(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Love Medicine Louise Erdrich

(Born as Karen Louise Erdrich; has also published under pseudonyms Heidi Louise and Milou North) American novelist, poet, memoirist, children's writer, and historian.

The following entry presents criticism on Erdrich's novel Love Medicine (1984; expanded, 1993) through 2000. See also, Louise Erdrich Criticism.

In the novel Love Medicine, Erdrich draws upon her Chippewa heritage to examine complex familial and sexual relationships among Native Americans and their conflict with white communities. Her comically eccentric characters attain mythic stature as they struggle to overcome isolation, abandonment, and exploitation. Although Erdrich's work often deals with issues of concern to Native Americans, critics have noted the universality of her themes, the poetic quality of her literary voice, and her engaging authorial presence. Initially published in 1984, Erdrich released a revised and expanded version of Love Medicine in 1993 to clarify events and relationships between characters, as well as strengthening links to her later works such as Tracks (1988) and The Bingo Palace (1994). Love Medicine remains critically and commercially popular and has earned a notable position in the canon of American literature.

Plot and Major Characters

Love Medicine features fourteen interconnected stories related by seven different members of the Kashpaw and Lamartine families of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa community. The first chapter of the novel, “The World's Greatest Fishermen,” opens with the death of June Kashpaw, who freezes to death as she tries to walk back to her reservation following a meaningless sexual encounter with a white oil worker. As the chapter progresses, Erdrich relates the reactions of June's relatives, children, and the Turtle Mountain community to her death, establishing the foundation for the rest of the narrative. The subsequent chapters are not arranged chronologically, but rather follow significant moments in the lives of her characters between the years of 1934 and 1984. The chapters “Saint Marie” and “Wild Geese” follow Nector and Marie Kashpaw, who at times act as June's parents following the death of her mother. Nector was sent to public school while his twin brother Eli stayed home on the reservation and, as a result, Eli has been unable to fully integrate himself into white culture. In Marie's early adolescence, she attempted a social climb by becoming a nun in a convent near the reservation. After battling with the sadistic Sister Leopolda, who believes that Marie is possessed by the Devil, Marie leaves the convent and marries Nector. Their marriage is tumultuous, and Nector later begins an affair with Lulu Nanapush, whose past is related in “The Island,” a chapter added to the 1993 expanded edition. “The Beads” opens in 1948 with June in her childhood just after Marie and Nector took her into their home. The chapters “Lulu's Boys,” “The Plunge of the Brave,” and “Flesh and Blood” all take place in 1957, primarily focusing on the strained relationships between Nector, the promiscuous Lulu, and the overly socially conscious Marie. “A Bridge” and “The Red Convertible” take place between 1973 and 1974 and follow Henry Lamartine, the son of Lulu and her former brother-in-law, Beverly. Henry is on his way back to the reservation, returning after being released from a Vietnam prisoner-of-war camp, when he meets Albertine, a niece of June's who is running away from home. The bonds between Nector, Lulu, and Marie are further explored in “Love Medicine” and “The Good Tears.” Lipsha Morrissey, who was raised by Marie, tries to heal the breach between Marie and Nector caused by Nector's attraction to Lulu in the retirement center in which they live. Unwittingly, as Marie tries to get Nector to eat the turkey hearts prepared by Lipsha as a “love medicine,” Nector chokes to death. “The Good Tears” ends with Lulu and Marie's reconciliation, with Marie acting as Lulu's nurse, putting the “tears” in her eyes following Lulu's cataract surgery and Nector's death. The final three chapters—“The Tomahawk Factory,” “Lyman's Luck,” and “Crossing the Water”—follow Lyman Lamartine, Nector and Lulu's son, and Lipsha, who discovers that June was his birth mother.

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Ruth Doan MacDougall (review date 27 November 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Linda Taylor (review date 22 February 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Gleason (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nora Barry and Mary Prescott (essay date winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Louise Flavin (essay date fall 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Marvin Magalaner (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Silberman (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lydia A. Schultz (essay date October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Louis Owens (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Greg Sarris (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jeanne Marie Zeck (essay date fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Barbara L. Pittman (essay date December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jeanne Rosier Smith (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Susan Farrell (essay date winter 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,”...

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Karen Janet McKinney (essay date winter 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brian Sutton (essay date spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Karah Stokes (essay date summer 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Robert F. Gish (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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


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Allan Chavkin (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Krista Ratcliffe (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jason P. Mitchell (essay date spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kathleen M. Sands (essay date 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 262 words.)