how sickness comes about”? Which tribal peoples? Where? When? Neither Mabel McKay nor Essie Parrish is allowed to talk back to or inform Allen's conclusions about them. Neither woman has an individual voice represented in the text. Allen provides not direct quotations. Like Standiford, Allen has shaped what she heard and saw to inform the Indian presence in the texts she reads.

How then can Allen's readers take seriously any account she might give of the interaction represented in Indian women's written literatures or of her interaction with the Indian women's texts she reads? While Allen opens important and necessary discussions about American Indian women and their written literatures which make a significant contribution to American Indian and feminist scholarship, she, perhaps inadvertently, closes discussions with those women and the texts she sets out to illumine.8

William Gleason, in his essay “‘Her Laugh an Ace’: The Function of Humor in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine,” works to avoid the tendency to generalize across tribal cultures and histories that is associated with the work of Standiford and Allen. Gleason looks at the ways Trickster, which Gleason refers to as a “pan-Indian character” (60), is presented and functions in Chippewa stories and legends. But then Gleason takes what he has gleaned from his studies of Trickster in Chippewa culture and lore and, without reflecting on how he understood what he studied or on how he uses it in his reading of Love Medicine, he frames what he finds in the novel.9 He says of Erdrich's character Gerry Nanapush:

Gerry is Trickster, literally. Alan R. Velie records that “the Chippewa Trickster is called Wenebojo, Manabozho, or Nanabush, depending on how authors recorded the Anishinabe word.” This Trickster (as is true for most tribes) is able to alter his shape as he wishes. … The first time we meet the adult Gerry he performs a miraculous escape: though spotted by Officer Lovchik in the confines of a “cramped and littered bar … Gerry was over the backside of the booth and out the door before Lovchik got close enough to make a positive identification.”


Later, in another scene from the novel, Gleason finds that:

By … teaming with Lipsha to defeat King in a quick card game (“five-card punk,” Gerry says), Gerry unwittingly re-enacts a classic Chippewa Trickster story. For, according to legend, Manabozho/Nanabush journeys until he meets his principal enemy, “the great gambler,” whom he defeats, saving his own life and the spirit of the woodland tribes from “the land of darkness.”


Here the strategy and the end result are the same as in Standiford and Allen: nail down the Indian in order to nail down the text. The Indian is fixed, readable in certain ways, so that when we find him or her in a written text we have a way to fix and understand the Indian and hence the text.

I am not suggesting that whatever these critics—Standiford, Allen, Gleason—might be saying is necessarily untrue, but that whatever truth they advance about Indians or Indian written literatures is contingent upon their purposes and biases as readers and their particular relationship with the worlds of what they read or otherwise learn about Indians and with the worlds of the written texts they study. And here I am not suggesting that critical activity is impossible and that critics and other readers cannot inform the Indian worldviews and Indian written texts they encounter. What I am suggesting is that the various Indian worldviews (and whatever else comprises the Indian written texts) as well as the texts themselves also can inform the critics and their critical enterprises, and that genuine critical activity—where both the critics' histories and assumptions as well as those of the texts are challenged and opened—cannot occur unless critics can both inform and be informed by that which they encounter. At some level or at some point in the encounter and interaction between critic and text, there is a dialogue of sorts, even if it is merely the critic responding (dialoguing) by saying, “this is what you are saying to me and I won't hear anything else,” that is, responding in a way that prohibits the text from talking back to and informing the critic about what the text said. But the critics I have cited, and most other literary critics for that matter, do not record their dialogue or even the nature of the dialogue they may have had with what they are reading. Instead, they report the outcome, what they thought and concluded.

Of course, by looking at the essays of Standiford, Allen, and Gleason, much of what characterizes their work as critics becomes apparent. As I have noted, these critics tend to generalize, to “circumscribe and totalise” (Murray 117) the Others' cultures and worldviews in order to “circumscribe and totalise” the Others' written texts. Each uses, most plainly in their encounters with the Indians' cultures and worldviews, what Johannes Fabian has called the “ethnographic present tense.” As David Murray observes:

The effect of this is to create a textual space, in which a culture is shown operating, which is not the same historically bound present as the one in which the reader and the writer live, a product of grammar (the present tense) rather than history (the present). Accompanying this ethnographic present tense is a generalising of individual utterances, so that they illustrate an argument, or fulfill a pattern, rather than function in the context of any dialogue.


When Standiford, quoting Snyder, describes “this archetypical concept of the poet as shaman ‘who speaks for …’” or when he states “this sense of the power of the word derives from the thousands of years of the Native American oral literary tradition,” he is creating this space Murray describes. Note how Allen describes the work and art of Mabel McKay and Essie Parrish, and how she proclaims “one of the primary functions of the shaman is her effect on tribal understandings of ‘women's roles,’ which in large part are traditional in Mrs. McCabe's [sic] sense of the word.” Gleason quotes Velie: “‘The Chippewa Trickster is called. … This Trickster (as is true for most tribes) is able to …’” Again, these critics overlook their own historicity; they remove themselves from the present of the occasions of their interaction with whatever they encounter and create in their reports a world from which they attempt to separate themselves and purport to understand and describe plain as day. The communication is one-sided and represented textually so that it stays that way. What would happen if Standiford were to question an Indian shaman or storyteller from a particular tribe? How might the content of the Indian's responses and the Indian's language and history inform Standiford's “archetypical concept of the poet as shaman”? How might the Indian's responses, language, and history illuminate the gaps in Standiford's conclusions, his generalizations about Indians? In what ways is the Indian more or less than the poet/shaman who communes with nature? And wouldn't answers to these questions, or at least a consideration of these questions, at least afford Standiford the opportunity to see himself present as a biased thinker tending to shape in certain ways what he hears or reads? Wouldn't he then have the opportunity to see and question how his critical activity opens or closes intercultural communication or how it maintains and creates biases about American Indians? If Mabel McKay and Essie Parrish could talk back to Allen, if Allen could know more of their personal lives and particular cultures and histories, wouldn't she have, or have the opportunity to have, a broader understanding of two women as well as of herself and her critical practices? Might she not see herself as present, as an Indian woman silencing in certain ways those women she wishes to defend and give voice to? How might other elements of Chippewa culture, and the ways Erdrich might understand them, inform both an understanding of the Chippewa Trickster and the character of Gerry Nanapush? Couldn't these other elements inform William Gleason and his approach?

At this point one might ask why readers of American Indian written literatures seem to be generally less reflexive in their work than contemporary readers of American Indian oral literatures such as Tedlock and Toelken. Perhaps because the former are written in English and intended for a reading audience, readers feel that they have the texts carte blanche, that the cross-cultural elements that comprise these texts are somehow transparent (Murray 117), or can be made so, because the writers have provided the readers a medium (English) for looking at them.10 Perhaps those who study oral literatures—folklorists, anthropologists—are more aware of the current discussions in their respective disciplines regarding translation, representation, and interpretation of the Others and their works of art and literature. Perhaps readers of written literatures cannot escape the tenets of New Criticism and text positivism. I am not sure. But given what constitutes Indian oral literatures and Indian written literatures—songs, stories, as-told-to autobiographies—readers must consider the worlds of both the Indian speaker and the recorder-editor who has mediated the speaker's spoken words for the reader. With Indian written literatures the Indian writer is both Indian speaker and cross-cultural mediator, and readers must consider the Indian writer's specific culture and experience and how the writer has mediated that culture and experience for the reader. In both situations—with oral literatures and with written literatures—readers must interact with the worlds of the texts which are cross-cultural, comprised of many elements foreign to the worlds of the readers.

The task is to read American Indian written literatures in a way that establishes a dialogue between readers and the texts that works to explore their respective worlds and to expose the intermingling of the multiple voices within and between readers and what they read. The objective here is not to have complete knowledge of the text or the self as reader, not to obtain or tell the complete story of one or the other or both, but to establish and report as clearly as possible that dialogue where the particular reader or groups of readers inform and are informed by the text(s). The report, or written criticism, then, would be a kind of story, a representation of a dialogue that is extended to critics and other readers who in turn inform and are informed by the report. Thus in the best circumstances reading and criticism of American Indian written literatures become the occasion for a continuous opening of culturally diverse worlds in contact with one another.

Of course any report, or piece of criticism, represents a dialogue of sorts that the critic has had with the text he or she has read, even if the dialogue is presented as mere conclusions, and that report is extended to critics and other readers who will dialogue with it. But at each step of the way—reading, criticism, response to criticism—the critics as readers, as I suggested above, remove themselves from the encounter, from the present of the occasion of their interaction with what they encounter, so that by the time they write their reports they may not see or think about how they have interacted and are interacting, how their response may be, for example, “This is what you are saying to me and I won't hear anything else.” The Other, the text or whatever else has been encountered, is that which can remind the critics of their presence, of their own differences and culture-specific boundaries. If readers don't hear the texts, if they don't notice and explore those instances where the texts do not make sense to them, where the texts might question, qualify, and subvert the readers' agendas, the readers systematically forsake the opportunity not only to gain a broader understanding of themselves, of their own historicity, but also of the text. Criticism that reveals the questions and problems of reading, evoked by the experience of reading itself, can help illuminate for the critic and for others what has made for cross-cultural understanding or misunderstanding.

More often than not it is something strange and unfamiliar that can make us aware of our boundaries. For many non-Indian readers of American Indian written literatures it may be elements of a particular Indian culture represented in the text that stop them and ask them to think and rethink how they read and make sense of the Others. The same perhaps could be said for Indians reading other Indians' written literatures.

In my own case, as I continued to read and think about Love Medicine. I found myself coming back to the concept of internalized oppression. Erdrich's fictional Chippewa characters manifested the symptoms of this disease just as plainly as many people I knew and was thinking about from home. Marie Lazarre Kashpaw, Albertine Johnson's grandmother and one of the most notable characters in the novel, continually wants acceptance in terms of others' definitions. She believes others' ideas about her and sees no value in who or what she has been, where she comes from, her heritage. Nector Kashpaw, in looking back at his first encounter with Marie who would become his wife, says of her: “Marie Lazarre is the youngest daughter of a family of horse-thieving drunks. … She is just a skinny white girl from a family so low you cannot even think they are in the same class as Kashpaws” (LM 58-59). To a large extent Marie accepts this view of herself. She says early in the novel that “the only Lazarre I had any use for was Lucille [Marie's sister]” (LM 65). And when she overcomes the fear of losing her husband, Nector Kashpaw, to Lulu Lamartine, she says, “I could leave off my fear of ever being a Lazarre” (LM 128).

Marie not only internalizes others' ideas about her, but attempts to beat those others on their own terms in order to gain self-worth in their eyes. As a young girl Marie was determined to go “up there [to the convent] to pray as good as they [the black robe women] could” (LM 40). She saw the convent “on top of the highest hill. … Gleaming white. So white the sun glanced off in dazzling display to set forms whirling behind your eyelids. The face of God you could hardly look at” (LM 41). Of course she realizes in retrospect that she was under an illusion, and, in a hilarious and ironic manner, she does beat the nuns at their own game, getting them to worship her, “gain[ing] the altar of a saint” (LM 53). As a young married woman, Marie reveals her plan: “I decided I was going to make [Nector] into something big on this reservation. I didn't know what, not yet; I only knew when he got there they would not whisper ‘dirty Lazarre’ when I walked down from church. They would wish they were the woman I was. Marie Kashpaw” (LM 66). Marie succeeds: Nector becomes tribal chairman. Then Marie goes to visit Sister Leopolda at the convent, not to see Leopolda but, as Marie says, “to let her see me. … For by now I was solid class. Nector was tribal chairman. My children were well behaved, and they were educated too. … I pulled out the good wool dress I would wear up the hill … It was a good dress, manufactured, of a classic material. It was the kind of solid dress no Lazarre ever wore” (LM 113). Marie battles with Leopolda and sees, finally, the limits of her endeavors to win Leopolda's approval. Marie learns something about love and forgiveness, which she shows when Nector comes home from Lulu Lamartine. Yet as much as learning this lesson may constitute a personal triumph for Marie, it does not seem to help her come to terms with herself as a Lazarre, with the self-hatred associated with her background, which appears to influence so much of her behavior.

Marie says, “I don't have that much Indian blood” (LM 40), which, incidentally, is one reason she felt she could “pray as good as [the nuns] could” (LM 40). Indeed, Marie is light-skinned, a mixed blood so fair that Nector in his first encounter with her calls her a “skinny white girl” (LM 40) as an insult. At the time, face to face with another Indian, Marie would have taken Nector's comment as an insult, but Marie knows that among her Indian people white physical attributes are valued. She says: “I could have had any damn man on the reservation at that time. I looked good. And I looked white” (LM 45). She knows how to insult Nector by hissing at him, “Lemme go, you damn Indian. … You stink to hell” (LM 59). These characters at times both judge themselves and others in terms of the oppressor's values (e.g., white physical attributes), which they have internalized, and hate the oppressor and any sign (e.g., “skinny white girl”) of the oppressor in their own ranks. Racism and hatred are at once directed outward and inward. These characters can't win for losing. Again in the scene cited at the start of this chapter, where Albertine Johnson is caught in the middle of her mother and aunt's bickering, her mother implies that King's wife and white people in general are undesirable. Her Aunt Aurelia says that Albertine is “lots better looking than most Kashpaws,” implying that because Albertine is a mixed blood, “light, clearly a breed,” she is better looking and more attractive than the full-blood Kashpaw side of the family.

These characters' gossip and verbal abuse of others simultaneously work to belittle the other and to elevate the self. They take inventories of others' looks (e.g., light or dark skin) and maintain arsenals of information that can be used against others at any time. Marie Lazarre Kashpaw, responding to the gossip about her, says: “I just laugh, don't let them get a wedge in. Then I turn the tables on them, because they don't know how many goods I have collected in town.” Of course, when it's wrong to be Indian and wrong to be white, when these people can judge one another in terms of the oppressors' values and in terms of their own countervalues, they don't have to look far to find faults in themselves and others. When Albertine Johnson thinks of her family and life on and around the reservation, she thinks of the phrase “Patient Abuse,” a title from her nursing textbook. She says: “There are two ways you could think of that title. One was obvious to a nursing student, and the other was obvious to a Kashpaw” (LM 7).

As I also noted earlier, this patient abuse can be physical as well as verbal. Albertine has been home only a few hours when she finds June's son King, who is drunk, beating up his white wife and attempting to drown her in the kitchen sink. King constantly tells stories about his duty in Vietnam; he bills himself as a war hero in an attempt to remedy his low self-esteem, to garner for himself attention and significance (again on others' terms). As his wife points out, the truth is that King “never got off the West Coast” (LM 239). It seems that when his storytelling does not gain for him the attention he needs from others, or when it is questioned, he resorts to violence to feel power and self-worth. Feeling both guilty about his oftentimes violent past with June and hopeless about his life in general, Gordie Kashpaw drinks himself into oblivion: “Everything worked against him. He could not remember when this had started to happen. Probably from the first always and ever afterward, things had worked against him. … He saw clearly that the setup of life was rigged and he was trapped” (LM 179). While driving drunk, Gordie hits a deer and then, assuming it is dead, that he has killed it, he puts it in his back seat. The deer, still alive, raises its head, and Gordie clobbers it with a tire iron and believes he has killed June. In his drunken stupor he has acted out his self-fulfilling prophecy: he has killed June, he is guilty, nothing works out right for him, and he deserves to be punished. He finds his way to the convent, and outside a nun's window he says, “I come to take confession. I need to confess it. … Bless me father for I have sinned” (LM 184).

Internalized oppression cuts a wide swath. The oppression that occurred during the colonial period has been internalized by the oppressed in ways that the oppressed in postcolonial periods can become agents of their own oppression and destruction. Ironically and inadvertently we work to complete what the oppressor began. At times certain characters sense the depth and breadth of this internalized oppression as a deep, unconscious fear. Albertine says of King: “He's scared underneath” (LM 35). Lipsha Morrissey, King's half brother and June's other son, asks what King is afraid of, but Albertine can only say she “really didn't know” (LM 36). Albertine can't spell out what causes King's fear or, for that matter, that “wet blanket of sadness coming down over us all.” She does not have a way to talk about it. Lipsha wonders “if Higher Power turned its back, if we got to yell, or if we just don't speak its language. … How else could I explain what all I had seen in my short life—King smashing his first in things, Gordie drinking himself down to the Bismarck hospitals, or Aunt June left by a white man to wander off in the snow. How else to explain” (LM 195). Indeed, the sadness is vast, ubiquitous. Isn't its trajectory the history of Chippewa and white inter-relations?

Doubtless internalized oppression is not the only way to think about the sadness, and certainly there is much more to this novel than its sadness. William Gleason sees in the novel that “love, assisted by humor, triumphs over pain” (51). And James McKenzie suggests that June's son Lipsha “completes [the journey home June had begun] some three years and thirteen chapters later in the novel's final scene” (58). McKenzie continues:

Having discovered and embraced his identity and delivered his newly found father—Gerry Nanapush, the embodiment of Chippewa life—to safety in Canada, [Lipsha] heads home to the reservation. Crossing the same river Henry Junior has drowned in (Lipsha calls it the “boundary river” (p. 27), which could only be the Red River, separating North Dakota and Minnesota), he stops to stretch and, looking at the water, remembers the traditional Chippewa custom of offering tobacco to the water. This leads him to thoughts of June, “sunken cars” (p. 271)—clearly a reference to Henry Junior—and the ancient ocean that once covered the Dakotas “and solved all our problems” (p. 272). The thought of drowning all Chippewa problems appeals to him briefly: “It was easy still to imagine us beneath them most unreasonable waves” (p. 272), but he quickly dispels this image of tribal suicide and chooses a more reasonable course. He hops in the car and heads back to the center of his tribal culture, the reservation. Lipsha's concluding words ring a change on the sentence describing his mother's death: “So there was nothing to do but cross the water and bring her home” (p. 272).


This final scene and the novel's ending in general make me consider again the ways I am thinking about the novel and its sadness. Lipsha happens to be in the right place at the right time. Three-hundred pound Gerry Nanapush, recently escaped from prison, shows up at King's apartment where Lipsha is visiting. Lipsha helps Gerry escape to Canada, and en route to the border Lipsha's relation to Gerry is made loud and clear when Gerry says to Lipsha: “You're a Nanapush man. … We all have this odd thing with our hearts” (LM 271). Of course Lipsha and readers learn Gerry is Lipsha's father a little earlier, when Lipsha tells how Lulu Lamartine told him the truth. And as McKenzie notes, Lipsha and Gerry each (like Lulu Lamartine, Gerry's mother and Lipsha's grandmother) “partakes in godlike qualities” (60). Lipsha has “the touch” (LM 190), the power to soothe pains with his fingers, and Gerry, as Gleason notes, is able to “perform … miraculous escape[s].” Once when he was pursued by the local police, “his [three-hundred pound] body lifted like a hot-air balloon filling suddenly” (LM 169). Magically he stuffs himself into the trunk of the car he and Lipsha won from King and stays hidden there until Lipsha has driven a safe distance from the law. When Gerry and Lipsha get to the border, where Lipsha will drop Gerry off, “they [hold] each other's arms, tight and manly” (LM 271). Lipsha then turns around and, as McKenzie noted, crosses the water that his uncle, Henry Junior, drowned in. Lipsha heads back to his reservation, to his home. Lipsha says: “The sun flared. … The morning was clear. A good road led on. So there was nothing to do but cross the water and bring her home” (LM 272).

I have trouble with all this.

Can I take this ending as a triumph for Lipsha given the ways and extent to which I see internalized oppression in Erdrich's fictional Chippewa community, in Lipsha's “home”? Has Lipsha or any of the other characters come to terms with the “blanket of sadness” in a way that they can get a handle on it, talk about it, recognize its scope? My agenda and personal experience as a reader surface again, along with all my questions about reading. I come back to myself as mirror holder, as an interlocutor with the world of Love Medicine.

I go home again.

Like Lipsha I traveled far to find my father, and I too headed for home.

I had to go to southern California, over four hundred miles from my family's native homeland in northern California, where I was born and raised.

I worked from a tip my mother's younger brother, my uncle, had given me. I listened to gossip, took notes, followed leads, and found my father in a Laguna Beach high school yearbook. A dark-skinned man in a row of blondes. And I saw myself in that face. Without a doubt. Darker than me. But me nonetheless.

I interviewed several people who went to school with him and my mother. It was my mother's friends who verified what I suspected. Emilio Hilario was my father. They also told me that he had died, that I had missed him by about five years.

I had to find out from others what he couldn't tell me. But now I had names, telephone numbers, addresses. I found a half brother and uncle in town. My grandfather still lived in the old house “out in the canyon” where he had moved his wife and children nearly fifty years ago when he took a job as a kitchen worker in Victor Hugo's, a glamorous waterfront restaurant.

Going to the old house was something. After all these years to find a place that was home, where my own father had grown up, where he had a mother and father, a brother and sister, where he sat at a kitchen table, where he took off his shoes at night and dreamed. Years of wondering leveled now by the sight of a small, ordinary house set back a ways from the road. I turned in the driveway, past the metal mailbox that said HILARIO.

I was amazed by Grandpa, how small he was as he held me in his arms. A small, dark Filipino with quick black eyes holding his six-foot-two, blue-eyed grandson. But I lost track of him. I forgot his first words, “the oldest son of my oldest son,” and I forgot even that it was Grandpa who clutched my wrist and was leading me through the house. I was lost in the photographs. Photographs everywhere. High school graduation. Baby pictures. Family reunions. Weddings. Mostly black and white, except for the newer ones on top of the color TV. They lined the door frames, covered entire walls and the end tables on either side of the sofa. In Grandpa's bedroom there were several photos of my father and uncle in uniforms—football, Navy, Army. One of them caught my attention, a head shot of my father in his sailor's uniform. He was smiling, handsome, his white grin almost boyish. He wrote on the picture:

Dear Mom and Dad,
                    Had fun seeing you last week.
                    Your Son
                                        Emilio                    May 15, 1951

He also saw my mother that week. Nine months later, February 12, 1952, he would have his first son.

Grandpa and I settled at the kitchen table. I took in other things: the faded beige kitchen walls, the odor of his pipe, the black dog at his side, his thick accent. I watched as he boiled water in an old pot, the kind that is tall with a spout and lid. “Your Grandma, she used this,” he said and poured water in a cup for instant coffee. “She used this to boil her water. Only thing she drank Hobo coffee, just boil the water and run it over the coffee in a strainer.” He set the pot on the stove then picked up a small stained strainer from the stove top. “This is it,” he said. “She sat right there in that chair next to the stove. She smoke and drink Hobo coffee. Here's her ashtray.” He held the small ceramic bowl in his hand then placed it neatly on the stove top with the strainer. He told me she died thirteen years ago. Obviously Grandpa had not changed a thing in the house.

“What happened to my father, Grandpa?”

I had heard my father died of a heart attack. But I wanted to hear it from Grandpa. Had he been sick a long time? Did he suffer?

Grandpa was at the stove watching me. I caught his eyes. He turned around and lit his pipe. Then all at once he put it down in a tin ashtray next to Grandma's ashtray on the stove top.

“Finish your coffee. Then we go to the cemetery,” Grandpa said.

We got on the 405 freeway, then went east through the city of Orange. We stopped at a supermarket and bought flowers, mixed bouquets, the kind you see road vendors selling. I could see now that Grandpa lived by routine. He had probably been coming to the same market, one of dozens we had passed, for thirteen years.

“Something with his heart,” Grandpa said. “All screwed up.”

I was startled, caught off guard when he spoke. He had been quiet, and now the rolling green cemetery lawns were in view. It took me a minute to realize he was talking about my father.

“Yeah,” he said. “Smoke too much. Fix his heart bad. Same thing with your grandmother. She smoke too much cigarettes. Get cancer. I tell 'em not to. Well …”

My grandmother and father are buried next to each other. The graves are close to the road. They are under a small cypress tree that marks the place for me. Grandpa performs a kind of ritual there. He leans over, and with his index finger on the raised letters of the metal grave plaque, he talks to the dead. That day, as always, he went to my grandmother first. He said: “Mom, here is your grandson. You didn't get to know him because …” He didn't finish the sentence. He turned to my father and said: “Son, you can rest now … Your boy is home.”


In Laguna Beach I talked to more people who knew my father—friends, ex-wives, relatives. They told me he was charming, charismatic. He loved his family. He was a fine athlete at one time, a boxer who knocked down Floyd Patterson. But a few people told me that there was another side to him. The drinking and violence. He broke his first wife's jaw. In a drunken brawl he mistook a friend for an enemy and threw the friend out a second-story window. He talked badly about white people. All three of his wives were white. He was alcoholic, overweight, down on his luck when he died of a massive heart attack at fifty-two.

Growing up in Laguna Beach was not easy for any of the Hilario children. My Auntie Rita Hilario-Carter tells me that when she was in fourth grade her teacher told her to clean up another girl's urine. “She told me to do it because when I grew up I was going to be a maid,” Auntie Rita said. “I was the only brown child in the class.” Although the town exalted my father as an athlete, he was discouraged from dating the white daughters of the townspeople.

My father's cousin told me that near the end of his life he would call her sometimes late at night. She said he would be drunk and fighting with his last wife. “How should I kill this white bitch?” he'd holler over the phone. “Strangle her? Drown her?” My father's last wife told me that my father talked about a son he had somewhere in the world. “I want him to feel welcome if he ever finds his way home,” he told her. “I want him to know us.”

I thought of my mother and how she died shortly after I was born so that the truth never got back to Laguna Beach about what happened to her or me. Rumors. Gossip. No one had the full story. Auntie Rita said: “I always wondered what happened to Bunny. No one talked about it. It was hush-hush around our house. Of course I was only about twelve at the time. Bunny was so nice. I thought it was such a big deal that this older white girl would come and take me for ice cream. Hah, little did I know what else was going on!” Ironically, I was born in Santa Rosa, where my mother's mother took my mother to have me, four hundred miles from Laguna Beach, on the same land my father's mother left decades before. And I would be taken in by my father's mother's people. Where was home? Santa Rosa? Laguna Beach? The Kashaya Reservation?

Before I left Laguna Beach, I went back to Grandpa's house. I wanted to visit and say goodbye.

He was waiting for me. He had coffee ready. Two old photo albums, one on top of the other, were on the kitchen table. On a faded green cover I saw in an elaborate scroll the words “Family Album.” Grandpa sat next to me and opened the top album. He started talking about the assorted black and white photos. “This is your grandmother when I met her … Oh, that's her sister, Juanita … That's your great-grandma, the old Indian from up there, Old [Tom] Smith's daughter …” It was truly a miracle. Pieces of a puzzle fell together. With names, I now knew how I was connected to everyone I knew. I could trace my genealogy. Auntie Violet was actually my grandmother's cousin. I had dated a girl from the reservation who was my second cousin, my father's first cousin. Grandpa told me that he met Grandma in East Los Angeles. She had come from northern California to stay with her sister.

“Did she speak Indian, Grandpa? Did she tell any of the old-time stories?”

“Take what pictures you want,” he said. “Maybe those ladies up there [at Kashaya] can tell you something.”

We went through the second album, and then Grandpa found a plastic K-Mart shopping bag for me to put the photos in. I felt shy. I didn't want to take too many, leaving gaps all over Grandma's pages. I took my time and picked out a little over a dozen. Then I stood up and looked around one last time before I had to go.

The house wasn't the same as when I first walked in. It was familiar now, and not necessarily because I had been in the place before and knew its layout. It was the photos. The smiling faces. The uniforms. Party dresses. Sportcoats and ties. I kept thinking of what I heard from the people I talked to during the last few days. Grandpa caught me standing in the middle of the living room. He handed me the plastic bag of pictures.

“It's too bad,” he said. “I tell your father not to smoke. Your Grandma, too. It done 'em in. Too much smoking … Heart, you know. Cancer … I tell 'em not to.”

“Yeah,” I said and hugged him.

I had driven nearly five hundred miles by the time I reached Auntie Violet's place. Nine hours north from Laguna Beach on Highway 101 and then the long climb from Healdsburg to the reservation on top of the mountain. Still, I was wide awake, excited.

I told Auntie Violet and Auntie Vivien everything I learned. Uncle Paul, Violet's husband, sat and listened for a long time too. I sounded like Auntie Violet. I rattled off names, went up and down family trees. I knew names. I knew my relations. I was telling Auntie Violet things she didn't know. I knew what happened to Rienette “Nettie” Smith, my great-grandmother, and her three children, Juanita, Albert, and Evelyn.

“Grandma Rosie knew that old lady. She knew them people,” Auntie Violet said.

I could tell in Auntie's voice that she was holding back something. I saw it in her eyes, as if she was watching for something behind her or underneath the table that might pop out anytime. She was anxious to see the pictures, and it wasn't until she had four or five of them in front of her that she let out what she was holding back, that my grandmother didn't want to be Indian. Her people were stuck-up, not good Indians. Related, yes. But so what? Auntie knew.

Auntie kept the photographs in front of her all night. Now and then she glanced at them, even after we finished talking about my trip and my grandmother. She reminded me how lucky I was to have been raised around Aunt Mabel and close to people on the reservation. “You learned from a great Indian,” she said, referring to Mabel McKay. I was lucky. I was lucky to know Mabel and I learned a lot from her, things I would not have known otherwise. I wanted to tell Auntie that I agreed with her, that I was lucky. And I wanted to thank her and Uncle Paul for all they had done for me, all the love they had shown. But I was tired. I hardly remember getting up from the table and going to bed.

I woke early, before anyone else, and made my way to the kitchen. You could still smell food, the heavy odor of homecooking, but now it was cool, damp. And the kitchen was dark, the curtains pulled over the windows and across the sliding glass doors. I went to open the curtain next to the kitchen table when I caught sight of Auntie's row of my grandmother's pictures. They seemed so still. Everything else had been cleared away—the leftovers in Tupperware bowls, Auntie's pink poodle salt-and-pepper shakers. I started for the photographs. I say I started, but I didn't actually move, except to stand up straight and look around the room. Photos everywhere. Auntie's case of babies' pictures. Pictures of her Mom and Dad, Auntie Essie and Uncle Sid. In one picture Auntie Essie is standing in front of the roundhouse in her beaded buckskin ceremonial dress. And there is a picture of Auntie Violet with Robert Kennedy.

I heard birds outside. I thought of what Auntie said about my grandmother. Again I had the urge to pick up the photos left on the table. But I couldn't move. I felt as if my slightest gesture would wake the entire household.

Home, I thought. Home again.

I could be jealous of Lipsha. He got to meet his father, see him face to face. They “held each other's arms, tight and manly.” Of course miracles happened for both of us. The miracle of finding our fathers. The miracle of being lucky enough to be raised and cared for by our own people, even when we didn't know about our blood relation to those people, and then the miracle of finding out. The miracle of always having been home in some way or other. But none of those miracles changes the nature of home for Lipsha or for me. There is still the drinking and violence, gossip and bickering. Indians fighting each other. Is finding our fathers and knowing our families love us as much as they can medicine enough? Lipsha observes: “The sun flared. … The morning was clear. A good road led on. So there was nothing to do but cross the water and bring her home.” If in the novel we were to see Lipsha make it home, as I did, what would he find?

As I noted earlier, certain of Erdrich's characters sense the depth and breadth of the problems around them. Certain characters have their moments, their insights that help them come to terms with the pain. At the funeral of Grandpa (Nector) Kashpaw, Lipsha felt his “vision shifted” (LM 211). He says:

I began to see things different, more clear. The family kneeling down turned to rocks in a field. It struck me how strong and reliable grief was, and death. Until the end of time, death would be our rock.

So I had perspective on it all, for death gives you that. All the Kashpaw children had done various things to me in their lives—shared their folks with me, loaned me cash, beat me up in secret—and I decided, because of death, then and there I'd call it quits. If I ever saw King again, I'd shake his hand. Forgiving somebody else made the whole thing easier to bear.

(LM 211)

Lulu Lamartine reflects on her long affair with Nector Kashpaw, Marie Lazarre Kashpaw's husband, and says:

We took our pleasure without asking or thinking further than a touch. We were so deeply sunk in the land of our greed it took the court action of the tribe and a house on fire to pull us out.

Hearing [Marie's] voice I tried imagining what Marie must have thought. He came each week in the middle of the night. She must have known he wasn't out taking walks to see the beauty of the dark heaven.

(LM 231)

Later Lulu confesses: “For the first time I saw exactly how another woman felt, and it gave me deep comfort, surprising” (LM 236). Here Lulu is able to empathize with another human being, to see the limits and consequences of her needs and wants. The same thing happens for Marie Lazarre Kashpaw who attends to Lulu with the kindness of a mother in the Senior Citizens' home. As Lipsha reports, “[Marie] and Lulu was thick as thieves now” (LM 241).

These characters' insights, their moments of understanding and forgiveness, are a balm for the soul, certainly love medicine. And the fact that they are telling their stories, leading us through their pain to some resolution about it, means that they are talking, that they do in fact have a way of talking about the pain. But do their insights and stories touch upon a large cause of so much of their pain? Does their love medicine treat the symptoms of a disease without getting at the cause?

Again, the disease I am talking about, internalized oppression, cuts a wide swath. So much is unconscious, passed down through generations, family to family. So much is unrecognizable. Is Marie Lazarre Kashpaw simply an insecure woman driven to garner for herself self-worth? Isn't her insecurity, her denial of her origins, rooted in a history of which she is a part? Is King merely another male with low self-esteem who must beat his wife to feel significant and powerful? Is Gordie just another drunk, down on his luck? As I said earlier, to me much of the pain these characters experience and inflict upon one another is tied to colonialism, and ironically and inadvertently they work to complete what the colonizer began. Gabriele Schwab observes: “Only when the colonized's own native culture has been relegated to the political unconscious and become internalized as the Other, only then is the process of colonization successfully completed. As Fanon shows, the success of any cultural liberation would depend upon reaching these unconscious domains” (130). If Erdrich's characters' insights and stories, if their forgiveness and empathy, can put them in touch with that which is unconscious and historical, then the cause of the disease can be treated. I'm not sure this happens. Lipsha says “I had perspective on it all.” What is “it”? If “Forgiving somebody else made the whole thing easier to bear,” did forgiving expose what “the whole thing” is? Can Lipsha now name what King is afraid of? Can Lulu's empathy for another woman open the door to their shared history? Does it?

Of course readers of Love Medicine sense the larger historical picture. As Peter Matthiessen writes on the jacket cover of the first edition of Love Medicine, Erdrich “convey[s] unflinchingly the funkiness, humor, and great unspoken sadness of the Indian reservations, and a people exiled to a no-man's land between two worlds.” Robert Silberman notes that “[Erdrich's] concentration on personal, family matters may be intentional, but the sense of being removed from political events is a powerful statement about marginality and disenfranchisement while also suggesting a preferred concern with the personal and private life of the community” (114). And given the larger historical picture and the nature of these characters' lives, there is no doubt the insights and stories of Lipsha and Lulu are triumphant. But, again, are their triumphs great enough to touch that which is a large source of their pain, at least as I see it?

And here I must come back to questions raised at the start of this chapter. I must come back to where I started, for the pain and the triumphs of Louise Erdrich's fictional Chippewa community may not be as I see them or have read them. Again, is Erdrich's Chippewa community really that similar to what I know of and read into my own Indian community? Am I merely arranging photos just as Auntie Violet did? What about the specific circumstances of Chippewa colonial history that may affect both the nature of Chippewa oppression and of Chippewa triumph over that oppression? How has Erdrich as a writer understood that history? How might I understand it?

These are just some of the questions that I should pursue regarding internalized oppression and Love Medicine, although I do not have space here to fully explore them. Then again my purpose was not to come up with definite answers. Rather, I hoped to raise questions, to expose my interaction with Erdrich's novel, and to extend my story of that interaction to other readers. Other readers with other stories can explore what I have said and what I have left unanswered. They can continue what I have just barely started. A testimony of the novel's power and strength is that it shocked me into thinking about my own community, and by looking back and forth at the community in the book and the one I know as Home, I found a way, however tentative, to think and talk about the pain in both places. The book raised questions for me about my own community, and it touched my own pain and the history of that pain. Reading Love Medicine became Home Medicine.

In closing I want to tell one last story, because I cannot stop thinking about it. It has lived with me through the writing of this essay. I want Auntie Violet and Louise Erdrich and others to have the chance to see it. So I need to tell it.

It is about Crawling Woman. She was a Coast Miwok woman who was born in the old village that was called Nicasias, near the present town of Nicasio in Marin County. Crawling Woman is not a real name. It is how she is remembered. Even her great-great-granddaughter, Juanita Carrio, the noted Miwok elder and matriarch who told me the story, could not remember a real name for Crawling Woman. She was one of my grandmother's ancestors too, though I'm not sure of the blood connection.

Anyway, she got that name because at the end of her life she became childlike, an imbecile, Juanita said. She did not know anybody or anything. She didn't talk. She only made babylike sounds and cried. And she crawled. She crawled everywhere, out the front door, up the road, into the fields. People said she was at least a hundred and ten years old by that time. She was a grown woman when the first Spanish missionaries invaded her home. She was a grandmother by the time General Vallejo's Mexican soldiers established a fort in Petaluma, and when California became a state in 1850, she was already a very old woman.

She never talked about her past. She was quiet and she worked hard. Kept her nose to the grindstone, Juanita said. She washed clothes for the Americans and she sold fish she caught herself. This was when she was over eighty years old. But people did know some stories about her. Once she ran away from the mission in San Rafael. She heard horses come up and she hid in a dry creekbed. She was on her stomach, face down, flat out and stiff as a board. It wasn't until she was home, back in Nicasias, and had opened her eyes that she realized the men who picked her up and loaded her onto the wagon bed were Indians.

No one can remember how she lost her mind, whether gradually with age or suddenly, say from a stroke. She became a nuisance. She had to be watched all the time. She would get out of the house and go great distances. She could crawl as fast as a person walked, even at her great age. She would hide and then resist coming home when she was found. Juanita's mother used to babysit the old woman. She was just a young girl at the time, and to get the old woman to behave she would put on an old soldier's jacket they kept in the closet. Crawling Woman would see the brass buttons on the coat and let out a loud shriek and crawl as fast as she could back to the house.

That coat was the only thing she recognized, Juanita said.


  1. For purposes of clarification and simplicity I am referring to both the Coast Miwok community and the Kashaya Pomo community as my one Indian community. As noted at the start of this book, Coast Miwok and Kashaya Pomo people share a long history of trade, intermarriage, and cultural exchange.

  2. Mrs. Juanita Carrio, a Coast Miwok elder who passed away in 1991, did possess a large Coast Miwok (Nicasias dialect) vocabulary, but she did not consider herself a fluent speaker. No one living knows as much of any Coast Miwok language as Mrs. Carrio did. People may know a few words or phrases. Sarah Smith Ballard (1881-1978), a Bodega Miwok, was the last fluent speaker of a Coast Miwok language. Her Bodega Miwok dictionary was published by the University of California Press in 1970.

  3. This general truth can become more pronounced and obvious also when readers are familiar with the culture or cultural experiences being represented and have difficulty with the representation or the ways in which the writer has presented the cultural experiences. Some contemporary Kiowa readers, for example, might have trouble with N. Scott Momaday's prose and narrative format in The Way to Rainy Mountain. How would certain Chippewa readers see their experiences as represented in Erdrich's rich, figurative, largely standard English?

  4. Toelken lists Tacheeni Scott, an Indian speaker and collaborator, as co-author of their work together on certain texts.

  5. Certainly non-Indian fiction writers, most notably James Fenimore Cooper, have written about Indians in their fiction. For purposes of clarity here I would refer to their work about Indians as non-Indian literature about Indians. Without a doubt, their work is cross-cultural; after all, they mediate and represent what they find in people from cultures different from their own—American Indians.

  6. Standiford in this instance cites Gary Snyder, a romantic non-Indian poet who generalizes about Indians to support his ideas about ecology and so forth. Here, then, Standiford is basing his generalization about Indians on another's generalizations about Indians. How might individual Indian voices from a particular tribe talk back to or inform these generalizations across tribal cultures and histories? How might the generalizations be qualified in the context of a specific culture and history?

  7. “Kashia” is a variant spelling of Kashaya. “Kashia” is used in many of the ethnographies and older government records.

  8. At various times in her work, Allen sets out to show how people from various communities read the same Indian text differently. In her essay “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale” (in The Sacred Hoop), Allen presents “A Keres Interpretation” (232) and “A Feminist-Tribal Interpretation” (237). Yet each point of view or perspective appears a generalization created by Allen. She writes, for example: “A Keres is of course aware that balance and harmony are two primary assumptions of Keres society and will not approach the narrative wondering whether the handsome Miochin will win the hand of the unhappy wife and triumph over the enemy, thereby heroically saving the people from disaster” (234). Is this the case for all Keres individuals? Another example: “A feminist who is conscious of tribal thought and practice will know that the real story of Sh-ah-cock and Miochin underscores the central role that woman plays in the orderly life of the people” (239). And, again, I ask: A feminist who is aware of which tribal thought? What tribe? What feminist? In creating and presenting multiple points of view, how might Allen, as creator/writer of these points of view, have diminished the complexity and power of those points of view? Who is Allen as mediator and presenter of the different points of view?

  9. Earlier in his essay Gleason refers to scholars such as Freud in his discussion of the function of humor in general. Can Freud's model of the function of humor be applied to all American Indian cultures? To Chippewa culture? If so, how and under what particular circumstances? How is Gleason reading both Freud and the Chippewa Indian culture to make sense of what he encounters in Love Medicine?

    In this essay I have not discussed critical approaches that are comparative, where critics examine, say, written literatures by different Indian writers in relation to one another or to Western canonical works (e.g., The Odyssey,Absalom, Absalom!). Clearly, and perhaps even more obviously, the questions and concerns I have raised throughout this essay would apply to comparative approaches.

  10. As Murray points out, “the ideal of transparency here is also an ideal of totality—a totality of understanding, in which we can seal off the work of art, and see it whole, or we can circumscribe and totalise the other culture in which it operates” (117). He suggests that even while Tedlock is reflexive and dialogical in his work, Tedlock works with, or toward, an ideal of totality, of obtaining a full and complete knowledge of the Other (117).

Jeanne Marie Zeck (essay date fall 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Zeck, Jeanne Marie. “Erdrich's Love Medicine.Explicator 54, no. 1 (fall 1995): 58-60.

[In the following essay, Zeck examines the sensual relationship between the characters of Eli and Marie in Love Medicine.]

In the chapter of Louise Erdrich's novel Love Medicine entitled “The Beads,” Eli plays the role of the father to Marie's children when Nector is absent. Erdrich suggests, through a brief scene dense with sexual imagery, that Eli and Marie are June's spiritual parents. In a subtle, tender scene, they make love without touching, and June is the fruit of their union.

On one particular evening in 1948, Eli stays late at Marie's house singing Cree “hunting songs used to attract deer or women” (69). On this night, he succeeds in capturing both a deer and a woman. Certainly, Eli's song attracts June, who is frequently referred to as a deer. The next day, the young girl will leave her surrogate mother's house and live with Eli, her surrogate father. Marie is also attracted to Eli. She comments that he is uncharacteristically forceful and charismatic in his singing, and she acknowledges her own attraction to him: “He wasn't shy when he sang … I had to keep to my mending” (69). When the children fall asleep, Eli helps Marie tuck them into bed and then, like a husband, he remains with her in the living area, even though this is unusual for him. Each adult engages in a homey activity: Eli rolls tobacco, while Marie mends seams. Yet these activities have sexual undertones: the cigarette as a phallic symbol suggests fire, passion, and sexual desire. The open seams that Marie works on suggest the labia. She sews them closed, suggesting her rejection of Eli's offer of lovemaking, which he proffers by simply uttering her name as a question: “‘Marie?’ he asked, very quiet.” (71). Though she rejects the actual act of intercourse, the two of them exchange their desire delicately, without touching.

Aware of the sexual tension between them, Marie does not “dare move” (71). The lamp burns, signifying heat and passion, while Marie thinks of “lake-shore pebbles, naked as eyes and smooth” and of “his lean hands” (71). Her refusal to move suggests her rock-solid dedication to her marriage despite Nector's infidelity and alcoholism. Yet her image of pebbles, small and easily washed away by the tide, reveals her vulnerability. Paula Bennett discusses the significance of such imagery in her examination of Emily Dickinson's poetry. She says that nineteenth-century women poets often used images of small, round, delicate objects to symbolize female genitalia. Pebbles, stones, buds, peas, berries, and pearls are among the most frequently used clitoral images (154). Louise Erdrich's choice of a pebble to describe Marie's attraction to Eli is especially appropriate in light of Bennett's research. For Marie, who simultaneously thinks of a pebble and Eli's hands, the pebble may very well be a subtle, clitoral image. This suggests a sensuous connection between her body and his. Marie is sexually aroused by the thought of Eli's intimate touch.

The act of making love may give pleasure, but it also presents the possibility of spiritual risk and emotional erosion. In Erdrich's novel, pebbles and stones represent women and their sexuality. Both women and men are frequently depicted as being immersed in water; men are often described as water itself, a sensuous but eroding force. They may handle women lovingly, brutally, or with indifference, but erosion is inevitable. Love is a risk. Marie barely allows herself to consider making love with this man who is her husband's twin, who behaves more like a husband to her and a father to the children than Nector does. Perhaps for a moment, Marie feels that she chose to marry the wrong twin.

Three times in four sentences, words for eyes and looking are used in this scene. Eli's eyes rest on Marie, but she does not dare return his look. The pebbles, which are “naked as eyes,” perceive the sexual attraction that she cannot afford to acknowledge (71). Erdrich may be continuing the sexual imagery here with a subtle suggestion of the pebbles as ova: inwardly, Marie's body responds to Eli. The author suggests that the woman and the moment are spiritually, emotionally, and sexually fertile. Describing the scene, Marie states, “Something dark and wavering, fringed like a flower's mouth, was collecting in the room between us” (71). The image of the flower is reminiscent of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting; it describes both the delicacy of the moment, and the labia and clitoris responding to sexual stimulation.

Despite Marie's careful avoidance of Eli's eyes and her refusal to answer him, she and Eli are immersed in a love scene. When he leaves, the child June appears standing in the doorway, which is suggestive of her emergence from the birth canal. The sexual attraction between her surrogate parents has drawn June out. Marie notes that the child waits and watches “for what she [feels] in the air,” although she cannot name it (71). And Marie, like a mother who has just given birth, holds the child in her lap “for the first … time” and, poignantly, for the only time (71). Cherishing the rare moments of intimacy with her new daughter, Marie cradles her and sings a lullaby: “I held her and I stroked her hair and hummed in her ear” (71). So dear are the moments that Marie holds June long after the child has fallen asleep.

This tender lovemaking and birth scene is followed by Nector's appearance after a night of drinking. He brings Marie money rather than the communion that Eli offers. He does not call her name or ask her permission to make love with her. Instead, he lays money on the table and unceremoniously says to her “C'mere now” (72). His actions may suggest that Nector is fulfilling his role as breadwinner but they also suggest that Marie's role as wife resembles that of a prostitute.

In the nonphysical love scene between Eli and Marie, she feels like pebbles washed by the tide. A few hours later, when she has sex with her husband, she describes herself as a stone being eroded by water. Interestingly, Marie's image of herself changes slightly but significantly. With Eli she is a pebble; her vulnerability, delicacy, and sexual attraction are apparent. With her own husband, however, Marie must be larger, sturdier, and less vulnerable: she is a stone. Describing the intercourse with her husband, Marie states, “I rolled with his current like a stone in the lake” (72). When the sexual act is over, Nector leaves “no sign he'd been there” (72). Marie remarks that her husband's presence was so insubstantial that he “might not have even come home” (72). Lovemaking without communion leaves no trace: Marie does not conceive a child with her husband as she has symbolically conceived June with Eli.

Works Cited

Bennett, Paula. Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1990.

Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: Holt, 1984.

Barbara L. Pittman (essay date December 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Pittman, Barbara L. “Cross-Cultural Reading and Generic Transformations: The Chronotope of the Road in Erdrich's Love Medicine.American Literature 67, no. 4 (December 1995): 777-92.

[In the following essay, Pittman explores how Erdrich uses time and space to create a narrative world in Love Medicine, noting that “[d]iscovering the literary and cultural features essential to a creative understanding of Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine means recognizing the literary and cultural chronotopes present in the work.”]

Writing from within two literary traditions, as all Native American writers do, Louise Erdrich writes both traditions into her work.1 As a mixed-blood of German-American and Chippewa descent, she seems to embody the mediation that David Murray says is necessary in cross-cultural reading to “reduce the danger of making the space between the two sides into an unbridgeable chasm, or of turning differences into Otherness.”2 Euro-Americans reading Native American literature face the particular challenge of mediating between the familiar literary patterns that arise from their own traditions and other, perhaps unfamiliar, patterns that elicit alternative cultural meanings. How is this done? Holistic methods are preferred today to past dissection; dialogics are preferred to dialectics. We look to see where traditions intersect rather than how they act in isolation, and we are not expected to enter the reading by renouncing who we are as readers. Mikhail Bakhtin describes such a reading as an act of creative understanding, a “dialogic encounter of two cultures [that] does not result in merging or mixing”: “Creative understanding does not renounce itself, its own place in time, its own culture; and it forgets nothing. In order to understand, it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding—in time, in space, in culture.”3 A mediative reading that focuses on the dialogic relationship between the two cultures represented in Native American literature creates a bridge that not only allows either culture to be viewed through the lens of the other but also reveals the complex exchanges inherent in such a reading and in a nation composed of multiple, coexisting Americas. Gerald Vizenor suggests using a postmodern critical discourse to “liberate tribal narratives in a most. ‘pleasurable misreading’” from “social science monologues.”4 Bakhtin's dialogics are both liberating in Vizenor's sense and optimistic about the possibility of exchanging meaning; other, pessimistic ways of reading paralyze readers with the impossibility of shedding their “outsideness.”5

Discovering the literary and cultural features essential to a creative understanding of Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine means recognizing the literary and cultural chronotopes present in the work. The term chronotope is borrowed from Einstein to represent the concept time-space. For Bakhtin, novels think and act historically through their appropriation of “real historical time and space,” which provides “the ground essential for the … representability of events.”6 To recognize this chronotopic ground is to discover the cultural worldview underlying the entire narrative. Of course, a novel is not finally reducible to a single chronotope but is a complex of major generic chronotopes and minor chronotopic motifs that “may be interwoven with, replace or oppose one another, contradict one another or find themselves in ever more complex interrelationships” (DI [The Dialogic Imagination], 252). In a bicultural work such as Love Medicine, then, one would expect to find a web of competing chronotopes in dialogue and a central chronotope that serves as a unifying ground.

In addition to these internal chronotopes, there are the chronotopes of readers, who, “set off by a sharp and categorical boundary from the represented world in the text” (DI, 253), participate in the renewal and creation of the text. It is the chronotopes of readers that are of concern in cross-cultural reading.7 The burden of readers is to recognize their chronotopic situation and to engage in a dialogue that releases meaning—that produces a creative understanding—instead of overpowering the work from outside or being swallowed up in a futile attempt to shed their own positions in the world. In fact, positioning oneself as an outsider is finally a liberation from the need to react defensively, a release from the guilt of being an outsider. Readers accept their limitations and their desire to understand, and get on with the act of reading. Not surprisingly, perhaps, my analysis of Love Medicine reveals my position by focusing first on a chronotopic motif from Euro-American literature and following one of its transformations in the Euro-American tradition; I then experience a creative encounter with the text that results in a dialogic interchange at the boundary between the two literary traditions. What begins as a generic transformation becomes a cross-cultural transformation as well.

In his essay “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel,” Bakhtin recognizes a chronotopic motif present in some form in nearly all works—the chronotope of the road—in which “the unity of time and space markers is exhibited with exceptional precision and clarity” (DI, 98). The importance of the chronotope of the road lies in its convenience for meetings and encounters. Such meetings can serve important “architectonic functions” (DI, 98) in the plot or can be combined with the “chronotope of the threshold” as a “moment of crisis” (DI, 248). When Bakhtin says that “[t]ime, as it were, fuses together with space and flows in it (forming the road),” he recalls the many historical forms in which a continuous road provides a ground for “all the events” (DI 244). By far the most familiar genre in Euro-American literature organized around this chronotope is the picaresque.

Erdrich uses the road motif for the architectonic functions of opening and closing her novel, as well as for representing chance encounters between characters. Love Medicine opens with June Kashpaw “walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota,”8 waiting for the bus that is to take her home along another road. She is “killing time” (LM [Love Medicine]1) until a chance encounter finds her driving “down the street in … [a] Silverado pickup” with a “mud engineer” named “Andy” (LM, 3). Finally, “far out of town on a county road” (LM, 4), they attempt to have sex, and June decides to walk home, going “off the road” (LM, 6; emphasis added) and through the fields, despite a winter storm, a storm in which she finally dies.

The closing episode has June's son Lipsha Morrissey driving the highways toward home after having helped his father, Gerry Nanapush, escape to Canada. He comes to “the bridge over the boundary river,” where he stops to remember such things as an old ceremony of offering “tobacco to the water,” his mother, and “sunken cars” (LM, 271). After recalling the myth of the river once having been “an ancient ocean,” Lipsha faces the “truth” of the “dry land” and continues on the “good road” home (LM, 272).

In between these two homeward-bound events are at least five other major encounters and dozens of smaller, sometimes trivial, references to roads. Most of the major encounters are moments of crisis expressed through sex or death and consequently contributing to both the establishment and the dissolution of the central family groups. The accumulated road references reinforce the concrete representation of time and space, and, because of the probability of chance encounters in such places, also reinforce the absurd nature of man's existence in time and space. The motif of the road as a way of representing time and space in the novel has a particular significance in relationship to the picaresque.

Because the chronotope of the road is most familiar in the Euro-American tradition through the picaresque, any subsequent use of this chronotope, while re-accentuated, retains a “‘stylistic aura’” from “that genre in which the given word usually functions. It is an echo of the generic whole that resounds in the word.”9 This generic echo, resounding here in the chronotopic motif, recalls typical picaresque motifs and prompts the reader to translate them into this text.10 In the picaresque novel, a long winding road determines the plot, as it “passes through familiar territory, and not through some exotic alien world”; it reveals “the sociohistorical heterogeneity of one's own country” in the variety of events that take place along it (DI, 245). The first effect of reading Love Medicine through the picaresque lens is to recognize in its disconnected road scenes, which involve a number of the novel's main characters, a movement away from linear continuity toward a postmodern, antilinear discontinuity—a formal depiction closer to the picaresque condition of “continuous dis-integration.”11 As metaphor, the discontinuous road seems to comment on the breakup of the Native American tribal community as it tries to exist both within and without the dominant culture of Euro-America. Erdrich depicts pieces or fragments of roads separated by postmodern silence and narrated by isolated voices; the events that occur on them share the characters' sense of fragmentation and isolation.

There are several other implications and advantages of reading Love Medicine as a version of the picaresque. Because the spatial aspect of the novel (seen in the road) is more developed than the temporal, the year designations at the beginning of each chapter can be read as Erdrich's imposition of a definite, if mechanical, temporal structure to achieve a balance between time and space. The traditional picaresque depicts a socially diverse world through a dual focus on adventure and the development of the hero as he interacts with such a world. Erdrich's episodic, multi-narrative style duplicates or improves upon the picaresque by setting a diverse group of protagonists in a diverse world. Just as the early picaresque was “a reaction against Renaissance humanism, in its more classicizing and idealizing modes,”12Love Medicine is a satire on the romanticization of Indians, not only in its honest depiction of alcoholism and physical abuse but also in such scenes as those in which Nector poses for the “Plunge of the Brave” (LM, 91)—a painting that shows the Western ideal of the naked, noble savage—or works in movies, always as a dying brave. Nector is used again for a picaresque as well as postmodern engagement with the canon “through a critical lampooning of some of [society's] favorite literature”13—specifically Moby-Dick. By having Nector live the “marginal man's career of deception”14 through his identification with both Ishmael and Ahab, Erdrich engages in a dialogue with the canon that subverts its power and calls attention to barriers between oral and written traditions. When Nector tells his mother, Rushes Bear, that the novel is about a “great white whale,” she wants to know what “they got to wail about, those whites” (LM, 91).

Although Euro-American-trained readers may initially read Love Medicine as inscribed with the picaresque, by positioning themselves as outsiders they can create an atmosphere in which alternative meanings are sought and welcomed. When such readers then seek out Native American literary traditions and attempt to reconcile them with their own, they may discover that narratives “do make things happen.”15

The literary mediator between the picaresque and the postmodern in Love Medicine is the tribal trickster, who substitutes for the picaro and assists in the generic transformation. As Bakhtin notes, the rogue, fool, and clown bring with them “the right to be ‘other’ in this world” (DI, 159):16

They grant the right not to understand, the right to confuse, to tease, to hyperbolize life; the right to parody others while talking, the right to not be taken literally, not “to be oneself”; the right to live a life in the chronotope of the entr'acte, the chronotope of theatrical space, the right to act life as a comedy and to treat others as actors, the right to rip off masks, the right to rage at others with a primeval (almost cultic) rage—and finally, the right to betray to the public a personal life, down to its most private and prurient little secrets.

(DI, 163)

The trickster brings a postmodern sense of play and chance that transforms the initial view of the fragmented road into a “playful, paratactical”17 style that is, in Hayden White's words, “intrinsically communal.18 At the same time, the trickster performs a second transformation, this time mediating between cultures for readers. The trickster plays in the gaps between Erdrich's episodes; if readers hear the trickster in the silence they can transform their readings of schizophrenic fragmentation into communal unity. In postmodern narrative forms, Euro-American literature has finally caught up with Native American literary traditions.

There seems to be some question, however, about how to define a trickster novel and whether or not Love Medicine is one. Alan Velie is inclined to call Love Medicine a trickster novel because “Gerry Nanapush is clearly a modern avatar of the trickster,” but he has reservations because Gerry is “not really the central character.”19 In fact, Velie thinks that Love Medicine may not be a novel at all, but a “collection of short stories all of which deal with the same set of characters.”20 Catherine M. Catt sees Erdrich incorporating “traits of this figure [the trickster] into characterizations of various individuals” to create “Trickster-related characters.”21 Both Velie and Catt seem to be clinging to Euro-American definitions of narratives of emergence that are concerned with the development of a single character. But if Love Medicine is not a trickster novel, it is at least trickster discourse according to Gerald Vizenor's definition.

Velie is looking for a central character who is consistently present as a trickster, and he is right in observing that Love Medicine has no such character. According to Vizenor, however, the trickster in postmodern discourse “is not a presence or a real person but a semiotic sign in a language game, in a comic narrative that denies presence.”22 All the voices that make up trickster discourse participate in the “trickster sign”—the “author, narrator, characters and audience.”23 The communal sign is a dialogue. Thus, all the characters and narrators, the author, and the reader perform an act of (trickster) transformation in the text—they create community. Vizenor is attempting to free Native American narratives from the monologues of social science and the individualism of modernism. To read trickster discourse as postmodern discourse is to “imagine … liberation.”24 In Love Medicine, trickster behavior is not confined to one character. June, Henry, Gerry, Lipsha, Lulu, and Marie all exhibit such behavior at one time or another, and it creates a liberating/communal atmosphere in which the reader is liberated from the picaresque and is free to experience the communal. June, for example, has an out-of-skin transformation in the bathroom before she goes out with Andy (LM, 4), and when she is able to extricate herself from his pickup, she falls out but “somehow … land[s] with her pants halfway up” (LM, 5); we find out that as a child June was hanged but escaped death (LM, 19-20). Marie calls June a child of the “Manitous, invisible ones who live in the woods” (LM, 65). Lipsha, Lulu, and Marie all seem to have special powers: Lipsha has “the touch” (LM, 190); Lulu has “wild and secret ways” that cause her to love “the whole world” (LM, 216) and that result in many sexual adventures; Marie senses things either “in the scar of her hand” or from “her household appliances” (LM, 198). Henry considers himself an escape artist like his brother Gerry—“No jail built that can hold me either” (LM, 135). Even at 12, Gerry is “light on his feet and powerful” and soon to be a “natural criminal and a hero” (LM, 84-85). Gerry miraculously impregnates Dot through “a hole ripped in her pantyhose and a hole ripped in [his] jeans” in a prison “visiting room” (LM, 160); the child of this union, not surprisingly, “did not register at all” (LM, 171) on the truck weighing scales.

Bakhtin's creative understanding and trickster discourse have much in common as ways of reading; both release readers from the captivity of their own cultures and promote an enriched understanding of the text. The liberating technique of creative understanding unleashes new potentials from both cultures and contributes to a dialogic environment of the sort needed for trickster discourse to make something happen. The trickster, as “liberator and healer,”25 is able to free the text and the reader from the burden of monologic literary structures and heal the wounds of a fragmentary presentation. One encounters neither the picaro nor the trickster in Love Medicine; one experiences instead a “creative encounter”26 that is trickster discourse. This experience reveals the interaction of both literary traditions in the text as the chronotope of the road reveals both the heterogeneity and the community of Native American culture.

The chronotope is dialogic, and the chronotope of the road, drawn from the Euro-American literary tradition, can compete via dialogue with Native American chronotopes. What are the differences between Euro-American and Native American views of time and space? Edward T. Hall depicts the Euro-American spatial view of “time as a road or a ribbon stretching into the future, along which one progresses. The road has segments or compartments which are to be kept discrete.”27 Small wonder that the picaresque is so easily discerned in Erdrich's text by Euro-American readers: “Our concept of space makes use of the edges of things. If there aren't any edges, we make them by creating artificial lines.”28 We situate events on the edges of roads, at concrete intersections of time and space. Paula Gunn Allen speaks of the Native American “concept of time [as] timelessness … the concept of space [as] multidimensionality.” Native Americans have “plenty of time” because time and space move in a “dynamic equilibrium.”29 Allen characterizes the difference between Indian time and Western industrial time as ceremonial versus mechanical. Native American writers who incorporate both kinds of time into their works call attention to the centrality of the chronotope in cultural identity.

Erdrich depicts the overlapping effects of both mechanical and ceremonial time in order to elaborate the unique position in time and space of twentieth-century Native Americans. Living in the continual confrontation of two chronotopes, Native Americans are in a situation that is, in Bakhtin's words, “full of event potential.30 As suggested earlier, the year designations that introduce the chapters in Love Medicine seem to be a mechanical imposition of industrial time, which rigidifies and closes. At the same time, however, the “chronological loop” made by the sequence, which begins in 1981 then loops back to 1934 and forward through 1981 to 1984, is representative of cyclic time, in which any event is part of an “endless round of time.”31 Even in the sequence of disconnected episodes that skip over time, Erdrich provides continuity in the endurance of specific family groups in a specific place. The struggle between the centripetal and centrifugal forces of communal and fragmentary chronotopes is sometimes resolved in the immediacy afforded by “using multiple narrators, multiple narratives. … Storytelling brings everything into the present.”32

Erdrich's characters exhibit a variety of chronotopic behaviors and views arranged to show what Allen calls the “disease-causing effects” of mechanical/industrial time.33 The majority of “places” in Love Medicine are institutional—school, church, reservation, prison. Such settings emphasize the claustrophobic feeling that contributes to disease-causing effects and also show how Native Americans are interpellated by the dominant culture. The clearest dichotomy is between the Kashpaw twins, Eli and Nector, who represent the chronotope of the tribal community versus the dominant chronotope of progress and individualism. Their mother allows the government to take only one of the boys for boarding school, hiding Eli “in the root cellar dug beneath her floor” (LM, 17). The outcome is dramatic in old age, for “Eli was still sharp, while Grandpa's [Nector's] mind had left us” (LM, 17). They don't even look like twins “anymore, for Eli had wizened and toughened while Grandpa was larger, softer, even paler than his brother” (LM, 25). Eli lives the life of the outdoorsman; he is a “real old-timer” (LM, 28). Nector is a Euro-American-educated success but pays for “knowing white reading and writing” (LM, 17) by losing his memory. He remembers “dates with no events to go with them, names without faces, things that happened out of place and time” (LM, 18). Instead of being able to remember his kin, “[d]ates, numbers, figures stuck with” Nector (LM, 16), who is frequently “counting something under his breath. Clouds. Trees. All the blades of grass” (LM, 19). If we think of this loss of memory as the inability to re-member that “which is basically dismembered and disjointed,”34 there are serious implications for the maintenance of tribal unity. Nector would be a clear failure if Erdrich had not somewhat redeemed him by allowing his spirit to return after death in order to express a healing love.

When Nector is young and beginning to lose his memory, he fuses time with the metaphorical image of water, an image that allows him to relinquish control over his life. He floats “through the calm sweet spots” (LM, 92) until the river takes a turn. The time when his children are growing passes him by, but he takes no responsibility for it: “So much time went by in that flash it surprises me yet. What they call a lot of water under the bridge. Maybe it was rapids, a swirl that carried me so swift that I could not look to either side but had to keep my eyes trained on what was coming. Seventeen years of married life and come-and-go children” (LM, 93). Nector is so caught up in the unrelenting forward movement of industrial time that even when he catches a glimpse of its passing he is helpless to change: “Time was rushing around me like water around a big wet rock. The only difference is, I was not so durable as stones.” He is unable “to swim against the movement of time” (LM, 94). Nector is isolated in time and moved by it rather than being a natural part of all time and space like his brother.

City time is set against reservation time in the characters of King Kashpaw and Beverly Lamartine, who make their livings in the city but have community ties to the reservation. Beverly is an Indian “with a certain amount of natural stick-to-it-iveness,” a trait appreciated in the city. In the city he has his own salesman's “territory,” bounded by imaginary edges, where he lies to prospective customers with stories of a son who benefits from the “after-school home workbooks” (LM, 77) Beverly tries to sell. His stories promote the boy as following the Euro-American chronotope of progress, clearing “the hurdles of class and intellect” (LM, 78), skipping grades, and achieving more than the previous generation. Beverly, who has “the need to get ahead” and thinks of Indians as “quite backward” (LM, 77), is able to deny his identity in the city by marrying a blue-eyed “natural blond” and passing himself off as “tan” (LM, 79). Erdrich shows that even in Beverly, however, the will to imagination outside of industrial time is central to his way of thinking. His desire to actually have such a boy as his son causes “his mind [to race] through the ceilings and walls” to where the boy is. He imagines “himself traveling … westward, past the boundaries of his salesman's territory … to the casual and lonely fields, the rich, dry violet hills of the reservation … home” (LM, 79). But in order to actually go there, he must make mechanical time arrangements “for a vacation” and an “appointment to have a once-over done on his car” (LM, 80). The way of life on the reservation is enticing but also threatens his livelihood; he knows “[n]o one on the reservation would buy” the “word-enrichment books” (LM, 88). When he finally does give in to Lulu, he relinquishes a time-oriented way of life for one that travels “through the walls and ceilings, down the levels, through the broad, warm reaches of the years” (LM, 86).

King, the son of June and Gordie, is an Indian in a constant rage fostered by his inability to fit into either the old ways of the reservation or the hurried ways of the city. In the city he is known by his hat with the “blue-and-white patch” that titles him the “World's Greatest Fisherman.” On the reservation his family knows he is not much of a fisher or hunter. They know that the first game he ever got was a “skunk when he was ten”; he tries to impress them by saying it was a “gook” when he “was in the Marines” (LM, 28). This is a lie, but because King is out of place on the reservation, he tries to impress his family with success in a place where they would be deficient. Wherever King is, he tries to fit in by being a successful outsider. King suffers from the same sense of being controlled by water as Nector does. The city's promise of upward mobility never seems to work for King: “It's like I'm always stuck with the goddamn minnows. Every time I work my way up—say I'm next in line for the promotion—they shaft me. It's always something they got against me. I move on. Entry level. Stuck down at the bottom with the minnows” (LM, 252). As a minnow, he feels that he is at the bottom “of the food chain” (LM, 253); like Nector he takes no responsibility for being there. Lipsha rightly attributes some of King's problems to the “deranging effects of [King's] apartment,” a spatial arrangement dictated by economy and efficiency that resembles a “long dark closet.” Even the area outside the window is “not outdoors” (LM, 250). Such an arrangement produces the final betrayal of his tribal roots: he becomes the “King of Stoolies” by informing the authorities about Gerry Nanapush's escape plans (LM, 259).

Unlike Nector, with whom she has a long affair, Lulu Lamartine “never did believe in human measurement.” Western civilization uses such measurement “for cutting nature down to size,” and the government uses it to know “the precise number [of Indians] to get rid of” (LM, 221). Lulu lives in and loves “the whole world” (LM, 216), and even feels encumbered by her body, which she “slip[s] … to earth, like a heavy sack” when making love (LM, 217). She looks forward to death when she will be “a piece of the endless body of the world feeling pleasures so much larger than skin and bones and blood” (LM, 226). But while she is alive, the land is essential to her idea of communal identity. Government offers of money result in the unnatural action of “Indians ordering their own people off the land of their forefathers” (LM, 223). Lulu refuses “to move one foot farther west” (LM, 222) until her house burns down and the tribe builds her a new one “on a strip of land rightfully repurchased from a white farmer” (LM, 227). This land eventually becomes “the Lamartine homesite” (LM, 229), and all the past concerns about land ownership get “lost in time, careful time” (LM, 228).

June Kashpaw and Lipsha Morrissey, mother and son, open and close the novel respectively, creating another loop in the established time sequence. In addition to continuing the idea of cyclical time, their movements toward home reinforce the difficulties of living in two cultures. According to James McKenzie, when June decides to walk home, she “rejects not only the boomtown and the bus ride, but even the white man's highway”35 and returns to an instinctive memory of wind, direction, and topography. Perhaps a too-long separation from the land has clouded that memory, or perhaps she means to commit suicide, as Aurelia suggests. For whatever reason, she “mistakes the warm wind preceding the worst Easter blizzard in forty years for a Chinook”36 and “pick[s] her way through the swirls of dead grass and icy crust of open ranchland” (LM, 6). June's rejection of the road for a watery way reflects the competition between the two ways of valuing time-space in the novel. June's choice is one open to all marginal groups—total rejection of the dominant culture and life in isolation. Erdrich has Lipsha opt for “a more reasonable course.”37

Lipsha, using trickster logic, simultaneously rejects and embraces both water and the road. Sometimes the road and water merge into illusion, as when Grandma Marie collapses after Nector's death: “You see how instantly the ground can shift you thought was solid. You see the stop signs and the yellow dividing markers of roads you traveled and all the instructions you had played according to vanish. … And now she went underneath. It was as though the banks gave way on the shores of Lake Turcot … sending half the lake splashing up to the clouds” (LM, 209). More often than not, however, Lipsha chooses the road when he is heading home. In fact, it is Lipsha who chooses to play poker for King's car, in which he feels “free as a bird, as the blue wings burning on the hood” (LM, 266); and he remains with the car until the end of the novel. Before the final scene, though, “the car and road [stand] still” at the moment Lipsha has his identity confirmed by feeling his heart give a genetic “little burping skip.” As he stands on the “boundary river” (LM, 271) of the reservation, a natural boundary instead of a man-made edge, he considers the water that has come to represent the uncontrollable passage of time and the suicide that can solve “all our problems.” His decision associates “truth” with “dry land” and the past with the false romanticization of Native Americans that would prefer to see them “beneath them vast unreasonable waves.” It is a “good road” (LM, 272; emphasis added) that leads Lipsha, who walks not on frozen water as June does but over the water on a bridge that goes in both directions.

Reading across cultures while acknowledging one's own cultural position can be enriching for the reader as well as the literary work. The outsider's position is a favorable one, for the outsider is able, through dialogue, to produce the greatest understanding of the text and of the self. Louise Erdrich writes from within two literary traditions, and readers are correct in seeing both traditions alive in her work. The long road from the picaresque to the postmodern arrives simultaneously at the traditional Native American because both postmodern and Native American literatures are capable of being at once the dis-integration of linearity and the playful integration of the paratactical/communal. Love Medicine expresses fear of the disintegrated/assimilated community, a warning about the loss of traditional tribal values, and a playful community of storytelling voices. The overall effect of the novel is to record the persistence of the Native American community and its resistance to appropriation by the monologic discourses of the dominant culture. Focusing on the intersection of cultures illuminates both cultures. Euro-American ways of reading—in this case, Bakhtinian dialogics—can be used successfully when reading other literatures because reading as an outsider is an inherently dialogic act; such an act may be the best hope we have for achieving understanding instead of silence and isolation. My reading has been primarily a movement from the Euro-American toward the Native American, but I must emphasize that after such a reading one can read back through other texts, both Euro-American and Native American, using newly created meanings. Reading back through the picaresque, for example, one can easily see that the road motif—with the progress it can exemplify—rather than being a symbol of unity, is actually a disintegrating force that denies community and divides human interaction into disconnected episodes. On the other hand, perhaps we should look for a discourse of community in the picaresque that competes for our attention with the dominant discourse of discontinuity.

“Love is a stony road” (LM, 200); Lipsha says that, and he is usually right. But in Love Medicine that road is transformed into a web of “connecting threads of power” (LM, 248) that all lead home. And the reader, either through creative understanding or trickster transformation, becomes part of a dialogue of readings that all lead to a true literary community.


  1. By emphasizing writing, I am confining my analysis to Native American literature in the written tradition, although translators of tales from the oral tradition engage in dialogue with the Euro-American tradition in their use of such items as paper, type, and white space. Whether Bakhtin's concept of creative understanding would produce the positive results I claim in a reading of translated tales is arguable. In “An Introduction to the Art of Traditional American Indian Narration,” Karl Kroeber asserts that “Indian narratives need sophisticated critical attention” and that readers inexperienced with Native American traditions should begin by “assum[ing] that such tales can be comprehended,” even though one “can never legitimately claim a final or complete understanding” (Traditional Literatures of the American Indian, ed. Kroeber [Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1981], 3, 2, 8-9). This generous invitation seems to acknowledge not only that a perfect understanding is nonexistent but also that Euro-American readers cannot read without the lens of their own critical traditions. Might some silencing occur? Of course, but the alternative is an unacceptable isolation.

    On the issue of Native American writers as bicultural, Arnold Krupat writes that in autobiographies by Indians who have “internalized Western culture and scription … there is inevitably an element of biculturalism” (“The Dialogic of Silko's Storyteller,” in Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures, ed. Gerald Vizenor [Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1989], 55-56). Thus, the voices of the Native American tradition are already mediated through the Euro-American theories “internalized by writers educated in that tradition. Louise Erdrich's formal education at Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins certainly mediates the voices of her Native American traditions.

  2. David Murray, Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing, and Representation in North American Indian Texts (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1991), 1.

  3. M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1986), 7.

  4. Gerald Vizenor, “A Postmodern Introduction,” in Narrative Chance, 5. Vizenor takes the phrase “pleasurable misreading” from Vincent Leitch, Deconstructive Criticism (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1983), 59.

  5. For example, Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey assert from a Marxist perspective that literature reproduces the ideology of the dominant class, regardless of the class or intention of the reader. In their analysis, “subjection means one thing for the members of the educated dominant class: ‘freedom’ to think within ideology, a submission which is experienced as if it were mastery”; the exploited classes “find in reading nothing but the confirmation of their inferiority” (Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader, ed. Robert Young [Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981], 96). Therefore, no understanding is created by the reading of a text; domination is merely reinforced.

  6. M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981), 84, 250. Subsequent references to this edition are noted parenthetically in the text as DI.

  7. Unlike Catherine Rainwater in “Reading Between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich,” (American Literature 62 [1990]: 405-22), I am not positing an imaginary, ideal reader who is easily manipulated by textual codes. My reader is a critical reader who comes to the text with many exegetic tools; my reading is more about how such readers can be disarmed.

  8. Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine (1984; reprint, New York: Bantam, 1989), 1. Subsequent references to this edition are noted parenthetically in the text as LM. Erdrich's new version of Love Medicine (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1993) contains four new chapters and some minor textual revisions. This new version does not alter the thrust of my essay and will not be cited here; however, the process of such addition and revision is a good example of what Bakhtin calls the “unfinalizability” of a text.

  9. M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, 87-88.

  10. See Ulrich Wicks, “The Nature of Picaresque Narrative: A Modal Approach” (PMLA 89 [1974]: 240-49) for a list of picaresque characteristics. Wicks lists eight attributes of picaresque fiction, all of which can be found in Love Medicine. His discussion of the “picaro-landscape relationship” and its movement “from exclusion to attempted inclusion and back to exclusion” (245) is especially relevant to the difficulty faced by Native Americans trying to live in two cultures.

  11. Wicks, “The Nature of Picaresque Narrative,” 244.

  12. Walter L. Reed, An Exemplary History of the Novel (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), 30.

  13. Barbara A. Babcock, “‘Liberty's a Whore’: Inversions, Marginalia, and Picaresque Narrative,” in The Reversible World, ed. Babcock (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1978), 100.

  14. Reed, An Exemplary History of the Novel, 71.

  15. Krupat, “The Dialogic of Silko's Storyteller,” 63. Krupat identifies this creative possibility as Leslie Marmon Silko's belief, contrasting it with Auden's claim that “poetry makes nothing happen.”

  16. Bakhtin's designations are similar to those of Barbara Babcock-Abrahams in “‘A Tolerated Margin of Mess’: The Trickster and His Tales Reconsidered,” Journal of the Folklore Institute 11 (1975): 147-86. Babcock-Abrahams equates the trickster and picaro as types of the marginal and, in fact, would prefer to use picaresque rather than trickster to describe such tales (159). I am arguing that the picaro is grounded in reality and usually represents a human being, whereas the trickster of Native American tradition is grounded in myth and not only takes nonhuman forms but, as Vizenor argues, is a linguistic sign. Vizenor further suggests that thinking of the trickster as a real person is a power move that reifies the comic discourse (“Trickster Discourse: Comic Holotropes and Language Games,” in Narrative Chance, 196).

  17. Ihab Hassan, The Postmodern Turn, (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1987), 91.

  18. Hayden White, “The Culture of Criticism,” in Liberations: New Essays on the Humanities, ed. Ihab Hassan (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1971), 69.

  19. Alan Velie, “The Trickster Novel,” in Narrative Chance, 122-23.

  20. Velie, “The Trickster Novel,” 123.

  21. Catherine M. Catt, “Ancient Myth in Modern America: The Trickster in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich,” Platte Valley Review 19 (1991): 73, 76.

  22. Vizenor, “Trickster Discourse,” 204.

  23. Vizenor, “Trickster Discourse,” 188.

  24. Vizenor, “Trickster Discourse,” 194.

  25. Vizenor, “Trickster Discourse,” 187.

  26. Vizenor, “A Postmodern Introduction,” 13.

  27. Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 28.

  28. Hall, The Silent Language, 203.

  29. Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 147.

  30. M. M. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984), 81.

  31. Catherine Rainwater, “Reading Between Worlds,” 416.

  32. Robert Silberman, “Opening the Text: Love Medicine and the Return of the Native American Woman,” in Narrative Chance, 114. See also Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984), for the idea of storytelling and its relation to the past: “a collectivity that takes narrative as its key form of competence has no need to remember its past. It finds the raw material for its social bond not only in the meaning of the narratives it recounts, but also in the act of reciting them. The narratives' reference may seem to belong to the past, but in reality it is always contemporaneous with the act of recitation. It is the present act that on each of its occurrences marshals in the ephemeral temporality inhabiting the space between the ‘I have heard’ and the ‘you will hear’” (22).

  33. Allen, The Sacred Hoop, 150.

  34. Babcock, “‘Liberty's a Whore,’” 108.

  35. James McKenzie, “Lipsha's Good Road Home: The Revival of Chippewa Culture in Love Medicine,American Indian Culture and Research Journal 10 (fall 1986): 57.

  36. McKenzie, “Lipsha's Good Road Home,” 57.

  37. McKenzie, “Lipsha's Good Road Home,” 59.

I am grateful to Charles H. Adams for reading an early version of this essay and making valuable comments, and to M. Keith Booker for encouraging me to be aware of my critical lenses.

Jeanne Rosier Smith (essay date 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Smith, Jeanne Rosier. “Comic Liberators and World-Healers: The Interwoven Trickster Narratives of Louise Erdrich.” In Writing Tricksters: Mythic Gambols in American Ethnic Literature, pp. 71-110. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Smith investigates Erdrich's use of the Native American trickster archetype in Love Medicine.]

The trickster's constant chatterings and antics remind us that life is endlessly narrative, prolific and openended.

—William Hynes Mythical Trickster Figures

From the first publication of Love Medicine in 1984, tricksters have played a central and pervasive role in Louise Erdrich's fiction.1 A family of tricksters wanders through Love Medicine,Tracks, and The Bingo Palace. The very existence of such a trickster “family” as Erdrich's rewrites a major tenet of a trickster tradition in which the trickster always travels alone. Erdrich's novels transgress trickster traditions in other ways as well, revising traditional myths, and in the cases of Fleur and Lulu, combining parts of several myths and pushing the limits of our conception of the trickster. Erdrich's tricksters can't be contained, whether in a body, in a prison, in a single story or novel, or—as the expanded 1993 edition of Love Medicine suggests—even in a particular version of a novel.

Several of Erdrich's characters bear important resemblances to Chippewa trickster Nanabozho, and her work offers a trickster-inspired view of identity, community, history, and narrative. As the community evolves, so do the novels' narrative forms. Indeed, the evolving narrative forms of Love Medicine,Tracks, and The Bingo Palace express the history of a Chippewa community in trickster terms that, far from reinforcing stereotypes of a vanishing tribe, emphasize variety, vibrancy, and continuance. Tricksters' ability to escape virtually any situation and survive any adventure makes them particularly appealing to an artist like Erdrich, who feels that Native American writers, “in the light of enormous loss, must tell the stories of contemporary survivors, while protecting and celebrating the cores of cultures left in the wake of the catastrophe (“Where I Ought to Be: A Writer's Sense of Place,” 23). Through trickster characters and a trickster aesthetic, Erdrich attests to the personal and cultural survival of the Chippewa people.

In Erdrich's works, tricksters are central to the formulation of identity, the creation of community, and the preservation of culture. Through their courageous, outrageous stories, their transgressions not only of law and convention but also of flesh and blood, Erdrich's tricksters are, to borrow Gerald Vizenor's words, “enchanter[s], comic liberator[s], and word healer[s]” (Trickster of Liberty x). Erdrich's works convey a tricksterlike delight in the margin as a place of connection and transformation. Her novels focus our attention on these interconnections, not only between characters but also among the various stories and across the novels. The new and expanded version of Love Medicine heightens and reinforces the interconnections among the novels, while questioning the stability of the novel as a form. In keeping with Erdrich's aesthetic of interconnection, my discussion focuses first on the trickster's relationship to identity and then on the trickster-inspired narrative structures that link family, the community, and the novels.


That tricksters inspire Erdrich's formulation of identity may appear at first a risky claim. After all, the trickster embodies paradox; his or her ever-shifting form seems to negate the possibility of any “stable” identity. Yet paradox is a part of Native American (and postmodern) conceptions of identity, and the shiftiness defines the trickster's identity. If aptly directed, Erdrich suggests, a trickster-inspired view of identity can be liberating and empowering. Traditionally, the Chippewa trickster Nanabozho is “the master of life—the source and impersonation of the lives of all sentient things, human, faunal, and floral. … He was regarded as the master of ruses but also possessed great wisdom in the prolonging of life” (Densmore 97). As the “master of ruses,” Nanabozho wields as his chief weapon the power of transformation. Nanabozho could “assume at will … a new form, shape, and existence”; he “could be a man, and change to a pebble in the next instant. He could be a puff of wind, a cloud fragment, a flower, a toad” (Johnston 19-20). Using his transformational powers to escape from difficult situations and attack his enemies, Nanabozho's transformational ability implies control over his physical boundaries. It is the trickster's questioning of physical boundaries that is central to Erdrich's vision of identity based on connections to myth and community.

As I argue elsewhere in detail, Erdrich views identity as “transpersonal”: a strong sense of self must be based not on isolation but on personal connections to community and to myth (see Smith). In Love Medicine, Erdrich translates the concept of a fluid, transpersonal identity in concretely physical terms: bodies become boundaries, outer layers that limit and define individuals. Characters flow out of their bodies and open themselves up to engulf the world. Even death does not contain them. Those characters gifted with Nanabozho's ability to control, or dissolve, their own physical boundaries have the strongest identities.

On the night of her homecoming at the beginning of Love Medicine, Albertine Johnson experiences a mystical merging with the northern lights as she lies in a field next to her cousin Lipsha. Her description shows how a physical connection to myth, community, and the landscape provides strength.

Northern lights. Something in the cold, wet atmosphere brought them out. I grabbed Lipsha's arm. We floated into the field and sank down. … Everything seemed to be one piece. The air, our faces, all cool, moist, and dark, and the ghostly sky. … At times the whole sky was ringed in shooting points … pulsing, fading, rhythmical as breathing … as if the sky were a pattern of nerves and our thoughts and memories traveled across it … one gigantic memory for us all.

(LM [Love Medicine] 37)2

Albertine's vision of a vast, universal brain, of which her own face forms a part, expresses what William Bevis calls “transpersonal time and space” (585). Everything connects and interrelates in living, breathing patterns and rhythms that Albertine inhabits both physically and mentally.

Albertine's vision strikingly parallels one of Nanabozho, as described by the Chippewa writer Edward Benton-Banai:

As he rested in camp that night, Waynaboozhoo looked up into the sky and was overwhelmed at the beauty of the ah-nung-ug (stars).3 They seemed to stretch away forever into the Ish-pi-ming (Universe). He became lost in the vast expanse of the stars. … Waynaboozhoo sensed a pulse, a rhythm in the Universe of stars. He felt his own o-day (heart) beating within himself. The beat of his heart and the beat of the Universe were the same. Waynaboozhoo gazed into the stars with joy. He drifted off to sleep listening to his heart and comforted by the feeling of oneness with the rhythm of the Universe.


Like Albertine, Nanabozho in this story is lonely and confused. For both, the merging experience counteracts a sense of alienation and disconnectedness. Albertine's vision is powerful because it reestablishes her sense of connection to her home landscape, to her family (she holds Lipsha's arm and they float together), and, importantly, to Chippewa myth. Seeing the northern lights, Albertine imagines the sky as “a dance hall. And all the world's wandering souls were dancing there. I thought of June. She would be dancing if there were a dancehall in space” (LM 37). In Chippewa myth the joyful dancing of the dead in the afterworld creates the northern lights.4 Albertine's vision places June within a community, in a “dancehall in space,” and reestablishes her own links to her culture. By reinforcing her transpersonal and mythic connections to her family, her community, and the natural universe, Albertine's physical merging into the cool, dark night intensifies her own sense of identity.

Albertine's single tricksterlike visionary experience is typical of Erdrich's technique; rather than assign a trickster identity to one particular character who has multiple trickster attributes, she emphasizes the trickster's multifaceted identity with an array of trickster characters. Nanabozho most clearly appears in Love Medicine in the magically flexible form of his namesake, Gerry Nanapush. As the novel's most conspicuous embodiment of the trickster, Gerry addresses Erdrich's central concerns by challenging the notion of fixed boundaries, both physically with his transformative powers and politically with his continual escapes from imprisonment by whites. Chippewa writer and critic Gerald Vizenor describes Nanabozho as a “comic healer and liberator” (“Trickster Discourse” 188). Gerry Nanapush fits both of these descriptions insofar as he represents Erdrich's concern with liberating and healing Chippewa culture from damaging white stereotypes. A thoroughly modern trickster, the two-hundred-and-fifty-pound Gerry squirms through prison walls and vanishes in thin air in Love Medicine, garnering his trickster reputation as a “famous politicking hero, dangerous armed criminal, judo expert, escape artist, charismatic member of the American Indian Movement, and smoker of many pipes of kinnikinnick in the most radical groups” (LM 341). Because it allows him to escape both literal and figurative confinement, the trickster's transformative power takes on political importance in Love Medicine.

Originally imprisoned because of a bar fight with a cowboy over a racial slur, Gerry ends up in jail because, as Albertine Johnson dryly observes,

White people are good witnesses to have on your side, because they have names, addresses, social security numbers, and work phones. But they are terrible witnesses to have against you, almost as bad as having Indians witness for you. Not only did Gerry's friends lack all forms of identification except their band cards, not only did they disappear (out of no malice but simply because Gerry was tried during powwow time), but the few he did manage to get were not interested in looking judge or jury in the eyes. … Gerry's friends, you see, had no confidence in the United States judicial system.

(LM 201)

By placing her Nanabozho figure in such a conflict, Erdrich suggests the trickster's power to counteract and heal the wounds of racial injustice. Andrew Wiget points out that the ability to change form is an essential survival strategy against such restrictive forces: “Trickster is in the business of … insuring that man remains ‘unfinished’ by fossilized institutions, open and adaptable instead to changing contemporary realities’ (21). Gerry keeps escaping, true to his proud slogan that “no concrete shitbarn prison's built that can hold a Chippewa” (LM 341). His face on protest buttons and the six o'clock news, he galvanizes the Chippewa community with his miraculous getaways, sailing out of three-story windows and flying up airshafts, which liberate him and by extension all Chippewas from the white world's effort to contain and define them.

The “unfinished” nature of the trickster provides an escape from essentializing definitions; however strong the mythic dimensions of Gerry's character, Erdrich carefully emphasizes his humanity as well. As Greg Sarris suggests, pinning a trickster identity onto Gerry would be just as confining as all of the stereotypes from which he struggles to break free (130).5 With a deft sleight of hand, Erdrich shatters any static image of Gerry as trickster by showing the toll Gerry's public trickster role has taken as he awaits the birth of his daughter: “All the quickness and delicacy of his movements had disappeared, and he was only a poor tired fat man in those hours, a husband worried about his wife, menaced, tired of getting caught” (LM 168). Although he escapes from prison again in The Bingo Palace, his appearance in that novel makes over-romanticizing him impossible; physically diminished by years in a maximum security prison, Gerry's much-changed image on the television screen shocks his friend Albertine. Whereas the old Gerry “had absorbed and cushioned insults with a lopsided jolt of humor, … had been a man whose eyes lighted, who shed sparks,” his gaze in a prison life documentary strikes her as hungry and desperate (BP [The Bingo Palace] 24-25). Erdrich's characterization of Gerry forces readers to consider both the mythic and the psychological dimensions of identity.6

Given the fact that the trickster, as Vizenor explains, is a “teacher and healer in various personalities,” Gerry's clownish, bumbling son, Lipsha, is clearly another of Love Medicine's tricksters, deriving his healing “touch” from his mythical forebear (“People” 4). His uncle Lyman describes him as “a wild jack … clever and contriving as a fox,” and, as a trickster in the youngest Chippewa generation, Lipsha represents the hope of cultural survival (LM 304). He goes on to become a central character in Erdrich's most recent novel The Bingo Palace (1994), in which he wavers (tricksterlike) between the luck and easy money of gambling and the fear that turning reservation lands into casino property will rob his community of its heritage and sense of identity.

In the title chapter of Love Medicine, Erdrich comically recasts the Nanabozho origin myth in the story of Lipsha's search for his parents.7 In the myth, when Nanabozho learns from his grandmother Nookomis that his mother had been stolen by a “powerful wind spirit” at his birth, he sets out on a long journey to find her and finally meets the great gambler, with whom he battles over the destiny of his people. At the tale's end, Nanabozho beats the gambler through trickery and returns to his people triumphant. The parallels to Love Medicine are clear. Like Nanabozho, Lipsha Morrissey first learns about his parents through his grandmother, Lulu Lamartine. Lipsha's mother, June, has also disappeared in a powerful wind (swept up in a North Dakota snowstorm), and after a search he finally meets his own trickster father, Gerry, and the traitorous King Kashpaw. The three gamble for King's car, and the father and son tricksters emerge victorious. Lipsha's repetition of Nanabozho's journey underscores the importance Erdrich places on cultural survival and suggests the danger betrayers like King pose to it. As with the Nanabozho myth, this poker game represents a struggle over the tribe's destiny, and by escaping from the police and winning King's car, Gerry and Lipsha outwit, if only for the moment, the internal and external forces that threaten to destroy the community. Erdrich's splitting of the trickster into two characters, the wandering Gerry and the homebound Lipsha, emphasizes the trickster's dual character as both marginal and central to the culture and underscores the trickster's multiple identity.8

Although Gerry's mother, Lulu Lamartine, corresponds to Nanabozho's grandmother Nookomis, Lulu is also Erdrich's feminist revisioning of the trickster, sharing Nanabozho's physical flexibility, artful gambling, and sexual prowess. Like the trickster, Lulu can “beat the devil himself at cards.” She brags, “I am a woman of detachable parts” (LM 115). Always the center of gossip for transgressing societal rules, Lulu even breaks the incest taboo, pursuing and catching her distant cousin Moses Pillager in a union that produces her trickster son, Gerry. Like Gerry, Lulu has a history of escape from government institutions; as a child she repeatedly ran away from her government boarding school (LM 68). When she escapes the schools for good, thanks to the clever letters of her trickster grandfather, old man Nanapush, she revels in the thought that “they could not cage me anymore” (LM 69).

Though she does not narrate her own story until Love Medicine, Lulu provides a vital link between Love Medicine and Tracks as the listener to whom old man Nanapush's narration in Tracks is addressed. Through his stories, Nanapush counteracts the Indian boarding schools' attempts at cultural erasure and recreates a family and a tribal history for Lulu.9 Lulu's nine children speak for the ultimate success of Nanapush's message, for she almost single-handedly repopulates the reservation, knitting the tribe into one big family through their many fathers (Van Dyke 20). Erdrich emphasizes this familial interconnectedness in her description of “Lulu's boys”: “Their gangling legs, encased alike in faded denim, shifted as if a ripple went through them collectively. … Clearly they were of one soul. Handsome, rangy, wildly various, they were bound in total loyalty, not by oath but by the simple, unquestioning belongingness of part of one organism” (LM 118). Fostered by their trickster mother, the boys present a picture of a potentially competitive and explosive system of interrelationships unified and strengthened by a sense of unquestioning belongingness.

A transformer, Lulu possesses the trickster's ability to dissolve her physical boundaries and merge with and absorb her environment: “I'd open my mouth wide, my ears wide, my heart, and I'd let everything inside” (LM 276). Lulu questions even the possibility of imposing boundaries, and as with Gerry, her trickster qualities lead her to deliver a political message: “All through my life I never did believe in human measurement,” she explains, “numbers, time, inches, feet. All are just ploys for cutting nature down to size. I know the grand scheme of the world is beyond our brains to fathom, so I don't try, just let it in. … If we're going to measure land, let's measure right. Every foot and inch you're standing on … belongs to the Indians” (LM 282). Though her sexual escapades win her a trickster's lowly reputation, Lulu's political awareness makes her a guardian of the culture. She warns the tribal council of selling land to the government for a “tomahawk factory [that] mocked us all. … Indian against Indian, that's how the government's money offer made us act” (LM 284, 283). By the end of Love Medicine, Lulu emerges as an “old-time traditional,” a cultural leader whose outrageous behavior in no way lessens her influence (LM 363).

Uninhibited by social constraints, free to dissolve boundaries and break taboos, the trickster's position on the edges of culture makes her or his perspective inherently revolutionary. As an “animate principle of disruption,” the trickster questions rigid definitions and boundaries and challenges cultural assumptions (Wiget 86). By emphasizing her characters' trickster traits, Erdrich turns stereotypically negative images into sources of strength and survival. Using Gerry's trickster characteristics to turn the threatening image of an escaped federal criminal into a symbol of human vitality and possibility, Erdrich also, through the resonance of the Nanabozho legend, transforms Lipsha's maladroit escape from home into a confirmation of personal and cultural identity. Finally, she makes us see Lulu not as the “heartless, shameless man-chaser” and “jabwa witch” that she is reputed to be, but as a woman of vibrancy and vision (LM 277, 322).

The oldest and most vocal of Erdrich's tricksters is old man Nanapush in Tracks, to whom Erdrich devotes over half of that novel's chapters. Nanapush has all the markings of a trickster: a joker, a healer, and a “clever gambler” who “satisfied three wives,” he lives in a “tightly tamped box overlooking the crossroad” (T [Tracks] 38, 41, 4)10 Though of an earlier generation, Nanapush shares with Lulu and Gerry the circumstance of having escaped from confinement in a white world, and significantly, he associates this escape directly with being a trickster: “I had a Jesuit education in the halls of Saint John before I ran back to the woods and forgot all my prayers. My father said, ‘Nanapush. That's what you'll be called. Because it's got to do with trickery and living in the bush” (T 33). Erdrich's repetition of this pattern of indoctrination and escape indicates its importance as a trickster strategy for cultural survival.

Nanapush's tricksterlike skill as a mediator between worlds has led several critics to emphasize his adaptability.11 Certainly, survival depends upon adapting, yet in Erdrich's view adaptability can also lead to assimilation and even to a collapse of identity. Although Nanapush's knowledge of English makes him an authority within the tribe and a tribal representative to the government, his attitude toward his own bilingualism is deeply ambivalent. The trickster's transformational ability can only provide a useful model for identity when that fluid identity is firmly grounded in a sense of culture and place. For example, Nanapush's knowledge of American laws and language enable him to “reach through the loophole” and bring Lulu home from the government school (T 225). Yet Nanapush regards his own knowledge of written English warily, because he knows that adaptation to modern, western ways can mean the loss of cultural identity. As he observes, “We were becoming … a tribe of file cabinets and triplicates, a tribe of single-space documents, directives, policy. A tribe of pressed trees. A tribe of chicken-scratch that can be scattered by a wind, diminished to ashes by one struck match” (T 225). Adaptation without connection to one's home and culture undermines identity and threatens the community, as we see in Lyman Lamartine. Lyman's description of his own fragile identity in Love Medicine ironically fulfills Nanapush's prediction in Tracks. “I could die now and leave no ripple. Why not! I considered, but then I came up with the fact that my death would leave a gap in the BIA records, my IRS account would be labeled incomplete until it closed. … In cabinets of files, anyway, I still maintained existence. The government knew me though the wind and the earth did not. I was alive, at least on paper” (300). Reborn “out of papers,” Lyman skillfully works his way up in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and goes on to build the very tomahawk factory that his mother, Lulu, had named a threat to traditional culture (LM 303).

Vividly illustrating this danger of adapting too completely, one Chippewa trickster tale recounts:

One morning Winabojo got up early and went into the woods. He saw a great many men with clubs and asked what they were doing. They replied, “We are going to get the boy that your people wagered in the game; you had better join us or you will be killed.” Winabojo decided to do this in order to save his family. When they attacked the village he was so eager that he went right to his own lodge and began to kill his family. He killed the old people and the two boys and was about to kill the baby girl when someone stopped him. Then he was like someone waking from a dream and felt very sorry for what he had done.

(Densmore 99)

Winabojo identifies so completely with his enemies that he kills his own family without realizing it, a vivid warning against internalized oppression.12 The destruction of Lyman's tomahawk factory brings about a similar result when Lyman notices Marie Kashpaw's hands have been mutilated in a machine designed to reproduce the work of “a hundred Chippewa grandmothers” (LM 310). Internalized racism sharply, if comically, colors Lyman's characterization of himself as “the flesh-and-blood proof of Nector Kashpaw's teepee-creeping” and his characterization of the activists in his community as “back-to-the-buffalo types” (LM 303).13 If such self-contempt and loss of identity is to be avoided, then the fluidity that allows the trickster to adapt to swiftly changing circumstances must spring from strong connections to community and culture.14

One character so closely connected to the myths and old language of the traditional Chippewa that she remains at the margins of Erdrich's contemporary fictional world is Fleur Pillager, whose heroic fights to save her land, unconventional dress and behavior, and mythic connections make her a compelling female trickster figure. In addition to her pivotal role in Tracks, Fleur appears as an itinerant healer and powerful medicine woman in The Beet Queen,Love Medicine, and The Bingo Palace; she is the only character to appear in all four novels. That Erdrich revised Love Medicine to include Fleur in her 1993 edition underscores Fleur's importance to the series, connecting the novels through her marginal but powerful presence. If Gerry and Nanapush are Erdrich's most traditional and widely recognized tricksters, Fleur represents Erdrich's most dramatic revision of the trickster. With Fleur, Erdrich not only retells traditional myths but, like Maxine Hong Kingston, reinvents and combines them. Fleur transgresses traditional myths, combining elements of the wolf (Nanabozho's brother), Misshepeshu the Water Monster, and the bear, making new combinations that are necessary for survival.15

As Gerry does with Lipsha in Love Medicine, Fleur shares the trickster's role in Tracks with the verbose and socially central Nanapush, and like Gerry, Fleur never narrates. As Bonnie TuSmith notes, whereas Nanapush's trickster-outsider role is “sanctioned within the community” so that he “represents the communal voice” in the novel, Fleur escapes even the Chippewa community's attempts to define her, dressing like a man and living alone in spirit-inhabited woods (TuSmith, All My Relatives 131). Just as Gerry gains fame for his outlaw status, Fleur in an earlier time achieves an equally mythic reputation on the reservation and in nearby towns. “Power travels in the bloodlines,” Pauline says, and although Fleur is not a blood relative of Nanapush, as his spiritual daughter she inherits his trickster traits along with the mystical powers of her own Pillager line (T 31). Unconventional as she is, Fleur displays traditional trickster behavior. She is sensual and skilled at cards and, like Nanapush, Lulu, and Gerry, Fleur encounters and escapes from a white world that attempts to define her too rigidly; she flees the small town of Argus after being raped by the three white men whom she beats at poker once too often. Like Lipsha's card game with King at the end of Love Medicine, Fleur's poker game with the men at the butcher shop represents a battle over the future of the tribe. By winning enough money to make tax payments on her land, she saves herself and her family from starvation.

However, Fleur's tricksterlike pride and independence alone are not enough to work miracles. She must journey, Nanabozho-like, to the afterworld to gamble for her second child's life, and ultimately she fails to save her family's ancestral lands. As with Gerry, Erdrich uses Fleur's trickster traits to show the mythic possibilities of real human beings and to emphasize the importance of community to survival. Nanapush gives us a reason for Fleur's failure that illuminates Erdrich's regard for community: “Power dies.” Nanapush warns, “As soon as you rely on the possession it is gone. Forget that it ever existed, and it returns. I never made the mistake of thinking that I owned my own strength, that was my secret. And so I was never alone in my failures” (T 177). Human mythic strength, Nanapush suggests, demands community.


  1. The most extensive discussions of tricksters in Erdrich's work to date include those of James McKenzie, William Gleason, and Catherine Catt, especially Catt's “Ancient Myth in Modern America: The Trickster in the Works of Louise Erdrich.” Though I agree with Catt's identification of tricksters as central to Erdrich's work, my reading of Erdrich's tricksters differs from hers. Catt stresses the trickster primarily as a mechanism for character development (76), whereas I see the trickster's influence as much more pervasive, particularly on the narrative level. In contrast to Catt's pan—Native American and even universalist analysis of the trickster, my reading draws mostly on Chippewa trickster traditions. As Erdrich's husband and collaborator, Michael Dorris, explains, “What Louise and I do is either within the context of a particular tribe or reservation or it is within the context of American literature” (H. Wong 198).

  2. Love Medicine citations refer to the 1993 edition. In the text, Love Medicine will be cited as LM,The Bingo Palace as BP,Tracks as T, and The Beet Queen as BQ.

  3. Waynaboozhoo is a less common variation of Winabojo, Nanabooshoo, or Nanabozho. Following Erdrich, who refers to the trickster once directly in Love Medicine, I use Nanabozho throughout.

  4. Unlike the heaven of western thought, this afterlife is not exclusionary. Christopher Vecsey explains that “part of the happiness of the afterlife sprang from the fact that practically everyone went there” (64). The northern lights also figure prominently on the cover of The Bingo Palace, which shows them blazing over the lit-up bingo hall in a visual union of past and present, ancient myth and modern life.

  5. Sarris specifically criticizes William Gleason's assertion that “Gerry IS Trickster, literally” (Sarris 61).

  6. See Ruppert, “Mediation and Multiple Narrative” for a discussion of this tactic as a way of mediating between tribal, pan-tribal, and white audiences so that each audience learns something of the others' understanding of identity.

  7. Gerald Vizenor recounts this and other adventures of Nanabozho in The People Named the Chippewa, 4-6.

  8. Alan Velie notes that Vizenor also splits the trickster figure in Darkness in St. Louis Bearheart and that this practice is “not without precedent in myth and literature,” citing for example Prometheus and Epimetheus in Greek mythology (131).

  9. As James Flavin explains, Tracks's oral context “heightens the tension within the text for it signals the potential for cultural survival or destruction. … When a child leaves [her] culture, when [she] dies or seeks other cultures within which to live, the entire community feels the loss” (3).

  10. Nanapush's presence in the novel is so powerful that many critics seem to forget that half of the novel is narrated by Pauline Puyat; these critics call Nanapush the narrator or main character of Tracks. For readings of Nanapush as a trickster, see especially Flavin, Catt, and Bowers.

  11. Debra Holt observes that “Nanapush outlives his blood relatives because he can read two sets of tracks—the ones left by animals in the woods and those left on paper” (160). Citing Nanapush's ability to read as a sign of his survival through adaptation, Catherine Catt pinpoints adaptability as the trickster's most valuable trait and explains that “Native American cultures, to survive in any form into the late twentieth century, have had to adapt to changing circumstances. … Trickster provides a model for establishing identity in the presence of change, for adapting, for surviving” (75).

  12. Pauline Puyat, to whom I turn later, provides perhaps the most vivid example in Erdrich's fiction of the destruction this kind of identification can cause.

  13. The Native American writer Greg Sarris identifies the combination of internalized racism and internalized oppression as the biggest problem of reservation life today and is troubled by its prevalence in Erdrich's books, wondering whether Love Medicine “treats the symptoms of a disease without getting at the cause” (142).

  14. Erdrich's attitude toward Lyman is by no means wholly condemnatory. Her use of multiple perspectives allows comic cross-perspectives on all the characters. Here as elsewhere, Erdrich eschews judgment.

  15. See Adamson-Clarke's discussion of Fleur as a “transformational” character.

Susan Farrell (essay date winter 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Farrell, Susan. “Erdrich's Love Medicine.Explicator 56, no. 2 (winter 1998): 109-12.

[In the following essay, Farrell provides an interpretation of the symbolism behind June's death in the “The World's Greatest Fishermen” chapter of Love Medicine.]

Set mostly on a Chippewa reservation in North Dakota, Louise Erdrich's first novel, Love Medicine, opens on the morning before Easter Sunday with the death of June Kashpaw, an event that sets into motion both memories and actual returns to the reservation by the other characters. Erdrich's Easter setting is important, as is the title of the first section. “The World's Greatest Fishermen,” which elicits images both of Christ—able to feed a crowd on only two small fish—and of Uncle Eli, a traditional Chippewa fisherman. This pull between Christianity and traditional American Indian beliefs is everywhere evident in this opening chapter, especially in June, a character for whom a sense of balance or spiritual unity, traits that critic Paula Gunn Allen claims essential to Native American identity, remains elusive. Presented as a Christ-like figure, June is a character caught unhappily between native tradition and the contemporary world. Although many critics read June's death in this opening chapter as a moment of transcendence, I believe that it is, instead, a failed “homecoming” which must be rewritten by her son Lipsha Morrissey in the novel's final pages.

As a young child, June seems thoroughly Indian. Marie Kashpaw, June's adoptive mother, speculates that she is “the child of what the old people called Manitous, invisible ones who live in the woods” (65). She is traditional, like her Uncle Eli, and in fact, chooses to live with him rather than with Marie and her family. Yet, when the novel opens, we see June walking somewhat aimlessly “down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota” (2). She is set squarely in a contemporary America characterized by white exploitation of Indian lands. When a man beckons to June from a bar, she enters, and is “momentarily blinded,” guided only by a blue egg in the man's white hand, what she believes to be “a beacon in the murky air” (2). Any kind of safety offered by this “beacon,” however, is only illusory. The egg is a Christian symbol of rebirth and renewal, and it is held out to her in a white hand. June is “blinded” by the white Christian world that has displaced native traditions. In fact, Erdrich describes June's entry into the bar as “going underwater” (2). Elsewhere in the novel, water is associated with suicide, with death and oblivion, and with giving up rather than surviving. Henry Jr. drowns in a river, and Nector Kashpaw is depicted in a famous painting as a doomed Indian brave, plunging from a high cliff into the churning water below. Elsewhere he swims into a lake and contemplates staying on the bottom forever. Marie thinks of small stones at the bottom of the lake, and imagines “how the waves are grinding them smaller and smaller until they finally disappear” (73).

June herself is compared to an egg in this opening section—wearing her pink turtleneck “shell” she is equally fragile, her skin “hard and brittle” (4). After she eventually allows the white man from the bar to “peel” her, June falls out of his heated truck into the cold, experiencing “a shock like being born” (5). At this point, June sets out to walk home to the reservation, despite her thin boots and the harsh “Chinook” wind: “the snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home” (6). In her similarity to Christ, June is ultimately a character who acquiesces to a dominant white view of the American Indian, accepting and embodying the Christian myth of forbearance. Elsewhere in the novel, we see what Christian faith has meant for Indians historically. Marie tells the pointed story of a group of “bush Indians who stole the holy black hat of a Jesuit and swallowed little scraps of it to cure their fevers. But the hat itself carried smallpox and was killing them with belief” (42). Faith in a Christian God has not done Indians any more good than faith in the U.S. government; as Lipsha Morrissey says, it has kept them waiting “when the goods don't deliver” (203). June, then, fails because she goes to a heavenly “home” rather than forcing a politically subversive earthly home. She never makes it back to the reservation; her rebirth leads only to her death. Just as Christianity fails the Catholicized Indians in the novel who “just don't speak its language” (195), June's death, which Albertine Johnson and other characters suspect is a suicide, fails to create the sense of belonging implied in the language of homecoming initially used to describe it. Albertine, in fact, describes that Easter Sunday as a portent only of a “false spring” (6).

We see June's willingness to play the role of the victim, when, as a child, she insists on being “hung” by Gordie and Aurelia. Presumably playing cowboys and Indians, June coolly tells Gordie: “You got to tighten [the rope] … before you hoist me up” (67). She explains to Marie that she deserves to die because she “stole their horse” (67). June's acceptance of white stereotypes of Indians and her eagerness for death in this scene should alert us to the possibility that, despite the claims of many critics, her death in the opening chapter suggests defeat rather than transcendence. Her death is especially problematic when we realize that survival, the ability to survive in the face of threatening genocide, becomes in itself a defiant political act and a cause for celebration in much American Indian literature. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Erdrich goes so far as to say that “survival becomes a moral question.” After all, as Nector reminds us, for the whites he knows, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Thus, when he is hired for the “biggest Indian part” in a Hollywood movie, Nector dies “right off,” realizing that “death was the extent of Indian acting in the movie theater.” And when he poses for the famous Plunge of the Brave portrait, he is depicted as a “noble savage” jumping off a cliff into “certain death” below (90-91). But when Erdrich talks about survival, she means cultural survival as well as physical. June's death, with its Christian overtones, is linked to what the book presents as a false kind of belonging—assimilation. Albertine imagines her Aunt June “not only dead but suddenly buried, vanished off the land like that sudden snow,” and realizes that she, too, feels “buried” as she finds herself “far from home, living in a white woman's basement” (7).

Unlike characters in the novel who either die or assimilate, Lipsha Morrissey mixes ingredients from his dual cultural heritage and thus survives. Lipsha initially seems to go wrong by acquiescing to Christian views as his mother June had done. Parroting a mainstream view of Indians, all the while recognizing the “lie” he has waded into, Lipsha admits, “I told myself love medicine was simple. I told myself the old superstitions was just that—strange beliefs” (203). For a few brief moments, Lipsha submits to the Christian notion of faith: “And that is faith for you. It's belief even when the goods don't deliver. … Faith might be stupid but it gets us through. … 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” (203). As a result, Lipsha's love medicine, concocted to rekindle his grandfather Nector's love for his grandmother Marie, goes terribly wrong.

Lipsha's return to the reservation at the end of the novel, however, is a conscious effort to nurture and preserve his community. Neither an act of acquiescence nor of giving in, but a practical, tricksterlike attempt at survival, Lipsha's return home makes the best of circumstances as they exist for contemporary American Indians. Lipsha's “coming home” is an explicit rewriting of his mother June's suicidal “homecoming.” After the arrival of Lipsha's father, Gerry Nanapush, and the poker game at King Kashpaw's apartment. Lipsha imagines that “the Easter snow” associated with June's death had “resumed falling softly in [the] room” (262). The novel closes with Lipsha driving back to the reservation in “June's car”: the car bought with the insurance money from June's death. For King, who owns the car, it represents materialism, King's assimilation into white culture and acceptance of white values. A prison informer who turns state's evidence against Gerry Nanapush, King even refers to himself by the code name “apple” (a pejorative term for assimilated Indians: red on the outside, white on the inside) in his Vietnam fantasies. Lipsha, however, as June's other son, offers a different path than that suggested by either June or King (death or assimilation). Lipsha, driving June's car, comes to “the bridge over the boundary river,” presumably dividing the reservation from the outside world. There, he contemplates “vast unreasonable waves” which “solved all [their] problems.” Yet his recognition that his family and community live on dry land suggests his refusal of death, his commitment to struggle, to survival. Rather than surrendering to the water, he crosses it. The bridge suggests Lipsha's ability to bridge cultures. Whereas June represents the danger of cultural assimilation as she, Christlike, walks on the water to her death, Lipsha crosses the water in a car; in trickster fashion he uses tools of contemporary American culture to facilitate the survival of his own tribal community.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986. 161.

Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: Holt, 1984.

Moyers, Bill. “An Interview with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris.” Bill Moyers' A World of Ideas. Alexandria, VA. PBS. 1988.

Karen Janet McKinney (essay date winter 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: McKinney, Karen Janet. “False Miracles and Failed Vision in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine.Critique 40, no. 2 (winter 1999): 152-60.

[In the following essay, McKinney explores the negative influence of Catholic missionaries on the Chippewa people and the impact of Catholicism in Erdrich's Love Medicine.]

In the last decade of the twentieth century, American culture seems increasingly at war with itself; racial and cultural divisions appear to be at once more marked and more insidious than ever before. We read the endless essays in “liberal” journals, listen to reactionary shoutings on the radio, and turn with disgusted disbelief from the “talk” shows on television. Then, some works of literature come to our rescue, as the reflecting ponds in which we can see some sort of truth that we can feel seep into us on an emotional, even a spiritual level. Louise Erdrich is a purveyor of such works, a novelist who writes from her perspective as a person of both Chippewa and German ancestry, sometimes assisted by the late Michael Dorris, her former collaborator and former husband—also of mixed heritage. In all four of her novels, from her first, Love Medicine, to her latest, The Bingo Palace, Erdrich tells the story of an extended North Dakota family, both German and Native American, whose members are racked by conflict both societally and personally. Her novels are, in one sense, a microcosm of the cultural schizophrenia that infects American life at every level. They have as a primary ingredient a deep sense of the history of both her people that illuminates but never overwhelms her fiction, a history containing seeds of a national mental illness.

An underlying theme in Erdrich's novels is the destructive influence of Catholicism on the Chippewa people. In her view, when a people's spiritual beliefs are directly attacked and an alien belief system is foisted upon them, the destruction of their culture is practically inevitable. As Catherine Rainwater defines it, a conflict occurs between codes, or “belief systems and ways of organizing society,” specifically between “codes originating within Western-European society and those originating within native American culture.” Listing several conflicting codes, she argues that the concept of linear time battles the concept of holistic or “ceremonial” time, and the benign exploitation of the natural world encounters the exploitation of technology at the expense of natural systems. At the top of the list, however, is the conflict between Christianity and shamanistic religion (406). Rainwater argues that Erdrich makes the clash of religious or spiritual belief systems paramount and integrates it into her fiction. More specifically, she shows that a clash between the Catholic dogma of the miracle and the native belief in personal vision is central to the other problems and complexities of life for the native peoples with which she is familiar, specifically the Chippewa of the Turtle Mountain Reservation. To clarify those issues, I first examine the historical background of the Chippewa's early encounters with Catholic missionaries and second, analyze the character of Lipsha, a young Chippewa man central to Love Medicine. His struggle to find his own way between the two conflicting belief systems is the main focus of Erdrich's novel.

To examine properly the validity of Erdrich's focus, one must examine, in some depth, the history of the complex relationship between the Catholic missionaries and the native and mixed blood people of Algonquin descent who inhabit northeastern and north-central North America. That history began in the early 1600s when, less than one hundred years after the French began to explore northeastern North America, Samuel de Champlain arrived to take control of the colony and sought missionaries to go into the largely unexplored wilderness areas to convert the natives. Champlain chose as his missionaries the Jesuits, an order whose approach to religious life was not one of seclusion and prayer but of battle and domination. These men took part in periodic exercises in which they were encouraged to imagine in detail the torments of hell. That training was intended to impress upon those priest—soldiers the urgency of their mission of saving souls (Grant 5). Throughout most of the eighteenth century, French Jesuit missionaries pushed tirelessly into the territory around the Great Lakes, attempting to convert the natives to Christianity. According to Grant's account, they met with little success at first because of a monumental lack of understanding between the converters and potential convertees. Because the natives had no churches with regular hours of worship and no ceremonies that the Jesuits were able to identify as religious, they concluded that these people were too primitive to have a religion and that, spiritually speaking, they were empty containers waiting to be filled (22). When the missionaries understood that many of the native people's everyday acts had a spiritual significance, they tended to dismiss such behavior as mere superstition.

The ethnocentrism of the Jesuit missionaries had both cultural and religious roots. That era, after all, was one when wars raged in Europe between countries that each believed itself superior to its enemies. The English felt themselves to be superior to the Scots as the French did to the English. That the Jesuit missionaries felt superior to native cultures that lacked the advanced technology, grand buildings, and the concept of private property of European culture is not surprising. These missionaries believed not only that their culture and its Christian religion were superior to the native people's beliefs, but that their particular sect was superior to any other form of Christianity and, of course, to any other religion in the world. Theirs was not a particularly merciful creed; the Jesuits believed that the natives were condemned to eternal torture, like all other nonbelievers, if they died without becoming Catholics. In a letter preserved in The Jesuit Relations, a compilation of letters written by Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century, one Jesuit stationed in the New World writes, “We go to declare war against Infidelity, and to fight the Devil in the very heart of his country” (284).

Who were the native people whom the Jesuits worked so hard to convert? The largest group of natives who came into early contact with the French were members of the Algonquin people, which comprised different tribes with shared customs and a similar language. Most of the native people of Erdrich's novels are Chippewa (or Objibwa), the most numerous of the Algonquin tribes. At the time of their initial encounter with the Jesuits, the Algonquins were hunters and fishers who lived throughout the Great Lakes area; later, some migrated west to follow the disappearing buffalo. Erdrich's tribe, the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, settled in the wooded Turtle Mountain area of what became North Dakota, partly because the landscape was like that of their original home in the eastern woodlands (Camp 19-20).

It is not surprising that the Jesuits had difficulty understanding the Chippewa, for no two cultures could have been more different politically and religiously. The Jesuits knew only the tightly hierarchical kingdoms of Europe; the Chippewa's political structure tended to be loosely organized. Because of the mobility necessary for following game animals, a man and his wife and children tended to form a self-sufficient unit, traveling on their own in the winter and in the summer coming together with a few other families to form a village. Chiefs existed but had little actual power to enforce their will (Barnouw 6). Thus, the Chippewa were more individualistic than many other tribes; nowhere was that more evident than in the most central part of their religious belief—the vision quest. All young boys and, in some groups, young girls, would go away from the rest of the family to fast and pray for a vision that would indicate who or what would be the youth's guardian spirit. That spirit might be in the form of an animal, a person, or even a spirit that would provide guidance for the young person throughout his or her life (Danziger 15). Although that vision was the most important one a person would have during his or her lifetime, the Chippewa considered all dreams to be of significance and believed that their correct interpretation was crucial if they were to make use of the insight the dreams conveyed. The Chippewa religion was complex, with a vast mythology and a complicated set of beliefs and practices concerning healing the sick and bringing good luck in the hunt, but its foundation was the vision—the intense revelation to the individual. The Chippewa believed that individuals, if their motives were pure, had the ability to find truth and spiritual solace within themselves. Thus, when the missionaries came proclaiming that they possessed the only spiritual truth that existed, the Chippewa were skeptical, to say the least.

The Christianity that the Jesuit thrust on the native peoples is not the version that most twentieth-century Christians would recognize, particularly their understanding of the function of miracles in Christianity. First, the Jesuits believed in the sacramental quality of the ritual of baptism and thought that all unbaptized persons were automatically condemned to damnation. As Francis Parkman records in The Jesuits of North America, the Jesuits were relentless in their efforts to baptize those on the point of death. He writes, “They found especial pleasure in the baptism of dying infants, rescuing them from the flames of perdition, and changing them […] ‘from little Indians into little angels’” (151). John Gilman Shea, like Parkman a respected nineteenth-century historian, records that a missionary took credit for a woman's recovery from dire illness after she had professed belief and been baptized (257). The missionaries used the idea of miracles primarily to create fear and awe in the hearts of their native audience and to bring them to conversion. The Jesuits took credit for natural phenomena, pretending, and perhaps even believing, that they were able through their prayers and rituals to control the natural world. Parkman records an event in which missionaries claimed credit for a rainstorm that followed an extended period of drought. They promised the people that if they would accept the Christian god, rain would fall. Parkman writes, “The processions were begun, as were also nine masses to St. Joseph; as heavy rains occurred soon after, the Indians conceived a high idea of the efficacy of the French ‘medicine’” (157). Missionaries also took credit for even more spectacular events. One Jesuit priest reported with glee how a severe earthquake and a subsequent eclipse of the sun had a positive effect on the unbelievers (Grant 53-54).

Perhaps the saddest fact about the Jesuit's medicine-show variety of Christianity is that it hid and perverted what most Christians believe to be the truth about miracles. That view is expressed clearly by C. S. Lewis, one of the most respected Christian apologists of our time, in his treatise on the subject:

The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. […] Every other miracle prepares for this or results from this. Just as every natural event is the manifestation at a particular place and moment of Nature's total character, so every Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation. There is no question in Christianity of arbitrary interferences just scattered about.


Robert A. Larmer, another respected theological scholar, echoes Lewis's position. He comments that “those who believe in miracles do not think of them as permanently inexplicable events, but rather as events which especially reveal the character and purposes of God” (80).

Belief in the use of miracles in the Jesuit manner did not begin until after the death of St. Augustine in the fifth century (Ward 3). Early missionaries in Europe and Asia stressed the similarities between the beliefs of non-Christian people in magic and the Christian belief in miracles rather than the differences (10). The medieval Church found it quicker and easier to overwhelm people with magic tricks and incredible feats of bravery than to find simple ways to explain Christian theology. In the seventeenth century, that tradition was established in mainstream Catholicism, of which the Jesuits were a part.

But, unlike the European “pagans,” many of whose rituals the early Church incorporated into Christianity, most natives continued to reject Christianity for many years. The eventual acceptance of Catholicism, at least officially, occurred only after the native people realized that the most basic aspects of their world, which had remained constant for thousands of years, were permanently being altered. The buffalo and other game animals were disappearing, as were the trees in the forests. The white men were even claiming to own large parcels of the land, a concept totally foreign to the natives. As the French and other Europeans became stronger, many native people realized that they were the “wave of the future,” and that accepting the French religion would help them to deal with French technology and culture. In addition, death from contagious disease was so rampant that tribal elders were fast disappearing, and entire tribal communities were disintegrating. Because Catholicism at least allowed one to face death with resignation, many people felt it was now the only honorable fate left to them (Grant 42).

As the years went by, Catholicism became integral to Chippewa society, and traditional beliefs seemed to weaken or even disappear, a transformation accelerated by the government's practice of forcibly removing Chippewa children from their homes and sending them to boarding schools to be “re-educated” as white people. Many sociologists agree that the Chippewa culture has essentially vanished. Harold Hickerson writes that “in terms of the aboriginal past, the Chippewa culture is a shambles, so much have the people everywhere had to accommodate to the new conditions imposed by their relations with Euro-Americans” (17). Noted writer and Catholic missionary Carl Starkloff agrees: “The Indian culture, save perhaps among a few tribes or groupings, is a shredded culture, an amalgam of white and Indian living patterns, a precarious perch between two or amid many more troubled traditions” (956). Even so, although the Catholics were successful in eradicating native religions, they were much less successful in imposing their own.

In Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich conveys the results of Chippewa history, showing the depth of the Catholic influence on her people in the 1980s. She does so both by satirizing the Catholic emphasis on miracles and by revealing the uncertain state of traditional spiritual beliefs, including the vision quest. In the story of Lipsha, a central character in the novel, Erdrich paints a picture in miniature of the plight of all Chippewa, and to some degree, of all native people in America. Lipsha, something of a rebel, lives with an elderly couple he calls his grandparents. He believes that he has seen through the falseness of the Catholicism the whites have thrust on his people. “Grandpa,” he says “was the one who stripped me of my delusions” (193). Lipsha recalls how he always liked the “cool, greenish inside” of the mission church until one day he went to mass with Grandpa Eli, who shouted out the entire rosary at the top of his lungs. “‘God don't hear me otherwise,’” Grandpa explains. Lipsha thinks about the troubles that have haunted his family—the alcoholism, the promiscuity, the cultural disintegration—and agrees that, like the government, God has gone deaf. But Lipsha has little with which to replace Catholicism. He admits to himself that, although he knows about the old gods who would “do a favor if you ask them right,” his people no longer know how to ask: That ability, says Lipsha, “was lost to the Chippewas once the Catholics gained ground” (195). Erdrich's own grandfather, who was the tribal chairman on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, practiced both Catholicism and the traditional Chippewa religion (Berkley 58), so Lipsha's confusion is something Erdrich likely knows firsthand.

Confused or not, Lipsha has a special gift that he calls “the touch.” He can help relieve physical suffering by laying his hands on people; “the medicine flows out of me,” he says (190). But he is helpless when his grandmother asks him for love medicine to make Grandpa love her again. He very much wants to help these two people who are the only parents he has ever known, but he fears he is out of his depth when it comes to a miracle like that. Lipsha decides to kill a pair of mating wild geese, birds that mate for life, and feed the hearts to his grandparents. Executing the plan proves difficult, however; and when Lipsha fails to catch any geese after a day of waiting crouched in the swamp, he falls into the same error as the old-time Jesuit missionaries. He decides to fake the miracle. He knows that what he is doing is wrong. “I looked at birds that was dead and froze,” he admits (203). In fact, Lipsha is so worried about his deception that he decides to hedge his bets and get his grocery-store turkey hearts blessed by a nun at the convent. When he fails to convince her to give the blessing, he is desperate and secretly puts his hand in the holy water and blesses the hearts himself. Though Lipsha's behavior seems contradictory, it is merely a symptom of his internal conflict. He wants to return to his ancestral belief system, but his knowledge is so fragmented that such a return is almost impossible. He also finds it more difficult than he had thought it would be to shake off the Catholic beliefs drummed into him since infancy. Lipsha's knowledge of both religions can be helpful, but sometimes that knowledge freezes him into inaction “between contradictory systems of belief” (Rainwater 405).

When Grandpa chokes on the turkey heart and dies, Lipsha believes that he has lost his touch because he tried to cheat, to use parts of the white religion in which he has no real faith, a religion of which he retains only a vague impression. Catholicism for him, and by implication, for most Native Americans, consists of a set of ritual behaviors that have no bearing on everyday life. Lipsha's realization that it is impossible to combine the two religious systems is revealed in his anguished comment, “I knew the fuse had blown between my heart and my mind and that a terrible understanding was to be given” (209).

At this point, in a desperate search for meaning, Lipsha leaves home for the city. When he sees an army recruiting office under a banner reading, “Today's Action Army,” he enlists almost without thinking. A short while later, looking at the toothless, worn-out veterans in the lobby of his run-down hotel, he has a realization: “This here was yesterday's action army” (247). As critics Nora Barry and Mary Prescott put it, Lipsha sees that “the warrior tradition as it now exists is false and will fail him” (133). Frightened at the turn his life has taken, Lipsha wishes that he could meet his father, who, Lipsha has recently discovered, is Gerry Nanapush, a famous convict and folk hero. As Lipsha shares whiskey with an old veteran, he searches internally for guidance. When the whiskey is gone, the old man walks away, tossing the empty bottle over his shoulder. Suddenly, hit between the eyes by a bolt from the blue in the form of a bottle of Old Granddad, Lipsha has his vision:

No concrete shitbarn prison's built that can hold a Chippewa, I thought. I realized instantly that was a direct, locally known quote of my father, Gerry Nanapush, famous politicking hero, dangerous armed criminal, judo expert, escape artist, charismatic member of the American Indian Movement, and smoker of many pipes of kinnikinnik in the most radical groups. […] According to my vision, he would make a break for freedom soon.


Lipsha now realizes that he has inherited his powers from his ancestors. Instead of being unique in his gift of the touch, he now sees himself as part of a community with strong traditions; he now has real power to put his wishes into action. Operating solely on luck and instinct, he locates his father in his half-brother King's apartment. He and Gerry get to know each other on the long drive of escape to Canada in King's car, which they had won from him in a card game, by a combination of luck and craftiness. Lipsha's new feeling of belonging is cemented by his father's information that a heart defect running in the family will keep Lipsha out of the army as it had Gerry. When he parts from his father across the Canadian border, Lipsha turns to go home:

Near dawn, I came to the bridge over the boundary river. I was getting pretty close to home now so I stopped the car in the middle of the bridge, got out to stretch, and for some reason I remembered how the old ones used to offer tobacco to the water.


A vague memory that his ancestors offered tobacco is about all he knows of the ancient rituals. Yet there is an uneasiness about Erdrich's description of Lipsha's spiritual homecoming. He crosses his own personal bridge to wholeness, but his connection to his traditional past still seems tenuous in spite of his good intentions. One of Lipsha's final comments, almost the last sentence in the novel, reveals much about Erdrich's evaluation of modern Chippewa culture. Lipsha remembers hearing somewhere that an ancient ocean used to cover the land hereabouts. He thinks to himself, “It was easy to imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves, but the truth is we live on dry land” (272). Lipsha has a connection with the tribal past through his spiritual and imaginative powers, but for most of his people that past is as remote from everyday life as water is separate from “dry land.” It seems likely that he has achieved his own survival, but the survival of his people as a viable society is still in doubt.

In Lipsha, Erdrich illustrates how the schizophrenic state of Chippewa society in the 1980s is a direct result of the work of the Catholic missionaries. She portrays the church as having betrayed the people with false miracles and hollow magic. But the greatest tragedy, she believes, is that the core of Chippewa society is gone. The vision that had always been the individual's guide to an understanding not only of the spiritual world but also of the corporeal world is weakened and hard to understand. Lipsha's vision helped him stay out of the army, although it did not give him much guidance for living a life that could be meaningful and happy in terms of values found in Chippewa culture.

In Love Medicine, Erdrich offers little hope for anything resembling a happy ending. She portrays survival, but of the individual only. Her people's culture could not withstand the onslaught of a dominant, alien religion combined with a government that allowed and encouraged the rape of the natural environment and the removal and indoctrination of children. Although Erdrich is a writer of the first rank whose lyricism and powerful images will doubtless guarantee her a place in mainstream American literature, the sociopolitical aspect of her fiction cannot be ignored. She is a Chippewa and thus a survivor of a holocaust. Her anger is buried in her fiction, occasionally breaking through to the surface. She forces her readers to reject the sentimentalization of the past to which our society is so prone and to regard our history with clearer vision. For only if we are able to see clearly do we have any hope of going forward.

Works Cited

Barnouw, Victor. Wisconsin Chippewa Myths and Tales. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1977.

Barry, Nora and Mary Prescott. “The Triumph of the Brave: Love Medicine's Holistic Vision.” Critique 30 (1989): 123-38.

Berkeley, Miriam. “Interview with Louise Erdrich.” Publishers' Weekly 230 (1986): 58-59.

Camp, Gregory. “Working out their Own Salvation: The Allotment of Land in Severalty and the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Band, 1870-1920.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 14 (1990): 19-38.

Danziger, Edmund. The Chippewa of Lake Superior. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1990.

Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: Holt, 1984.

Grant, John Webster. The Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter Since 1534. Toronto and Buffalo: U of Toronto P, 1984.

Hickerson, Harold. The Chippewa and Their Neighbors. New York: Holt, 1970.

The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1963.

Larmer, Robert A. Water into Wine: An Investigation of the Concept of Miracle. Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen's UP, 1988.

Lewis, C. S. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. New York: Macmillan, 1947.

Parkman, Francis. The Jesuits in North America. Boston: Little, 1963.

Rainwater, Catherine. “Reading between the Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich.” American Literature 62 (1990): 405-22.

Shea, John Dawson Gilmary. History of the Catholic Missions among the Indian Tribes of the United States, 1529-1854. New York: E. Dunigan, 1855.

Starkloff, Carl F. The People of the Center: American Indian Religion and Christianity. New York: Seabury, 1974.

Ward, Benedicta. Miracles and the Medieval Mind. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1982.

Brian Sutton (essay date spring 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Sutton, Brian. “Erdrich's Love Medicine.Explicator 57, no. 3 (spring 1999): 187-89.

[In the following essay, Sutton discusses the recurring image of the red convertible in Love Medicine.]

Literary critic Marvin Magalaner has stated that in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, “water is the all-pervasive symbolic link with the past […] and with the natural environment,” whereas “the unnatural present is epitomized by the automobile” (101). But in the chapter of Love Medicine entitled “The Red Convertible”—a chapter often anthologized separately as a short story—just the opposite is the case: The automobile is associated with a more natural state of affairs—farther in the past, whereas water is associated with unnatural times much closer to the present. The chapter is organized around its closing paragraph, in which a red convertible is swallowed up by the Red River. This closing image symbolically restates what has happened to Henry Lamartine, both individually and in his relationship with his brother, Lyman.

Throughout the chapter, Erdrich associates the red convertible with Henry's state of mind. The first time the convertible is mentioned, it is personified. Lyman, the story's narrator, says that when he and Henry first saw the car, it looked “really is if it was alive” (144). But the car isn't portrayed as having merely human traits; it is portrayed as having what at first are Henry's traits. Lyman emphasizes the peaceful quality of the convertible by stating that when he first saw the car, sitting “calm and gleaming,” he “thought of the word repose” (144). Similarly, Henry at first possesses a natural calm and repose. Lyman fondly recalls times when he and Henry “sat still for whole afternoons, never moving a muscle, just shifting our weight along the ground” (147).

But of course, automobiles are normally associated with movement rather than with repose. As Lyman says of the months after buying the red convertible, “We went places in that car, me and Henry. We took off driving the whole summer” (144). Thus, although the convertible retains its association with Henry's calm personality, it also becomes associated with the carefree bond between the two brothers. Not surprisingly, the brothers' life on the road partakes more of quiet, natural contentment than of Kerouac-style frenetic adventures. Although Lyman prefers not to “hang onto the details” of their travels, one of the few moments he describes in depth from that summer involves the brothers lying beneath willow trees, feeling “so comfortable […] and quiet,” and Henry “asleep with his arms thrown wide” (145).

Unfortunately, Henry loses his natural repose when he is sent to Vietnam, where he sees nine months of combat and spends another half year as a prisoner of war. At this point, Erdrich inverts her method of associating the car with Henry: Whereas the red convertible had earlier been portrayed in terms associated with humans, after his Vietnam experience, Henry is portrayed in motion-dominated terms ordinarily associated with automobiles. Lyman states that by the time Henry returned home the war was over in the minds of most Americans, “but for him it would keep on going” (147). One sign of Henry's ongoing internal war is that now he is “never comfortable sitting still anywhere but always up and moving around” (147). He can sit still only when watching television, and even then he sits as if trapped in an out-of-control car seconds before the crash: “He sat in his chair gripping the armrests with all his might, as if the chair itself was moving at a high speed and if he let go at all he would rocket forward and maybe crash right through the set” (148). The television so upsets him that once while watching, he bites through his lip until blood flows down his chin. In a striking sign of his new, unnatural state, Henry does not even notice the blood as he goes in to dinner, “even though every time he took a bite of his bread his blood fell onto it and he was eating his own blood mixed in with the food” (148).

Erdrich correlates Henry's emotional disrepair with the condition of the red convertible. Henry's mother argues against sending Henry to a hospital because “they don't fix them in those places” (149), as if she were describing a cut-rate garage. Meanwhile Lyman, who had meticulously maintained the red convertible during Henry's time in Vietnam, now methodically damages it, hoping that Henry will decide to repair the car and in doing so will begin to repair himself. Henry takes the bait, and for awhile it appears that he, too, is convertible, that both car and man can be salvaged. When Henry takes Lyman for a ride after weeks of working on the convertible, the car “hum[s] like a top,” and Henry's face appears to be “clear, more peaceful” (151-52).

But we sense that Henry's repairs are only superficial, a sense that is reinforced when he chooses the Red River as his destination, because the snow is melting with the springtime and “he want[s] to see the high water” (151). Henry has been associated with the color red throughout the story: He is an American Indian with “a nose big and sharp like a hatchet, like the nose on Red Tomahawk” (147); his psychological damage stems from his forced association with “reds”—the Communist Viet Cong; and earlier in the story he was portrayed eating his own blood. When he takes the red convertible to the Red River, now at high water, the mood is foreboding.

If the convertible has been associated with the earlier, peaceful Henry and with attempts to restore Henry's sense of repose, the river epitomizes Henry's more recent, unnaturally chaotic state. Like Henry, the water shows the effects of past abuses: Although the season is spring, the river is “choked with winter trash,” and the surface of the water looks “like an old […] scar” (152). The turbulence is already a frightening force, carrying not only smaller bits of “winter trash” but also “boards and other things in the current” (154). Moreover, the river is still absorbing the past, which will only increase the turbulence: “clumps of dirty snow here and there on the banks” (152) are about to melt into the river and push the waters still higher. Thus, the river is about to go completely out of control, as Lyman observes that “The water hadn't gone over the banks yet, but it would, you could tell. It was just at its limit […]” (152). Shortly after this, Lyman describes Henry's facial expression as breaking “like stones break all of a sudden when water boils up inside them” (152). Like the river, Henry has absorbed all he can take; the red waters within him are surging out of control.

Unable to bear it any longer, Henry leaps into the river. Overwhelmed by both the internal and the external current, he says, “My boots are filling.” And then Henry drowns (154). After trying one last time to save his brother, Lyman returns to the red convertible, puts on the high beams, drives it to the riverbank, and gets out. As the automobile follows Henry into the river it is once again personified: the headlights “reach in […] searching,” still lighted even after the car is underwater (154). And just as they did Henry, the surging waters overwhelm the convertible, shorting the wires and bringing darkness. The unnatural turbulence of the present has overwhelmed the natural repose of the past, and at the end “there is only the water, the sound of it going and running and going and running and running” (154).

Works Cited

Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: Holt, 1984.

Magalaner, Marvin. “Louise Erdrich: Of Cars, Time, and the River.” American Women Writing Fiction. Ed. Dickey Pearlman. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1989. 95-108.

Karah Stokes (essay date summer 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Stokes, Karah. “What about the Sweetheart?: The ‘Different Shape’ of Anishinabe Two Sisters Stories in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine and Tales of Burning Love.MELUS 24, no. 2 (summer 1999): 89-105.

[In the following essay, Stokes explores the role of Anishinabe culture, mythology, and storytelling in Love Medicine.]

Even though she grew up off-reservation speaking English, and writes a novel, a European form, Louise Erdrich's work is informed and ordered by elements of Anishinabe as well as of German-American, Catholic, and Midwestern cultures. These elements tantalize non-Anishinabe readers by lending a different shape to her fiction, a shape that they can sense but cannot fully distinguish. In order to discern the different shape of her novels, readers must educate themselves about the Anishinabe background of the works.

The meaning of Anishinabe storytelling relies on cultural knowledge through which the hearer fills in the blanks of the teller's “synechdochic omission[s]” (Kroeber 104-05). This transaction between speaker and listener is illustrated in the story of a white translator, Frederick Burton; his unnamed Anishinabe informant; and an Anishinabe song. Burton had been told by the informant that the song meant “I am out all night on the river seeking for my sweetheart,” and had translated it into a song popular in the early part of this century. Later, however, he was informed of the literal translation, which is this:

I keep awake
I keep awake
upon a river
I keep awake.

(Kroeber 105)

But what about the sweetheart?, Burton asked. His informant replied that the repetition of awake three times told the Anishinabe hearer all he or she needed to know. “Why does a man keep awake all night when he want to sleep?. … Only one reason. I go to find my sweetheart. The word is not there but we understand it” (Burton qtd. in Kroeber 105).1 Like the traditional song with its invisible lover, Erdrich's novels contain knowledge, concepts, and characters that become apparent only when readers educate themselves in the Anishinabe culture that informs her works.

Although she attended college and graduate school in writing and literature, Erdrich insists that a more primary influence on her novels is the practice of oral storytelling, because she grew up in a household where both Native and non-Native relatives told and still tell stories with great virtuosity (Wong interview 38-39). This oral influence is demonstrated formally in the episodic form of the novels and the fact that, as in traditional stories of the Anishinabe, the same characters evolve through many works (Schumacher interview 175-76). As in oral storytelling, the events of a story will sometimes be contradicted in its retelling by another narrator: no definitive version exists (Caldwell interview 67; Chavkin interview 224). As in the Nanabozho story cycle, stories continue “nose to tail” (Jones interview 4); sometimes characters dead in one tale live again in another story. For example, June Kashpaw dies in the opening scene of Love Medicine but appears as a ghost in The Bingo Palace; the scene of her death is retold from a different point of view as the opening of Tales of Burning Love. Sister Leopolda apparently dies in Love Medicine but appears as a centenarian in Tales of Burning Love. Formal features of oral narrative in Erdrich's work have been noted by Erdrich herself (Chavkin 4), Pittman, Rainwater, Ruppert, Schultz and others.

In addition to formal features, however, Erdrich's work also draws on characters, plot patterns and relationships from traditional Anishinabe culture and mythology.2 Specifically, stories about Oshkikwe and Matchikwewis, a polar pair of sisters in a cycle of stories commonly told by Anishinabe women, gives the reader a new perspective on the relationships between women that are central to Erdrich's novels. The relationship between these sisters has no close analogue in European American folklore and therefore lends a different shape to Erdrich's fiction.

The metaphor of a “different shape” of relationships between women is derived from a key scene in Tales of Burning Love in which Eleanor and Dot, the “two sisters” of this novel, first meet. When they are introduced by Jack Mauser, ex-husband of Eleanor and current husband of Dot, the two women bristle at each other, yet in the space of their car trip to Fargo, they bond together against Jack. As Jack sees it, “By the time they got to Mauser's house, he knew that he was in the car with [not two women who are strangers to each other but] something else, a different shape, alien, brilliant, ultra-female” (78, emphasis added). This powerful relationship between women, having no name in Euro-American culture, patterns Love Medicine and Tales of Burning Love, which I will examine here, and can be found in four novels published under Erdrich's name.3

Like the “tricky Nanabozho” (LM [Love Medicine] 236), the trickster and culture hero of the Anishinabe about whom innumerable stories are told, Oshkikwe and Matchikwewis appear and reappear in cycles of stories. Their names are descriptive: Oshkikwe means “young woman” (oshki- means “young,” “new,” or “unmarried” and ikwe means “woman”); as for Matchikwewis, matchi means “bad” (Baraga). Oshkikwe, the younger, more often demonstrates the traditional virtues of politeness, modesty, and common sense. Matchikwewis, the elder, is usually rude, greedy, and impulsive, especially in matters that concern sex; however, both mythical sisters are equally loved. IN some versions they are said to be daughters of Nanabozho (Barnouw 93). I see a close correspondence between the relationship that bonds these sisters and that between Marie Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine of Love Medicine (1993), and Dot Adare Nanapush Mauser and Eleanor Schlick Mauser in Tales of Burning Love (1996). The dutiful, family-oriented Marie and Dot resemble Oshkikwe; the sexually assertive Lulu and Eleanor correspond to Matchikwewis. Like the mythical sisters, both pairs of women at times are connected romantically with the same man, yet they form with each other a strong bond that benefits them both and at times is more significant than their connection with the male. Reading the novels through these traditional stories illumines the centrality of relationships between women in Love Medicine and Tales of Burning Love.

The closest non-Native American analogue to the relationship between Marie and Lulu or Dot and Eleanor lies in the “good” and “bad” sisters [or stepsisters] in the tale of Cinderella. Yet there is a significant incongruity: in non-Native stories, the “bad” sister[s] is not only punished at the end of the story but also, significant in contrast to the Anishinabe tale, irrevocably separated from the “good” sister. For example, in both the popular German version and its ninth century Chinese ancestor, this separation is figured physically in the bad sister's being maimed, having her eyes pecked out, or being killed by flying stones (Opie 155, 158). Other European versions of the Cinderella story feature a class separation just as irreconcilable: even when the good sister “forgives” her tormentors, she is removed from them by being elevated far above them socially. They are commanded by her new royal husband “to make obeisance to her as their queen” [Italian], or they become her subjects and she marries them off to lords of her court [French] (Opie 157). Oshkikwe and Matchikwewis, and their counterparts in Erdrich's novels, however, remain allies and equals throughout the story cycles, as I will show.

The bond between the women also fails to fit informal twentieth century American assumptions about unfaithful husbands, wronged wives, and “other women” made explicit to me by my students, who are often confused by the characters' relationship. For example, if the women are bound through Nector during his life, why does their bond intensify after his death? If Marie is merely a wronged wife so saintly and forgiving that she assists her ex-rival in recovering from a cataract operation in Love Medicine (“The Good Tears”), why does their relationship continue and strengthen, as it does later in that novel and in The Bingo Palace (1994) when they begin together to run the tribe? How to explain the instant alliance of Dot and Eleanor, ex-wives of the same man, against this man in Tales of Burning Love? Why do both women narrate, at approximately equal length, the greater portion of Tales of Burning Love?

Certainly, excellent fiction transcends cliché; however, understanding these women as bonded like the mythical sisters acknowledges in a satisfying way the centrality of their relationship. More importantly, knowing the Anishinabe stories makes the pattern of relationship between women in all Erdrich's novels emerge from its background. The pattern of the two sisters stories structures Love Medicine according to family relationships: the sister dyad, the co-wives with their husband,4 the bond with child of the mother and the parallel aunt, which among the Anishinabe would be similar to that with the mother. Erdrich turns this pattern in a different direction in Tales of Burning Love, focusing in her more recent novel further both inward and outward, on the internal development of each woman and the connection of both to the earth, the seasons, and specifically to the landscape of Anishinabe country.

Lulu Lamartine and Marie Kashpaw are the women whose relationship gives a different shape to Love Medicine. Just as Matchikwewis and Oshkikwe appear in Anishinabe mythology more frequently than anyone except Nanabozho, the voices and presences of Lulu and Marie appear more often than anyone else's in the novel, and both are equally central to the work. The women narrate more sections of the book than any other characters: “Saint Marie” (Marie); “The Island” (Lulu); “The Beads” (Marie); “Flesh and Blood” (Marie); and “The Good Tears” (Lulu). They also figure prominently in sections they do not narrate: “The World's Greatest Fishermen” (Marie); “Wild Geese” (Marie); “Lulu's Boys” (Lulu); “The Plunge of the Brave” (both); “Love Medicine” (both); “Resurrection” (Marie); “The Tomahawk Factory” (both); and “Crossing the Water” (both).

The women in Love Medicine correspond to the mythical sisters in age, Lulu being older than Marie, and their personalities share identifying traits. Like the elder sister Matchikwewis, Lulu is sexually assertive and adventurous, initiating liaisons with men who are taboo by blood relationship (LM 74-75) or marriage to other women (LM 283-85). At seven years old she examines the sexual parts of a male corpse (LM 279-80). On the other hand, Marie, like the younger Oshkikwe, is sexually modest. At fourteen, she is not completely certain what physically happens during sex (LM 65). As an adult, when her husband Nector has apparently left her for Lulu, Marie does not even return the gaze of his brother Eli, who has begun to spend time at her house in Nector's absence and whispers her name late one evening (94). While Lulu presents herself as a sexual creature even in the retirement home, wearing low-cut dresses, spike heels, lipstick, and “passion-pink fingernails” (LM 305), Marie lets her hair grow gray and favors, as she always has, baggy traditional clothing (LM 303).

Elements in Marie and Lulu's relationships with Nector also reflect Matchikwewis and Oshkikwe's relationships with men in the traditional tales of “Bebukowe the Hunchback” and “The Star Husband” (Barnouw 93-106).5 In the traditional tale of “Bebukowe,” Oshkikwe (Marie) and Matchikwewis (Lulu) discover the corpse of a hunchback. Oshkikwe has “a certain power” and thereby knows that the corpse is not really a hunchback, but a young man who has been transformed into one by a hunchbacked sorcerer (Barnouw 95). Oshkikwe builds a sweat lodge, drags the body inside, and brings it to life by dropping her hair oil on the stones while Matchikwewis stands outside. The corpse comes to life and regains his original form, “handsome and straight” (Barnouw 95).

The young man's reversible deformity mirrors Nector's early phase of excessive drinking, which stops when Marie dries him out. Marie claims, and there is no evidence in the novel to disprove her assertion, “[Nector] is what he is [tribal chairman] because I made him” (LM 154). In the sexual arena, even Lulu admits that “it took Marie to grow him up” (LM 73). Nector begins his life handsome enough to be in the movies (LM 122-23), and to be paid for work as an artist's model (123-24). However, he becomes affected by serious drinking—he refers to this phase later when thinking about Lulu causes “the kind of low ache that used to signal a lengthy drunk” (128)—until Marie, in her words, “drag[s] him back from the bootlegger's house” and “ration[s] him down, mixing his brandy with water, until he came clean” (LM 154). She transforms him from a drunk to tribal chairman, “that handsome, distinguished man” whom Lulu loves (LM 277) and whom others admire for his looks (LM 73).

The girls' intentions for the young man mirror Lulu's and Marie's intentions for Nector. When the young man is revealed to be handsome, Matchikwewis says immediately (referring to the custom of polygamy): “‘He will be our husband.’ But Oshkikwe [says modestly], ‘No, he will be our brother.’” The young man sees a lot of turkeys, kills them, and presents them to Oshkikwe. She is the one he wants to marry (Barnouw 95). Like Matchikwewis, Lulu has designs on Nector from the beginning. She declares “I could have had him if I'd jumped. I don't jump for men, but I was thinking of maybe stepping high” for Nector (LM 71). Like Oshkikwe, Marie, on the other hand, does not pursue Nector. When they meet in “Wild Geese,” he accosts her on her way down from the convent, hoping to recover property he assumes she has stolen from the nuns, and she matches him insult for insult, kneeing him in the stomach when he twists her arm behind her (63). In a few moments, however, this adversarial relationship becomes a bond that lasts throughout Nector's life. What first appears to Nector as his prevention of a theft by a “little girl” metamorphoses in an instant into a sexual encounter with “a full-grown woman” (65).6 Echoing Oshkikwe's mythical turkeys, Nector presents Marie with the pair of wild geese he carries (66). He takes her hand and does not let her go, an ending as magically arbitrary as that in the traditional tale.

“Star Husband,” another story of Oshkikwe and Matchikwewis, is also reflected in the stories of Lulu and Marie. Although this tale is told by indigenous people over North America, the Anishinabe version stresses the differences between the sisters and their personalities (Barnouw 104).7 Sleeping under the stars one night, the older, sexually forward sister says that a certain bright star resembles a young man, while a dimmer star represents an old man. She would like to sleep with the young one. The younger, demure, sister says she has no preference; yet the young handsome man comes and sleeps with the modest sister, while the old man sleeps with the forward one. The star husbands then take the two sisters to their lodge in the sky (Barnouw 102). In this story Matchikwewis again resembles Lulu because of her sexually adventurous nature: Lulu seduces Nector, a married man, with government butter in her car (132-33), “winks” at Bev Lamartine “with her bold gleaming blackberry eyes” (116). The young sister resembles Marie: her back is “hard, like a plank,” yet it still warms Nector's (140). Like Oshkikwe, Marie is modest and does not demand the man she wants—Nector—yet still she gets him.

Even though this insistence on modesty and selflessness in traditional Anishinabe tales may seem to counter ideals of female autonomy and assertiveness, the balance between the two sisters actually works to legitimize female strength. This legitimation is suggested by two features of the story cycle. First, like the ambiguous trickster Nanabozho, and unlike the pairs of sisters in non-Native tales, each sister exhibits both desirable and undesirable qualities and actions. Second, in these tales the sisters are never separated like the sisters in non-Native folktales by physical mutilation or an extreme change in social status. Like the trickster, who commits taboo acts such as marrying his daughters, the “bad” sister is never rejected, and her presence is necessary to the story.

Like their father Nanabozho, Matchikwewis and Oshkikwe share positive and negative characteristics that differentiate them from the impossibly good Cinderella and her completely wicked stepsisters in the European tale. Bettelheim theorizes that the sisters' contrasting roles allow children who hear this story to work out their feelings of sibling rivalry. The child-listener feels his/her parents favor his siblings over him/her; s/he believes s/he deserves to be punished for wishing revenge on them and at the same time can justify his/her revenge fantasies because of the odiousness of the stepsisters and stepmother (238-43). The Anishinabe tales of two sisters function quite differently. In “Star Husband” and “Bebukowe the Hunchback,” Oshkikwe exhibits the traditional virtues of modesty and selflessness and Matchikwewis does not. In “Oshkikwe's Baby,” however, Matchikwewis dreams a prophetic dream, while Oshkikwe violates the warning of her sister's dream, which results in her child's being kidnapped. Oshkikwe journeys to recover the child; Matchikwewis waits at their home and is just starting out to rescue them both when they return (Barnouw 115). This mixture of desirable and undesirable behaviors in both characters may work in a very different way on the audience. The listener need not fear that just because she is not perfectly good, that she must therefore be completely wicked. The child-listener is reassured that ambivalent feelings are not fatal and therefore is able to “regard both the self and the object as ‘both good and bad,’ and [does] not need to split off the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ object” (Miller 34). On the simplest level, the fact that both sisters set off to rescue the child in “Oshkikwe's Baby,” and that they accomplish this rescue, acknowledges and affirms women as active, capable beings.

In the one tale in which Matchikwewis is punished for violating a taboo, she is not separated from her sister; in fact, the fates of both sisters are similar, linked together by association with the landscape. At the end of the “Star Husband” variant collected by Barnouw, Oshkikwe is told by a mouse that her sister wants to marry her. She runs away across a frozen lake and tells “a man chopping a hole in the ice” that “somebody was bothering her and chasing her” (103). The man instructs her to go between his legs, which she does, and runs on. When Matchikwewis tries to follow her sister between the man's legs, he pushes her through the ice hole, saying “That's where you belong. What sort of world would it be if people did what you wanted to do—marry your sister?” (103-04). The most salient feature of this tale is the parallelism of the sisters' fates. As the man berates her, the ice hole closes and Matchikwewis is caught under the ice, where she is assumed to remain. The tale ends thus: “Now on cold winter days, when you hear ice cracking and making noises, that's Matchikwewis. But when you see a beautiful sunset on a winter evening, that's Oshkikwe” (104). Certainly, the overt meaning of the tale is a warning against incest (105);8 however, both sisters are united in an eternal symmetry of lake and sky.

Like the mythical sisters, Lulu and Marie are are never separated and in fact their bond outlasts Nector, strengthening after his death. First, in “The Good Tears,” the women's indirect relationship, linking through Nector while he is living, becomes a face-to-face connection. While Nector is alive, Lulu concedes that “It took Marie to grow him up,” and remarks that his wife must wonder what he does on the nights he spends with her; Marie refers to Lulu only as Nector's “last fling.” Immediately after his death, however, their relationship changes. Marie volunteers to put eyedrops into Lulu's eyes after cataract surgery. When Marie visits her, Lulu reports: “We mourned [Nector] the same way together. … It gave me the knowledge that whatever had happened … in the past, would finally be over once the bandages came off” (LM 297).

Their alliance is based on their shared knowledge of the personal stories of the tribe. Lipsha notes “[Marie] and Lulu was thick as thieves now … knowing everybody's life” (LM 334). In the past, both women have maintained their power in this way: Marie wards off the women who snoop around her house in search of gossip while Nector is “having a last fling” by dishing out the “goods” she has collected in town about their own straying husbands and illegitimate grandchildren (LM 93). Lulu defends her land rights against a hostile tribal gathering that heckles “She's had the floor and half the council on it” by replying, “I'll name all of them. … The fathers [of her eight children] … I'll point them out for you right here” (LM 283-84). Stories, under the modern guise of paternity suits, are her defense. Lulu and Marie unofficially manage the delicate balance of clans that keeps the tomahawk factory running as long as it does (LM 308-09), and also orchestrate the epic clan battle that brings it down (LM 315-19).

A major link between Lulu and Marie is their relationship with Lipsha Morrissey, which reflects and refracts the traditional two sisters story “Oshkikwe's Baby” (Barnouw 112-15).9 In this tale, the two women live together, apart from all other persons, and Matchikwewis “takes good care of” her younger sister. Oshkikwe finds a magic pipe and “because of the pipe” gives birth to both a miraculous boy and a puppy, whom she nurses together with the baby. Matchikwewis has a dream that warns Oshkikwe not to let the child out of her sight for ten days; when the younger sister briefly disobeys this warning, baby and pup are stolen by a witch who tells the baby, supernaturally already grown to be a young man, that she is his real mother. The witch uses the baby's miraculous hunting powers for her own benefit only, in the words of storyteller Delia Oshogay, “so she got all the profit out of it” (113). Oshkikwe convinces the young man of the truth, which he corroborates with material evidence, a piece of his old cradleboard and a scrap of flesh from the witch bitten by the puppy in the kidnap struggle. She returns with her son just as Matchikwewis is about to go in search of her.

The relationship between Lulu and Marie, whom Lipsha calls his “two grandmothers,” echoes this tale. With his healing “touch,” his insight, and his “personality [that] seems to transform personal pain into wonder” (Chavkin interview 223), he functions as the miraculous child of both Lulu and Marie. Although Marie brings up Lipsha, both women contribute to his spiritual nurture. Although at first he is unaware of his biological connection to her (great-aunt), Lipsha calls Marie “Grandma” and considers her to be his mother because she took him in and raised him from an infant (LM 39). As for Lulu, when Lipsha reaches adulthood, Lulu reveals that she also is his grandmother and provides him with the crucial information about his parentage that shapes his identity; his subsequent investigation of his origins drives both Love Medicine and The Bingo Palace. In Love Medicine, Marie provides the cash that enables Lipsha to escape the reservation and mull over his new knowledge of his origins in a kind of vision quest. In The Bingo Palace, Lulu summons Lipsha back to the reservation and sets in motion the events of that novel.

In these novels, in which relationship is based on behavior rather than biology, June, Lipsha's biological mother, plays a double role, both as the witch who steals the miraculous child and as a very distant mother-figure who orients Lipsha's blood relationships with other members of the tribe. June's behavior most clearly mirrors that of the witch in “Oshkikwe's Baby.” When Lipsha is an infant, she throws him in a slough in a gunnysack weighted with rocks (BP [The Bingo Palace] 50-51), from which he is miraculously saved by Marie's daughter Zelda. This refusal to allow him to be informally adopted by her relatives, which Erdrich notes is quite common on the reservation (Chavkin 73), is a theft from relations who would bring up this child and later do benefit from his miraculous powers. Growing up in the Kashpaw household, Lipsha would not have had an old-fashioned cradle-board, but would probably have seen the dresser drawer he slept in later holding the family's clothing (126), witness to his part in the family history.

Another of the novel's parallels with the Anishinabe tale involves evidence of scars, physical and psychic. In the traditional story, Oshkikwe proves her maternity to the young baby-man by producing a piece of flesh bitten by the pup off the witch's buttocks (Barnouw 114). He then makes up an excuse to check his witch-“mother” for scars. In a thematic parallel with the tale, Lipsha spends much time in Love Medicine and The Bingo Palace pondering the pain and sorrow of June's life, contemplating her emotional scars (LM 363-64; BP 52-55, 257-58) and the reader is provided with a view of these scars that Lipsha will never have, the formative scene of her childhood rape (BP 57-60). Seeing these psychic scars demonstrates to Lipsha and the reader that June is not his true mother because she is unable to act as one. Lipsha himself testifies to this fact: when told the slough story by Zelda, who pulled him out of the water, Lipsha insists “No mother …” but cannot finish his statement (BP 50). Evidence of her own mother's complicity in her rape demonstrates that June has no model to guide her in motherly behavior. By the time she is brought to Marie she cannot trust a mother figure at all, Marie observes, manifested by the fact that she leaves Marie's house to live in the woods with her uncle Eli (LM 92).

Erdrich's novel, Tales of Burning Love, uses the two sisters stories to further explore relationships between women. The novel is narrated from many points of view, yet two principal female characters, Eleanor Schlick Mauser and Dot Adare Nanapush Mauser, narrate most of the novel. The second and fifth wives of Jack Mauser, they are linked through their relationship with him, as in “Bebukowe.” However, although they meet through Jack, immediately they bond independently of him. At their first meeting, Eleanor inadvertently reveals to Dot that Jack has had more former wives than he had previously mentioned to her. In the ensuing three-way argument, Mauser unintentionally discloses to Eleanor that he has had a baby by wife number four. Like the “He will be our husband/brother” responses of Matchikwewis and Oshkikwe, both women reply in a parallel fashion when Jack tries to placate Dot. When Jack claims, “I'm still the same guy you married,” Dot retorts, “No you're not. … I don't know you from shit,” while Eleanor responds, “He's still the same man I married, though. … No difference whatsoever” (77). Like their traditional counterparts, each defines her relationship to Jack in a divergent way.

This parallel connection takes on more resonance when both women link nonverbally through weeping and then laughing at Jack together. This section's omniscient narrator reports that their weeping takes them backward into the past to recognize their common history of parallel stories: the tears “fused unseen connections, circuits clicked into place, their stories matched cadence by cadence (78, emphasis added). The “stories matching” suggests that the women realize that they, like Matchikwewis and Oshkikwe, are part of the same story, and further, that this story focuses on their relationship to each other as strongly as their connection with Jack. In a significant bit of body language, Dot holds out both hands to help Eleanor out of the car, Eleanor looks into her face, and they both, as befits daughters of the trickster Nanabozho, burst out laughing “hard, still holding hands.” Jack recognizes that their alliance now precludes his bond with either woman: he “knew he was lost” (79). With one wife long divorced from him, the other contemplating separation, and both deeply disillusioned with him, the relationship of the two women becomes for a time more central than his own with either. In episodes that reflect the cohabitation and journey of the two sisters, Eleanor stays for a while at Dot's house; journeying together in a snowstorm, they tell the stories that are the tales of the title.

The women's personalities reflect those of the two sisters. Eleanor, like Matchikwewis, is older, more self-centered, and more sexually aggressive, having had forty or fifty lovers by the time she is in her early thirties. When she first appears, she is seducing one of her students and the third-person narration reports that “[H]er self-destructive [sexual] greed both bored and excited her” (34). Like certain transgressions of Nanabozho the trickster, her violation of this taboo has both negative and positive consequences: she loses her job as a college professor, which harms her financially, but also “set[s] her free,” in her words, to research a book on Sister Leopolda and ultimately to reconnect with Jack. Dot, on the other hand, shares Oshkikwe's characteristics of modesty, selflessness, a more restrained sexuality, and devotion to family. Although her husband, Gerry Nanapush, has been in prison for over a decade, she has not until the present time remarried, and mentions having had only one lover during that time. In fact, she remains legally married to Gerry.

Dot's child, Shawn, conceived almost miraculously with her husband in a corner of the prison visiting area (LM 196), resembles the child of the myths conceived through contact with a supernatural pipe (Barnouw 112-13). Like the pipe, Gerry is a locus of supernatural power that belongs to the tribe, a “politicking hero, dangerous armed criminal, judo expert, escape artist, charismatic member of the American Indian Movement” (LM 341). The son of shaman Moses Pillager, Gerry shares a version of the healing “touch” that Lipsha possesses (LM 354) and an ability to magically change shape and escape from the prisons in which he is confined (LM 352, BP 227). Indeed, like Oshkikwe's baby, Shawn does seem supernaturally precocious, with powers identifiably inherited from her father. Federal agents, tracking her father after his prison escape, attempt to “steal” her by tricking her into revealing his whereabouts, only to fall for her masquerade as a child terrified of her criminal father: “I'm scared to death of him and so's my mom. If he ever came around I'd call 911” (BL [Tales of Burning Love] 399). As he leaves, one of the agents, feeling he has been mysteriously eluded, absently notes that she resembles a wolf, which is the family's supernatural signature, seen in Gerry, his grandmother Fleur Pillager, and son Lipsha Morrissey, throughout Love Medicine,Tracks, and The Bingo Palace as well as this novel (BL 400).

In contrast with the good and evil sisters of European folklore, Dot and Eleanor are united in fates at the novel's end that resemble Matchikwewis's under the ice and Oshkikwe's in the winter sunset (Barnouw 104), images similarly connected with the landscape of the Anishinabe tribal land. After Dot breaks off her relationship with Jack, she walks in the winter sun and has a vision of connection with Gerry in images of the winter landscape. She imagines him “in the north woods of Minnesota, leaving no tracks, building no fires. Farther north than that, maybe. … In the lakes, on the pure islands, there is no telling. … There is more lonely space out there than people could imagine or see, for it opens in the human heart, I think, horrified at how it yawns, in my human heart. … I breathe the comfort of the ground because I can't breathe otherwise for all the sorrow. … It goes through like a storm of weather” (BL 418). In the extended meditation from which I have quoted, Dot moves from perceiving Gerry as part of the larger landscape, to seeing the vast loneliness of the northern landscape as part of herself, to realizing that the vast loneliness, like weather, is inside her and will return periodically. It connects her with the landscape and weather, similar to the way Oshkikwe can be seen in every beautiful winter sunset.

Like the fates of Matchikwewis and Oshkikwe, Eleanor's vision of her future is symmetrical to Dot's. Rather than a symmetry of lake and sky, however, the two women's fates are associated with the winter and summer seasons. While Dot connects to the winter landscape of icicles, snow and ice (418), Eleanor's vision links her to the summer landscape of Anishinabe country. The voice that narrates from her point of view muses much on the natural world surrounding her, a new development for her character. The book's last chapter begins with a description of the unusually benevolent weather that ensured that that year's “harvest would be record breaking” (444). Eleanor rents an old farmhouse at the edge of the reservation in which to write her book, works in the yard, jogs through the farm fields, and watches “a weathered apple tree, thick and patient … [drop] petals of swimming fragrance and [grow] tiny hard green knobs” (447). She sees herself in a landscape of ripening apples, summer thunderstorms, and stray cats, and the narrator notes that she cannot separate herself from her surroundings because the old house's windows do not shut completely (447). The section, “A Last Chapter,” is filled with images of merging and communicating with other living beings. She writes in her journal, “‘It's time to sit still and listen to the sensible grass.’ Outside her window the yard merged into a small field of hay that leaned and rippled in hypnotic visual speech” (448). Like Matchikwewis, she is now a timeless process within the landscape.

Jack's presence is included in her future as they reunite in the novel's final pages; like the sounding lake ice that becomes Matchikwewis, the past and present voices of their conflict and concert echo in this passage. “Jack made love more the way he built bookshelves and toys than the way he built his subdivision houses, thank god. Eleanor had said that once. He didn't think it was funny” (451). Jack's experience of their reunion also evokes landscape imagery specifically associated with ice melt. He “melted right through … it was also hard to bear the pain of coming back to life” (452). The lovers connect sexually with each other and also with past and future generations who have left their traces on the old house. Further, the house metamorphoses into landscape as its ceiling is transformed into the sky through lunar, generational time: “Looking up at a cracked and intimate low ceiling where some child had bounced a ball and left rounded dirt marks … eight new moon smudges, maybe ten in a random arc” (452). This novel's end links Jack and Eleanor with June's death by ice at the beginning of Love Medicine, and it also extends outward to connect with the larger matrix of Anishinabe myths beyond the stories of the two sisters.10

Erdrich's novels take as their larger subject the act of storytelling itself. The title of this novel reminds us that we are listening to different voices, similar to the Heptameron or The Canterbury Tales, juxtaposing love and conflagration in virtuoso extemporizations on a theme. Jack contemplates his history of marriage on a drunken New Year's as he allows his house to burn. Anna Kuklenski, trapeze artist, saves herself from a circus fire and lives to bear Eleanor. She later uses her circus skills to save Eleanor from a house fire. After Sister Leopolda tells Eleanor the tale of her burning love for God, she drops dead of heart failure, and her body is struck by lightning. When Eleanor's mother dies, her bereaved husband, a funeral director, embraces her body in the crematorium, immolating himself along with her.

The stories within all of Erdrich's novels are important for the transaction that takes place between teller and listener, which is often described in terms of the sacrament of confession. Jack surreptitiously visits Eleanor in the convent at the beginning of Tales of Burning Love because “the old need for confession plagued him” (40). Ancient Sister Leopolda, “perhaps genuinely curious” about the prospect of confessing to Eleanor, reveals her experience of God—that He is like an unfaithful husband—and immediately dies, perhaps from relief (52). In Love Medicine, narrators also confess to the reader: [Lulu Lamartine] “Nobody knows this” (279). [Lipsha Morrissey] “Maybe I can't admit what I did” (250). Both Anishinabe and Catholic storytelling depend on the listener: the Anishinabe to bring specific knowledge to the tale, the Catholic to act as instrument of grace and forgiveness. Both traditions intersect throughout Erdrich's fiction and poetry.11

In Erdrich's fiction, relationships are shaped by the storytelling process. As Jack puts it as he approaches Eleanor's convent room to tell her about his latest marriage early in Tales of Burning Love, “He needed a blessing, perhaps an assurance, an okay. Maybe a little common sense, that was all he craved. The grounded feeling of a connection” (55). These relationships include the novelist's relationship with the reader, linking past and present generations of Anishinabe storytellers, Erdrich among them, with novel readers of the present and the future.


  1. For a book-length study on the way this supply of information by the audience works in a Native American culture, in this case Western Apache, see Basso.

  2. Jaskowski ably illumines the play of European, Anishinabe, and Christian mythological elements in Love Medicine, but does not touch on the mythical sisters I discuss here.

  3. Sarve-Gorham discusses the mythical sisters in relation to Fleur Pillager and Pauline Puyat in Tracks; Mary Adare and Celestine James co-parent Dot Adare while narrating The Beet Queen.The Bingo Palace, narrated principally by Lipsha Morrissey, follows a different pattern.

  4. Vizenor relates a description of polygamous marriage customs first printed in the Anishinabe newspaper The Progress 1877-1888: “Very often our men would take two or three wives and mostly of the same family, that is sisters, as there were fewer quarrels that way” (Summer 78). The Anishinabe tradition of multiple wives is mentioned by John Tanner and Frances Densmore and discussed in Landes (68-71). Landes relates examples of co-wives getting along harmoniously, while other observers mention jealousy between co-wives.

  5. “Bebukowe” is told by Delia Oshogay and “Star Husband” is narrated by Julia Badger (Barnouw).

  6. Their encounter is sexual but not sex: When Marie scoffs “I've had better,” Nector understands “we haven't done anything yet. She just doesn't know what happens next” (LM 65). Erdrich remarks on this, one of the few passages she altered in her revision of LM, the revision of which consists mostly of added material: “I wanted to clarify [Nector's] act: wrong, but not technically a rape” (Chavkin 234).

  7. Another version of this tale was told by David Red Bird in 1974 and appears as “The Foolish Girls” in Ortiz and Erdoes (158-60). Although Red Bird is identified as Ojibway, the story differs significantly from the version collected by Barnouw.

  8. Barnouw notes that Nanabozho also is pushed through the ice in a similar way as punishment for attempting to marry his own sister (105).

  9. Paula Gunn Allen sees links between this tale and “American Horse,” which is published in Spider Woman's Granddaughters, and which Erdrich revises as “Redford's Luck” and “Shawnee Dancing” in The Bingo Palace.

  10. Specifically those of the windigog, cannibal spirits with hearts of ice.

  11. For a definitive treatment of Anishinabe-Catholic religious syncretism in Love Medicine, see Jaskowski.

Work Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1992.

———, ed. Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women. New York: Fawcett Columbine-Ballantine, 1989.

Baraga, Frederic. A Dictionary of the Ojibway Language. 1878. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society P, 1992.

Barnouw, Victor. Wisconsin Chippewa Myths and Tales and Their Relation to Chippewa Life. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1977.

Basso, Keith. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1996.

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Brehm, Victoria. “The Metamorphoses of an Ojibwa Manido.American Literature 68.4 (December 1996): 677-705.

Chavkin, Allan, and Nancy Feyl Chavkin, eds. Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Jackson, MS: U of Mississippi P, 1994.

Densmore, Frances. Chippewa Customs. 1929. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society P, 1979.

Erdoes, Richard, and Alfonso Ortiz, eds. American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Pantheon, 1984.

Erdrich, Louise. The Beet Queen. New York: Holt, 1986.

———. The Bingo Palace. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

———. “An Interview with Louise Erdrich.” By Nancy Feyl Chavkin and Allan Chavkin. Chavkin and Chavkin. 220-54.

———. Love Medicine. New and Expanded Ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.

———. Tales of Burning Love. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

———. Tracks. New York: Holt, 1988.

Erdrich, Louise, and Michael Dorris. “An Interview with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris.” By Hertha D. Wong. Chavkin and Chavkin. 30-53.

———. “Life, Art are One for Prize Novelist.” By Malcolm Jones. Chavkin and Chavkin. 3-9.

———. “Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris: A Marriage of Minds.” By Michael Schumacher. Chavkin and Chavkin. 173-83.

———. “Writers and Partners.” By Gail Caldwell. Chavkin and Chavkin. 64-69.

Jaskowski, Helen. “From Time Immemorial: Native American Traditions in Contemporary Short Fiction.” Since Flannery O'Connor: Essays on the American Short Story. Eds. Loren Logsdon and Charles W. Mayer. Macomb: Western Illinois UP, 1987. 54-71.

Johnston, Basil. The Manitous. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Kroeber, Karl. Retelling/Rereading: The Fate of Storytelling in Modern Times. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1992.

Landes, Ruth. Ojibwa Sociology. Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology. 29. New York: Columbia UP, 1937.

———. The Ojibwa Woman. New York: Columbia UP, 1938.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Story of Lynx. Trans. Catherine Tihanyi. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.

Miller, Alice. The Drama of the Gifted Child. New York: Basic Books-HarperCollins, 1990.

Opie, Iona, and Peter Opie. The Classic Fairy Tales. 1974. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.

Pittman, Barbara L. “Cross-Cultural Reading and Generic Transformations: The Chronotope of the Road in Erdrich's Love Medicine.American Literature 67.4 (December 1995): 777-92.

Radin, Paul. Some Myths and Tales of the Ojibwa of Southeastern Ontario. Canada Department of Mines Geological Survey. 48. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1914.

Rainwater, Catherine. “Reading Between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich.” American Literature 62.3 (September 1990): 405-22.

Ruppert, James. Mediation in Contemporary Native American Fiction. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1995.

Sarve-Gorham, Kristan. “Power Lines: The Motif of Twins and the Medicine Women of Tracks and Love Medicine.Having Our Way: Women Rewriting Tradition in Twentieth-Century America. Ed. Harriet Pollack. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1995.

Schultz, Lydia A. “Fragments and Ojibwe Stories: Narrative Strategies in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine.College Literature 18.3 (October 1991): 80-95.

Shaddock, Jennifer. “Mixed Blood Women: The Dynamic of Women's Relations in the Novels of Louise Erdrich and Leslie Silko.” Feminist Nightmares: Women at Odds: Feminism and the Problem of Sisterhood. Eds. Susan Ostrov Weisser and Jennifer Fleishner. New York: New York UP, 1994.

Shkilnyk, Anastasia M. A Poison Stronger Than Love: The Destruction of an Ojibwa Community. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.

Smith, Theresa S. The Island of the Anishnaabeg: Thunderers and Water Monsters in the Traditional Ojibwe Life-World. Moscow, ID: U of Idaho P, 1995.

Taner, John. The Falcon: A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner During Thirty Years' Residence among the Indians in the Interior of North America. 1830. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Tedlock, Dennis, and Barbara Tedlock. Introduction. Teachings from The American Earth: Indian Religion and Philosophy. 1975. Ed. Tedlock and Tedlock. New York: Liveright, 1992. xi-xxiv.

Toelken, J. Barre. “The ‘Pretty Language’ of Yellowman.” Genre 2.3 (1969): 213.

Vizenor, Gerald. “On Thin Ice, You Might as Well Dance (interview with Larry McCaffery and Tom Marshall).” Some Other Frequency: Interviews with Innovative American Authors. Ed. Larry McCaffery. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1996.

———. The People Named the Chippewa: Narrative Histories. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

———. Summer in the Spring: Anishinaabe Lyric Poems and Stories. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1993.

Robert F. Gish (essay date 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Gish, Robert F. “Life into Death, Death into Life: Hunting as Metaphor and Motive in Love Medicine.” In The Chippewa Landscape of Louise Erdrich, edited by Allan Chavkin, pp. 67-83. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Gish identifies how hunting functions as a central motif in Love Medicine.]

Now therefore take, I pray thee, thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me some venison; And make me savory meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless thee before I die.

—Genesis 27:3-4

Now, watch me, ungilisi, grandson,
as I prepare this deer
which the Great Spirit has given to us.

—Geary Hobson, “Deer Hunting”

Contemporary American Indian fiction relies consistently on hunting and the role and character of the hunter. Such a preponderance of attention to hunting by Indian authors is only natural since American Indian literature in all its forms, oral and written, mythic and historical, reflects indigenous and aboriginal cultures—societies almost always linked closely to the land, to sustenance from it and to cultural identity reciprocal with it, especially with fishing and hunting. (Not-withstanding the differing injury or death awaiting the prey, hunting is regarded here as also generally subsuming trapping in that traps and snares are inevitably set in an act of hunting.)1

Part of the “story” and many of the plots of contemporary American Indian fiction involve how hunting as an indigenous and primal act affects and interacts (psychologically and in overt behavior) with modern urban cultures wherein hunting, for the most part, is either ignored or, if acknowledged, championed as New Age shamanism or condemned as atavistic and only dimly remembered in the controlling technological and scientific modern world. In sum, if hunting is acknowledged today it is usually perceived reductively and condescendingly by self-perceived “civilized” readers, as blood sport or murder. And some zealots who know animals mainly as pets clamor stridently for animal “rights” in protest of the crass huntsman—Indian or non-Indian characters, real or fictive, regarded with the same abhorrence directed to medical researchers who experiment on dogs and monkeys.

Of course, the metaphor of the hunt and the real and attributed motives for hunting go much beyond American Indian literature, and much beyond the individual or cultural human hunter/killer of animals. The ironies and implications of life as hunt, of hunter becoming hunted, of killing to live, of animal life transformed through food and sustenance, resurrected and regenerated through death, of the sacred and ceremonial initiations of the hunt, and of the more profane rituals of self-quests, genealogical hunts, man hunts, job hunts, house/home hunts, investment hunts—all such “hunts” are recognized in the activities and lexicons of modern life.

It is, however, predominately American Indian authors who interpret, redefine, and focus the more fundamental metaphors and motives of hunting, not just for traditional and adaptive Indian peoples but for modern, non-Indian metaphorical hunters. These authors, like Isaac's sincere fatherly request and instruction to Esau, seek to bless us with their soul-felt fictions of the hunt.

Because the hunt and its plots and players are everywhere in life and in literature, it is thus worthwhile to comment on the imaginative and creative resource that hunting provides to Indian authors. This is especially true in a work such as Love Medicine—a novel that in its themes and structures, plots and patterns, in its own motive and metaphor positions the centrality of the hunt in the essential act of writing and reading, of author and reader on the hunt in and beyond the worded ways of the “hunting stories” in this half-century family saga for the affirmation of love over hate, life over death—the affirmation of art and of humanity which the novel provides.2

The heart of hunting as motive and metaphor in Love Medicine is found in the chapter “Wild Geese” and in the especially important titular chapter, “Love Medicine.” Surrounding and supporting these two central hunting chapters are expansive and reflexive images and motifs—at once naturalistic and romantic, tragic and comic—which deal with human death and life in relation to animals and their hunting. Moreover, the crucial connection between the first chapter, “The World's Greatest Fishermen,” and the eleventh chapter, “Crown of Thorns,” demonstrates surrealistically but convincingly the hunter/hunted, animal/human convergence.

The plots (or subplots) of these two key sets of chapters and their imagistic and thematic undergirding throughout the novel work to secure its controlling metaphor: erotic and familial love, the power and “love medicine” of characters facing life's temporal and transcendent transmutations, not so much like players on a stage but like hunters and hunted, acceding to the ironies and paradoxes of the hunt—life into death, and death into life, hunting as crucifixion and resurrection. The purpose here, then, is to demonstrate how much of the motive and metaphor, the sequence and linkage of the “love stories” of Nector Kashpaw and Marie Lazarre, of June Morrissey and Gordie Kashpaw are established amidst the polarities and associations of hunter/hunter, the crucified and the resurrected.

Eli Kashpaw, twin brother to Nector Kashpaw (with certain affiliations and likenesses to the biblical hunter Esau and his deceptive brother, Jacob, and like Erdrich's legendary medicine man, Old Man Pillager, and grandpa Kashpaw's mother, old Rushes Bear), haunts the peripheries of the novel as a representative of the older and more obscure traditional Cree (and Chippewa) mythic ways known in the novel's present mostly through the nuances and glimmerings of family scripts, and by the more central characters in the novel such as Nector Kashpaw. As seen in his own account of the seductions of Marie Lazarre, of her “trapping” of him, Nector plays the dual role of hunter and hunted. Lipsha, although not the hunter his uncles are, does have the “touch,” the gift of healing—or so he wants desperately to believe in his own hunt for his identity, and for the identity of his parents. In this motive he becomes a more metaphorical hunter.

In such a richly reflexive and recursive novel as Love Medicine, the fated capture and metaphorical sexual “snaring” and “killing” of Nector in “Wild Geese” is both anticipated in earlier and remembered in later portions of the novel. Not just hunting imagery but bird and waterfowl, duck and geese, deer and fox, skunk and gopher descriptions and associations rise and fall rhythmically, build and diminish in architectonic pattern and counterpoint. It is clear that metaphorically, through Erdrich's use of “objective correlatives,” Nector and Marie are made to be the human, metaphorical counterparts to wild geese. Similarly, June and Eli, but especially June, are portrayed as deer, wild eaters of pine sap and nibblers of buds.

Through the two dead geese tied to Nector's wrists, the killing and “death” of sexual orgasm (as associated in the metaphorical correspondences of Renaissance and Courtly Love literature particularly) occurs in reflexive association with the first death dramatized in the novel (the death of June Kashpaw, Lipsha's mother)—the love medicines of the novel work their way. And since Love Medicine is not a strictly linear novel, rather at once synchronic and diachronic, this death of June, preceded, perhaps precipitated by another instance of “hunter/hunted” figurative death in intercourse, the associations of that seminal scene (in two senses of the word) serves to impregnate, to germinate the “Wild Geese” chapter and its sequel chapter, “Love Medicine.” June too sought, partook of, and bequeathed her own special love potion. Thus her promiscuous Williston “boomtown” love(s) and death—narrated comparatively more objectively, more cosmically (in third person), informs all of the prior and subsequent prescriptions and doses (i.e., chapters) of love medicine(s) in the novel.

June's death and mourning, described in the chapter “The World's Greatest Fishermen,” reflect the ironic scrawl on Lipsha's half brother's, King's, hat and point toward discussions at June's wake, and elsewhere in the novel, that the world's greatest fishermen, like the world's greatest hunters, are long removed from the older more authentic and triumphant traditional times of Cree/Chippewa elders and ancestors. Eli, not as old as Pillager and Rushes Bear, though acclaimed by the family as “the greatest hunter” (30), when the reader first meets him, is old and wizened, and a man of diminished appetites. Although Eli is a semi-modern hunter who relies on a gun and shells, albeit sparingly, he is still the nearest link to the old ways, the old hunters, and is complimented as such: “‘Only real old-time Indians know deer good enough to snare,’ Gordie said to us. ‘Your Uncle Eli's a real old-timer’” (LM [Love Medicine] 28).

June grew up roaming the woods with Eli and both shared a wildness common to older times and animal affinity. Marie notes the commonality: “Sometimes I thought she was more like Eli. The woods were in June, after all, just like in him, and maybe more. She had sucked on pine sap and grazed grass and nipped buds like a deer” (LM 65). And, somewhat ironically, given her snaring and monitoring of Nector, Marie has more use for Eli than his more dissolute (and deceiving) brother, Nector, with his predilections for pool halls and home-brewed wine. In his quietness, in his ways with children, and especially in his lessons for June, Eli impressed Marie:

Spring and summer, when the furs were thin, we'd see more of Eli around home. He lived in a mud-chink bachelor shack on the other end of the land. He was a nothing and-nowhere person, not a husband match for any woman, but I had to like him. Eli drank but he never lost his head. He rarely spoke. Sometimes we sat in a room all evening, hardly talking, although he spoke easy with the children. I'd overhear. He had a soft hushed voice, like he was stalking something very near. He'd showed them how to carve, how to listen for the proper birdcall, how to whistle on their own fingers like a flute. He taught June.

(LM 69)

Marie asserts that, in her own special wildness, it was probably June who taught Eli. But she confesses that Eli's abilities as a hunter went beyond stalking and luring game. He knew the old ways, and the old songs, hunting songs, haunting siren songs, which could even attract the likes of her:

They [Eli and June] went into the woods with their snares and never came home empty-handed. They went to the sloughs to shoot mudhens and brought home a bag of the tiny, black greasy birds. Nector was rarely home then. He worked late or sneaked to gamble. We'd roast the birds and make a high pile of their twig bones in the middle of the table. Eli would sing his songs. Wild unholy songs. Cree songs that made you lonely. Hunting songs used to attract deer or women. He wasn't shy when he sang them. I had to keep to my mending.

(LM 69)

June, a child of nine when taken in by Marie, goes to live with Eli soon after, lured to him and the wild and the attractions embedded in Eli's songs, by “pine sap and grasses.” June, as an abandoned child, intuits that there is more love, more caring in life in the wild with Eli than even with Marie and all of her adoptive, motherly ways. June's material and spiritual legacy to Marie—although not necessarily intended as such—is the string of beads, a misappropriated rosary hung on her to ward off the devil, the spirits that the debauched Morrisseys attributed to be inside her. When touching those beads Marie feels small stones rolled and grinded aimlessly by the lake waves until they disappear. It is an image of submergence first encountered by the reader in the account of June's death, along with other images of birds and wildness that come to be associated with her in her death and its aftermath, especially the howling animal madness, the punishment, the crucifixion and “crown of thorns” it brings on her one-time husband, Gordie Kashpaw.

If Marie sees no real kindness in June's symbolic, abandoned rosary beads, June's death brings a special kind of crucifixion and damnation to Gordie and a faith-shaking sense of life's angst to the tragicomic, clarinet-playing nun, Sister Mary Martin de Porres, who tries, briefly but devotedly, to assuage him in his deluded and delirious confession that he has murdered his wife, murdered June. Here, in the “Crown of Thorns” chapter, June's resurrection becomes a haunting into madness, leaving Gordie, a kind of Indian Lear, howling beyond the Edenic orchards and pines, amidst the grass and woods behind the convent, hunter become the hunted, predator become prey to the hounds of heaven: “She [Sister Mary Martin] followed him, calling now, into the apple trees but lost him there, and all that morning, while they waited for the orderlies and the tribal police to come with cuffs and litters and a court order, they heard him crying like a drowned person, howling in the open fields” (188).

Gordie comes to such straits of madness and mistaken reckoning in drunken grief and guilt for his beating and abuse of June when they were married—failed Golden Gloves boxer turning his fists on the wrong, wifely opponent. One month after her death “the morning before Easter Sunday,” Gordie begins drinking. He visits Eli who, in an action with reflexive imagery associated with June's death, offers him an egg that he cannot eat. From drinking beer at Eli's, Gordie walks home (with more reflexive imagery from June's stark and similarly inebriated fateful walk into the snow), where he calls his cousin Royce for some quarts of home-brewed wine.

After hours or days of drinking filled with regrets and reminiscence, he calls out June's name in a drunken love song—the violation of a taboo that frightens him and sets the stage in his mind for June's ghostly reappearance: “Her name burst from him. He wanted to take it back as soon as he said it. Never, never, ever call the dead by their names, Grandma said. They might answer. Gordie knew this. Now he felt very uneasy. Worse than before” (177).

Soon June does answer. While Gordie is trying to evade her by shaving, June's face appears at the window and when he runs to the kitchen she pounds at the window in anger. He turns on all the lights then overloads the circuits by plugging in the toaster and there in the darkness of the house she enters, stalking him room to room, coming for him, tearing the sheets off the bed, arranging the perfume bottles. Gordie, in a panic, runs to his car and guns it into the night for a five-mile escape into town and the hope of another bottle. But he hits a deer and, thinking the hide would be worth a bottle of booze and unable to open the car trunk, he drags the deer, a doe, into the back seat. And Erdrich continues reflexively to re-create the inside of the truck where June has sex with the “mud-engineer,” Andy, a heater-infused cab which she leaves only to walk to her frozen death (and resurrection). Here, however, in a Malibu Chevy June is resurrected in Gordie's mind as a stunned rather than dead deer that stares its way into his very soul in the terror of the visage he now sees in the rear-view mirror:

Her look was black and endless and melting pure. She looked through him. She saw into the troubled thrashing woods of him, a rattling thicket of bones. She saw how he'd woven his own crown of thorns. She saw how although he was not worthy he'd jammed this relief on his brow. Her eyes stared into some hidden place but blocked him out. Flat black. He did not understand what he was going to do. He bent, out of her gaze, and groped beneath the front seat for the tire iron, a flat-edged crowbar thick as a child's wrist.

(LM 180)

Gordie then concludes, in total emotional and mental breakdown, that he has not just bludgeoned a deer, he has killed his wife, June, and that leads him to seek the help, and to offer the confession, rendered with flourishes of black comedy, which only heighten the poignancy of events. For Sister Mary Martin, thinking she will see the corpse of Gordie's wife, sees what he sees and finds herself in strange communion in the back seat of the Malibu with the dead deer, involved, like Gordie, like June, (like her own great Savior, the Greatest Fisherman) with humanity's suffering and the relentless, inevitable pursuit of mortality, of being born into death with only the promise of life after death to light and lighten the way.

June's death one week before Easter Sunday becomes even more significant in light of Gordie's crazed “crucifixion” and Mary Martin's comic but gruesomely serious catharsis (epiphany). June dies with a ticket home in her possession. In the literal sense she never makes it home, not to the home and family which the rest of the novel “resurrects” for the reader, as the times and places and family members are revealed across time, almost as if June, transcendent and resurrected herself through the techniques of fiction, is somehow able to see simultaneously with the reader. That she is transcendent and resurrected, that she does make it home—to a more heavenly albeit imaginatively fictive home (novel as heaven)—is clear in her walk into but over the frozen, numbing snow-scape of the Dakota plains. Gordie too makes a walk, an escape across a similar landscape; however, he never makes it home (novel as hell) in the same sense that June does. Her life is in a sense her ticket “home.” She walks, doe-like, deer-like at first, then Christ-like:

By now it was unclear whether she was more drunk or more sober than she'd ever been in her life.

… Even when it started to snow she did not lose her sense of direction. Her feet grew numb, but she did not worry about the distance. The heavy winds couldn't blow her off course. She continued. Even when her heart clenched and her skin turned crackling cold it didn't matter, because the pure and naked part of her went on.

The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home.

(LM 5-6)

Much of the reflexive imagery of June's brief time with Andy, the “down-vested mud engineer” clusters around some of the geese and waterfowl imagery that takes full control in “The Wild Geese” and “Love Medicine” chapters. Perhaps it is not too farfetched to suggest, also, that subliminally there is something of the myth of Leda and the Swan at work as well. Admittedly, mud engineers are not mud-hens, and geese are not swans, but the consensual “rape” of June by Andy in the truck, and the mutual “seduction-rape” of Nector and Marie as youths and the later old-age, manipulated seductions (with the misguided assistance of Lipsha's goose heart/turkey heart aphrodisiac) suggest, at least to this reader, such anthropomorphic and mythic, metaphorical correspondences. The predominance of Easter eggs, their repeated peeling and eating, the mention of turtles, robins, and reptiles in Erdrich's rendering of June's final hours all reinforce the significance and function of the wild geese and deer at the top of the novel's evolving hierarchical bestiary.

“Wild Geese” and “Love Medicine,” as narratives of the love relationship of Nector Kashpaw and Marie Lazarre, are linked together, fittingly, by images of the hunt and of a pair of geese. The dead geese, shot by Nector and his brother, Eli, and taken into town to sell by Nector, are more than literally tied to Nector's wrists. Just as geese, unique in relation to more promiscuous waterfowl, mate for life, Nector and Marie are destined to remain paired early and late in their marriage of tribulation and trial. Despite Nector's lifelong attraction for Lulu Nanapush and their love dalliances, a relationship that makes them a wild pair of lovers as well, Nector chooses not to leave Marie. The “love medicine,” songs and potions with which Lipsha and Eli claim some special touch, some special knowledge, alternately work and don't work their ways on the Marie-Nector-Lulu lover's triangle. Eli and Marie have their moments of lustful attraction, but, as alluded to above, Marie keeps to her knitting.

Erdrich, in beginning “Wild Geese” with mention of Eli's hunting prowess, sets the tensions of the novel again along the lines of the hunt not just for animals but for a mate. The results of the hunt mean different things for each brother as they turn death into commodity and diverse pleasure. Nector narrates the story of Marie's snaring of him on what turns out to be a not-so-ordinary departure from the weekly, Esau-Jacob ritualized divided labor of the hunt:

On Friday mornings, I go down to the sloughs with my brother Eli and wait for the birds to land. We have built ourselves a little blind. Eli has second sense and an aim I cannot match, but he is shy and doesn't like to talk. In this way it is a good partnership. Because I got sent to school, I am the one who always walks into town and sells what we shoot. I get the price from the Sisters, who cook for the priests, and then I come home and split the money in half. Eli usually takes his bottle off into the woods, while I go into town, to the fiddle dance, and spark the girls.

(LM 57)

This particular day Marie Lazarre, running frantic and wounded from her gothic and frightening encounter with Sister Leopolda at the Sacred Heart Convent, collides with Nector. He is thinking amorously about, “aiming” for, Lulu Nanapush but hits (and gets hit by) Marie. It is an errant errand for Nector, albeit fateful, but Marie (injured and “winged” herself) wings Nector as surely as a blast of birdshot. The “sacred heart” image, too, is a significant and expansive/reflexive “heart” image which carries over not just to the affairs of the heart of “Wild Geese” but the actual goose heart Lipsha tries to isolate and prepare as an aphrodisiac for the continuing struggle of wills of Nector and Marie.

Nector thinks of Lulu in hunting terms, singling her out (e.g., “I have already decided that Lulu Nanapush is the one,” LM 58), and taking what he sees as difficult aim (e.g., “She is small, yet she will never be an armful or an eyeful because I'll never get a bead on her,” LM 58). But Nector, among such lustful thoughts and aims, becomes prey to another's “aiming,” to Marie who is also described in shooting terminology: “Because I am standing there, lost on the empty road, half drowned in the charms of Lulu, I never see Marie Lazarre barrel down” (LM 58).

Nector, contributing to his own snaring, insists that Marie slow down, and he essentially stops her, thinking she is on the lam from stealing some of the convent's silver. The geese tied to Nector's wrists hit upon Marie's hips and she resists his hold. Her tears cause him to let loose of her twisted, injured arm. Erdrich describes the release, again, in hunting terms: “So I let up for a moment. She moves away from me. But it is just to take aim. Her brown eyes glaze over like a wounded mink's, hurt but still fighting vicious” (LM 59). She charges him and then they are on the ground exchanging insults about person and family. Then the dead geese assist in the ensuing “rape”; Marie suddenly (like Leda) engulfed by wings, attracted to and yet repulsed by another kind of feathered gore (glory): “The geese are to my advantage now [says Nector]; their weight on my arms helps pin her; their dead wings flap around us; their necks loll, and their black eyes stare, frozen. … Her eyes are tense and wild, animal eyes. My neck chills” (LM 60). Then the control shifts and Marie, in effect, catches and holds Nector with her own sexual power, her breasts like soft bullets grazing him, arousing him:

I stiffen like I am shocked. It hits me then I am lying full length across a woman, not a girl. Her breasts graze my chest, soft and pointed. I cannot help but lower myself the slightest bit to feel them better. And then I am caught. I give way. I cannot help myself, because, to my everlasting wonder, Marie is all tight plush acceptance, graceful movements, little jabs that lead me underneath her skirt where she is slick, warm, silk.

(LM 60-61)

Marie, described in colors of black (her skirt) and white (her pillowcase-wrapped hand), is associated with both a wild Canada goose and a crow (her “crow's rasp” voice and her alleged meanness). Nector, feeling like a “stupid fish” with failing breath, holds the two dead geese (analogical fig leaves) in front of him to hide his Adam-like sense of guilt and shame. And once Nector sees the painful wound in Marie's hand (resulting from her, in effect, crucifixion by the sadistic Sister Leopolda in the convent), a shot shoots through his own hand and he drops the geese and gives them to Marie, gifts of atonement and commiseration for her to take home to roast and eat—gifts for her sustenance and resurrection. Nector, holding Marie's fevered hand, views her, attends to her mercifully in a manner akin to putting a wounded animal out of its misery:

I'm not ashamed, but there are some times this happens: alone in the woods, checking the trapline, I find a wounded animal that hasn't died well, or worse, it's still living, so that I have to put it out of its misery. Sometimes it's just a big bird I only winged. When I do what I have to do, my throat swells closed sometimes. I touch the suffering bodies like they were killed saints I should handle with gentle reverence.

This is how I take Marie's hand. This is how I hold her wounded hand in my hand.

(LM 62)

June too is associated reflexively with Nector and Marie through the imagery of the dead geese, their necks in leather bands. Once in childhood Gordie and Aurelia had “a rope around her neck and looped over a tree” (LM 20), and her dead but resurrected image abides throughout not just in Gordie's mind but also in the reader's.

At June's wake the men discuss (both truths and lies) all the animals they have killed—from skunks to fox—and including a discourse on how to skin and boil a skunk by Eli, the old hunter and last man on the reservation that could snare a deer. June's son, King (Lipsha's half-brother and killer of “gooks” when in the Marines), also boasts, in the tradition of hunting tall tales, of killing a fox with bow and arrow and hitting it right in “that little black hole underneath a fox's tail” (LM 29). When challenged, King tells what he jokingly proposes as a truer hunting story: “I heard of this guy once who put his arrow through a fox then left it thrash around in the bush until he thought it was dead. He went in there after it. You know what he found? That fox had chewed the arrow off either side of its body and it was gone” (LM 30).

No longer a clan of true hunters, the men nevertheless still rely on hunting stories, remnants of more purposeful accounts and more authentic deeds, to bring some perspective on June's death, on the death in life and life in death known to the hunter.

A year after June's death and nearly fifty years after Marie Lazarre snared Nector Kashpaw, another traditional ritual is resurrected in an attempt to rekindle the love of Marie and Nector. Like Eli, Nector's grandson, Lipsha Morrissey, has “the touch” of the old ones, of the old ways. In his case it is the touch of healing: “I got the touch. It's a thing you got to be born with. I got secrets in my hands that nobody ever knew to ask. … The medicine flows out of me” (LM 190).

Nector, in his second childhood, stands in the woods and cries out—primal cries to be sure, albeit for different reasons than Gordie's howling because of June's death. Nector also reverts to his old ways of making visits to see Lulu, “to have his candy” (LM 191). It is Marie, out of enduring jealousy and love, who enlists Lipsha to put the touch on Nector to make him stay home. Lipsha, although angry at the injustices done to Indian peoples generally and to June and Gordie more specifically, consents to “cure” Nector in the hope of bringing some greater happiness to his grandparents in their old age.

It is Marie who mentions the possibility of love medicine to Lipsha and although he knows such remedies are an old Chippewa specialty he doesn't particularly want to visit Old Man Pillager for a refresher course in the recipes. Hunting for the best remedy, Lipsha realizes that hunting itself will provide the appropriate means. Erdrich's way of providing this solution for Lipsha is through patterning and extending her earlier use of geese as objective correlatives for Marie and for Nector. Lipsha's realization of how to proceed is, again, abetted by Marie:

Well I got it. If it hadn't been the early fall of the year, I never would have got it. But I was sitting underneath a tree one day down near the school just watching people's feet go by when something tells me, look up! So I look up, and I see two honkers, Canada geese, the kind with little masks on their faces, a bird what mates for life. I see them flying right over my head naturally preparing to land in some slough on the reservation, which they certainly won't get off of alive.

It hits me, anyway. Them geese, they mate for life. And I think to myself, just what if I went out and got a pair? And just what if I fed some part—say the goose heart—of the female to Grandma and Grandpa ate the other heart? Wouldn't that work? Maybe it's all invisible, and then maybe again it's magic. Love is a stony road. We know that for sure. If it's true that the higher feelings of devotion get lodged in the heart like people say, then we'd be home free. If not, eating goose heart couldn't harm nobody anyway. I thought it was worth my effort, and Grandma Kashpaw thought so, too. She had always known a good idea when she heard one. She borrowed me Grandpa's gun.

(LM 200)

It is because of this motive that Lipsha becomes a hunter. And the reader is back once again in the times a half-century earlier when Nector and Eli hunted for geese and when Nector first encountered Marie on a literal “stony road of love,” with two dead geese tied to his wrists, and a lifetime's weight of marriage.

Lipsha takes his grandpa's gun, goes to a slough, improvises a blind, and sits and waits among the rushes, patiently watching the herons hunt for their own prey. Erdrich's description of Lipsha's moment of truth as a hunter ends in anticlimax and disappointment:

I was still hunkered in the slough. It was passing late into the afternoon and still no honkers had touched down. Now I don't need to tell you that the waiting did not get to me, it was the chill. The rushes was very soft, but damp. I was getting cold and debating to leave, when they landed. Two geese swimming here and there as big as life, looking deep into each other's little pinhole eyes. Just the ones I was looking for. So I lifted Grandpa's gun to my shoulder and I aimed perfectly, and blam! Blam! I delivered two accurate shots. But the thing is, them shots missed. I couldn't hardly believe it. Whether it was that the stock had warped or the barrel got bent someways, I don't quite know, but anyway them geese flown off into the dim sky, and Lipsha Morrissey was left there in the rushes with evening fallen and his two cold hands empty. He had before him just the prospect of another day of bone-cracking chill in them rushes, and the thought of it got him depressed.

(LM 202)

Lipsha is depressed not only because he misses two “accurate” shots but because the two geese, described as devoted, eye-gazing lovers, emphasize his own aloneness. But he rallies and rationalizes that store birds would work just as well. He buys two frozen turkeys. And it is this violation, what he calls an “evil shortcut,” which causes his love medicine to backfire. It isn't the love medicine itself, he tries to convince himself, that counts—rather it is the faith in the cure which brings results. He compounds his error by asking a priest to bless the two hearts which he wraps in a clean handkerchief. He is referred to the same Sister Martin who took Gordie's confessional and prayed him all the way into the hospital in Bismarck. Like Jacob's lies and deceptions about his own hunting to Isaac, Lipsha first tells Sister Mary Martin that the turkey hearts are intended for the statue of Saint Kateri, and failing to convince her of that motive leads her to believe they are love charms for himself. And when she tells him he doesn't need such assistance, he leaves, reaching into a cup of holy water and blessing the turkey hearts himself. Such an act, such a poignantly comedic scene brings new, extended, and ironic meaning to the name of the “Sacred Heart Convent.”

Lipsha can't watch the spectacle of Grandma Marie eating the turkey heart raw and then trying to trick Grandpa Nector into eating it on doctor's orders to enrich his blood. But the comedy increases and when Nector taunts Marie by rolling the heart around in his mouth and then displaying it on his tongue, she gets up and slugs him between the shoulders to make him swallow it. The comedy turns blacker when Nector chokes—and dies.

Then in a wonderfully reflexive moment, Marie, rushing back to Nector, stumbles and falls to the floor too. The circle is full and complete. Now they are both prey to the throes of death rather than young lust and love—life into death, death into life. Lipsha passes out—reviving to see the regret in Marie's eyes that she too has been resurrected from her near death by the Senior Citizen staff. Lipsha shares the guilt for his grandfather's death with Marie at the funeral.

The resurrection theme continues, however, and in a way recursive and reflexive to June's return to haunt Gordie, Nector returns to invite Marie to follow him, as Marie explains it to her grandson: “‘It's the love medicine, my Lipsha,’ she said. ‘It was stronger than we thought. He came back even after death to claim me to his side’” (212).

Then the true love medicine of the novel works its own conjuring way and Erdrich gives Lipsha the heart and courage to tell his grandmother the truth—that the love medicine was a fake, and that it was true love which brought Nector back to Marie to allow him to tell her how he loved her. In her love and appreciation of Lipsha's confession and his own state of hunting for his parentage and for love, Marie gives him June's rosary beads which hang on her bedpost. And just as Nector had once held Marie's wounded hand, Marie holds Lipsha's hand in utter love:

She took the beads off the bedpost, where she kept them to say at night, and she told me to put out my hand. When I did this, she shut the beads inside of my fist and held them there a long minute, tight, so my hand hurt. I almost cried when she did this. I don't really know why. Tears shot up behind my eyelids, and yet it was nothing. I didn't understand, except her hand was so strong, squeezing mine.

(LM 214)

The reader understands. Erdrich's wondrous techniques of utilizing expansive and reflexive image and symbol, her fine orchestration of pattern and rhythm whereby the paradoxes, the motives and metaphors of hunting and the hunt, life into death, death into life, converge into the regenerative and reaffirming potency of Love Medicine to bring new life and insight to the reader through the clear and accurate aim of the artist—straight to the heart, mind, and soul of the waiting, wanting reader.


  1. See my related essays on hunting and American Indian literature: “Rights Gone Wrong: Indigenous Hunting Rights in Contemporary American Indian Fiction” and “Ironies of Consent: Hunting and Heroism in The Surrounded.” See also my book Songs of My Hunter Heart: A Western Kinship; Marshall, On Behalf of the Wolf and the First Peoples; and Hobson, The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature, 90-108.

  2. I use the original publication of Love Medicine (1984) instead of the new and expanded 1993 version because I consider the original publication to be a better novel than the revised one and a good example of “less as more.”

Works Cited

Gish, Robert F. “Ironies of Consent: Hunting and Heroism in The Surrounded.The Legacy of D'Arcy McNickle. Ed. John Purdy. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1996. 102-14.

———. “Rights Gone Wrong: Indigenous Hunting Rights in Contemporary American Indian Fiction.” North Dakota Quarterly 61.4 (Fall 1994): 11-25.

———. Songs of My Hunter Heart: A Western Kinship. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1992.

Hobson, Geary, ed. The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1979. 90-108.

Marshall, Joseph, III. On Behalf of the Wolf and the First Peoples. Santa Fe: Red Crane Books, 1996.

Allan Chavkin (essay date 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Chavkin, Allan. “Vision and Revision in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine.” In The Chippewa Landscape of Louise Erdrich, edited by Allan Chavkin, pp. 84-116. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Chavkin compares and contrasts Erdrich's original version of Love Medicine with the 1993 expanded edition, noting similarities and differences throughout the text.]

Love Medicine (1984) made Louise Erdrich famous almost overnight. This novel prompted an unusual amount of critical attention, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and has since become a work frequently anthologized and taught in college. Yet in 1993 Erdrich published the novel again after revising it, adding four new chapters and a new section that became the second part of “The Beads,” and resequencing the chapters; the title page of the book was changed from Love Medicine: A Novel to Love Medicine: New and Expanded Version. Although occasionally writers have revised and “corrected” published books, there have been very few instances in which a major modern novel has been so substantially revised and expanded as Love Medicine was.

If Love Medicine is a collection of stories, as Gene Lyons in a review in Newsweek insists, the importance of Erdrich's publishing a new edition of her book would be less problematical than if it were a novel. Adding a few more stories to a collection would not result in the kinds of critical problems that occur when adding new parts to a novel; on the other hand, if Love Medicine is an integral work, the addition of the new chapters should influence one's reading of the entire book. Hertha Wong, who sees Love Medicine as a short-story sequence, challenged Erdrich and Michael Dorris, her collaborator on Love Medicine, to defend their claim that it was a novel. “It's a novel in that it all moves toward a resolution,” Erdrich responded, and Dorris quickly added, “It has a large vision that no one of the stories approaches.” After Erdrich stated that she was not worried about the issue, Dorris then elaborated upon why they regarded the book as a novel:

If it had been a collection of short stories, it would have been very different. … we went through the entire manuscript. We wove in all the changes and resolutions and threads to tie them [the stories] all together. By the time readers get half way through the book, it should be clear to them that this is not an unrelated, or even a related, set of short stories, but parts of a large scheme.

(Wong, “An Interview” 47)

In an interview with Malcolm Jones, Erdrich stated that while she knew she would have been able to write the plot as a traditional novel, she decided to use an experimental but legitimate novelistic form of interrelated stories because it was “something I have always loved reading” (4).

Love Medicine should be regarded as an experimental novel unified by a variety of methods. Focusing on several interconnected Chippewa families over three generations, Love Medicine tells the story not of a central protagonist but of a reservation community in northern North Dakota. Helen Jaskoski explains the structure of the novel as “a complex series of … tales, interlocking through recurrence of character and event and through variation of point of view” (59). The original Love Medicine consists of fourteen chapters narrated by seven first-person narrators and a third-person omniscient narrator. The first chapter begins in 1981, and with the second chapter Erdrich shifts the story back in time to 1934, whereupon the book progresses in its fragmented narrative to 1984.1 On the first page of the chapters Erdrich indicates the year and, if the story is not being told by the omniscient narrator, the name of the first-person narrator. Erdrich also unifies Love Medicine by the inclusion of a common regional setting, repeated images (especially water), recurring themes, repetition of events narrated from different perspectives by different people, and humor (Wong, “Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine” 170-87). As critics have observed and Erdrich has acknowledged, not only has Faulkner with his interrelated stories and interweaving divergent points of view been a major influence, but also American Indian oral tradition with the “storyteller's use of repetition, recurrent development, and associational structure” (Wong, “Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine” 172).2 In fact, in her interview with Malcolm Jones, Erdrich stated that the novel was influenced by a traditional Chippewa storytelling technique—a cycle of stories focused on a central subject. Like some of Faulkner's highly innovative works, such as Go Down, Moses and As I Lay Dying,Love Medicine makes a large demand upon its readers, who must assemble the fragments of the narrative to see the “large vision” that Dorris insists is there. This experimental novel challenges its readers to see connections and patterns in its intricate text where much is implied but rarely made explicit. Believing that “one of the attractive characteristics of Love Medicine is its subtle complexity,” John Purdy sees this novel as an integral work revolving “around four of its characters: June, Marie, Nector, and Lulu.” The latter three are involved in a “love triangle” over a half-century in duration. Though she does not appear much in the novel and does not narrate her own story, June is a haunting presence at the heart of the work because of her self-destruction (Silberman 101). The novel begins with her death and concludes with her son Lipsha symbolically bringing “her home” (LM [Love Medicine: A Novel] 272, LMN [Love Medicine: New and Expanded Version] 367). The reverberations of her life throughout the book serve as another unifying device.

But if Love Medicine is a novel and not a collection of stories, then the existence of two versions of the work becomes much more problematical and raises some perplexing questions. Which version reveals Erdrich's “real intentions”? Which version of Love Medicine is “definitive”? Which version is the better work of art? Why did Erdrich decide to substantially change a novel that was so highly regarded by both the critics and the public? What constitutes Love Medicine, a work with a complicated textural history that includes the publication of parts of the book, sometimes in different form, in periodicals before incorporation in the novel? Is a work that exists in multiple versions, such as Love Medicine, “a single version of the work or all the versions taken together?—and if it is all the versions taken together, is the work constituted by the process of its revisions, one after another, or by all the versions considered as existing simultaneously, as they might in a variorum edition giving a complete account of the successive readings? (Stillinger v).


The usual assumption of scholars who have published criticism on Love Medicine is that while the two versions of the novel are not substantially different, the 1993 Love Medicine must be the more authoritative because it is the latest version of the text. This assumption of the textual stability of Love Medicine is a commonplace belief founded upon one of the basic premises of twentieth-century criticism and editing—the idea that there can be only one “definitive” or “correct” or “best” text, which is the latest one the author has approved. Since the 1960s this assumption has been challenged by James Thorpe, Hans Zeller, Jerome McGann, Donald Reiman, Peter Shillingsburg, James McLaverty, and most recently by Jack Stillinger. Stillinger has explored the problem of multiple versions with greater thoroughness and sophistication than any other contemporary theorist, especially in his Coleridge and Textual Instability, and I will summarize his ideas on multiple versions that are relevant to the problem of the two versions of Love Medicine.

Stillinger rejects the traditional notion that the latest text must be the best; he also refutes a more recent theory that the earliest text is the best because it reveals the author's first and therefore real intentions. Instead of textual stability and the notion of a single best text, he argues for “textual instability” or “textual pluralism”—the idea that there is no one version of the text that is “correct,” “most authoritative,” or “best.”

These theories are also related to ideas about authorial intention. The latest-text theory is based on the notion that the latest is best because it is the best representative of the author's intention; the earliest-text theory is based on the notion that the earliest text (rather than the latest) is where the author's “real” intention resides; and the newest theory, which I shall here call textual pluralism, is based on the idea that each version of a work embodies a separate authorial intention that is not necessarily the same as the authorial intention in any other version of the same work.


Stillinger argues that for obsessive revisers like Wordsworth and Coleridge (and I would add Erdrich as another good example) the theory of textual pluralism, which allows for the uniqueness of aesthetic character and authorial intention of each version, is a much more sensible way to see their work than the other approaches that neglect the work's “extended textual history” (121). In addition to being true to a work's textual history, Stillinger's notion that “a work is constituted by all known versions of the work” and not one single most authoritative version, has the advantage of enhancing the “richness” and “complexity” of the author's writing (132, 140).

Stillinger also suggests that obsessive revisers like Wordsworth and Coleridge become readers and interpreters of their own writing and deliberately add “their intentions in the process of revision” (107), and thus their poems can be profitably examined by critics who are trying to ascertain the author's ideas (or “ideology”) embodied in the work. Prompted by his realization that the two most difficult of the Coleridge's seven major poems have “relatively little revision” in them, Stillinger presents this tentative generalization: “the more revision in a Coleridge poem, the greater the likelihood of receiving determinate (authorial) meanings—and, conversely, the less revision, the greater the indeterminacy in situations where the lines come ‘by chance or magic … as it were, something given’” (246). If Stillinger is correct, then an analysis of the revisions in Love Medicine reveals Erdrich's ideas that are embodied in the novel since it has been so extensively revised. In short, by regarding Love Medicine as constituting both versions of the novel, instead of merely selecting the early or late version, readers can comprehend the textual history of the book and have a better chance of understanding it in all its complexity and richness.

Although the paperback cover of the 1993 book proclaims that “this is a publishing event equivalent to the presentation of a new and definitive text,” it is probably best to conclude that neither Love Medicine is “definitive,” and that each should be regarded as unique. Sounding like a deconstructor of her own work, Erdrich rejects the idea of a single “best text” when she was asked if the expanded 1993 Love Medicine was intended to replace the original 1984 Love Medicine: “I have no great plan for the reader here—some may prefer the first version without the additions, others the next. I don't think of the books as definitive, finished, or correct, and leave them for the reader to experience” (Chavkin and Chavkin 247). In fact, Erdrich seems to share with some contemporary critics and theorists influenced by deconstructionism, such as Jack Stillinger, the belief in the legitimacy of multiple versions of the text and has remarked: “There is no reason to think of publication as a final process. I think of it as temporary storage” (Chavkin and Chavkin 232).


While the 1984 book attracted enormous attention, the 1993 edition did not. Reviewers and critics, with few exceptions, ignored the publication of the 1993 edition.3 Critics have continued to select for their study either the original Love Medicine or more often the expanded version of the novel, with little or no explanation for their choice.4 The assumption seems to be that the two versions are not substantially different and the additions to the novel do not change one's interpretation of the work.

In the few cases where critics provide any explanation for the purpose of the new and expanded version, they suggest that the main reason for it is to “help make clearer and more coherent connections to the planned tetralogy” (Wong, “Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine” 181). It is likely that the source for this explanation is the author herself. Marion Wood, Erdrich's editor at Henry Holt, reports: “New things were taking shape that she [Erdrich] felt needed a beginning [in the first novel]” (Devereaux 30). Perhaps because some interviewers were puzzled or even unsympathetic to the idea of revising such a successful and admired novel, Erdrich seems to downplay the difference between the two versions. While admitting to Elizabeth Devereaux that she would not be pleased if a novelist changed a book that was important to her, she claims that after the original publication of Love Medicine she discovered more stories that appeared to belong to it and therefore the additions to the expanded Love Medicine seemed the natural step (30). “I feel this is an ongoing work, not some discrete untouchable piece of writing,” Erdrich informed David Streitfeld (15). But she also qualifies that statement: “When I went back to Love Medicine, I didn't tamper with what is there. If I did that, I'd feel funny” (15).

Actually Erdrich did revise parts of her novel, and in any case, the addition of four new chapters and the new section of “The Beads” influences one's reading of the entire book. And while she does include material that provides bridges and links to her other novels that comprise her vast Chippewa epic, the revisions and additions to the expanded Love Medicine are much more elaborate than her comments would suggest. In fact, she added so much new material that it is difficult to grasp exactly how the two versions of the novel differ and what the primary purpose of the changes and additions is.

Although one might be tempted to conclude after examining the numerous and varied changes and additions in the 1993 Love Medicine that the revision is extraordinarily complex and that no argument can explain the source of the new edition, actually a careful exploration of the changes reveals the premise behind the 1993 version—the need for a Love Medicine that is more effective than the 1984 book in conveying its political ideology. Erdrich has emphasized that “any human story is a political story” and that writers do not have to express political opinions openly in fiction to convey their politics; actually, she suggests, such overt expression is often counterproductive, for the subtler and more artistic work can change more minds than the preaching of didactic protest novels. With these assumptions in mind, Erdrich created the 1984 Love Medicine. Art must come first, and the politics would be implicit in the art. But for those whose first concern is more for political intent rather than art, Erdrich's subtle writing lacks force and commitment. In an essay-review of The Beet Queen, Leslie Silko harshly attacked Erdrich's fiction, which she believed lacked political commitment, and even suggested that Erdrich was ambivalent about her Native American origins.5 According to Erdrich, as a result of careless reading Silko criticized her characters in The Beet Queen because she incorrectly assumed they were Chippewa when in fact they were whites and thus “they must have seemed shockingly assimilated” (Chavkin and Chavkin 237). Even more sympathetic reviewers than Silko, however, have grossly misinterpreted Erdrich's work, and they may have caused her to wonder if perhaps the 1984 Love Medicine might be too open to misreading, especially by those inclined to view the characters as the usual negative stereotypes of Indians.

James McKenzie relates how his students at the Turtle Mountain Reservation feared that the 1984 Love Medicine would confirm white stereotypical views of Indians as drunk, violent, and sexually deviant and encourage racism. McKenzie believed their fears unfounded until he consulted some of the reviews of the novel, especially those of Robert Towers and Marco Portales, which unsettled him because of their misreadings in which the characters are seen in the stereotypical ways his students feared. In the New York Review of Books Towers generalized:

From the medley of individual faces and voices a few generic, or tribal, features gradually emerge. The men get drunk as often as possible, and when drunk they are likely to be violent or to do wildly irresponsible or self-destructive things. Even Grandpa Kashpaw (Nector), the most able and ambitious of the lot, achieved his political standing in the Chippewa community only because Marie repeatedly dragged him back from the bootlegger's and sometimes sat “all night by the door with an ax handle so he would not wander off in search of liquor.” … Meanwhile the women, with the exception of the stalwart Marie, are likely to take up with any man who comes along.


In the New York Times Book Review, Portales describes June Kashpaw as a “leggy Chippewa prostitute who has idled her days away on the main streets of oil boomtowns in North Dakota,” certainly a gross simplification of June (6). Portales also simplified and misinterpreted another scene in which Nector and Marie have consensual intercourse; he concluded incorrectly that Nector raped Marie when in fact Marie deliberately “snares” Nector. When Erdrich revised Love Medicine for the 1993 version, she altered this scene in “Wild Geese” to make clear that sexual intercourse does not occur, probably because some people such as Portales misinterpreted the sex act for rape in the 1984 Love Medicine. Erdrich explains: “And the encounter between Marie and Nector was mistakenly ambiguous. I never meant it to be a rape and took a word or two out in the republished Love Medicine to make that clear. Reading it over, I too found it confusing and wanted to clarify his act (wrong, but not technically a rape)” (Chavkin and Chavkin 234). Erdrich makes clear the nature of their sexual encounter by having Nector state in the 1993 Love Medicine: “I touch her with one hand and in that one touch I lose myself” (LMN 65). Erdrich also alters another line to leave no doubt that the sexual encounter here does not culminate in coitus. When Marie says, “I've had better,” Nector, the narrator of “Wild Geese,” informs the reader: “I know that isn't true because we haven't done anything yet” (LMN 65). Originally the line suggested otherwise: “I know that isn't true, that I was just now the first …” (LM 61). In “Flesh and Blood” Marie remarks to her daughter Zelda that this place is “where I met your father” and then reflects to herself, “For all I knew, it was the place we made Gordon” (LM 114); but in the 1993 version of the novel, this reflection is omitted since the sexual encounter between Marie and Nector does not culminate in intercourse (LMN 149). Because Marie is so young, Nector's sexual behavior is improper in this scene (and more so in the 1984 version of it) in which she “snares” her husband, but intercourse does not occur. Now the revisions reduce the chance a reader can stereotype Nector as a rapist. In any case, Erdrich's dramatic revision of this scene suggests that after the publication of the 1984 Love Medicine she was concerned about misreadings, especially those where the Chippewa are simplified and reduced to whores, rapists, drunks, and other traditional stereotypes of Indians.

Although Erdrich has stressed that people should be politically committed in their personal life but not in their art, for to do so makes the art “polemic and boring” (Chavkin and Chavkin 241), apparently she decided at some point after the initial publication of Love Medicine that it did not adequately express her political ideology, and she needed to revise the novel to make it more political without becoming polemical. It is worth noting that in interviews Erdrich and Dorris stated that they deliberately set out to compose a novel that would not be as political in its subject matter as other Native American fiction. Instead, Dorris stressed, their focus would be on a reservation community, “not on the conflict between Indians and non-Indians,” in order to remind readers “that in the daily lives of contemporary Indian people, the important thing is relationships, and family and history, as it is in everybody's life, and not these sort of larger political questions, although they do impinge” (Jones 7). In another interview, Dorris returns to this subject and remarks that while in some early drafts of the novel the work was more political they made a “conscious decision, in the way Louise wrote the book, to have it all centered in a community in which the outside world is not very present or very relevant in some respects. This is a world that is encompassed by that community, and it isn't so much the outside world of discrimination or wealth or anything like that” (Coltelli 23-24). When the Chavkins asked Erdrich about the reason for the few references to political and historical events in the novel, she responded: “In later books, there is more involvement with the political life of the country, and of course reservation people are gravely impacted. There wasn't room for a large political spectrum but I think the suggestion that great events influence the way people live day to day is implicit” (251). Erdrich and Dorris' intention to write a novel that attempted to universalize Indian lives and make them accessible to non-Indian readers while not ignoring the impact of white civilization was praised by Louis Owens, who suggested that readers could identify with Erdrich's characters “much more easily” than some others by major Native American writers (205). Apparently Erdrich decided after the publication of the 1984 Love Medicine that she had been too successful making her novel “accessible,” and she needed to make it “more Indian.”

Like the 1984 Love Medicine, the expanded version is not overtly political; it avoids didacticism and expresses its politics subtly. Nevertheless, the 1993 Love Medicine embodies a powerful political vision that is absent in the original novel. This new vision includes four interdependent objectives: (1) to argue for the importance of preserving American Indian culture and resisting complete assimilation into the dominant white culture; (2) to undermine the popular stereotypes of American Indians; (3) to promulgate a feminism that is in accord with traditional American Indian culture, underscoring the crucial role of motherhood and independent women who are activists for Indian rights; and (4) to present a more affirmative vision than the one in the 1984 Love Medicine, which for some readers reinforced the notion that the situation of American Indians today is hopeless, and to suggest that there are possible political solutions to the dire problems confronting American Indians.

In order to see how these interrelated objectives manifest themselves in the 1993 Love Medicine, I will focus on the five major new additions to the novel, where the new vision of the work is clearest. My intention is to reveal how the inclusion of “The Island,” the second part of “The Beads,” “Resurrection,” “The Tomahawk Factory,” and “Lyman's Luck” completely transforms the 1984 work by adding a political dimension to the novel absent in the 1984 book. My analysis is not intended to be exhaustive but to describe the major changes and reveal the ideology behind them.


In an article published in 1985 entitled “Where I Ought to Be: A Writer's Sense of Place,” Erdrich stated: “Contemporary Native American writers have … a task quite different from that of other writers. … In the light of enormous loss, they must tell the stories of contemporary survivors while protecting and celebrating the cores of cultures left in the wake of the catastrophe.” This is an eloquent expression of her purpose in Love Medicine, and it is likely that in the 1993 expanded version of the novel Erdrich, not happy how this task was accomplished in the original Love Medicine, intends to add to and to clarify the stories of her contemporary survivors so that readers will respond more sympathetically to them. The theme of preserving and celebrating the core of Chippewa culture that has survived historical and contemporary oppression gains prominence in the 1993 Love Medicine, where some of the key characters reveal much greater awareness than in the earlier version of the novel of the need to reject assimilationism and instead return to traditional Chippewa values.

This theme of the importance of repudiating assimilationism and returning to one's heritage is central to “The Island,” which focuses on Lulu Nanapush as a young woman. “The Island,” the only undated story in Love Medicine, is narrated by Lulu, who has just returned to the reservation after unhappy years at a government boarding school. Erdrich has placed the new story between “Wild Geese,” narrated by Nector, and “The Beads,” narrated by Marie. “The Island” provides the voice and perspective of Lulu, the third party in the love triangle that might be viewed as the main plot of the novel. “Wild Geese” and “The Beads” present the interpretations and perspectives of Nector and Marie on the crucial times of their youth. “The Island” adds balance to the novel by providing Lulu's perspective, and as a result the reader has a greater understanding of the roots of her unconventional behavior that scandalizes her community. The reader gains insight into Lulu's formative years, absent in the 1984 Love Medicine, and better understands the nexus of forces that helped shape her character and outlook.

Although in the 1984 Love Medicine Lulu is at times vital and exuberant, it is quite possible readers will view her as a sexually promiscuous woman whose primary goal is shamelessly seducing men. Erdrich regards Lulu as “heroically sensual” (Chavkin and Chavkin 224) and does not intend for the reader to see Lulu as a heartless man-chaser.6 The problem occurs because the 1984 Love Medicine does not clarify the source of Lulu's wildness. In the 1984 edition of the novel, Lulu is a major character only in “Lulu's Boys,” “The Plunge of the Brave,” and “The Good Tears,” all of which focus on her affairs. It is quite possible that many readers will share Marie's harsh view of Lulu as a slut who “went with anybody in the bushes” (LM 125, LMN 161). While Erdrich does include in the 1984 Love Medicine material that supports her view of Lulu as “heroically sensual,” the cumulative impact of the numerous details of Lulu's sexual behavior undermines the positive interpretation of her character. “The Island,” first published in Ms. in 1991 and revised and expanded for publication in the 1993 Love Medicine, corrects this problem by allowing the reader to understand the origin of Lulu's “wild and secret ways” (LM 216).

Although it is not clear in the original publication of Love Medicine, the loss of her mother Fleur Pillager profoundly influences Lulu's character; in fact, “The Island” implies that it is the single most important formative influence. Lulu's narration of her return to the reservation to live with her Uncle Nanapush and his wife Rushes Bear, after a disillusioning time at a government boarding school, continues the story where Nanapush's account ends in Tracks. “The Island” begins with this young woman's lyrical confession: “I never grew from the curve of my mother's arms. I still wanted to anchor myself against her. But she had tore herself away from the run of my life like a riverbank. She had vanished, a great surrounding shore, leaving me to spill out alone” (LMN 68). Water imagery helps unify the fragmented narrative of this novel, and the metaphoric evocation of Lulu alone in a boat and her mother Fleur as a shore or riverbank is suggestive. As the novel makes clear, the worst death for a Chippewa is drowning, for according to traditional Chippewa belief, the victim becomes a wretched ghost who can never find peace but is forced to wander forever. The water imagery of the novel implies that surviving in this world is a matter of not sinking but staying afloat despite all of life's trials and tribulations. Lulu's mother abandoned her and left the child adrift on the hostile seas of life. Lulu had wanted to “anchor” next to her mother, but Fleur “had tore” herself away, like a receding riverbank. Except in nightmares, a riverbank or shore remains stationary and secure; it is the boat that pulls up anchor and leaves. The metaphor that Lulu uses here evokes the perversion of the natural order by suggesting that the riverbank or shore has deliberately moved away and abandoned the boat, which is then left to drift about and find, if possible, a safe port in which to anchor.

Yet implicit in this feeling of being abandoned is the unconscious and irrational feeling of responsibility for the situation—and the origin of this peculiar feeling requires some explanation. Abandoned by her mother, Lulu is sent to a government boarding school, where the primary objective is to transform “uncivilized Indians” into “true Americans.” At these schools Indians are punished for speaking their native languages and are encouraged to forget their heritage. A victim of the government's exploitation herself, Fleur is implacably opposed to assimilationism, and “The Island” implies that Lulu feels guilty for betraying her mother by attending a government boarding school. In the early version of this story in Ms., her guilt is clearer than in the expanded but subtler version published in the 1993 novel: “I had come back from government school. While I was there, I had turned my back on my mother, and now I needed her forgiveness, but she didn't live in the old house in the woods anymore” (39). Although the 1993 Love Medicine is not so explicit about Lulu's feeling of guilt, Lulu does reveal that she continually ran away from the government school mainly because she missed “the old language in my mother's mouth” and was punished for doing so (LMN 68). Both in the Ms. and 1993 Love Medicine versions of the story, mother and ethnic heritage are inseparably linked. In both stories, the sought-for mother who has vanished is present in spirit and aids the daughter. Lulu imagines that she hears Fleur's consoling words in Chippewa, “mysteriously keeping me from inner harm” (LMN 69).

The insertion of Chippewa words into the 1993 Love Medicine underscores the importance of language as the foundation for culture and identity. Erdrich believes that there is a connection between self and language; “what you express and who you are” are related, she explains to Mickey Pearlman (154). Moreover, the government's suppression of Lulu's speaking Chippewa had to “have been an act that destroyed the self” (Pearlman 154-55). The association of speaking your native tongue, remaining true to your heritage, and empowering yourself is suggested in the 1993 Love Medicine by the inclusion of actual Chippewa words. Some might consider the inclusion of these foreign words, which almost all readers will not understand, as exotic; actually Erdrich is merely suggesting the inextricable connections between identity, heritage, empowerment, freedom, and language. In both texts of “The Island,” the old language is associated with Chippewa heritage; in contrast, English is associated with assimilationism.

Lulu's search for her mother is, then, a search for her language, her heritage, and her identity. “I needed to find a person who would tell me where I was from,” Lulu says in the Ms. text (39). On the literal level, she must travel to the island where her eccentric relative, the primitive Moses Pillager, lives alone with his numerous cats, in order to find out where her mother resides; but, in a symbolic sense, Lulu must go to the island to unite with the Pillager spirit (the embodiment of her heritage) and discover her roots; and then she must purify herself by burning out the corrupt assimilationism that still clings to her after her residence at the government boarding school. In fact, Lulu does “unite” with Moses not only spiritually but also sexually, and that results in the birth of Gerry Nanapush, who eventually grows up to become an activist and trickster hero, inspired by the legendary Chippewa trickster Nanabozho (Chavkin and Chavkin 252).

The source of Lulu's unconventional moral code which leads to many affairs and her unconventional behavior is evident in “The Island.” The conventional moral code with its rigid definitions of right and wrong that she must have been taught at the government school is replaced by the relativistic code born out of her love affair with Moses. “Nothing would look the same after loving Moses Pillager. Right and wrong were shades of meaning, not sides of a coin” (LMN 76). Lulu's repudiation of her government-school values and her embracing the Pillager spirit also results in her rejection of a white goal-oriented lifestyle. “The richest plan is not to have one,” Nanapush tells her, and she lives existentially in the moment, without regrets for the past or hopes for the future (LMN 76). Lyman succinctly explains his mother in “The Tomahawk Factory” of the expanded novel. “You know Lulu Lamartine if you know life is made up of three kinds of people—those who live it, those afraid to, those in between. My mother is the first” (LMN 302). The intrepid Lulu lives passionately for experience, refusing to curtail her desires to adhere to the codes of others. It is the primitive Moses Pillager who leads her to envision the Promised Land of her heritage and her freedom from the values and moral codes of the dominant culture.

Lulu's affair with Moses initiates a pattern of relationships with men in which she feels empowered by being in control of the affair. The two become lovers and at the same time mother to each other, for each of them has been profoundly hurt and desperately needs a parent and a protector, someone with whom to experience unconditional love. Lulu has been without love at a time when she was especially vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and therefore the union with Moses is a transforming one. Lulu indicates that she is permanently changed as a result of her being abandoned and then visiting the island where she is reconnected with her heritage; she is able to reconstruct her identity and create a new self forged out of the crucible of harsh experience.

I was not immune, and I would not leave undamaged. To this day, I still hurt. I must have rolled in the beds of wild rose, for the tiny thorns—small, yellow—pierced my skin. Their poison is desire and it dissolved in my blood. The cats made me one of them—sleek and without mercy, avid, falling hungry upon the defenseless body. I want to grind men's bones to drink in my night tea. I want to enter them the way their hot shadows fold into their bodies in full sunlight. I want to be their food, their harmful drink, to taste men like stilled jam at the back of my tongue.

(LMN 82)

It is useful to note that at the beginning of “The Good Tears,” Lulu repudiates this cat metaphor: “They used to say Lulu Lamartine was like a cat, loving no one, only purring to get what she wanted. But that's not true” (LM 216, LMN 276). The implication is that Lulu's self-perception has changed, perhaps as a consequence of how she is viewed by the community.

With her pregnancy in the final stage, Lulu realizes that she must leave the island, even though Moses will not be able to go with her. The early version of the story published in Ms. is more explicit than the 1993 Love Medicine:

For the first time since I went to the island, I couldn't sleep. I was watching the air, the heat go from the fire. I was hoping that I would bear the baby well, hoping that I wouldn't die. As I thought these things, I understood that I had followed the directions to my mother's house. By coming here, I had done what I needed to do.


Lulu desires a mother in this crucial time of her life but realizes that she cannot reunite with her actual mother; instead she must be supported by her spirit. This idea is subtly suggested in the 1993 Love Medicine, where Lulu imagines that Fleur speaks in Chippewa and sings to her. The brief reference to the protective spirit keeping Lulu from harm is more explicit in the Ms. version, which concludes the story with boat and water imagery:

“You must get up now,” she said. “Daughter, it is morning and you must travel. You must start out on the road that leads into this life. As the day-lengthens the road is steeper, harder to walk. You must keep going. On the black rocks, by the edge of the lake, I will wait for you. I will not go away as evening gathers. Don't be afraid. Cross the water, cross the rough waves. Where the owls drop the bones of mice and bent seed of pines, I will be sitting. I will be mending your boat.”


The water imagery in the 1993 Love Medicine version of the story is not extensive at the conclusion, but the penultimate sentence of this new chapter suggests a parallel between the need to leave the island for a safer pregnancy, with a guiding midwife or mother, or remain and sink to one's death in a permanent Chippewa hell: “I knew that this baby, still tied to my heart, could drag me under and drown me” (LMN 84). Even though Lulu realizes that she cannot literally reside with her mother again, her search for her is successful—she has found her through a return to her heritage and will be with her in spirit. Her mother will “speak” to her—her Chippewa belief and culture will provide the guidance and support that she needs as she crosses the water with its rough waves.


While Lulu's search for her mother leads to her reconnection to her heritage, Marie's search in “Saint Marie” for a maternal figure results in an encounter with Sister Leopolda, who, as Jaskoski observes, turns out to be not a “true ‘parent’” but “a wicked stepmother” whom one sees in fairy tales (55); in fact the search culminates in a grotesque and disastrous confrontation in which Marie is physically and psychologically brutalized by Sister Leopolda, a deranged mixed-blood nun, whose self-hatred and contempt for Indians have caused her to assimilate so totally that she is unable to acknowledge her Indian ancestry. The 1984 Love Medicine implies that the mixed-blood Marie is ashamed of her Indian ancestry; for example, she calls Nector a “damn Indian” (LM 59) in “Wild Geese” and in “Saint Marie” she also reveals her contempt for her Indian lineage: “the black robe women … were not any lighter than me. I was going up there to pray as good as they could. Because I don't have that much Indian blood” (LM 40); “I looked good. And I looked white” (LM 45). By the end of the 1984 Love Medicine she does not seem prejudiced, but there is no reason presented for this dramatic change. While the 1993 expanded Love Medicine also suggests that the young Marie is ashamed of her Indian ancestry with these same passages (LMN 43, 48), the added second part of “The Beads” makes clear why Marie changed. Here Marie reconnects with her heritage, primarily as a consequence of bonding with her mother-in-law, the old-time traditional Rushes Bear. In short, the second part of “The Beads” parallels “The Island” in its political ideology.

Both stories stress the importance of motherhood, a major theme in the 1993 Love Medicine, which is associated with the preservation and perpetuation of Native American heritage. In the novel mothers are not only responsible for giving birth to the new generations but also for acting as standard bearers of traditional Chippewa belief and customs. Marie and Lulu will carry on the tradition of Rushes Bear and Fleur. When daughters are separated from the mothers, as is the case with June, the danger is that they will lose contact with their heritage and suffer the consequences, such as loss of purpose, destruction of identity, and alienation from their culture.

In the second part of “The Beads,” Marie tells the story of the unexpected arrival of her mother-in-law, Rushes Bear. She is a strong-willed, extremely difficult woman who seems to consider Marie her enemy. Although Marie had faced down the raging nun in “Saint Marie,” she feels anxious in the presence of Rushes Bear. After a period of enduring her increasingly irascible behavior, Marie orders her to leave, only to be told that Rushes Bear has no place to go. Marie does not throw her out, as she had intended to do.

Marie's tolerance and generosity reap rewards. The second part of the new section of “The Beads” focuses on Marie's pregnancy in which her life is saved by Rushes Bear and Fleur, with her legendary knowledge of old-time Chippewa medicines. During the difficult delivery, Marie hallucinates and at one point sees herself “as from a distance, floating calm, driven by long swells of waves” (LMN 102). Perhaps influenced unconsciously by her association with these traditional women of the older generation, she also recalls a word “out of childhood, out of memory, an old word I had forgotten the use of, Babaumawaebigowin” (LMN 102). Marie knows that “it was a word that was spoken in a boat,” but she cannot recall its precise meaning (LMN 102).

Later Marie dreams of eating with Rushes Bear and Fleur, who accept her as she is and do not make the kinds of critical comments about a woman's appearance that Nector and other men do: “Nobody said, ‘Two years ago your waist was thin as a girl's’” (LMN 103). Marie moves in and out of consciousness, as Rushes Bear and Fleur sit by her bed, speaking “only the old language” (LMN 103). At one point Marie hears her word, “Babaumawaebigowin, and I understood that I was to let my body be driven by the waves, like a boat to shore” (LMN 103). Marie follows these directions and “that way, sometime the next afternoon, my child was born” (LMN 103).

Erdrich uses the boat metaphor to suggest a connection between Lulu and Marie. Both are in boats adrift on the perilous seas of life, where the possibility of drowning is never far away. Both women have been cut off from their heritage, and both are in search of a mother to protect and guide them. Erdrich also implies that Rushes Bear and her daughter-in-law Marie “are in the same boat” and that they recognize this reality at the end of this chapter. Both Fleur and Rushes Bear demonstrate their disgust with the wayward Nector by rejecting his offer of money for helping Marie during her life-threatening pregnancy. Rushes Bear tells Nector that he shames her and that she no longer has a son but only a “daughter,” only Marie. Looking over the bleak edges of their lives, both Rushes Bear and Marie realize they can not depend upon Nector and that they need each other as they face their common enemy of existential loneliness. At the conclusion of “The Beads,” the two women establish a bond of love that transcends their past differences. The story concludes with an explanation of their transformations:

I never saw this woman the same way I had before that day. Before that birth of the child, a son after all, Rushes Bear was a hot fire that I wanted to crush. After that, things were different. I never saw her without knowing that she was my own mother, my own blood. What she did went beyond the frailer connections. More than saving my life, she put the shape of it back in place. … I took care of the old woman every day of her life because we shared the loneliness that was one shape, because I knew that she was in that boat, where I had labored. She crested and sank in dark waves. Those waves were taking her onward, through night, through day, the water beating and slashing across her unknown path. She struggled to continue. She was traveling hard, and death was her light.

(LMN 104-5)


“Resurrection,” the fourteenth chapter of the expanded Love Medicine, consists of two interrelated stories. The first story occurs in 1982 shortly after the death of Nector and reveals both the toughness and tolerance of Marie as she copes with her self-destructive son Gordie. Within this story is the second story that is a flashback to the honeymoon of Gordie and June, where the readers see a much more sympathetic and human Gordie than the monstrous substance abuser who would hurt his own mother. In the 1984 Love Medicine, Gordie is a major character only in “Crown of Thorns,” where he appears as a one-dimensional character, a deranged alcoholic who at the end of the story is “crying like a drowned person, howling in the open fields” (LM 188). In the 1984 Love Medicine, the alcoholism of Gordie is not associated with the historic exploitation of Indians; in fact, Gordie's behavior in “Crown of Thorns” might well have reinforced for some readers the stereotype of the drunken Indian. This new story powerfully conveys the horrors of substance abuse on the reservation while viewing it primarily as a social problem that has its origin in the unfortunate consequences of the colonization of Indians. Similarly, June in the original Love Medicine appears in only a few brief scenes in the novel where she is usually seen as self-destructive—for example, as a child encouraging her peers to hang her, or as an adult, walking out into a snowstorm to her death. In this story, though, June, like Gordie, appears more complicated and sympathetic than the troubled child in “The Beads” or the promiscuous woman in “The World's Greatest Fishermen.” The most sympathetic character of the novel, however, is Marie, and this story reveals aspects of her character not seen in the 1984 Love Medicine.

The first part of “Resurrection” presents the grieving widow coping with a son whose substance abuse has become suicidal. The omniscient narrator reveals that since residing with other old people at the Senior Citizens home, Marie has begun speaking the native language of her childhood and “holding to the old strengths Rushes Bear had taught her, having seen the new, the Catholic, the Bureau, fail her children, having known how comfortless words of English sounded in her ears” (LMN 263). Gordie is a perfect example of this failure, and confronted with the alien dominant culture that Marie considers largely responsible for the grim situation of Gordie and other Indians who have lost their connection to their heritage by trying to assimilate, she becomes even more committed to traditional Chippewa values. This commitment to Chippewa heritage is suggested subtly in the story when Marie discovers Nector's pipe as she is going through her husband's belongings in order to “shut her mind on loss by keeping busy” (LMN 259). The unassembled pipe and the bag in which the pieces are stored are described in some detail. The pipe is a symbol of Chippewa heritage and its values, and Marie reverently returns the pieces of the pipe to their bag, not fitting the pieces together for “Nector once said,” to fit them together “was to connect earth and heaven” (LMN 260). Marie will save the pipe for Lipsha; and in The Bingo Palace the story of Lipsha and this pipe assumes great importance. “Resurrection” follows “Love Medicine,” the story that reveals the resilience of Lipsha, and the juxtaposition of these two stories implicitly contrasts Gordie and Lipsha, both of whom have suffered because of June's neglect of them. While “[Lipsha's] personality seems to transform personal pain into wonder,” Gordie can not cope with life's disappointments and disasters (Chavkin and Chavkin 223). It is appropriate that Marie intends to pass down the pipe to Lipsha, who as the son of June and Gerry Nanapush is connected to the Pillagers, the old-time Indians who remain loyal to their heritage.

While “Resurrection” does present the union between June and Gordie as doomed, it also humanizes them, making it less likely they will be interpreted as the sluttish squaw and the violent drunk. The chapter implies that Gordie's self-destructive substance abuse is caused partially by his desperate attempt to cope with June's death. For example, he refuses Marie's offer to wear a particular shirt since “it was June's,” and thus would serve as a painful reminder of her (LMN 263). June is also humanized in this new chapter and presented more positively than in the 1984 Love Medicine. For example, unlike the young Marie she is not ashamed of her Indian blood. When she approaches the white resort owner, she does so as an equal—“she didn't act much like she knew she was an Indian” (LMN 268).

The tragic consequences of assimilation are implied in the flashback, which portrays the time when Gordie and June elope. They rent a dismal cabin in a rundown resort. Their honeymoon is strangely joyless and enervated, and the grim setting suggests that this relationship is doomed. When the two go skinny-dipping in the lake and try to make love in the water, the attempt is unsuccessful and they sink, linking this image with the pattern of imagery of actual and symbolic drowning in the novel. Later, in their cabin, they try to make love again, but “making love felt like work. It wasn't any fun, but they couldn't stop. … They went on and on until they gave up and fell asleep right in the middle of it, mouths open, hot, unhappy, bitten by insects, on a mattress with little buttons that left round sore marks all over them” (LMN 271). Later neither one of them desires to have sex again. The flashback concludes with a grim image that aptly symbolizes their union; they lie side by side, “like two people carved on stone caskets, staring up at the starless ceiling” (LMN 272). The isolation of the two young lovers is reminiscent of Moses Pillager and Lulu in “The Island,” and the sexual descriptions of the two couples become representative of their spiritual and psychological states. Cut off from their heritage, June and Gordie are doomed, and their listless, passionless sex symbolizes the emptiness of their lives. Lacking a strong identification with their culture, out of contact with their souls, they self-destruct. In contrast, when Lulu reconnects with her heritage on the island, her identity and vitality are restored, as symbolized by the joyous lovemaking with Moses Pillager. The celebration of sexuality in “The Island” culminates in pregnancy and the continuation of the vital Pillager blood line.

The title of this new chapter refers to Marie's resurrection in which she transforms her grief over her husband's death and her sorrow over Gordie's self-destruction into life-affirming healing of the spirit. The preceding chapter, “Love Medicine,” culminated in Marie's poignant bonding with Lipsha, forgiving him for his disastrous attempt to concoct a fraudulent love medicine and presenting him with her beads, whereupon Lipsha goes outside to dig dandelions. “The spiked leaves full of bitter mother's milk. A buried root. A nuisance people dig up and throw in the sun to wither. A globe of frail seeds that's indestructible” (LMN 258). It is Marie who can weather the dark forces and who embodies the maternal spirit that can bring new life into a land of decay and death. While “Resurrection” graphically portrays the devastating problems of substance abuse that put so many Indians at risk, it also suggests hope for the future in the figure of Marie. She can serve as the mother to the best of the new generation and teach them about their heritage. Unlike Gordie and so many others who are prisoners of the past, Marie has the capacity to subordinate painful memories to the immediacy of the present.


“The Tomahawk Factory” explores the ambivalent relationship between Lulu and Marie, clan rivalries and reservation politics, the theme of assimilationism vs. allegiance to one's heritage, and the economic realities on the reservation that contribute to familial conflict and cultural estrangement.7 In “Lyman's Luck,” which functions as a kind of epilogue for “The Tomahawk Factory,” Lyman envisions a possible economic solution to some of the problems presented in the preceding story; Erdrich, in contrast to this businessman-hustler, is ambivalent about gambling as a solution, as the reader discovers in the next novel in the series, The Bingo Palace, which explores this solution, so full of contradictions, in much more depth. The placement of these two chapters immediately before the final chapter of the novel gives them special importance and heightens both the impact of the problems Erdrich explores here and Lyman's envisioned solution. These two chapters are substantially different from the other chapters in the book, for their focus is more on the social and economic problems of the community than was seen in the previous chapters. Moreover, the tragicomic tone of the preceding chapters created by the cumulative impact of stories of abused children, suicide, alienation, violent behavior, loveless sex, random deaths, and broken families, is alleviated here by the farcical satire and the lighthearted humor that are different from the dark comedy and survival humor in the other parts of the novel.

In the 1984 Love Medicine Lulu's threat of paternity suits blocked Nector's plan for a factory, but in the 1993 Love Medicine Lyman, son of Nector and Lulu, builds the factory. In the 1993 Love Medicine Lyman, the narrator of this chapter, becomes an important character. In the 1984 Love Medicine he is a minor character whose function is to tell the story in “The Red Convertible” of the psychological deterioration of his brother Henry Junior, a Vietnam vet who commits suicide by drowning; Lyman narrates the story, but he is primarily an observer—the real focus is on Henry Junior. In the 1993 Love Medicine Lyman embodies the problematical situation of the contemporary Native American, who is torn between his need to maintain his allegiance to the beliefs and values of his heritage and the desire to assimilate and become a “successful” modern American. Lyman's conflicting emotions are exacerbated by his grief and guilt over the death of his brother, his uneasiness about the opposition to his factory, and his ambivalent feelings over his illegitimate birth and his disappointment that his father never acknowledged him but became a substitute father of Lipsha. Somewhat cynical, he is not particularly concerned that he is exploiting Chippewa culture for money, even if the traditionalists, such as his mother Lulu, “now heavy into politics,” are. The chapter not only explores the problem of assimilationism but also reveals aspects of the characters of Lulu, Marie, Lyman, and Lipsha not evident in the original version of the novel.

The reaction of Lyman to his brother's death and his subsequent career are substantially different in the two versions of Love Medicine. In the 1984 Love Medicine the carefree Lyman becomes morose after his brother's death. Lulu explains: “He could not snap out of it but slowly improved his outlook by working. He became a contractor, hired on his brothers, and in that way supported us all” (LM 228). In contrast, the Lulu in the 1993 version of the novel explains: “He could not snap out of it but went down lower, lower, to where nobody could drag him up. He stayed alone in the oldest shack, where he could party all he liked. The rest of us stuck together on that strip of land that was once sun beat and bare of trees” (LMN 289). In the 1993 Love Medicine Lyman expands upon Lulu's succinct account of his life after Henry's drowning. “The Tomahawk Factory” begins where the “Red Convertible” ends, and Lyman presents a detailed account of his reaction to his brother's suicide.

In fact, the death of Henry Junior transforms Lyman from the carefree person with a talent for making money into a cynical man distraught over his brother's terrible death, which according to Chippewa belief results in Henry Junior becoming a ghost forced to wander forever without peace. Lyman has a difficult time coping with the reality that while some Native Americans succeeded, others suffered and were destroyed: “If I bobbed to the surface, others went down” (LMN 298).

After almost a year of depression and substance abuse, Lyman, as he comically relates it, resurrects himself when he realizes that he needs to contact the IRS; later he learns “the whole thing was a mistake.” “Out of a typo, I was formed,” he sardonically observes, appreciating the irony of the situation (LMN 301). Before too long, Lyman becomes part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and ignoring his mother's accusations that he has “sold out,” he moves up the ranks of the bureaucracy. The “traditionals” are his opponents, and he disparagingly refers to them as “back-to-the-buffalo types” (LMN 303). In this new chapter the largely apolitical Lulu and Marie of the 1984 Love Medicine have become radicals allied to the American Indian Movement. Apparently, with Nector dead, the two women are “now free to concentrate their powers,” and they become leaders of the “local agitating group of hard-eyes, a determined bunch who grew out their hair in braids or ponytails and dressed in ribbon shirts and calico to make their point” (LMN 303).

In this chapter Erdrich satirizes both the bureaucrats, such as Lyman, and the kind of radical activists who oppose for the sake of opposing, such as Lulu. In contrast to Marie, Lulu “led her gang of radicals in black spike heels and tight, low-cut dresses blooming with pink flowers” (LMN 303). But if Erdrich satirizes the pettiness and hypocrisy of reservation politics, she saves her harshest satire for Lyman because of his exploitation of Chippewa culture. This chapter subtly contrasts the cynicism of the assimilationist Lyman with the inveterate idealism of Lipsha. Both Lipsha and Lyman are descendants of the Pillagers, but Lipsha has remained true to his heritage while Lyman has not. “The Pillagers had been the holdouts, the ones who wouldn't sign the treaties, the keepers of the birch bark scroll and practitioners of medicines so dark and helpful that the more devout Catholic Indians crossed their breasts when a Pillager happened to look straight at them” (LMN 312). Unlike the situation in the original novel, in the 1993 Love Medicine Lipsha's stature in the community is enormous as a consequence of his allegiance to his Pillager ancestry.

Although Lipsha, Marie, Lulu, and other Chippewas work at Lyman's factory out of economic desperation, they are hostile to the idea of the mass production of the fraudulent Indian artifacts, which makes a mockery of Chippewa heritage. Tension at the factory reaches the explosion point as a consequence of the workers' instinctive dissatisfaction with their participation in the manufacture of these imitation artifacts. Lulu warns Lyman that the workers are unhappy and calls the fake artifacts “ka-ka” (LMN 314). This Chippewa word is said to children “to express that something is bad or dirty” (Baraga 179). Lyman refuses to admit that the manufacture of these fake artifacts exploits Chippewa culture but claims that he is proud of the products.

Some months later Lyman learns that he should have heeded Lulu's warning about the unhappy workers. Marie and Lulu become involved in a bitter argument, which culminates in Marie's outrage. Her response here is that of a self-assured leader so different from the apolitical Marie of the original Love Medicine. “From deep in her body she began to gather breath until she'd swelled, powerfully, all eyes on her, into the sound of her own private war cry, a windigo yell that at once paralyzed and mobilized every worker on the line” (LMN 318). This cry brings all work in the factory to a halt, as the rival clans ready themselves to take sides if fighting should occur. Everyone in the room, including Lyman, looks at Lipsha, as if to see what he will say to do about this situation. And Lipsha, after glancing at Lulu, smiles his “Pillager grin,” “a grin that foresaw the end of Anishinabe Enterprises,” and then with magisterial solemnity he brings down his toy tomahawk “with the crack of a sentencing gavel” (LMN 319). In the next moment, chaos erupts as the workers riot in an orgy of mayhem. In “a kind of organized joy,” the workers completely destroy the factory, and Lyman is devastated (LMN 320).

The story concludes with an epiphany that reveals that Lyman achieves some kind of spiritual breakthrough when he is reconciled to Marie. When he apologizes to her for his past rudeness, he realizes in that moment that while he was always desperate for the love of his absent father, perhaps what he really needed was a mother. He asks Marie if Nector ever talked about him. Marie does not actually speak but communicates through look and touch, or at least Lyman imagines that she does. “She was going to tell me that the drowned could stop wandering, go home. … [that] I could come back, make my way down the narrow roads” (LMN 323). Marie alleviates Lyman's anxiety over his brother's drowning and his frustration over Nector's failure to acknowledge him. The narrow roads Lyman can return on are those of the Pillagers, his ancestors, who will show him the way to his true identity. When Lyman takes Marie's hand, he notices a “raised white scar,” her stigmata from her confrontation with Sister Leopolda, and it prompts him to apologize and “feel forgiven” (LMN 324). In a heightened moment signifying the spiritual breakthrough Lyman has achieved, the two “danced to the center of the floor” (LMN 324).

In the next story Lyman appears to have decided to return down “the narrow roads” he had envisioned in “The Tomahawk Factory.” Narrated by an omniscient narrator, the new penultimate chapter of the novel entitled “Lyman's Luck” is brief and focuses on the practical implications of Lyman's resurrection which was suggested at the end of “The Tomahawk Factory.” Lyman's entrepreneurial spirit has not been destroyed with his factory; it is still alive, but this time instead of exploiting Indian culture he will develop an enterprise that is in accord with his heritage. Lyman anticipates the Indian gaming regulatory act and decides that he will make money for himself and other Indians by setting up Chippewa gambling casinos. “It was going to be an Indian thing, too” (LMN 326).

Lyman has a political conscience now and sees his gambling business as a way for Indians not only to find steady employment but to revenge themselves on the white culture that has oppressed them. Lyman's new political conscience is a remarkable change from his earlier contempt for the “back-to-the-buffalo types.” In a passage that might aptly serve as the premise of the political ideology of the new version of Love Medicine, Lyman bitterly reflects on the injustice Native Americans have suffered over the years: “They gave you worthless land to start with and then they chopped it out from under your feet. They took your kids away and stuffed the English language in their mouth. They sent your brother to hell, they shipped him back fried. They sold you booze for furs and then told you not to drink” (LMN 326).

Lyman concludes that the answer to this injustice is for Indians to get smart and use federal law to their own advantage—that is, to use legal gambling to bring wealth to the reservation. “He'd … teach Chippewas the right ways, the proper ways, the polite ways, to take money from retired white people who had farmed Indian hunting grounds, worked Indian jobs, lived high while their neighbors lived low, looked down or never noticed who was starving, who was lost” (LMN 327). He envisions a future for the Chippewa in which they will be successful and control their destiny while remaining loyal to their culture. The waters that previously have drowned Indians will now allow them to bob to the surface. Lyman “saw the revenue trickling and then rolling and flooding into the tribal bank accounts. He saw the future, and it was based on greed and luck” (LMN 328).


It would be a mistake to conclude that the 1984 Love Medicine is completely apolitical. In the first version of the novel one does recognize Indian issues, including sovereignty, assimilationism, Indian activism, substance abuse, problems of the Indian Vietnam War veteran, clan rivalries, ambivalence over Indian identity, reservation politics, and cultural alienation. These issues are developed and presented more directly in the expanded 1993 version as a result of Erdrich's greater immersion in Chippewa and Turtle Mountain culture and history. While one of her motivations in republishing Love Medicine is to connect it better to the other novels comprising her vast Chippewa epic, she also revised and expanded the book in order to express her new political commitment.

It is likely that Erdrich concluded after the publication of the 1984 Love Medicine that the novel was too pessimistic. It vividly presented the dire problems of the contemporary Indian—poverty, dysfunctional families, sexual promiscuity, abused and abandoned children, alcoholism, and cultural estrangement—but it did not present practical solutions to these problems, or indicate even in a more general way that solutions were possible. Nor did it clearly indicate the origin of these problems. The 1984 Love Medicine is largely ahistorical compared to the 1993 Love Medicine. History and current events do not much impinge upon the 1984 Love Medicine characters, who seemed isolated from mainstream America, and by and large, with the exception of Gerry Nanapush, they have little knowledge of or interest in politics. All of this changes in the more affirmative 1993 edition of the novel, where the “Indianness” of the book and especially of the need to return to one's heritage are underscored.8 A number of the characters reconnect with their heritage, and even at times speak in “the old language,” some of which Erdrich includes in the expanded edition. A number of the major characters now are politicized, including some women who become activists, and the characters who might have been seen as negative stereotypes of Indians in the 1984 Love Medicine are presented more sympathetically. Perhaps an apt symbol of how much the book is changed is the figure of Lyman. In the 1984 Love Medicine he is an insouciant, apolitical minor character, but in the 1993 version even this typical entrepreneur-hustler preoccupied with making money speaks like a radical Indian activist.

In short, then, it should be clear that the two versions of the novel present different visions because of different authorial intentions. Neither version can be considered “definitive,” for each is unique, embodying Erdrich's “real intentions” at the time she composed that version of the novel. As for the question of which edition is the better work of art, the answer will not please those who desire to work according to “general” or “objective” principles; the fact of the matter is that the answer to the question of which is “better” will depend upon the individual's specific aesthetic and political values. Jack Stillinger sardonically observes, “In theory, everybody can be right in such matters, and the one who is rightest will be the one who musters the best rhetoric” (140). In any case, if future critics of Love Medicine are to understand this complex work properly, they must see the value of employing the theory of “textual pluralism” and recognize the need to focus upon the whole textual process and read the different versions of the novel in relation to one another and the author's developing intentions.


  1. Rainwater suggests that Erdrich includes structural features that “frustrate narrativity” to create in her reader an “experience of marginality,” a view of her work that Erdrich approves (Chavkin and Chavkin 230).

  2. Ruoff observes: “Indian oral literatures are a vibrant force … that strongly influence the written works of Indian authors” (5). For an excellent overview of these oral literatures see Ruoff 5-52.

  3. Notable exceptions to the failure to review the expanded Love Medicine are Rubinstein, Streitfeld, Bomberry, and Bennett. Bennett is the only reviewer to discuss insightfully some of the differences between the two versions. Only two critics analyze in detail some aspects of the expanded Love Medicine. Focusing upon “The Island,” Mermann-Jozwiak explains Lulu's powers by arguing that her encounter with Moses Pillager transforms her into a kind of windigo, the cannibalistic demon of Chippewa myth. Smith focuses upon how some of the additions in the expanded version enhance the trickster aspects of the novel (100-103).

  4. While Gish in this book states that he uses the 1984 Love Medicine because he considers it to be superior to the expanded edition, Purdy uses the 1993 book despite his belief that it is “a less engaging read” than the original version. Usually, though, scholars and critics do not provide any explanation for their choices of editions.

  5. Louis Owens defends Erdrich, observing that Silko herself does not assume the role she would have Erdrich embrace.

  6. In a 25 January 1998 letter to me Ruoff remarked that Lulu is an earth mother and trickster who repopulates the reservation with children from a variety of fathers from various backgrounds. “This is particularly relevant to a reservation such as Turtle Mountain or the one in Love Medicine because of its mixture of peoples. Like the ‘Yellow woman’ figures in Southwest mythology, Lulu goes outside traditional boundaries to bring fresh bloodlines into the tribe. She is similar to the girl(s) in the ‘Star Husband’ tales so prevalent in the Plains and in the Algonquian mythology, who go outside the tribe, follow a strange Star Man or Bird Man to another world and eventually give birth to a baby (or twins). Thus her love adventure results in a child (or children) who becomes a culture hero important to the tribe.”

  7. Ruoff remarks in the Afterword to this book that “The Tomahawk Factory” originally was a section of the unpublished “Tracks,” but Erdrich rewrote the story and included it in the 1993 Love Medicine.

  8. But at least one critic found the new and expanded Love Medicine still politically wanting. Bomberry concludes that the novel portrays “Indians, especially the Indian woman, in a negative light,” and “What Love Medicine gives us is a snapshot of hopelessness and despair” (77-78).

Works Cited

Baraga, Frederic. A Dictionary of the Ojibway Language. St. Paul, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992. Rpt. of A Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language (1878).

Bennett, Sarah. Rev. of Love Medicine: New and Expanded Version, by Louise Erdrich. Studies in American Indian Literatures 7.1 (Spring 1995): 112-18.

Bomberry, Victoria. Rev. of Love Medicine: New and Expanded Version, by Louise Erdrich. Wicazo Sa Review 101 (1994): 76-78.

Chavkin, Nancy Feyl, and Allan Chavkin. “An Interview with Louise Erdrich.” Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Ed. Allan Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994. 220-53.

Coltelli, Laura. “Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris.” Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Ed. Allan Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994. 19-29.

Devereaux, Elizabeth. “Love Medicine Redux: New and Improved, but Why?” Publishers Weekly 23 November 1992: 30.

Erdrich, Louise. “The Island.” Ms. January-February 1991: 39-42.

———. “Where I Ought to Be: A Writer's Sense of Place.” New York Times Book Review 28 July 1985: 1, 23-24.

Jaskoski, Helen. “From the Time Immemorial: Native American Traditions in Contemporary Short Fiction.” Since Flannery O'Connor: Essays on the Contemporary American Short Story. Ed. Loren Logsdon and Charles W. Mayer. Macomb: Western Illinois UP, 1987. 54-71.

Jones, Malcolm. “Life, Art Are One for Prize Novelist.” Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Ed. Allan Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994. 3-9.

Lyons, Gene. “In Indian Territory.” Rev. of Love Medicine: A Novel, by Louise Erdrich. Newsweek 11 February 1985: 70-71.

McKenzie, James. “Lipsha's Good Road Home: The Revival of Chippewa Culture in Love Medicine.American Indian Culture and Research Journal 10.3 (1986): 53-63.

Mermann-Jozwiak, Elisabeth. “‘His Grandfather Ate His Own Wife’: Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine as a Contemporary Windigo Narrative.” North Dakota Quarterly 64.4 (1997): 44-54.

Owens, Louis. “Erdrich and Dorris's Mixedbloods and Multiple Narratives.” Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: U of Oklahoma P. 1992. 192-224.

Pearlman, Mickey. “Louise Erdrich.” Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Ed. Allan Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994. 151-56.

Portales, Marco. “People with Holes in Their Lives.” Rev. of Love Medicine: A Novel, by Louise Erdrich. New York Times Book Review 23 December 1984: 6.

Purdy, John. “Crossing the Waters to a Love Medicine (Louise Erdrich).” Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays. Ed. John Maitino and David R. Peck. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P. 1996. 83-100.

Rainwater, Catherine. “Reading between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich.” American Literature 62.3 (1990): 405-22.

Rubinstein, Roberta. “Louise Erdrich Revisits the Complex World of the Chippewa.” Rev. of Love Medicine: New and Expanded Version, by Louise Erdrich. Chicago Tribune 14 November 1993: sec. 14: 3, 11.

Ruoff, A LaVonne Brown. American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography. New York: Modern Language Association, 1990.

Silberman, Robert. “Opening the Text: Love Medicine and the Return of the Native American Woman.” Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures. Ed. Gerald Vizenor. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1989. 101-20.

Silko, Leslie. “Here's an Odd Artifact for the Fairy-Tale Shelf.” Rev. of The Beet Queen, by Louise Erdrich. Impact/Albuquerque Journal 8 October 1986: 10-11.

Smith, Jeanne Rosier. Writing Tricksters: Mythic Gambols in American Ethnic Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.

Stillinger, Jack. Coleridge and Textual Instability: The Multiple Versions of the Major Poems. New York: Oxford UP, 1994.

Streitfeld, David. “Love and Its Risks.” Rev. of Love Medicine: New and Expanded Version by Louise Erdrich. Washington Post 13 February 1994: sec. WBK: 15.

Towers, Robert. “Uprooted.” Rev. of Love Medicine: A Novel, by Louise Erdrich. New York Review of Books 11 April 1985: 36-37.

Wong, Hertha D. “An Interview with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris.” Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Ed. Allan Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994. 30-53.

———. “Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine: Narrative Communities and the Short Story Sequence.” Modern American Short Story Sequences: Composite Fictions and Fictive Communities. Ed. J. Gerald Kennedy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. 170-93.

Krista Ratcliffe (essay date 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Ratcliffe, Krista. “A Rhetoric of Classroom Denial: Resisting Resistance to Alcohol Questions While Teaching Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine.” In The Languages of Addiction, edited by Jane Lilienfeld and Jeffrey Oxford, pp. 105-21. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Ratcliffe considers Erdrich's portrayal of addiction in Love Medicine and discusses some of the difficulties she had teaching the novel—a problem she refers to as “classroom denial.”]

In pedagogy scholarship, the term “resistance” functions as an antanaclasis; that is, the term has two very different definitions that emerge from competing theories. In post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory, “resistance” describes “a subject's refusal to admit the hidden meaning of his symptom” (Grigg, 102). This usage has entered pedagogical lore, referring to students' refusals to critique their own commonplace assumptions about race, gender, class, and other cultural categories (Aronowitz and Giroux; Chappell; Freire; hooks; Luke). In neo-Marxist theory however, “resistance” describes “a personal ‘space,’ … [of] subjective agency” from which students may “subvert the process of socialization” by contesting our cultural commonplaces (Giroux, Teachers, 162). This critical pedagogy usage most often refers to teachers' helping students identify and then employ their own agencies in order to interrupt their cultural socialization (Bauer and Jarratt; Bizzell; Giroux; Graff; hooks; Lewis). Despite the differences between these two uses of “resistance,” they both posit teachers as those-who-know and students as those-who-do-not-know.

But what happens when teachers occupy the position of those-who-do-not-know? More specifically, what happens when teachers refuse to critique the (un)conscious strategies, assumptions, and effects of their own pedagogies? Such post-Freudian teacher resistance may merge with post-Freudian student resistance to construct what I am calling classroom denial. Classroom denial occurs in those moments when teachers and students (un)knowingly refuse to address a topic, shutting down all possible conversations about it; as such, classroom denial exposes that students and teachers are more fearful that their beliefs may be transformed than hopeful that these beliefs may be affirmed. If such post-Freudian resistance is to be challenged, the classroom must become a space for neo-Marxist resistance.

The antanaclatic uses of student resistance are much debated in pedagogy scholarship. But the particular synergy of student/teacher resistance, which I am calling classroom denial, is rarely discussed. The reasons are obvious. As teachers we can detect our students' post-Freudian resistance, theorize about it, and attempt to interrupt it with neo-Marxist resistance. We have a harder time, however, recognizing how our own post-Freudian resistance merges with students' to construct classroom denial. But one place where classroom denial may be seen and heard is in our classroom discourses, that is, in the ways we talk to and with our students and in the ways we encourage them to talk to and with us and each other. Such classroom discourses may be read as rhetorical maps of classroom denial. By reading these discourses, we may conceptualize, critique, and negotiate our rhetorics of classroom denial in order to re-vise them.

To demonstrate how rhetorics of classroom denial may be conceptualized, critiqued, and negotiated, I will examine the following three teaching moments that have haunted me, three moments that occurred in an introductory women's literature course when my students and I were studying Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine:

Moment #1: Kathy Whitson, who wrote a fine dissertation on Erdrich, came to my Women's Literature class to talk with students about Erdrich and Love Medicine. During this discussion, she asked students who they considered the main character of the novel to be, if indeed such a character existed. A student, “Bev,” hesitantly replied, “June?” Another student, “Susan,” confidently countered, “But she was only in the first chapter.”

Moment #2: At the next class meeting, “Kim” named an alcohol question in the novel. She established her authority to speak on such matters by first claiming that her grandfather was full-blooded Cherokee and then conspiratorially confiding, “They drink a lot, you know.”

Moment #3: “Jane” came to my office for a paper conference and confided that: one, she viewed June's family as an addictive, dysfunctional family much like her own and, two, she thought this interpretive schema explained behaviors and dialogues of Erdrich's characters—behaviors and dialogues that seen from another schema might seem confusing or, worse yet, just poorly written. But she questioned whether this topic was appropriate for the essay assignment.

These three moments haunted me because I did not handle them particularly well. I did not explore the presence of June, the absent alcoholic mother in the novel, because other discussion topics had been planned for the day. I shut down Kim's claim about Native Americans and alcoholism by shifting into my best teacher voice and suggesting that perhaps we should not make such sweeping generalizations about any group of people. And I inadvertently reinforced Jane's suspicion that addiction was not an appropriate topic by saying something like, “That sounds interesting,” and then immediately asking for other possible topics. These three moments haunted me until I named them; they are, in fact, moments of classroom denial. They are moments when the alcohol questions in the novel could have been explored but were not.

In this chapter I want to reopen these alcohol questions in Love Medicine and, in the process, consider the possibilities of resisting resistance, that is, resisting classroom denial. To do so, I will make two moves. First, I will articulate the rhetoric of classroom denial that emerges in my students' comments and in my responses, exposing how this rhetoric is structured. Because particular rhetorics of classroom denial may emerge differently, my goal is to model a reflective pedagogical praxis that other teachers can adapt for their particular situations. Second, beginning from the context of my students' alcohol questions, I will explore not only how we might have read Love Medicine differently in terms of addiction, but also what these differences might mean pedagogically.

Rhetorics of classroom denial are manifested in discursive structures that possess their own strategies, assumptions, and effects. Such rhetorics are neither static, a/historical, developmental, unified, or universal; nor do they assure that every moment of classroom denial will emerge identically. Instead, the components of these rhetorics are constantly in flux, emerging in many different forms, in many different combinations, in many different situations—all of which depend upon the teacher, the students, the institution, the historical moment, and the cultural conditions in which they all intersect. The importance of these rhetorics is that they may be critiqued to expose functions of classroom denial and then revised to confront this denial. But recognizing moments of classroom denial is not an easy task; such recognitions usually occur after the fact—as teachers walk back to their offices, fight traffic on the freeway, reflect on their courses a year later. The problem with such delayed recognitions is that, once the moments have passed, so too have the pedagogical opportunities. Although the teacher can sometimes reconstruct these moments the next day or the next week in class, the passage of time usually dulls the interest in as well as the urgency of such discussions; in the case of a year's passage, the moments are lost forever.

If teachers could only recognize such moments as they occur, classroom denial could be transformed into classroom possibility. For such recognitions to occur, teachers must be alert to the existence of classroom denial and also be willing and able to note its rhetorical structure. In this section, I will model how to conceptualize the rhetorical structure of classroom denial. Grounding my claims in the three classroom moments described earlier, I will articulate the strategies, assumptions, and effects of this rhetoric in hopes that, once identified, this rhetoric may be used as a model by other teachers who want to identify and revise their own rhetorics of classroom denial.

The strategies employed in a class's rhetoric of classroom denial may be read through the trope of (not) speaking. For example, a popular strategy is silence or the absence of speaking about a topic either in class, in conferences, or in writing. Silence allows students and teachers to avoid focusing on subjects such as June's alcoholism in Love Medicine; it also allows them to avoid responding to such topics when they are voiced by someone else. The reasons for silence are varied. Both students and teachers may be silent because they want to remain in the same place and do not want uncomfortable topics to lead to other areas of discussion, which is probably the reason I did not follow up on the alcohol questions posed by my students. People may be silent because they are formulating responses, which are not yet conceptualized fully enough for public consumption. Or they may use silence as a form of (un)conscious “lying,” for example, students' letting the teacher believe they agree or vice versa in order to avoid real or imagined consequences, which is probably the reason my students did not challenge my silencing their questions. Whatever its cause, silence serves as a powerful socializing tool. It pressures those who want to bring up uncomfortable topics not to do so, and it also pressures those who do bring up these subjects never to do so again. Within a rhetoric of classroom denial, silence can speak loudly.

A second strategy of classroom denial is changing the subject. If, for whatever reason, silence has become impossible, an uncomfortable subject may be introduced into classroom discussions, conferences, student papers, and/or teacher responses. Although Bev, Kim, and Jane introduced alcohol questions, I sidestepped the issue by changing the subject, and because of the power differentials of the classroom the students did not challenge my move. The motivations for this strategy are similar to those for silence. Changing the subject allows us to avoid addressing our discomfort. The difference, however, lies in the effects. Once a topic has been voiced, its presence hangs heavily in the air; that is, the entire class consciously recognizes that the topic is taboo whether or not it is aware of the reason why.

A third strategy, using tone of voice to imply a form/content split, is employed when people want to emphasize attitudes more than claims. Bev, Kim, and Jane all employed tentative or hushed tones when introducing alcohol questions. In such situations, students often employ a conspiratorial tone as if to say, “I'm not sure we should talk about this.” This tone seems to ask someone else for either the permission to speak or a reason not to speak. It implies that the students know that classroom boundaries are being transgressed and that they also know the listeners know. Students hope that the tone of their delivery, which implies a form/content split, will enable listeners to forgive the transgression of their words. Ironically, their tone also reveals that they do not really believe this forgiveness will be forthcoming. Likewise, my invoking a teacherly voice in response to Kim's claim and Jane's essay topic begs a form/content split. My words acknowledge their questions; my tone forces closure on these same questions. In all these cases, tones contradict claims. Teachers must be aware that a form/content split is not possible; such awareness will help confront the doubled “truths” of discourses.

A fourth strategy of classroom denial is the introduction of uncomfortable topics by students and teachers not to critique them but to reaffirm their opinions about them. The appeals used in such discussions reaffirm not only the “truth” of the uncomfortable topics but also the logics that deem the topics uncomfortable. Two such appeals occurred in my class: an appeal to common sense and an appeal to unambiguous boundaries. Although appeals to common sense often make communication easier, they can also perpetuate unthinking stereotypes. For example, Kim's use of “you know” implies that everyone else will agree with her claim that Native Americans “drink a lot.” This use further implies that the subject is not even open for discussion. Although appeals to clear boundaries can challenge dysfunction, they are often unknowingly invoked in the classroom to promote a compartmentalized view of the world. For example, Kim's claim that Native Americans “drink a lot” implies that the problem lies with them, not me. Thus, the they are branded as failures, and the me is relieved of any responsibility for this failing. In the process of reaffirming these claims, both appeals reinforce a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap” logic. Each individual becomes solely responsible for his or her actions. The structural forces that might encourage drinking in Native Americans or stereotyping in Anglo-Americans are rendered invisible. So too is the intersubjectivity of people, which might redefine the problems of drinking and stereotyping as individual and cultural issues.

Undergirding all these strategies of classroom denial are certain assumptions. First, students often strongly defend their belief in the right answer. Truth is assumed to be a static, discoverable entity instead of a fluid, constructed process. This is exemplified in Susan's confident refutation of Bev's claim that June might be the main character of the novel. Second, and closely related to the first assumption, is that students frequently assume a common logic exists. The possibility of multiple logics are perceived not only as illogical—for example, Susan's inability to imagine a character who dies on page six as the main character—but also as dangerous—Jane's asking my permission to employ a different logic with which to interpret Love Medicine.

Third, students narrowly define the presence and absence of identification. If an experience is present in their lives, then it can be present in anyone's life. Conversely, if an experience is absent in theirs, it need not be a problem for others. If an experience is a problem, such as alcoholism within Native American communities, then some cultural, psychological, and/or biological inferiority in others must be at fault. Fourth, students oftentimes assume that identity is essentially located in DNA, not in a person's ever-changing life experiences. Kim's they/me logic exemplifies this belief: they cannot change, and me is not subject to their problem. Fifth, students invoke appropriateness as the primary criterion of classroom etiquette. This major metaphor of classical rhetoric is exemplified when Jane asks if alcoholism is an appropriate paper topic. What is said, how it is said, to whom it is said—students know that there are definite rules for these procedures. Yet these rules are hardly ever articulated by the teacher. Students must become proficient at reading each teacher's “etiquette handbook” which is written in a teacher's verbal responses, facial expressions, syllabi, assignment sheets, and so on.

Finally, perhaps the most powerful assumption undergirding classroom denial is fear, and fear takes many forms: fear of being wrong, fear of offending, fear of exposing oneself, fear of upsetting one's beliefs, fear of losing control. Fear may explain my students' silences, changing of subjects, hushed tones, and so on. On a more personal note, fear explains my avoidance of alcohol questions in the classroom: for example, fear of what topics and behaviors will surface in the class, fear of how students will be affected both inside and outside the classroom, fear of how students will react to one another and to me, fear of how I will or will not react, fear of possible administrative repercussions, and fear of losing control of the class. A decade or more of teaching has taught me that when alcohol questions are introduced, students' outside lives quickly become visible inside the classroom. A few years ago I would have defended my avoidance as a refusal to play psychologist to my students' patient, a practice that too often degenerates into a teacher's constructing students as “sick” so that the teacher can play doctor and use the class experience to heal them all. I still consider this practice dangerous and my former stance valid, given that teachers are not trained psychologists and that they have no right to make psychological assumptions about particular students while planning a syllabus a semester before ever meeting these students. Today, however, I realize that my avoidance of alcohol questions is more complex than this ethical stance. For, in actuality, teachers have been playing psychologist for as long as teaching has existed as a profession: they anticipate student anxiety about talking in class, write student-centered assignments or constructive comments on students' papers, chat with students during conferences and after class about issues that effect the students' private lives, and in feminist classrooms pride themselves on foregrounding issues from private life as a valid response to the assigned texts. Consequently, teachers must be prepared to provide support options for students when troubles in their private lives become visible.

The effects of classroom denial are tremendously important. When classroom denial is not challenged, no productive discourse emerges; hence, no minds are changed, and no actions are taken. Each participant in classroom denial places the burden for changing attitudes and actions upon others. In my class, Kim puts the burden on Native Americans to change their patterns of alcoholism, and I put the burden on Jane to come up with a more acceptable paper topic. While putting the burden on others to do their own cultural work is not necessarily bad, giving oneself permission to stand outside this work as the-one-who-already-knows may be a counterproductive move. Such a privileged stance may be a way of ignoring what one does not know. When this occurs, old patterns of thought and behavior continue, and education becomes a means of mindlessly reinforcing the status quo rather than a means of critically reinforcing or revising it.

With the aforementioned rhetorical components of classroom denial identified, I am compelled to confront the following questions that teachers all need to ask themselves on occasion:

1. What do I consider “proper” topics for classroom discussions, and why am I thinking in terms of “proper”?

2. What are the possibilities of a literary text in a literature classroom?

3. Why do I sometimes dismiss students who seemingly spout clichés—like Kim's claim that “They drink a lot, you know”—when such “clichés” can actually open up spaces for productive discussions about cultural stereotypes, such as Native Americans and addiction?

4. What do I really mean when I tell students that they should assert their right to speak in class?

5. Why is “control” a dominant pedagogical metaphor for me?

6. Why have I so narrowly construed the psychology metaphor?

7. What are my criteria for deciding when to confront students and when to let their comments slide?

My response to this last question evokes two other questions: How could I have approached Erdrich's text differently if I had refused to let students' comments about addiction slide? And what might these differences mean pedagogically?

What if I had used the three classroom moments that haunt me as prompts for discussing Erdrich's novel? That is, what if my class and I had followed Bev's lead and read the text with June, an alcoholic, as the main character? What if we had not dismissed Kim's claim and instead explored the alcohol question in June's family as well as in the Chippewa community? And what if we had encouraged Jane to use alcoholism as a dominant metaphor for writing about the text? Such moves obviously will not provide a unified vision of the text nor the one right reading, but they just may provide possibilities for using Love Medicine to explore alcohol questions in composition and literature classrooms.

First, could a case be made for June Kashpaw's being the main character of the novel, even though she dies on page six? The answer is yes. June is the first character the narrator introduces; readers encounter her in the first sentence “walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota, killing time before the noon bus arrived that would take her home” (1). Subsequently, she can be seen as a thread that weaves the families in the novel together, linking the Lazarres, the Kashpaws, the Lamartines, and their interwoven blood lines through her birth and adoption, her marriage and affairs, and her legitimate and illegitimate sons, King and Lipsha. June's niece Albertine Johnson provides perhaps the most balanced vision of June: not only was she someone who was pretty, who gave gum as presents, and who talked to children as if they were adults, but she was also someone who was frequently drunk, who lost jobs as a result, and who left her sons to be raised by other family members (8). Yet by the end of the novel June has created a space for Lipsha to have the last words as he drives the car his legitimate brother purchased with June's life insurance money: “So there was nothing to do but cross the water, and bring her home” (272, emphasis mine). As the frame of the novel and as an influence in the lives of most other characters in the novel, June could easily be read as the main character of Love Medicine.

Simply making this case is not enough; teachers should use it as a premise to ask other questions about the implications of June's status as a main character. What narrative events do June and her alcoholism set in motion? What is the affect of her drinking on her own character? What do readers find out about other characters in the novel when they read the work in light of June as an absent alcoholic mother, daughter, niece, wife, lover? Such questions allow the discussion of narrative concerns such as narrator, plot, and character as well as cultural concerns such as death and addiction. These questions also ask us to interweave the material dimensions of narrative and cultural concerns, that is, to view alcoholism as a literary trope and as a physical addiction of the body.

Also, could a case be made that an alcohol problem exists within June's family and within the novel's Chippewa community? Here the answer is most definitely yes. June's family history of alcoholism emerges in the scene where her maternal grandparents and her father turn her over to Marie Kashpaw to rear. June's maternal grandparents, who at this point the reader also believes to be Marie's parents, are drunk; June's father, “the whining no-good” Morrissey, is drunk; and June herself is drunk, even though she is only nine years old (63-64). June's adoptive family, the Kashpaws, also have their own troubles with alcoholism: Nestor drinks to escape his reality until his wife Made demands he stop and he chooses to put his “nose against the wheel” (93); their son Gordie, who eventually marries June, begins drinking after June dies, for “then the need was upon him” (172); June and Gordie's son King physically abuses his wife Lynette and his cousin Albertine in a drunken frenzy (38); and June's other son Lipsha drinks too much after finding out that June is his mother but stops after meeting his father, Gerry Lamartine, who has “been on the wagon for thirteen years” (155). And Gerry's family, the Lamartines, obviously have their share of alcohol-related troubles: Henry Lamartine Sr., who is not the biological father of any of the sons who bear his name, gets drunk in a bar and then sits on a railroad track waiting for a train to hit him (75); Henry Lamartine Jr., picks up a young Albertine after returning from Vietnam and proceeds to get drunk to escape his Vietnam flashbacks (134-41); later he gets drunk with his brother Lyman and drowns himself in a fast-flowing river (154).

I could continue citing examples, but the point is obvious. The alcoholism in the characters' families and communities—whether genetically or culturally induced—influences all aspects of the novel. Yet once this alcoholism question is established, questions emerge. For example, how could information about addictive personalities and dysfunctional families enrich our reading of the characters, their families, and their communities? What particular cultural forces in the Chippewa community promote and/or condemn drinking? And how can the teacher address the alcohol question so as to complicate students' understanding of alcoholism in Chippewa and other Native American nations, and not just reinforce their opinions that “They drink a lot, you know”? Such questions invite addiction research into the classroom; they also invite questions about the tension between universal and culturally specific claims; and they invite students's responses and stereotypical assumptions to be material for class discussion.

Further, could alcoholism be used as a dominant metaphor with which to construct a reading of Love Medicine? Again the answer is yes. One reading would juxtapose alcoholism with the breaking apart phenomenon that haunts Erdrich's novel. Lipsha defines this phenomenon, in terms of his grandpa Nestor, as a person's mind becoming so full that it explodes. And Lipsha cites the result of this phenomenon: “I always used to say that's why Indians drink” (190). Thus, Lipsha implies that this breaking apart is both an individual and a cultural phenomenon: individual characters are in the process of being shattered because so too is the Chippewa nation to which they belong.

In the first six pages, June breaks apart twice. In the bar restroom, after she has picked up the mud engineer Andy, she seems “to drift out of her clothes and skin with no help from anyone” and feels “that underneath it all her body was pure and naked—only the skins were stiff and old” (4). Yet, she pulls herself together and goes back into the bar. Later after having sex in Andy's truck, her “skin felt smooth and strange. And then she knew that if she lay there any longer she would crack wide open, not in one place but in many pieces” (5). And once broken apart and either not willing or not able to pull herself back together, she walks into a snowy death on the North Dakota plains. Later Albertine describes June as someone who “broke, little by little, into someone whose shoulders sagged when she thought no one was looking” (8). But it is Marie Kashpaw who identifies the source of June's breaking apart. After she saves a young June from being hanged by the other children at June's instigation, she notes:

I turned her head toward me and looked into her sorrowful black eyes. I looked a long time, as if I was falling down a hill. She blinked gravely and returned my stare. There was a sadness I couldn't touch there. It was a hurt place; it was deep; it was with her all the time like a broke rib that stabbed when she breathed.


But June is not the only character who possesses “a hurt place,” who threatens to break apart, and who uses alcohol to ward off pain and sadness. June's abusive ex-husband Gordie does the same. When he is so drunk that he believes a deer he has just killed is June, the narrator describes him as “cracking, giving way” (181). June and Gordie's son King also experiences this phenomenon. Although readers never get inside his head as with some of the other characters, readers do see the breaking apart in his actions: in his drunken rage against his wife Lynette and his cousin Albertine, he accidentally breaks apart his aunts' pies. Albertine's lament for the loss of the pies could be read as a lament for any of the above characters and their relationships: “once they smash, there is no way to put them right” (39).

This breaking apart seems to be an experience that all the characters in the novel fear but they deal with it in different ways. As the “child” of alcoholics, Marie keeps herself together by controlling her husband Nestor. As a child pulled between Chippewa and white cultures, Nestor keeps himself together and overcomes his urge to drink by the force of Marie's will and by his own recognition that he cannot meet his responsibilities if he keeps drinking. But June and Gordie and King do not or will not or cannot keep themselves together, so they drink and continue to drink—all in an attempt to keep the breaking apart at bay. In the end, the alcohol fails them. June dies; Gordie hits bottom when he thinks he has killed June; and King loses his connection with the Chippewa community and gambles away the car purchased with his mother's insurance money.

This reading not only foregrounds alcohol addiction and fragmentation on personal and cultural levels, but it also invokes certain questions. What different “hurt places” haunt characters in the novel? How does alcohol affect their body/spirit connections? How, if at all, can other characters intervene in the alcoholic characters' lives? What effect does a character's alcoholism have on other characters, on the families, on the community? And perhaps most importantly, how does my reading reflect an Anglo bias and erase Chippewa concerns; for example, how does interpreting Gordie's scene with the deer as a drunken hallucination affect the fact that in Chippewa theology June's spirit might have indeed entered the deer? As with the previous sets of questions, these questions merge narrative and cultural concerns. That is, they acknowledge addiction as a valid means of interrogating the text, and they invite student's knowledge of or experience with addiction, particularly alcohol addiction, into classroom discussions.

What does such a reading offer? In general, it offers a chance to discuss addiction. In particular in my class where such questions came up, it would have offered a validation of student's concern and of student's interpretations. It would have modeled an educational pedagogy that I believe in: start where students are and move them to more complex grounds; at the same time, don't underestimate the complexity of the students' starting points. So what possibilities does such a reading offer for the discussion of addiction? Like the card game, the alcoholism in the novel appears to be a game of chance. But like Lipsha's marking the cards to win the car purchased with his mother's insurance money, the characters are marked with patterns of dysfunctional behaviors that can be understood via a discussion of addiction.

Love Medicine concludes with Lipsha coming to terms with his mother June Kashpaw, his father Gerry Lamartine, his Chippewa heritage, and himself—a model strategy for coming to terms with discussions of addiction in the classroom. Yet Lipsha is purposely ambiguous about his father, not revealing to readers whether or not Gerry is actually guilty of murder: “Let's just say he [Gerry] answered: ‘That's the penetrating mystery of it. Nobody knows’” (269). Lipsha's response functions pretty well as a metaphor for reading and writing about literature; coming to terms with an interpretation does not mean erasing ambiguity. His response also functions pretty well as a metaphor for conducting literature and writing classes that foreground addiction; nobody knows what will happen in the course of class discussions or writing assignments.

But one way this uncertainty can be constructively employed is to follow the pedagogical model implied in this paper: (1) provide students with forums in which to ask their own questions about the text; (2) be ready to recognize questions that could drive class discussions about addiction; (3) have students turn their questions into claims and prove or disprove them; (4) together generate other questions triggered by the claims and proofs; (5) explore these new questions without having prefabricated answers prepared or expected; and (6) let students bring their experiences, their research, and their critical reading, writing, and thinking skills to bear in answering these questions. Whether teachers follow this or some other pedagogical model for discussing addiction, two things can be assumed: one, discussing addiction as a literary trope will inevitably lead to confessions of addictions in oneself, one's relatives and/or one's acquaintances; two, layers of meaning will be constructed in discussion, in writing, and in silence.

Teachers need not let this construction of meaning fall to chance. Classes may unfold like the card game at the end of Love Medicine, when Lipsha marks the cards so that he can win the car purchased with his mother's life insurance money. Teachers can, and should, come to class with a marked deck of pedagogical strategies, not to cheat students but to put boundaries on the game of chance. An important element of this pedagogical marked deck includes establishing clear boundaries for what can and cannot be discussed in class, in journals, and in papers. An equally important element is recognizing that these boundaries will inevitably blur. When students' oral or written responses do blur these boundaries, use the blurrings as springboards for discussion, and when these blurrings indicate problems in students' lives, be ready to deal with the consequences. As Jane Lilienfeld reminds us, teachers need to have a repertoire of support systems available for students, for example, names, addresses, and numbers of organizations that students may contact. For while I still contend that teachers should not play therapist, I also contend that we cannot let the metaphor of June, the absent alcoholic mother, become the major trope of pedagogy. To do so is to deny the realities of students' lives, the realities that they will write into their reading and writing assignments whether teachers ask them to or not.

Works Cited

Aronowitz, Stanley and Henry Giroux. Education under Siege. South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey, 1985.

Bauer, Dale and Susan Jarratt. “Feminist Sophistics: Teaching with an Attitude.” Changing Classroom Practices: Resources for Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. David B. Downing. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1994. Pp. 149-66.

Beidler, Peter. “Three Student Guides to Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine.American Indian Culture and Research Journal 16 (1992). Pp. 167-73.

Bizzell, Patricia. “The Teacher's Authority: Negotiating Difference in the Classroom.” Changing Classroom Practices: Resources for Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. David B. Downing. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1994. Pp. 194-201.

Chappell, Virginia. “‘But Isn't This the Land of the Free?’: Resistance and Discovery in Student Responses to Manzanar.” Writing in Multicultural Settings. Eds. Carol Severino, Juan C. Guerra, and Johnella Butler. New York: Modern Language Association, 1997. Pp. 172-88.

Downing, David B., ed. Changing Classroom Practices: Resources for Literary and Cultural Studies. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1994.

Flavin, Louise. “Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine: Loving over Time and Distance.” Critique 31 (Fall 1989). Pp. 55-64.

Freire, Paulo. Education for Critical Consciousness. New York: Seabury Press, 1978.

Giroux, Henry. Theory and Resistance in Education: A Pedagogy for the Opposition. South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey, 1993.

———. Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Learning. Granby, MA: Bergin and Garvey, 1988.

Gore, Jennifer. “What We Can Do for You! What Can ‘We’ Do for ‘You’?: Struggling over Empowerment in Critical and Feminist Pedagogy.” Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy. Eds. Carmen Luke and Jennifer Gore. New York: Routledge, 1992. Pp. 54-73.

Graff, Gerald. “A Pedagogy of Counterauthority, or the Bully/Wimp Syndrome.” Changing Classroom Practices: Resources for Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. David B. Downing. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1994. Pp. 179-93.

Grigg, Russell. “Signifier, Object, and the Transference.” Lacan and the Subject of Language. Eds. Ellie Ragland-Sullivan and Mark Bracher. New York: Routledge, 1991. Pp. 100-15.

hooks, bell. “Pedagogy and Political Commitment: A Comment.” Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End Press, 1989. Pp. 98-104.

Lather, Patti. “Post-Critical Pedagogies: A Feminist Reading.” Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy. Eds. Carmen Luke and Jennifer Gore. New York: Routledge, 1992. Pp. 120-37.

Lewis, Magda. “Interrupting Patriarchy: Politics, Resistance, and Transformation in the Feminist Classroom.” Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy. Eds. Carmen Luke and Jennifer Gore. New York: Routledge, 1992. Pp. 167-92.

Lilienfeld, Jane. “But I'm an English Teacher, Not a Therapist.” Midwest Modern Language Association Convention, Minneapolis. November 1993.

Louise Erdrich and Love Medicine.Writers Talk: Ideas of Our Time. The Roland Video Collection. Northbrook, IL. 1989.

Luke, Carmen. “Feminist Politics in Radical Pedagogy.” Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy. Eds. Carmen Luke and Jennifer Gore. New York: Routledge, 1992. Pp. 25-53.

Luke, Carmen and Jennifer Gore, eds. Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy. New York: Routledge, 1992.

McLaren, Peter. Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education. New York: Longman, 1989.

———. “On Ideology and Education: Critical Pedagogy and the Cultural Politics of Resistance.” Critical Pedagogy, the State, and Cultural Struggle. Eds. Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren. Albany, NY: SUNY, 1989. Pp. 174-202.

Rainwater, Catherine. “Reading between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich.” American Literature 62 (September 1990). Pp. 405-23.

Walsh, Catherine. Pedagogy and the Struggle for Voice: Issues of Language, Power and Schooling for Puerto Ricans. New York: Bergin and Garvey, 1991.

Jason P. Mitchell (essay date spring 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Mitchell, Jason P. “Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and the (De)Mythologizing of the American West.” Critique 41, no. 3 (spring 2000): 290-304.

[In the following essay, Mitchell explores the ways in which Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and Erdrich's Love Medicine debunk the mythology of the American West.]

“Fighting; his way with knife and gun,” the Texas cowboy was evolved, a fearless rider, a workman of sublime self-confidence, unequaled in the technique and tricks of “cowpunching,” the most accurate on the trigger and the last to leave untasted the glass which the bartender silently refilled. When the northern trails became an institution the Texan was trail-boss and straw-boss; and as boss he was a dictator. As an underling he was not so successful in the north; with a Yankee boss, or worse yet an Englishman, he cherished a studied disregard for authority, and an assured satisfaction in the superiority of is own ways. His loyalty to his profession made him willing to do any amount of work in the line of duty; but he would have defended with his gun his right to sing as he rode:

Oh, I am a Texas cowboy.
Far away from home.
If I ever get back to Texas
I never more will roam.

—Douglas Branch, The Cowboy and His Interpreters, 1926 (16)

They believed in a Great Spirit, a power superior to all others, but it was a belief very much corrupted by superstitious additions of special deities […] In place of priests there were “medicine men” and sorcerers, professed dreamers and interpreters of dreams. If an Indian was sick, the doctor would often give his patient […] a severe bite, sufficient to make blood flow, [and then] he would exhibit with triumph any little thing, as a bit of wood or bone, which he had hidden in his mouth, but which he would claim to be the cause of the disease that he had now happily frightened away.

—Joseph W. Leeds, A History of the United States, 1877 (36)

From the establishment of Jamestown until the disappearance of the last American frontier, the white intruders generally dealt ruthlessly with the Indians. [… G]enerally, relations between the two races tended to fall within a vicious circle. First border squatters would venture within the Indian country and establish their cabins here and there. These would be raided by angry Indians; and, in turn, the settlers would retaliate. Then an Indian war would follow in which the whites would be successful and force the red men to relinquish the squatter-occupied area. Settlers would now rush into the ceded district, and once again squatters, seeking “elbow room,” would encroach on Indian lands, and the process would be repeated.

—Leroy Hafen and Carl Rister, Western America: The Exploration, Settlement, and Development of the Region Beyond the Mississippi, 1941 (83)

Died: Louis L'Amour, 80, virtuoso of Old West storytelling whose 101 briskly paced books of the American frontier won a worldwide following (almost 200 million copies in circulation).

Time, June 27, 1988 (54)

The Heroic West is easily American culture's most cherished myth, created and fortified for generations of Americans by films, popular fiction, and countless history textbooks. In this popular conception, the West was originally a land inhabited only by the unworthy (and “superstitious”), which God in his Manifest Destiny gave to the deserving. Those who happened to be there already were, as one textbook refers to them, “the Indian Barrier” blocking “the Rancher's Frontier.” Now, for some time there has been a tendency to debunk the myth of American settlement in general and the westward expansion in particular. Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, which demythologizes American expansion into the West through the horrific deeds of the Glanton gang, and Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, which treats the expansions aftermath as typified in the bleak, fragmented lives of modern reservation Chippewa, represent part of that trend.


1. A cowboy never takes unfair advantage.

2. A cowboy never betrays a trust.

3. A cowboy always tells the truth.

4. A cowboy is kind to small children, to old folks, and to animals.

5. A cowboy is free from racial and religious prejudice.

6. A cowboy is helpful and when anyone's in trouble he lends a hand.

7. A cowboy is a good worker.

8. A cowboy is clean about his person and in thought, word, and deed.

9. A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents, and the laws of his country.

10. A cowboy is a patriot.

—Gene Autry. “The Ten Commandments of the Cowboy,” 1939

The process that transformed the frontiersman from comic or even contemptible figure portrayed in the work of the humorists of the old Southwest to a heroic exemplification of American virtue had some unexpected motivators. One was the popularity in the early nineteenth century of Sir Walter Scott's Waverly novels, which “created a taste here both for local-color writing and for a body of historical fiction celebrating patriotic subjects and native scenes” (Zanger 14). Another was the popular reputation of Andrew Jackson, first as Indian fighter and then as president. In addition, many popular biographies of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett appeared in those years (Zanger 142). The most direct source, however, of the present-day cowboy is James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking character. Henry Nash Smith, on examining 79 earlier dime novels dealing with the West (some of which he found “unreadable even under the urging of scientific curiosity”) learned that “forty contain one or more hunters or trappers whose age, costume, weapons, and general functions entitle them to be considered lineal descendants” of Leatherstocking (95). However, the appearance in the popular consciousness of Native Americans as stock villains rendered the Leatherstocking type problematic because his sympathies were generally with the Native Americans, whose knowledge of the woods he shared. The decline in Leatherstocking's popularity created a need admirably filled by the cowboy (Smith 95-96). He first appeared in modern form as Deadwood Dick, the protagonist of Edward L. Wheeler's enormously popular series of tales (Smith 99).

Perhaps no single individual had as much influence on the creation of the cowboy myth as Erastus Beadle, marketer of “dime novels.” Beginning in 1860, Beadle's company issued more than three hundred titles (Smith 90). One, Seth Jones, sold more than 400,000 copies, a phenomenon by nineteenth-century standards; Beadle's total sales were nearly 5 million volumes (Smith 91). The market for such works was apparently unlimited. One writer, Ned Buntline, whom Smith describes as “the patriarch of blood-and-thunder romancers” (103), is believed to have written 1,700 dime novels (Lejeune 24). Buntline's biography of Buffalo Bill, first published in serial form in 1869, was still available from Sears, Roebuck as late as 1928 (Smith 104).

The transformation is striking: from buffoon to Leatherstocking to Buffalo Bill. Given the power and popularity of the cowboy myth, it is not surprising that new technologies continued Beadle's work. The first narrative film, made in 1903, was a Western, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (Maynard 55). Fenin and Everson assert that “American western literature would have remained confined to the limited domains of folklore and a narrow literary genre, or, at best, to the specialized field of history if the birth of motion pictures had not exerted the stupendous verdict of its own possibilities” (57). In the years since The Great Train Robbery, the Western has remained a perennial favorite of both film and television audiences. Its popularity waned at some points—during the Depression and the Vietnam War—but the Western thrives today, though in a modified form (Scott A18; Slotkin 254).

Why the enduring American fascination with the Western myth? What need does the idealized cowboy fulfill? Fenin and Everson see the issue in a broader mythological context:

The frontier is, in fact, the only mythological tissue available to this young nation. […] The cowboy on horseback shapes into the fabulous Centaurus, guardian of a newly acquired legend; the woman—whose presence is biologically sought in the frontier town—becomes a sort of Minerva […]; Marshal Wyatt Earp's exploits come strikingly close to the labors of Hercules, while William Frederick Cody's (Buffalo Bill) and Wild Bill Hickok's struggles with Indians and “badmen” are often recognized as modern versions of the classic heroes. The massacre of the Seventh Cavalry at Little Big Horn carries the seed of fatality bearing down upon Oedipus, and “Remember the Alamo!” reminds us of Thermopylae.

Above this epic looms the pathos of the fight between good and evil so dear to Anglo-Saxon hearts, a theme that finds its highest literary expression in Herman Melville's Moby Dick.


The cowboy, then, serves for Americans the same purpose as Hercules did for the Greeks and Beowulf for the Anglo-Saxons. Witness the ways in which we have made the cowboy the exemplar of the American. His home, in the words of a Denver journalist and amateur poet, was “Out where the handclasp's a little stronger, / Out where the smile dwells a little longer” (Lejeune 24). In its popular conception, the West undeniably remains “fused in the popular mind with such notions as freedom, opportunity, self-sufficiency, a better life” (Zanger 146).

Slotkin argues that interest in the Western myth is tied to larger social trends. Commenting on the recent resurgence of interest in the West, he observes that

[a]s a nation, we are reassessing some very basic questions about race, gender, class, family, what the role of government should be in our lives, where we think we are going as a society. […] At such moments of crisis, any culture goes back to its traditions, its myths. It takes them all out of storage and dusts them off and looks them over again. And, hopefully, it rewrites them.

(Scott A1)

In recent years, the position of the Western myth has been quite paradoxical; it has come under assault precisely when all things Western are attracting new interest. Dealers in vintage boots and clothing cannot keep up with demand; films such as Dances with Wolves,Unforgiven,Tombstone, and Wyatt Earp have been popularly and critically acclaimed, and the highest-rated show ever on the Arts and Entertainment network was called The Real West (Scott A1, 18). Even cowboy poetry has achieved new popularity; one collection published in the early 1980s has sold over ninety thousand copies, an incredible number for any book of verse (Scott A18). However, the re-examination of the Western myth continues, linked to the larger trend of historical revisionism. Recent historians of the West “favor […] a more critical view of Western expansion and an exploration of the roles of American Indians, Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and women.” In the process, they have “have unearthed a wealth of new stories” that have found their way into the popular media (Scott A18).

The results have been surprising; one Western writer, Win Blevins, “has included gay main characters in his past three books” (Charlier B1). However, as further testimony to the Western myth's enduring power, the political Right sees those revisionist books and films as a new front in its Kulturkampf. Decrying the “new” Westerns, Anthony Lejeune, writing in the National Review, argues:

A nation which loses its myths is in danger of losing its soul. Just as the legends of King Arthur were “the Matter of Britain,” so Westerns have been the Matter of America; which is why what's happened to the Western is no trivial affair.


For Lejeune, “what's happened to the Western” is the work of liberals:

In old Westerns, as in the old West, there were no scruples about racism. […] But in the 1950s the doctrine of progress collided with a newer fashion. To the question, “When are the Indians going to win a battle?” the traditional answer was, “When Indians make the movies.” The actual answer turned out to be, “When liberals make the movies.” Almost overnight, ruthless redskins were transformed into an oppressed Third World people.


For Lejeune, opposition to racism, then, is a fashion. He goes on to remind his reader that “[n]oble savages have had their role ever since Fenimore Cooper, but because Westerns were an epic of the pioneer and the settler, Indians were primarily a threat and an obstacle” (25). In that golden age, there was none of “what Dr. Johnson called ‘counting in favor of savages’” (25). The result: “[t]he Indian-loving stance of Broken Arrow, which had seemed such a novelty in 1950, became the new cliché” (25).

Another writer, Hertha Lund, goes further than even Lejeune; she sees the hand of the collectivist at work in the reappraisal of the West:

Our country was founded on the sort of “can-do” spirit that our cowboys exemplify. If they are put out of work by the bureaucratic centralizers, we will have lost a lot more than a picturesque image out of our past.


In short, for her, concern for historical accuracy and sensitivity to issues of race are nothing more than liberal clichés that lead to bad filmmaking and, given enough time, to totalitarianism. Other reactions to the “new” Western have been similar to Lejeune's, though perhaps more delicately phrased; they do not speak of “savages” and “redskins.” Ann Hulbert, writing in The New Republic, dismisses popular interest in Love Medicine as another example of “hick chic” (25), a yuppie fascination with the rural; she identifies Erdrich as a leading “hick writer” (27). In response to recent innovations, Chet Cunningham, author of traditional Westerns, says, “I believe you've got to dance with the girl you brought” (Charlier B1). Tom Doherty of St. Martin's Press observes that “this country wants to see greatness. It doesn't want to know that cowboys were just migrant farm workers” (Charlier B5).


Thomas closed his eyes and told this story: “There were these two Indian boys who wanted to be warriors. But it was too late to be warriors in the old way. All the horses were gone. So the two Indian boys stole a car and drove to the city. They parked the stolen car in front of the police station and then hitchhiked back home to the reservation. When they got back, all their friends cheered and their parents' eyes shone with pride. ‘You were very brave,’ everybody said to the two Indians boys. ‘Very brave.’”

—Sherman Alexie, “This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” (109)

Love Medicine and Blood Meridian are such different books that there might seem to be no reasons for comparing them. They are set in separate centuries and regions, are vastly different aesthetically, and certainly have different aims. Blood Meridian is, in structure, style, and subject, a fairly traditional nineteenth-century novel; Love Medicine on the other hand, is highly unconventional, not a novel at all in the usual sense of the work, but much like Faulkner's Go Down, Moses. However, both works are reactions against the powerful myth of the American West.

The process of demythologizing the West gained strength in the 1960s, but the epigraph from Hafen and Rister attests that as early as the 1940s even mainstream scholars, looking back on the era of the frontier, seriously questioned the myths. In this, however, they were speaking from a tension regarding the proper treatment of the Native Americans, dating to the 1880s, once simply moving them further west was no longer possible. On one side, were men such as Nelson A. Miles, who in 1879 advocated placing Native Americans under the control of the military on the grounds that “it is useless to suppose that thousands of wild savages thoroughly armed and mounted can be controlled by moral suasion” (in Ridge and Billington 584). Opposing were the views of Helen Hunt Jackson, set forth in A Century of Dishonor, which recounted the United States government's history of broken treaties and violence in dealing with the American Indians and proposed extending citizenship to Indians and educating them into the mainstream (in Ridge and Billington 585-6). Jackson's view won out. In 1881 President Chester A. Arthur proposed, among other measures, granting American Indians citizenship and individual plots of land so that they might “be persuaded to sever their tribal relations and to engage at once in agricultural pursuits” (in Ridge and Billington 588). The phrase “sever their tribal relations” is crucial, because the humanitarian answer to the Indian question was often referred to as “killing the Indian to save the man,” that is, making the Native American more white to overcome a white “aversion which it is almost impossible to dislodge or soften” (in Ridge and Billington 585).

Erdrich's Love Medicine illustrates the effects of that policy. Her characters over roughly a fifty-year period are seen grappling with the contradictory effects of this effort to, on the one hand, isolate the Native Americans on reservations, and on the other, make “regular” Americans of them. The Morrisseys, Kashpaws, Lamartines, Lazarres, and others must define their relations to alien religions, customs, economic realities, and family and social structures. Over their struggle hangs a pall of alcoholism and despair.

The conflict between the “new” religion and racial identity is seen most clearly through Marie, who explains her decision to go to the convent, thusly:

I was going up there on the hill with the black robe women. They were not any lighter than me. I was going up there to pray as good as they could. Because I don't have that much Indian blood. And they never thought they'd have a girl from this reservation as a saint they'd have to kneel to. But they'd have me. And I'd be carved in pure gold. With ruby lips. And my toenails would be little pink ocean shells, which they would have to stoop down off their high horse to kiss.


Marie's sense of conflict is clear. Although she is at least partly motivated by the thought of the nuns having to accept an Indian as a saint, she must also reassure herself that she is only barely an Indian. She freely admits that when she was young her primary attraction to Catholicism was not religious faith:

I had the mail-order Catholic soul you get in a girl raised out in the bush, whose only thought is getting into town. For Sunday Mass was the only time my aunt brought us children in except for school, when we were harnessed. Our soul went cheap. We were so anxious to get there that we would have walked in on our hands and knees.


Years later, Marie compares her faith in the nuns to that of the “bush Indians who stole the holy black hat of a Jesuit and swallowed little scraps of it to cure their fevers. But the hat itself carried smallpox and was killing them with belief” (45). Nevertheless, Marie cannot escape Catholicism; her remarks about “the mail-order Catholic soul” seem an attempt at reassurance. Years later, the scar on Marie's hand, left by Sister Leopolda's bread poker, still “ache[s] on Good Friday” (146). Marie is enough of a Catholic to recognize Sister Leopolda's attempts at sainthood as motivated by vanity, but when she scalds herself while canning apples, Marie cries, “‘Damn buzzard’ […], as if she'd done it. And she might have. Who knew how far the influence spread?” (148). The reader might well ask the same question.

The conflict between old and new beliefs recurs; Lyman Lamartine, who prides himself on his hard-nosed approach to life and considers himself superior to those who refuse to modernize, still fears for the soul of his brother Henry, for “[t]he old ones say a Chippewa won't rest if he's drowned” (298). Despite his best efforts, the beliefs of the older faith with which he was raised prove powerful for him and others. The “more devout Catholic Indians crossed their breasts when a Pillager happened to look straight at them,” “so dark” was their medicine (312). Marie says of Fleur: “[T]he Pillager was living back there with no lights, she was living with spirits. [… she] scorned the nuns as they scorned her, visited the priest. She made no confession, though some said Father Damien Modeste confessed his sins to her” (101). In the midst of her difficult delivery, Marie summons not the priest or the doctor, but Fleur, for “she knew the medicines” (101). We find the conflict between new and old religious beliefs even in Love Medicine's imagery.1 June's Easter death is described in explicitly Christian terms: “[T]he pure and naked part of her went on. The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home” (7). To most readers, “home” suggests heaven, but as Rainwater observes, “June's ‘home’ might not be a Christian heaven but instead the reservation, where her spirit, according to Native American beliefs, mingles with the living and carries out unfinished business” (408). Love Medicine's characters contend with Catholicism in differing ways, but even for those who believe strongly, the Roman faith is a structure built on an older one whose foundations remain visible.

The same is true of new economic and social structures. Lyman's acceptance of the capitalist ideal seems complete, quite natural: “My one talent was I could always make money. I had a touch for it, unusual in a Chippewa” (181). He is willing to use his heritage for profit, opening a factory to produce such items as a souvenir tomahawk, which he describes as

[a]n attractive framed symbol of America's past. Perfect for the home or office. A great addition to the sportsman's den. All authentic designs and child-safe materials. Crafted under the auspices of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Anishinabe Enterprise, Inc. Hand produced by Tribal Members.


His mother, however, dismisses the products as ka-ka and predicts that the workers will walk out soon, for “they'll look at the junk they're making. They'll look at what's in their hands” (314). And that's what happens.

The factory causes another conflict by subordinating personal relations to economic concerns. The older belief of absolute respect for elders, exemplified in Marie's willingness to care for Rushes Bear, despite their earlier enmity, falls quickly in the new setting. Lyman, tired of his mother's reproaches, fires her in “a sweep of inspiration” (313). Shortly after, Lyman finds Marie sitting in the employee lounge, and his “nerves suddenly twanged like a banjo.”

“Why the hell aren't you on the line”

Shame followed my words. No matter how she and my mother gossiped and planned, she was a grandmother, an elder. […] Still, at that moment she showed pity. She could have taken me down, embarrassed me, but Marie remained composed, eyes clouded.


Lyman is aware that the new economic order based on profit poses an irreconcilable conflict with family relationships. How is he to treat a wayward employee when that person, according to the older beliefs, is worthy of unquestioning respect?

Catherine Rainwater proposes that the characters of Love Medicine contend with an alien conception of time, which she terms “mechanical time,” as opposed to “ceremonial time,” which is “cyclic rather than linear, accretive rather than incremental, and makes few distinctions between momentous events and daily, ordinary events” (414-16). That would explain Love Medicine's apparent chronological haphazardness (which strikes one reviewer as evidence of Erdrich's “inexperience as a storyteller” [Lyons 71]). By beginning in the 1980s and then passing through the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, and '70, “Erdrich's text suggests that the meanings of events and conditions in the present lie piecemeal in the endless round of time” (Rainwater 416).

The conflict between new and old conceptions of family is also crucial. Although Native American definitions of family include “various ties of friendship—including spiritual kinship and clan membership,” June and Lipsha are treated as inferiors because they are not members of a nuclear family, which is strictly a Western European institution (Rainwater 418).

Whether we examine the words and actions of Erdrich's characters as they speak for themselves or examine the book's imagery and narrative structure (as does Rainwater), it is clear that the Chippewa of Love Medicine are caught between competing systems of belief with which they must contend to create an identity. Old and new faiths flow into one another, though not quite seamlessly; even the most devoutly Catholic still fear the spirits. Traditional family forms are challenged by such alien conceptions as a for-profit enterprise and the nuclear family. Pride fights against the desire to assimilate. Such tensions are not without their cost, and Love Medicine abounds with such examples as King, a violent alcoholic married to a white woman, a man whose son prefers to be called by a name other than his father's. King, in a graphic illustration of his struggle with identity, informs on Gordie, a member of the American Indian Movement. Lipsha feels moved to join the same army that once carried out a policy of exterminating the Chippewa, then goes AWOL and becomes a fugitive like his father. Every character in Love Medicine suffers, in some way, the consequences of being a product of incompatible cultures.


Anyone who doubts that Blood Meridian challenges traditional conceptions of the Western settlement need only consider the reaction that it elicited from conservative reviewers. J. M. Blom and F. R. Leavis, writing in English Studies, are singularly dismissive: “The unnamed ‘hero’ of the novel rides with a band of unspeakably bloodthirsty perverts and their unappetizing adventures are pushed down the reader's throat throughout the full 337 pages of the novel” (438-39). Andrew Hislop, in The New Republic, is more articulate though scarcely more favorable. He explicitly states his distress at Blood Meridian's revisionist nature by remarking that in the book “the challenge of starting society anew, epitomized by the well-scrubbed little community in Shane, is transformed into the rootless quest for blood, money, loot, and women” (37). He complains that the novel is tedious and contrived.

There are hundreds of brutal killings in this book. Dying men are sodomized, babies are strung up through their mouths and tied to trees, a tame dancing bear is shot full of holes and bleeds to death in the arms of its little girl keeper. Everyone the kid meets is either a killer, a victim, or a pervert. Everywhere he goes turns into a scene of horrible massacre or sickening degeneracy. None of this grotesquerie earns its place in the landscape, or in the kid's story.


Clearly, the Western landscape known to generations through Louis L'Amour and Gunsmoke is no place for such violence. In Hislop's opinion, McCarthy should have stuck to writing about the South: “he […] knows the lunatic, hidden places in the hearts and minds of some of the people who live there. […] McCarthy should go home, and take another, closer look. He'll find the real devil soon enough there” (38). The conflict of myths is clear; to Hislop, depravity is acceptable in the benighted South, perhaps even necessary if one is to deal accurately with the home of “the real devil,” but everyone knows that a “cowboy is kind to small children, to old folks, and to animals.” In the end, says Hislop, McCarthy's challenge to the myth that clearly holds the critic captive is nothing more than “hyperbolic violence, strained surrealism, and pseudo-philosophic palaver” (38). Those reviews, not at all atypical of Blood Meridian's reception, serve as a valuable reminder of how powerful the Western myth remains and how powerfully McCarthy has challenged it.

Blood Meridian in some interesting, although overlooked, ways is in the dime-novel tradition rather than that of later, more genteel Westerns. The violence that strikes Hislop (not unjustifiably) as “hyperbolic” calls to mind the remark of Orville Victor, Beadle's chief editor, “that when rival publishers entered the [dime-novel] field the Beadle writers merely had to kill a few more Indians” (Smith 92). The point is not that McCarthy seeks to attract more readers, as did Victor, but that the level of violence in Blood Meridian is more reminiscent of that in the later dime novel or the spaghetti Western than works in the High Noon-Shane tradition. Lurid as it might seem, the violence of Blood Meridian is vital to the novel. A massacre was a sure seller to Victor, but in the context of Blood Meridian, apparently senseless bloodshed emphasizes the novel's lack of a moral center or grounding. That point is further accentuated by the beautiful language in which sickening acts of violence and their artifacts—scalps, severed heads, a tree of dead babies—are described. Shavior observes that “Blood Meridian's gorgeous language commemorate[es] slaughter in all its sumptuousness and splendor” (111).

Blood Meridian's apparent historicity offers another parallel with the dime-novel Western. Dime novels were frequently fictionalized accounts of actual people and events, and Blood Meridian likewise makes extensive use of the historical record.2 Sepich notes that John Glanton, David and C. O. Brown, and Sarah Borginnis, among others, are actual historical figures. He has traced Judge Holden to Samuel Chamberlain's My Confession, which relates Chamberlain's adventures with the Glanton gang (“Dance” 17).3 The historical relationship between Holden and Chamberlain is a probable source for that of Holden and the kid. Of the real-life Holden, Chamberlain says, “I hated him at first sight, and he knew it, yet nothing could be more gentle and kind than his deportment towards me; he would often seek conversation with me” (“Dance” 17). Chamberlain's suspicions were justified; “this ‘gentle’ Judge is also the man who would steal Chamberlain's horse as they plodded across the desert after the massacre, shoot at him, and threaten to ‘denounce’ Chamberlain and other survivors as robbers and murderers. ‘You shall hang in California!’ he gloats in a ‘yell of triumph’” (“Dance” 17).

It is precisely in its similarities to the dime novel and to the later (Lejeune would say “decadent”) Western that Blood Meridian trangresses the Western myth. The novels extreme violence and its apparent historicity reinforce the observation that the book does not have a moral center (Kartiganer). In that regard, McCarthy has taken his predecessors a step further; in even the most formulaic novel of the 1880s or the B Western of the 1930s, good triumphs—if only after some entertaining killings. The cowboy with the white hat, whether the (considerably) embellished Buffalo Bill of Buntline's account or a Ronald Reagan character, acts violently because he is morally justified in doing so. (In High Noon, a Quaker pacifist is “redeemed” by recognizing the necessity of violence and shooting a man in the back.) Inverted, the traditional morality of the Western applies even to the most heavily revisionist Western in recent popular culture, Dances with Wolves; the moral perspective here is simply that of the Native American.

In that regard, Shaviro seems to miss the point, when he states that Blood Meridian “explode[s] the American dream of manifest destiny, of racial domination, and endless imperial expansion” (112). In what way? There is no sentimentality here; the Western settlers seem no better or worse than those they replace. The Apaches, in one of the earlier massacres, are indeed frightening in appearance alone:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of buffalo […] like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.


So much for Rousseau's (or Costner's) noble savage. And, in this case appearances are not deceptive; on reaching the party of whites, the Apaches are seen

riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them and leaping from their mounts and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandylegged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by their hair and passing their knives about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows.


Those actions, however horrifying, differ little from those of the gangs with which the kid rode. In their massacre at the Gileño camp,

some of the men were moving on foot among the huts with torches and dragging the victims out, slathered and dripping with blood, hacking at the dying and decapitating those who knelt for mercy. There were in the camp a number of Mexican slaves and these ran forth calling out in Spanish and were brained or shot and one of the Delawares emerged from the smoke with a naked infant dangling in each hand and squatted at a ring of hidden stones and swung them by the heels each in turn and bashed their heads against the stones so that the brains burst forth through the fontanel in a bloody spew and humans on fire came shrieking forth like berserkers and the riders hacked them down with their enormous knives.


Later, the same scene is eerily reminiscent of the slaughter by the Apaches quoted above: “Men were wading about in the red waters hacking aimlessly at the dead and some lay coupled to the bludgeoned bodies of young women dead or dying on the beach” (157).

Clearly, there is no moral hierarchy in Blood Meridian, at least not of the usual sort. For the most part, we can only argue that some characters are less inclined toward cruelty than others, and even that becomes problematic. For the Judge, the kid's moral flaw is precisely his failure to “empty out his heart into the common” (307). Significantly, the efforts of the most conspicuous humanitarian in the book, Mrs. Borginnis, come to naught. Seeing James Robert Bell, the idiot, caged, naked in his own filth, she bathes and clothes him.4 Yet after she kissed James Robert goodnight, he was soon naked again.

shambling past the fires like a balden groundsloth. […] He went wide of the landing and stumbled through the shore willows, whimpering and pushing with his thin arms at things in the night. Then he was standing alone on the shore. […] He entered the water. Before the river reached much past his waist he'd lost his footing and sunk from sight.


Who rescues James Robert?

Now the judge on his midnight rounds was passing along at just this place stark naked himself […] and he stepped into the river and seized up the drowning idiot, snatching it aloft by the heels like a great midwife and slapping it on the back to let the water out. A birth scene or a baptism or some ritual not yet inaugurated into any canon.


That scene has two baptisms, one by Mrs. Borginnis and one by the Judge. Mrs. Borginnis's, motivated by conventional ideals of charity, nearly kills James Robert. The Judge, whom many see as a sort of Mephistopheles, brings the idiot back into life in a scene more explicitly identified with baptism—a travesty, perhaps, of the religious ideal of regeneration.

Blood Meridian's apparent moral ungroundedness does not mean that it cannot be a critique of anything. Interpretation always rests with the reader and always involves the reader's sense of morality; the notion of the objective, unmediated reading of the objective, unmediated text has long since been demolished. Thus, Shaviro would be correct in arguing that the book might plausibly be seen as an indictment of “manifest destiny, […] racial domination, and endless imperial expansion.” It is reasonable to argue that Blood Meridian is a harsh critique of racial domination, yet there can be no claim for the moral superiority of either party; the Apaches and the Glanton gang are shockingly similar (from the viewpoint of both traditional and new Western myths). It is even difficult to find a critique of Western expansion here; brutal tribal wars went on years before such men as Glanton and Holden entered the scene (thus the third of McCarthy's epigraphs, recounting the discovery of a 300,000-year-old skull that had been scalped).

Those who would find in Blood Meridian a critique of capitalism have some grounds; the Glanton gang sells scalps, and in a pinch does not care whose. They consume vastly without producing, like some “entrepreneurs” of the 1980s.5 Yet even that is problematic; the same criticisms that we might level against Glanton and the descendants of Spanish imperialists who employ him hold true of the Apaches.

If Blood Meridian is an indictment of anything, it is of both the traditional myth of the West and of the alternative one of those revisionists who seek to portray the settlement as yet another case of rapacious Europeans descending, wolflike, on peaceful natives. In this sense Lejeune's objection to many contemporary Westerns—that they are “corpse-strewn, amoral, unromantic” (25)—is precisely the point of Blood Meridian. In McCarthy's landscape of “optical democracy,” “all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships” (247).

Although apparently dissimilar, Blood Meridian and Love Medicine spring from, and respond to, the myths surrounding the American West. Traditionally, this myth has consisted of virtuous cowboys, sinister Indians, and land given to the deserving. McCarthy's West, however, is an amoral one—God does not smile upon Manifest Destiny. Instead, one nation, with great capacities for both kindness and cruelty, is replaced by another no better or worse, with no apparent moral approval or censure implied. In Love Medicine we see the consequences of the Western settlement: a conflict of identities often submerged in alcoholism, violence, and despair but just as often redeemed by courage and nobility. Erdrich thus contradicts both the old dime-novel and Western-film myth of cruel savages and the more recent myth of the blameless martyr shown in many revisionist films and the popular interest in Native American spirituality that has characterized the New Age movement. Both novels, though distinctive, share a common historical and social context and react to it in ways that though undeniably different, serve to problematize the most powerful of American myths.


  1. Katherine Rainwater further develops this feature of Love Medicine and Erdrich's other fiction.

  2. Much of the currently available scholarship on Blood Meridian deals with historical sources. For a full discussion of this issue, see Sepich's essays. His essay “The Dance of History in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian” also includes a fascinating explication of the book's Tarot symbolism. His “A ‘Bloody Dark Pastryman’: Cormac McCarthy's Recipe for Gunpowder and Historical Fiction in Blood Meridian” also examines the authenticity of the gunpowder scene and links it in some intriguing ways to Holden's “Faustian” nature.

  3. This is the only historical source for Judge Holden.

  4. Borginnis treats James Robert as a mother would, providing an interesting contrast to the kid's lack of maternal ties: “The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it” (McCarthy 3). That calls to mind Shaviro's comment that “McCarthy writes with a yet more terrifying clarity than does Melville. For he has none of Melville's nostalgia for lost—primitive or uterine—origins” (112).

  5. This concern seems to motivate at least one of Blood Meridian's critics. Hislop observes that the kid “acts out nightmarish possibilities of the American dream” (25). Richard Slotkin (643-54) has written a penetrating analysis of the ways in which the Western myth is a strongly capitalist one.

The author thanks his colleagues Theron Hopkins, Robert Mullin, and Joe Nettles for their comments and suggestions.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” Esquire June 1993: 107-11.

Autry, Gene. “The Ten Commandments of the Cowboy.” Maynard 62.

Blom, J. M. and F. R. Leavis. Rev. of Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West.English Studies 71 (1990). 438-39.

Branch, Douglas. The Cowboy and His Interpreters. New York: Appleton, 1926.

Charlier, Marj. “Gang of offbeat western novels takes genre by storm.” Wall Street Journal 18 July 1994: B1+.

“Died, Louis L'Amour.” Time, 27 June 1988: 54.

Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.

Fenin, George W., and William K. Everson. The Western: From Silents to Cinerama. Maynard 56-61.

Hafen, LeRoy, and Carl Rister. Western America: The Exploration, Settlement, and Development of the Region Beyond the Mississippi. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1941:

Hislop, Andrew. “The Wired West.” The New Republic 6 May 1985: 37-38.

Kaartiganer, Donald M. Lecture. The University of Mississippi. April 13, 1995.

Leeds, Joseph W. A History of the United States of America: Including Some Important Facts Mostly Omitted in the Smaller Histories. Philadelphia: J. Lippincott, 1877.

Lejeune, Anthony. “The Rise and Fall of the Western.” National Review 31 Dec. 1989: 23-26.

Lund, Hertha L. “Today's Embattled Cowboys.” National Review 31 Dec. 1989: 26.

Lyons, Gene. Rev. of Love Medicine.Newsweek 11 Feb. 1985: 70-71.

Maynard, Richard, ed. The American West on Film: Myth and Reality. Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden, 1974.

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Rainwater, Catherine. “Reading between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich.” American Literature 62 (1990): 405-22.

Ridge, Martin, and Ray Billington, eds. America's Frontier Story: A Documentary History of Westward Expansion. New York: Holt, 1969.

Scott, Janny. “We're Wild about the West Again.” Los Angeles Times 5 May 1993: A1+.

Sepich, John Emil. “A ‘Bloody Dark Pastryman’: Cormac McCarthy's Recipe for Gunpowder and Historical Fiction in Blood Meridian.Mississippi Quarterly 46 (1993): 547-63.

———. “The Dance of History in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.Southern Literary Journal 24 (1991): 16-31.

———. “‘What Kind of Indians was Them?’: Some Historical Sources in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.Southern Quarterly 30 (1992): 93-110.

Shaviro, Steven. “‘The Very Life of the Darkness’: A Reading of Blood Meridian.Southern Quarterly 30 (1992): 111-21.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Atheneum, 1992.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1950.

Zanger, Jules. “The Frontiersman in Popular Fiction: 1820-60.” The Frontier Re-examined. John Francis McDermott, ed. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1967.

Kathleen M. Sands (essay date 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Sands, Kathleen M. “Love Medicine: Voices and Margins.” In Louise Erdrich's “Love Medicine”: A Casebook, edited by Hertha D. Sweet Wong, pp. 35-42. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Sands considers stylistic aspects of Love Medicine, maintaining that “ultimately it is a novel, a solid, nailed-down, compassionate, and coherent narrative that uses sophisticated techniques toward traditional ends.”]

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich is a novel of hard edges, multiple voices, disjointed episodes, erratic tone shifts, bleak landscapes, eccentric characters, unresolved antagonisms, incomplete memories. It is a narrative collage that seems to splice random margins of experience into a patchwork structure. Yet ultimately it is a novel, a solid, nailed-down, compassionate, and coherent narrative that uses sophisticated techniques toward traditional ends. It is a novel that focuses on spare essentials, those events and moments of understanding that change the course of life forever.

Like many contemporary novels, Love Medicine is metafiction, ironically self-conscious in its mode of telling, concerned as much with exploring the process of storytelling as with the story itself. As marginal and edged, episodic and juxtaposed, as this narrative is, it is not the characters or events of the novel that are dislocated and peripheral. Each is central to an element of the narrative. It is the reader who is placed at a distance, who is the observer on the fringes of the story, forced to shift position, turn, ponder, and finally integrate the story into a coherent whole by recognizing the indestructible connections between the characters and events of the narrative(s). Hence the novel places the reader in a paradoxically dual stance, simultaneously on the fringe of the story yet at the very center of the process—distant and intimate, passive yet very actively involved in the narrative process.

The fact that this is a novel written by an Indian about Indians may not be the reason for Erdrich's particular choice of narrative technique and reader control, but it does provide a point for speculation and perhaps a clue to the novel as not just incidentally Indian but compellingly tribal in character.

We have come to expect certain things from American Indian contemporary fiction. Novels from the Southwest have been overwhelmingly concerned with story, traditional stories reenacted in a ceremonial structure at once timeless and timely. Novels like N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn and Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony are rich in oral tradition and ritual and demand intense involvement of the reader in the texture and event of tribal life and curing processes. James Welch's novels, Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney, are less obviously immersed in oral tradition but draw on tribal history, landscape, and psychology to develop stories and characters that are plausible within Northern Plains tribal ways. Gerald Vizenor's St. Louis Bear-heart draws on various Plains oral traditions and manipulates them in a satirically comic indictment of a blasted American landscape and culture. In each case, these major American Indian novelists have drawn heavily on the storytelling traditions of their peoples and created new visions of the role of oral tradition in both the events of narrative and narrative process.

In these novels it is the responsibility of both the major characters and the reader to make the story come out right. The authors consciously involve readers in the process of narration, demanding activity that is both intellectual and emotional, remote and intimate. Louise Erdrich's novel works in much the same way, but the materials are different and the story-telling process she draws upon is not the traditional ceremonial process of the reenactment of sacred myth, nor is it strictly the tradition of telling tales on winter nights, though there is some reliance on that process. The source of her storytelling technique is the secular anecdotal narrative process of community gossip, the storytelling sanction toward proper behavior that works so effectively in Indian communities to identify membership in the group and ensure survival of the group's values and its valued individuals. Erdrich's characters are aware of the importance of this tradition in their lives. At one point the lusty Lulu Lamartine matter of factly says, “I always was a hot topic.”1 And the final narrator of the novel, Lipsha Morrissey, searching for the right ingredients for his love potion, comments, “After a while I started to remember things I'd heard gossiped over” (199). Later, on the run from the law with his father, he says, “We talked a good long time about the reservation then. I caught him up on all the little blacklistings and scandals that had happened. He wanted to know everything” (268). Gossip affirms identity, provides information, and binds the absent to the family and the community.

The inclination toward this anecdotal form of storytelling may well derive from the episodic nature of traditional tales, that are elliptical because the audience is already familiar with the characters, their cultural context, and the values they adhere to. The spare, elliptical nature of Erdrich's novel can be loosely related to this narrative process, in which the order of the telling is up to the narrator and the audience members are intimately involved in the fleshing out of the narrative and the supplying of the connections between related stories. The gossip tradition within Indian communities is even more elliptical, relying on each member's knowledge of every individual in the group and the doings of each family (there are no strangers). Moreover, such anecdotal narration is notoriously biased and fragmented, with no individual being privy to the whole story. The same incidents are told and retold, accumulating tidbits of information. There is, after all, no identifiable right version, no right tone, no right interpretation. The very nature of gossip is instability, with each teller limited by his or her own experience and circumstances. It is only from all the episodes, told by many individuals in random order, that the whole may be known—probably not to some community member but, ironically, to some outsider who has been patient enough to listen and frame the episodes into a coherent whole. In forming that integrated whole, the collector has many choices but only a single intention, to present a complete story in a stable form.

Perhaps the novelist in this case, then, is that investigator (of her own imagination and experience) who manipulates the fleeting fragments of gossip into a stable narrative form, the novel, and, because of her artistic distance from the events and characters, supplies the opportunity for irony that the voices in the episodes of the novel are incapable of. Secrets are revealed and the truth emerges from the threads of information. Like the everyday life it emerges from, gossip is not inherently coherent, but the investigator can use both its unreliable substance and its ambiguous form to create a story that preserves the multiplicity of individual voices and the tensions that generate gossip. The novelist can create a sense of the ambiguity of the anecdotal community tradition yet allow the reader to comprehend. Gossip, then, is neither “idle” nor “vicious”; it is a way of revealing secrets and generating action.

So it is with Love Medicine. There is no single version of this story, no single tone, no consistent narrative style, no predictable pattern of development, because there is no single narrator who knows all the events and secrets. The dialogue is terse and sharp, as tense as the relationships between the characters. Narrators are introduced abruptly to turn the action, jar the reader's expectations, give words to the characters' tangled lives. This is a novel of voices, the voices of two families whose members interpret and misinterpret, and approve or disapprove (mostly the latter) of one another's activities.

The novel begins with a story that suggests a very conventional linear narrative. June Kashpaw, the erratic and once vivacious beauty of the family, is down and out, heading for the bus that will take her back to her North Dakota reservation. But she is easily seduced by a mud engineer and ends up on a lonely back road on a subfreezing night, wheezing under the drunken weight of her ineffective lover. She walks—not just away, but across the plains into the freezing night and death from exposure. In one chapter she is gone—but the memory of her vitality and the mystery of her death will endure. She is the catalyst for the narrations that follow, stories that trace the intricate and often antagonistic relationships in the two families from which she came. One life—and not a very special life at that, just a life of a woman on the fringes of her tribe and community, a woman living on the margins of society, living on the hard edge of survival and failing, but a woman whose death brings the family together briefly, violently, and generates a multitude of memories and stories that slowly develop into a coherent whole. It is June (and the persistent desire of the family members who survive her to understand her and, consequently, themselves) who allows us to penetrate the chaotic and often contradictory world of the Kashpaw and Lamartine families and to bring a sense of history and order to the story, to bring art out of anecdote and gossip.

The structure of the narrative is not as chaotic and episodic as it first may appear. Time is carefully controlled, with 1981, the year of June's death, the central date in the novel. Subsequent to her death, the family gathers, and even those not present, but central to the narration, are introduced by kinship descriptions. The family genealogies are laid out, and as confusing as they are in that first chapter, they become easy and familiar as the episodes unfold and family secrets are revealed. Chapters 2 through 6 of the novel leap back in time—1934, 1948, 1957, 1980—until the pivotal date, 1981, is reached again at the center of the novel. As one of the characters puts it, “Events loop around and tangle again” (95). From this year, the novel progresses to 1984 and begins to weave together the separate stories into an intricately patterned fabric that ironically, even in the end, no single character fully understands; one secret is never told. This flashback-pivotal-year-progressive chronology, however, is by no means straightforward. Within chapters, time is convoluted by the injection of memory, and each chapter is controlled by the narration of a different character whose voice (style) is markedly different from all the other voices and whose recollection of dialogue complicates the narrative process even further. The system of discourse in the novel is thus dazzlingly complex, demanding very close attention from the reader. But the overlap of characters allows for comprehension. The novel is built layer upon layer. Characters are not lost. Even June, vitally alive at least in memory, stays until the end. In fact, it is she who connects the last voice and the final events of the novel to all the others. It is through June that each character either develops or learns identity within the community, but also, since this is metafiction, in the novel itself.

There is a sort of double-think demanded by Erdrich. The incidents of the novel must be carried in the reader's mind, constantly reshuffled and reinterpreted as new events are revealed and the narrative biases of each character are exposed. Each version, each viewpoint jars things loose just when they seem hammered into place. It's a process that is disconcerting to the reader, keeping a distance between the characters and keeping the reader in emotional upheaval. This tension at times creates an almost intolerable strain on the reader because the gaps in the text demand response and attempted resolution without connected narrative. The characters innocently go about their doing and telling, unaware of other interpretations, isolated from comprehension of the whole, but they are no less agonized, no less troubled, no less comic for their innocence.

The reader must go through a different but parallel discomfort, puzzling right along with them to the end. One character pointedly asks another, “Do you like being the only one that's ignorant?” (243); the question might as easily be asked of the reader, and indirectly it is. At times, the reader is inclined to think June well out of the mixed-up madness of her families, and even wish this narrative might simply be read as a collection of finely honed short stories. But making the story come out right is irresistible, to be in on the whole story is too intriguing to be abandoned. Like the character in the novel, we must respond, “no,” to being ignorant. Discovering the truth from the collection of both tragic and comic positions presented in the separate episodes demands that we stick around to bridge the gaps.

There is something funny about gossip, simply because it is unreliable, tends to exaggeration, makes simple judgments, affirms belonging at the very moment of censure. It takes for its topic the events of history, memory, and the contemporary moment and mixes them into a collage of commentary on the group as a whole as well as the individual. Erdrich's novel does exactly that. It takes what might be tragic or solemn in a more conventional mode of telling and makes it comically human (even slapstick), sassy, ironic, and ultimately insightful about those families who live on that hard edge of survival on the reservations of the Northern Plains. It is, of course, the very method of the novel, individuals telling individual stories, that not only creates the multiple effect of the novel but requires a mediator, the reader, to bring the episodes together.

It is exactly the inability of the individual narrators to communicate effectively with one another—their compulsion to tell things to the reader, not to each other—that makes their lives and history so very difficult. At several points in the novel, characters reveal their difficulties in communicating: “My tongue was stuck. I was speechless” (99); “There were other times I couldn't talk at all because my tongue had rusted to the roof of my mouth” (166); “Alternating tongue storms and rock-hard silences was hard on a man” (196). Their very inability to give words to each other except in rage or superficial dialogues masks discomfort, keeps each one of them from giving and receiving the love that would be the medicine to cure their pain or heal their wounds. All but June, and she has the author and the other characters to speak for her, and she is beyond the healing embrace of family love.

In the end, some bridging occurs in the novel; Erdrich even titles the last chapter “Crossing the Water” and an earlier chapter “The Bridge.” The water is time: “So much time went by in that flash it surprises me yet. What they call a lot of water under the bridge. Maybe it was rapids, a swirl that carried me so swift that I could not look to either side but had to keep my eyes trained on what was coming” (93). The bridge, of course, is love. But the love in this novel is mixed with pain and failure: “And now I hurt for love” (128); “It's a sad world, though, when you can't get love right even trying it as many times as I have” (218). It demands suffering as well as pleasure: “A love so strong brews the same strength of hate” (222). Surprised at Marie's response to Nector's death, Lipsha explains:

I saw that tears were in her eyes. And that's when I saw how much grief and love she felt for him. And it gave me a real shock to the system. You see I thought love got easier over the years so it didn't hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good. I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it. I thought it curled up and died, I guess. Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash.


But despite the conflicts and personal tragedies, it is love medicine, a potion that works reconciliation in spite of its unconventional sources, that holds these characters together even as they antagonize and disappoint one another. Love is so powerful that it creates indissoluble ties that even outlast life, and ultimately it allows forgiveness. In the end, in spite of perversions of love, illicit love, and lost love, there is enough love to bring two women together and a lost son home.

Erdrich's characters are lovers in spite of themselves, and the potion that works to sustain that love is language—language spoken by each narrator to the reader, language that leads to the characters' understanding of the fragile nature of life and love. Near the end of the novel, the bumbling “medicine man” discovers the essential truth of life:

You think a person you know has got through death and illness and being broke and living on commodity rice will get through anything. Then they fold and you see how fragile were the stones that underpinned them. You see how instantly the ground can shift you thought was solid. You see stop signs and the yellow dividing markers of roads you've travelled and all the instructions you had played according to vanish. You see how all the everyday things you counted on was just a dream you had been having by which you run your whole life.


The one thing left that makes life endurable is love. Life is tenuous; love is dangerous, and love potions risky:

[W]hen she mentions them love medicines, I feel my back prickle at the danger. These love medicines are something of an old Chippewa speciality. No other tribe has got them down so well. But love medicine is not for the layman to handle. You don't just go out and get one without praying for it. Before you get one, even, you should go through one hell of a lot of mental condensation. You got to think it over. Choose the right one. You could really mess up your life grinding up the wrong little thing.


But healing family wounds isn't a matter of chemistry; it's a matter of words. Like an old folk charm spoken to oneself, the stories of love coerce the loved ones. Finally, the novel seduces the reader into affection for these sometimes silly, sometimes sad characters who are only real in the magic of words.

Love Medicine is a powerful novel. It develops hard, clear pictures of Indian people struggling to hold their lives together, hanging on to the edge of the reservation or fighting to make a place for themselves in bleak midwestern cities or devising ingenious ways to make one more break for freedom, but its most remarkable quality is how it manages to give new form to oral tradition. Not the enduring sacred tradition of ritual and myth that we have come to know in contemporary Indian literature, but a secular tradition that is so ordinary, so everyday, so unconscious that it takes an inquirer, an investigator, an artist to recognize its value and adapt its anecdotal structure to the novel. While Love Medicine may not have the obvious spiritual power so often found in Indian fiction, its narratives and narrators are potent. They coerce us into participating in their events and emotions and in the exhilarating process of making the story come out right.

As the number of novels by American Indian writers grows, we can begin to see just how varied are the possibilities for Indian fiction, how great the number of storytelling choices available from the various cultures of Indian tribes, how intriguing and unique the stories are within this genre of American fiction. Perhaps the one thread that holds this fabric of literature together is that the best works of American Indian fiction are never passive; they demand that we enter not only into the fictional world but participate actively in the process of storytelling.


  1. Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine (New York: Holt, 1984), 233. Subsequent references will be identified by parenthetical page numbers in the text.


Essays and Criticism