Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for 1984, Love Medicine is a truly impressive first novel. Author Louise Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa, was one of the first women students admitted to Dartmouth in 1972, and has published a collection of poetry. In Love Medicine, she not only opens up a new territory of contemporary Native American life and demonstrates a compassionate yet uncompromising attitude toward its people but also crafts a fascinating piece of fiction whose technique amplifies its theme.
Love Medicine is a series of stories. Many of them are quite independent; they have been published in Atlantic Monthly, Kenyon Review, Ms., North American Review, and in various prize-story collections. As independent stories, they have many virtues. One is the creation of language that reflects the age, education, attitude, and experience of each narrator. The images, phrasing, and vocabulary of the urbanized characters such as Beverly Lamartine differ from the language of those whose lives still center on the reservation; the expressions used by some people in the older generation (particularly Marie Lazarre) subtly suggest translation from thoughts that come in another language. Even in the youngest generation, Albertine Johnson, who has left the reservation to go to college, uses words quite differently from her cousin Lipsha, who has stayed behind.
As independent stories, also, each has a sharp focus, a clear narrative line reaching some resolution, and images that expose the event without intervening explanation. Nevertheless, impressive as the stories are, the novel created by weaving them together is stronger than any of its parts. The first story takes place in 1981, the second in 1934—and midway in the second story, the reader begins to understand that the young girl Marie Lazarre, who tells about fighting devils in the convent, is the same person as Grandma Kashpaw, who was fetched from the senior citizens home in the first story. As one tale follows another in a sequence that skips back and forth through the years, the reader has the pleasure of fitting together the jigsaw puzzle, teasing out the identities hidden in the various names that result from marriages, unwed parenthood, and children fostered by neighbors or relatives, and realizing, with sudden delight, that one is getting a second viewpoint on an incident already known from an earlier story. The layers of understanding created by the linked-story technique ensure that many readers will finish the last page, turn the book over, and start once more from the beginning in order to read each story with the added insight that grows from enlarged knowledge.
More significantly, in doing the work to trace relationships, keep track of the characters, and understand how they are tied together, the reader becomes a part of the linking and weaving that is the novel’s theme. The pleasure of solving puzzles is subordinate to this revelation of the bonds of love and mystery and anger, the desires and strengths and weaknesses that keep these people together, even though some are reservation bound, others thoroughly urbanized, and a few only fractionally Chippewa.
The physical center of the stories is a piece of land originally allotted to Nector Kashpaw’s mother, Rushes Bear. Most of her children were assigned to parcels in Montana, but she managed to get a piece of North Dakota wheatland and live on it with her young twins, Nector and Eli. Nector went to boarding school, learned white reading and writing, and grew up to be tribal chairman and a man of importance; Eli, hidden by his mother in a root cellar, lived in the woods and kept some of the old skills. These two men, who became adults in the 1930’s, represent the oldest generation in the novel; the women with whom their lives become entangled include Marie Lazarre and Lulu Lamartine. Marie goes into a convent intending to become a saint; after marrying Nector, she...
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