Love Medicine

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

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 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

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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

(Novels for Students)

A Chippewa Indian home on the Turtle Mountain Reservation Published by Gale Cengage

The Chippewa (Ojibwa) Tribe
Seventeenth-century French explorers found the Chippewa Indians, or Ojibwa, in Canada....

(The entire section is 948 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
The point of view varies with the speakers. Sometimes they speak in the first person; at other times,...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Because of Love Medicine's lyrical writing and fascinating look at Native American life, readers are usually eager to give their...

(The entire section is 386 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1830s: Through the Indian Removal Act (1830) and the Indian Intercourse Act (1834), Indian tribes were forced to...

(The entire section is 217 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Part of Erdrich's unique style is her narration by different speakers. She asserts that she writes in the traditional storytelling form of...

(The entire section is 209 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As linked short stories that compose a novel, Love Medicine is filled with gaps or holes in action that a narrator ordinarily...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Erdrich's poetry and its symbolic method has some influence on Love Medicine. Thirteen of the stories appeared in magazines before the...

(The entire section is 173 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • Love Medicine is read by Erdrich and her husband/collaborator, Michael Dorris, on this audiotaped, 180-minute abridged version...

(The entire section is 55 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • The Beet Queen, published by Holt in 1986, continues the story of the Chippewa, but Erdrich focuses...

(The entire section is 381 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

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

(The entire section is 708 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.