Love Medicine

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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...

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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 compulsively takes in unwanted children. Lulu, with what seems equal compulsion, makes her own babies—eight boys, each by a different father, who grow up supporting, fighting, and caring for one another. Both Marie and Lulu know how to use power; Marie pushes Nector into becoming tribal chairman, and Lulu, in a truly wonderful scene, forces the council not to sell her land by threatening to reveal publicly—right then in the meeting—who fathered each of her children. Both remain vivid into their old age, strong and salty women using very different tactics to win what they desire.

The middle generation is not quite so compelling—perhaps its members are seen less clearly (none is actually a narrator for any extended story) or perhaps they are the generation that suffers most from the dislocation between reservation ways and the modern world. June Morrissey dies in the first story, virtually whoring for her busfare back to the reservation. Her discarded husband, Gordon Kashpaw, is the viewpoint character (though not the narrator) of the story “Crown of Thorns,” which is a careful, vivid, underplayed, and thoroughly convincing portrait of delirium tremens. Lulu Lamartine’s son Gerry Nanapush spends half his adult life in prison after a three-year sentence for assault (he keeps escaping and being recaptured and doing additional time for escape) before he makes the mistake of hiding out on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he inevitably kills a state trooper.

Albertine Johnson and Lipsha Morrissey, from the youngest generation, are, to a certain extent, consciously searching for their roots and for a way to understand their ties to the past. Most of their generation have disappeared to Minneapolis or Chicago or somewhere even farther beyond the pull of the house and land that form the gravitational center of the Kashpaw constellation. Both Lipsha and Albertine are still in the process of becoming. Albertine, in particular, can change quite dramatically from one story to the next, but despite her relatively small share of Chippewa genes and her sustained drive for education—she is studying medicine by the end of the book—she knows her own need for the bonds of blood and tradition. She tries to talk to her grandfather about tribal politics and how he got things done in the old days. Lipsha, who seems virtually impervious to any kind of teaching (he manages to mangle and misunderstand both the traditional skills he learns from Eli Kashpaw and the education he suffers in white schools), is a wonderfully naïve narrator in the Huck Finn tradition. At the end of the book, however, he turns to home instead of lighting out for an individual destiny.

Because the stories are presented through their narrators, with no outside viewpoint to provide explanations, the evocation of Native American life is clean and subtle, without pandering to the picturesque or the sentimental. Here again, the book’s structure is used to alter the reader’s consciousness from within. For example, although June Morrissey Kashpaw dies in the first tale, her character is one of the threads that provides links among the people and the stories—various characters talk about her; there are questions about her own parentage and about the husband she left and the baby she never acknowledged; Gordon takes to drink after her death; Albertine’s mother and aunt tell their version of an incident from June’s childhood. In other words, Erdrich, beginning the novel within the literary conventions of a white cultural tradition, demonstrates that a person who is dead can remain an important presence for the living. From that point, it is only half a step to the other stories, the ones in which a dead person’s spirit actually appears.

Even though traditional ways are not glamorized, there is a sense of loss as they diminish. The family pattern that gives a woman a considerable amount of choice about who will father her children and how long her liaison with any particular man will last has a joyous (if semicomic) treatment in the case of Lulu Lamartine. In the next generation, however, June Morrissey seems more of a slut than an Earth Mother. The army, which in traditional sentiment and in the eyes of reservation boys, is a heroic experience that brings the Indian into his own, has a devastating effect on the Vietnam generation. Significantly, American Indian Movement hero Gerry Nanapush gives Lipsha Morrissey the gift of a blood tie that will free him from his decision to join the military.

The sense of place is also strong, though the setting is seldom described. The Kashpaw land is nearly off the edge of the map, in that part of North Dakota where the nearest city (the place to which Lipsha hitchhikes when he has an irresistible urge to play Space Invaders) is Winnipeg. The setting, like the story, reflects a jumble of old and new; the bare box cabins and the modern “Senior Citizens”; the Kashpaw house that no one really owns, but where everyone gathers.

There is a considerable amount of humor in the book. Some of it is raucous slapstick (the rest of the American public is slowly realizing that the wooden-faced Indian is a myth as well as a stereotype). More impressive are the flashes of wit that crystallize bits of Native American viewpoint. Eli sings “hunting songs used to attract deer or women.” Marie Lazarre says that as a girl she had “the mail-order Catholic soul you get in a girl raised out in the bush, whose only thought is getting into town.” Lipsha Morrissey discovers that Grandpa Kashpaw always shouts in church because God will not hear him otherwise:I sweat. I broke right into a little cold sweat at my hairline because I knew this was perfectly right and for years not one damn other person had noticed it. God’s been going deaf. Since the Old Testament, God’s been deafening up on us. I read, see. Besides the dictionary, which I’m constantly in use of, I had this Bible once. I read it. I found there was discrepancies between then and now. It struck me. Here God used to raineth bread from clouds, smite the Phillipines [sic], sling fire down on red-light districts where people got stabbed. He even appeared in person every once in a while. God used to pay attention, is what I’m saying.

The Chippewa gods, Lipsha continues, would still do favors if one knew the right way to ask—but the problem is that “to ask proper was an art that was lost to the Chippewa once the Catholics gained ground. Even now, I have to wonder if Higher Power turned it back, if we got to yell, or if we just don’t speak its language.”

The Chippewa viewpoint here, as elsewhere, sees many disadvantages of white ways; the Chippewa also (like humans almost everywhere) crave the material goods that seem to rain on hardworking white Americans. The only character who really romanticizes the Indian past is Lynette Kashpaw, the wholly white wife of one of the younger men. After several generations of interracial marriage and sexual encounter, blood in the strictest sense is not very important. To be Indian is, to a certain extent, a state of mind. The urbanized Cree Beverly Lamartine had parents who “always called themselves French or Black Irish and considered those who thought of themselves as Indians quite backward.” Albertine, however, though she describes herself as “light, clearly a breed,” always thinks of herself as Indian. “I raised her an Indian,” says her mother, “and that’s what she is.”

Love Medicine helps to decode that mystery along with the others. Like Lipsha Morrissey’s meditation on God, the book begins in high humor and grows steadily more somber and serious. It introduces a new voice and a new fictional territory; both are extraordinarily impressive. Despite aspects of sadness and bitter pain in the situation and despite the pettiness and brutality of some of the characters, Louise Erdrich has created a world of life, survival, love, and great power.

Form and Content

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The novel Love Medicine is told as a series of interrelated narratives, several of which appeared as short fiction in magazines such as Ms., Kenyon Review, Atlantic Monthly, and North American Review. Although many of the novel’s sections can stand alone as individual stories, it is the cumulative effect of these stories that gives the book its power and shape as a novel. Narrated by eleven different characters from two Indian families living in North Dakota, Love Medicine documents the encroachment of white civilization on an American Indian community. The search for sovereignty permeates the novel, and the loss of personal and political sovereignty is one of Erdrich’s major themes. The tales of these losses are largely told through the women of the families.

The story opens with June Kashpaw, an attractive Chippewa prostitute, deciding to return to the reservation on which she was reared. Before leaving Williston, North Dakota, however, June goes with one more client. Afterward, in a freakish Easter weekend snowstorm, she begins walking (although she has a bus ticket) back to the reservation and freezes to death. Although she is dead, June’s presence filters throughout the narratives that follow.

Physically, the book focuses on a piece of land originally allotted under the auspices of the Dawes Act of 1887 and the Indian Allotment Act of 1904 to Nector and Eli Kashpaw’s mother, Rushes Bear. As Albertine Johnson, a narrator of the younger generation, says, “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.” The effect of the loss of land on the tribe and its members is devastating. Although Rushes Bear manages to get traditional tribal land in North Dakota, she finds herself “sacrificing” one of her twin sons—Nector—to the white culture by sending him to boarding school to learn the white ways. Nector later poses nude for a painting titled Plunge of the Brave and becomes tribal chairman. The other twin, Eli, is hidden away in a root cellar and learns the old ways. The twins, who come of age in the 1930’s, foreshadow many of the cultural transitions that all the narrators encounter as they try to bridge the Indian and the white cultures.

These experiences emerge as personal stories of flight and struggle as well as of collective problems associated with poverty, alcoholism, employment, and education. For example, Albertine Johnson, who is of mixed blood and is studying to be a nurse, appears in a section entitled “A Bridge,” which chronicles the difficulty of stretching between two cultures. Despite differences in the generations revealed in language, education, and aspirations, the commonality of the struggle to survive personally and collectively unites the narrators.

As the narratives accumulate, they reveal a multilayered portrait of American Indian life in the twentieth century. Not arranged chronologically, the linked narrative is an especially effective method of tracing relationships between persons and time as well as of reflecting an essentially oral culture. The ending group of narratives, titled “Crossing the Water,” brings Lipsha Morrissey to the Twin Cities, where he plays poker with his half brother King for the car bought with the insurance money provided by June’s death. Here, Lipsha meets his father, Gerry Nanapush, for the first time and helps him escape into Canada in the car, which Lipsha wins. In the final sentences, Lipsha recalls June, whose death began the entire cycle of stories.


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Love Medicine, which won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and was named the Los Angeles Times Best Novel of 1985, provides a uniquely feminine view of contemporary American Indian life. The female characters— especially Marie and Lulu—live and raise families and survive under adverse conditions. With the exception of June, the female characters (and the males who are not afraid to defy some traditional notions of masculinity) endure and actively shape the future. Even June, who is a troubled woman, has a deep influence on those around her. Erdrich depicts women who are neither Indian princesses nor squaws, the two stereotypes most often associated with American Indian women. Instead, she presents characters of both genders who are believable and complex.

The role of women in the cultural transitions experienced by the narrators of Love Medicine is an important but shifting one. For example, the family patterns of the Ojibwa give a woman a considerable amount of choice about who will father her children, and Erdrich gives this choice-making a joyous and occasionally humorous treatment in Lulu Lamartine. June Morrissey, however, is depicted as a largely unhappy woman who is a prostitute; the freedom to choose has overwhelmed her. Albertine Johnson, a member of the youngest generation, is understandably unsure of her place in either the white or Indian cultures. She is left with the task of defining her own life and role, since the past can no longer accommodate her and the future is uncertain.

The men are largely ineffectual as either leaders or providers, and only those men such as Lipsha and Eli, who are willing to recognize their feminine sides by acting compassionately or by nurturing, appear to be able to survive. By the end of the novel, the two strongest women—Marie and Lulu—have forged a bond that might have been formed earlier if they had not been divided by a man. By resisting the stereotyping of her characters and by honoring the multilayered oral traditions of Ojibwa storytellers, Erdrich has crafted a text that allows readers to explore and experience what it means to be an Indian.

Historical Context

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The Chippewa (Ojibwa) Tribe
Seventeenth-century French explorers found the Chippewa Indians, or Ojibwa, in Canada. They lived there in small villages around the Upper Great Lakes near Sault Sainte Marie. At the time, they lacked tribal organization, and the village people governed themselves. They worked as fur traders, used birchbark canoes, and were skilled wood-craftsmen. As they prospered, however, their population grew, and they acquired more territory. In addition, they began focusing more on developing tribal customs and rituals. They established one organization in particular, the Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society. In Love Medicine, Lipsha Morrissey, known for his inherited “touch,” practices the ways of the old medicine. Love Medicine is named for the love-potion ritual Lipsha tries to recreate for his grandparents.

As the tribe grew, they drove out other tribes. For example, they expanded to take over the entire Ontario peninsula by the late 1700s, forcing the Iro-quois to leave. This expansion reached into western Wisconsin and northeastern Minnesota. In the United States, the Ojibwa became known as the Chippewa. By the early 19th century, Chippewa lived in Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan in Canada—where they were still called Ojibwa—and in North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio in the United States. They lived away from the white man's settlements and continued to practice their tribal customs. The Kashpaws and Lamartines are fictional descendants of the Chippewa who settled in North Dakota. As of 1990, there are more than 100,000 Chippewa living in the United States.

Indian Territory
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the large areas of land in the western United States that were originally settled by Indians were known as Indian Territory. As white settlers moved westward, however, the United States government passed laws that removed the Indians from Indian Territory. Two such laws were the Indian Removal Act (1930) and the Indian Intercourse Act (1834). These laws made Indian Territory the areas including Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. The government forced Indians to move to these new lands. As a result, many Indians had to learn new ways to support themselves. The Chippewa, for example, existed as hunters and fishermen when they lived on their original homelands. After being forced to the Great Plains regions, they had to become farmers if they were to survive.

Indian Reservations
The lands to which Indians were forced to move were known as Indian reservations, designated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Between 1830 and 1840, more than 70,000 members of the “Five Civilized Tribes” had to move to reservations. In Love Medicine, the Kashpaws and Lamartines lived on one such reservation, Turtle Mountain. Many Indians fought this forced resettlement in battles known as the Indian Wars.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs
Established in 1824 as part of the War Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs still exists as the governmental agency through which Indian affairs are handled. Earlier names for the agency include the Office of Indian Affairs, the Indian Department, and the Indian Service. The agency now resides in the Department of the Interior rather than the War Department and is directed by the Interior Department's Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs. The twelve offices of the agency oversee reservation and Indian-community programs and, on some reservations, manage education, social services, law enforcement, mineral and water rights, and land leasing. Erdrich's parents both worked as teachers for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Dawes Act or General Allotment Act
The Dawes Act enabled individual Indians to claim parts of tribal lands for themselves. The Act meant to encourage the Indians to become farmers but resulted in loss of tribal lands to white settlers. To halt this tribal loss of land, the government enacted the 1934 Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act. Not only did the Indians reclaim ownership of the reservation lands, they also became self-governing in a partnership with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In addition, the partnership provided assistance in developing the land, managing resources, and establishing other programs.

Tribal Rights
The 1950s saw the termination of special federal programs and trust relationships with Indians, legislation enacted to force Indians to more quickly become a part of white society. This resulted in economic disaster for many tribes. There was so much opposition to the policy, the government withdrew it by the mid-1960s. Since the Bureau of Indian Affairs was established, many Native Americans have protested the lack of Native American input into the agency. They have felt that no one speaks for their rights. In the 1970s, members of the American Indian Movement, an Indian-rights group, demanded that the agency pay more attention to Native American needs and interests.

Modern-Day Social Ills
Forced assimilation into white society has, in part, been responsible for the many problems Indians face today. Those who live on reservations lack education, have few jobs, suffer early deaths, and have a higher tendency to commit suicide. Those who leave the reservations to live in cities, assisted by a relocation program sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, are often unable to adjust. Without skills that would enable them to be successful away from the reservations, they either return to the reservations or face failure in the cities. Unhappy and at loose ends, many Indians resort to crime and alcoholism.

Improved Outlook
While many problems still exist for Indians living in modern-day society, more and more Native Americans are overcoming the odds. The Bureau of Indian Affairs works harder today within the government to protect Native American interests. The Office of Tribal Justice, created in 1995 within the U.S. Department of Justice, now assists with questions of state-tribal jurisdiction. Reservations themselves support education through tribal colleges and employment endeavors such as radio stations and gambling casinos.

Literary Style

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Point of View
The point of view varies with the speakers. Sometimes they speak in the first person; at other times, they speak in third person. While there are actually fourteen stories in Love Medicine, seven members of five families—the Kashpaws, Lazarres, Lamartines, Nanapushes, and Morrisseys—tell their views of many of the same incidents. For example, both Nector and Marie tell about their encounter on the hill below the convent. Many critics view this technique as a strength because the reader gets to hear both sides of a story. Other critics think that the use of so many voices makes the novel too confusing; readers must reread to find relationships among the characters and the stories they tell.

Above all else, critics discuss the manner in which Erdrich presents her story through the separate voices of seven characters. Some say that Erdrich's use of this technique provides a rich portrait of not only the events in the lives of the characters but also a realistic illustration of Native Americans trying to cope in modern culture. For example, Harriett Gilbert says in New Statesman, “Largely using her characters' own voices, she washes their stones backward and forward in rollers of powerful, concentrated prose through half a century (1930s to now) of loving, hating, adapting, surviving and tragically failing to survive.” Others criticize her style. Gene Lyons, in Newsweek says that Love Medicine is not a novel but a book of short stones. “No central action unifies the narrative, and the voices all sound pretty much the same—making it difficult to recall sometimes who's talking and what they're talking about.”

Most of Love Medicine takes place on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota or in the area close to it. The story spans a period of fifty years from 1934 to 1984. The setting lends credence to the story; white readers get a glimpse of life in a culture that is foreign to most of them. The details Erdrich provides emphasize the lives of many contemporary Indians on reservations. According to Robert Towers in the New York Review of Books, “Impoverished, feckless lives far gone in alcoholism and promiscuity … an irrefutable indictment against an official policy that tried to make farmers out of the hunting and fishing Chippewas, moving them from the Great Lakes to the hilly tracts west of the wheat-growing plains of North Dakota.”

Poetic License
Literary experts say that writers who deviate from the conventional form are taking “poetic license.” Many think that Erdrich does this with Love Medicine. Not only does she use separate characters to tell their versions of the events in the book in a nonlinear fashion, but also she adds a lyric quality to her writing that is more typically seen in poetry. Because she is a poet, Erdrich has a practiced mastery of words; she is able to write concisely without losing meaning. This is especially evident in the way her characters talk. According to D. J. R. Bruckner in a review in the New York Times, “Many of their tales have the structure and lyric voice of ballads.”

Native American readers appreciate Erdrich's artistry with dialogue. They have written to her saying that she was the first writer who knew how Indians really talked. The language the characters speak has evolved from several other languages blended together to result in a unique voice that is now an established part of the culture. The verbs used come from Chippewa, while most nouns are French. Also heard are traces of other Native American and European languages.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1830s: Through the Indian Removal Act (1830) and the Indian Intercourse Act (1834), Indian tribes were forced to move onto reservations into territory now known as Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.
  • 1850s: Indians were further confined to present day Oklahoma through the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
  • 1860s: The Indians living in Oklahoma were forced to give up the western half of their territory.
  • Late 1800s and early 1900s: The Dawes Act, or General Allotment Act, allowed tribal lands to be parceled out to individual Indians, resulting in widespread sale of the land to white settlers.
  • 1930s: Tribal ownership of reservation lands was restored through the Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act, overturning the 1887 General Allotment (Dawes) Act. Indians also received limited self-governing privileges and help with development and management of land and resources.
  • 1950s: Policies ended special federal programs and trust agreements with Indians.
  • 1960s: The termination policy of the 1950s was abandoned.
  • 1970s: Native American groups become more aggressive in reestablishing their rights. The Narragansett, Dakota, Oneida, and other Indians' claims were upheld in the Supreme Court, gaining them fishing, water, and mining rights, among others.
  • 1990s: Native Americans continue to regain their rights. Legislation passed in 1990 protects Indian gravesites and allows return of remains. In 1991, Chippewa Indians gained the right to hunt, fish, and gather plants from reservations in Wisconsin.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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As linked short stories that compose a novel, Love Medicine is filled with gaps or holes in action that a narrator ordinarily summarizes. James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) experimented with unsummarized gaps in scene, time, and place in his novel, and the effect is that readers are forced to find connections that wind up being thematic and emotive between scenes. Erdrich has done much the same thing in Love Medicine. If one imaginatively puts the narrative in order chronologically and organizes action by characters appearing in more than one story, one still finds large gaps in action regarding major characters such as Nector, Marie, and Lulu, and still more for younger characters such as Henry Lamartine, Lipsha Morrissey, Gerry Nanapush, and Albertine Johnson. By setting her first story in 1981 and then moving to events in 1934 to 1984, Erdrich sets up mysteries about the past and future much the way Conrad does in Nostromo (1904). Because of the intended gaps in Erdrich's narrative, readers must make connections about relations and the meaning of events. Since a culture is presented by the book with which most readers are unfamiliar, this method is effective in forcing us to learn about these people.

Narrative point of view operates in a similar fashion. The most common point of view is retrospective first person; frequently, the first person narrator is also the protagonist of the story or a major character. Third-person omniscient narration does occur, but usually only when first person is infeasible—who, for instance, could narrate June's walk to her death in the snowstorm? More often, the biased nature of the first-person narrator's interpretation of motives and events forces one to counteract the unreliable qualities of the narrator. Lulu's account, for example, of her husband's death by a Northern Pacific train skirts her responsibility for his probable suicidal depression. Sometimes different first-person narrators deal with the same event; Lulu, Marie, and Nector each give accounts of Nector's affair with Lulu, for a case in point. Who to believe? Much humor through dramatic irony appears with innocent narrators such as Lipsha describing events without judging them. These narrative techniques foster reader participation in the text.

Many readers are swept away by Erdrich's figurative language in Love Medicine and later novels. Short stories usually have more powerful figurative language than novels because their form is midway between the novel and the lyric poem. Many arresting images and symbols appear in Love Medicine. In the very beginning, June and an oil worker are eating eggs in a bar; June is wearing a shell and thinks, when drunk and ill, that she is about to crack. In a later story, Marie washes and waxes her kitchen floor, using work to deflect the pain she feels as a result of Nector's note about his relationship to Lulu, but when Nector appears with one of his daughters, Marie reaches out to him to cross her lakelike floor much as Christ reaches out to one of his disciples attempting to walk on water. June's beads, which we associate with the rosary, but which are associated in the story with Native American myths, carry both meanings when June leaves her beads, the only possession from her previous life she had kept, with Marie as she goes to live with Eli. Frequently, these action images or image symbols occur in major parts of stories, such as a climax or ending, making them resonate in our minds all the more powerfully, as in “Crossing the Water,” which is both a real crossing and a psychological one for Lipsha at the end of the novel.

All of these narrative techniques make the artistry of Love Medicine so powerful that the book can sustain many readings. Since the dilemmas of the characters providing terms of choice sometimes seem more important than the choices themselves, easy closure in the novel is avoided as we are forced as readers to contemplate vicariously again and again the actions of Erdrich's powerfully wrought characters.

Media Adaptations

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  • Love Medicine is read by Erdrich and her husband/collaborator, Michael Dorris, on this audiotaped, 180-minute abridged version of the book; available from
  • An audiocassette version of Love Medicine, along with The Beet Queen, is available from Entitled The Beet Queen: Love Medicine (Excerpt E), the cost of this audiotape is $13.95.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bruckner, D. J. R. Review of Love Medicine. In New York Times, December 20, 1984, p. C21.

Erdrich, Louise. “Scales.” In Love Medicine. New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998, pp. 43, 201-202, 366.

Gilbert, Harriett. “Mixed Feelings.” In New Statesman, Vol. 109, No. 2812, February 8, 1985, p 31.

Kessler, Jascha. “Louise Erdrich: Love Medicine.” In a radio broadcast on KUSC-FM—Los Angeles, CA, January, 1985.

Kinney, Jeanne. Review of Love Medicine. In Best Sellers, Vol. 44, No. 9, December, 1984, pp. 324-25.

Kooi, Cynthia. Review of Love Medicine. In Booklist, Vol. 81, No. 1, September 1, 1984, p. 24.

Lyons, Gene. “In Indian Territory.” In Newsweek, Vol. CV, No. 6, February 11, 1985, pp. 70-1.

Portales, Marco. “People with Holes in Their Lives.” In New York Times Book Review, December 23, 1984, p. 6.

Schumacher, Michael. Interview in Writer's Digest, June, 1991, pp. 28-31.

Towers, Robert. “Uprooted.” In New York Review of Books, Vol XXXII, No. 6, April 11, 1985, pp. 36-7.

For Further Study
Berkley, Miriam. Interview in Publishers Weekly, August 15, 1986, pp. 58-9. Erdrich describes to Berkley how her many jobs have provided rich experiences from which to draw to create believable characters and their lives.

Bly, Robert. Review of Love Medicine. In New York Times Book Review, August 31, 1982, p. 2. Poet Bly describes Erdrich's unique approach to telling a story through characters who speak at any time and in any place.

Brehm, Victoria. “The Metamorphoses of an Ojibwa Manido.” In American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, Vol. 68, No. 4, December, 1996, pp. 677-706. Brehm discusses Erdrich's use of Native American mythology, specifically the figure of the water god, Micipijiu.

Bruckner, D. J. R. Review of Love Medicine. In New York Times, December 20, 1984, p. C21. Bruckner applauds the lyrical quality of Love Medicine and Erdrich's rich characters.

Chavkin, Allan, and Nancy Feyl Chavkin, eds. Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. University Press of Mississippi, 1993. A collection of 25 interviews with Erdrich and Dorris, this book includes a description of the unusual collaborative relationship the two share.

Davis, Mary B., ed. Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing, 1994. An alphabetized reference that includes works by Native Americans and other experts dealing with Native American life in the twentieth century.

Downes, Margaret J. “Narrativity, Myth, and Metaphor: Louise Erdrich and Raymond Carver Talk about Love.” In MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 49-61. A companson of two novels about love, Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine and Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Downes says that she finds Erdrich's novel more satisfying because of the characters' belief in and use of myth and storytelling.

Erdrich, Louise. The Blue Jay's Dance. HarperCollins, 1995. In this book, Erdrich chronicles her child's birth and first year of life. It examines the balancing act that working parents experience on a daily basis.

Pasquaretta, Paul. “Sacred Chance Gambling and the Contemporary Native American Indian Novel.” In MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 21-33. An analysis of the gambling stories in novels by three Native American authors. Pasquaretta says that these gambling stories serve as a ritual site on which to contest the forces of corruption and assimilation.

Pittman, Barbara L. “Cross-Cultural Reading and Generic Transformations: The Chronotope of the Road in Erdrich's Love Medicine.” In American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, Vol. 67, No. 4, December, 1995, pp. 777-92. An analysis of the road motif in Love Medicine. Pittman sees the motif as mediating between the Euro-American and Native-American traditions in which the novel participates.

Rainwater, Catherine. “Reading Between Worlds' Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich.” In American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, Vol. 62, No. 3, September, 1990, pp 405-22. Rainwater discusses the many sets of conflicting codes in Love Medicine. Rainwater claims that these codes frustrate the reader's expectations, but in so doing, they also make the narrative more powerful.

Schumacher, Michael. Interview in Writer's Digest, June, 1991, pp. 28-31. In this interview, Erdrich tells how her childhood experiences and heritage have influenced her writing.

Velie, Alan. “The Tnckster Novel.” In Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures. Edited by Gerald Vizenor. University of New Mexico Press, 1989, pp 55-6. An analysis of the novel in terms of the picaresque, or trickster genre.


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Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. An in-depth look at the feminine in American Indian rituals, storytelling, and so on. This book provides good background information on Native American traditions.

Booklist. LXXXI, September 1, 1984, p. 24.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, November 27, 1984, p. 33.

Downes, Margaret J. “Narrativity, Myth, and Metaphor: Louise Erdrich and Raymond Carver Talk About Love.” MELUS 21 (Summer, 1996): 49-61. Compares the ways that Erdrich and Carver use the similarly structured experiences of love, narrative, and myth in their works. Concludes that stories about love are more “satisfactory” in Love Medicine than in Carver’s work, and presents evidence as to why love works in one set of stories and not another.

Flavin, Louise. “Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine: Loving Over Time and Distance.” Critique 31 (Fall, 1989): 55-64. A well-developed discussion of how the novel combines aspects of both traditional and contemporary narrative structures. Provides an in-depth look at characters in the novel.

Glamour. LXXXII, December, 1984, p. 190.

Lesley, Craig. “Characteristics of Contemporary Native American Literature.” In New Students in Two-Year Colleges: Twelve Essays, edited by Walker Gibson. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1979. A clear, straightforward account of the main elements of contemporary American Indian literature.

Los Angeles Times. December 20, 1984, V, p. 34.

McKinney, Karen J. “False Miracles and Failed Vision in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine.Critique 40 (Winter, 1999): 152-160. McKinney focuses on the conflict between the Catholic dogma of the miracle and the native belief in the personal vision. She examines the early Chippewa encounters with Catholic missionaries and Lipsha’s struggle to come to terms with two different belief systems.

Magalaner, Marvin. “Of Cars, Time, and the River.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. An insightful look at important images, symbols, and metaphors in Love Medicine.

The New York Times. December 20, 1984, p. 25.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, December 23, 1984, p. 6.

The New Yorker. LX, January 7, 1985, p. 76.

Newsweek. CV, February 11, 1985, p. 70.

Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, August 10, 1984, p. 73.

Saturday Review. X, November, 1984, p. 83.

Schultz, Lydia A. “Fragments and Ojibwe Stories: Narrative Strategies in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine.” College Literature 18, no. 3 (October, 1991): 80-95. Provides excellent background on storytelling and narrative techniques as they apply to Erdrich’s text.

Tanrisal, Meldan. “Mother and Child Relationships in the Novels of Louise Erdrich.” American Studies International 35 (October, 1997): 67-79. Explores the role women have played in the continuity of tribal tradition through childbearing and the transmission of cultural values. Focuses on the mother as not only the biological parent, but the agent of survival for the whole tribe.

Washington Post. November 14, 1984, p. D2.

Zeck, Jeanne-Marie. “Erdrich’s Love Medicine.Explicator 54 (Fall, 1995): 58-60. Zeck presents an analysis of the chapter “The Beads” in Erdrich’s novel. She focuses on the sexual imagery, the relationship between Eli and Marie, and the use of symbolism.