Themes and Meanings

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In Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich opens up a new territory of contemporary Native American life and demonstrates a compassionate yet uncompromising attitude toward its people. She also crafts a piece of fiction whose technique amplifies its meaning. In doing the work to trace out 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 secondary. What really matters are 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 have hardly any Chippewa blood.

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. Furthermore, 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, using only the literary conventions of a white cultural tradition, thoroughly and convincingly 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.

The book’s characters are nominally Catholic, but their Catholicism grows from mission schooling, which has merely damaged their traditional religion without really replacing it. Lipsha Morrissey, in the story from which the collection takes its title, suddenly thinks that he understands that Grandpa Kashpaw always shouts in church because God will not hear him otherwise. In a confused recollection drawn from his own reading of the Bible, Lipsha reasons that God has been growing progressively deaf since Old Testament times: He used to pay attention and perform miracles or strike down wrongdoers, but He has not done so in recent years. The Chippewa gods, Lipsha thinks, would still do favors if one knew the right way to ask—but the problem is that the right ways of asking were lost to the Chippewa once the Catholics gained ground. Thus, although traditional ways are not glamorized, there is a sense of loss as they diminish. The family pattern that gives a woman a good deal 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, the 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 Chippewa viewpoint here, as elsewhere, sees many disadvantages to 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...

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is Lynette Kashpaw, the wholly white wife of one of the younger men. After several generations of interracial marriage and sexual encounters, blood in the strictest sense is not really important. To be Indian is, to a certain extent, a state of mind. The urbanized Cree Beverly Lamartine had parents who called themselves French or Black Irish and considered those who thought of themselves as Indians quite backward. Albertine, however, although quite light-skinned and less than half Chippewa, always thinks of herself as Indian. The meaning of identity, the influence of past on present, and the sense of loss and confusion in people caught between a half-remembered tradition and an outsider role in the modern world are the book’s primary themes.

Social Concerns / Themes

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The tribe, similar to but not the same as the extended family, is a cultural organization created by the action of Love Medicine. It is an action filled with the stories of various individual Chippewa, and their physical moves to stay or leave the reservation in North Dakota, and their spiritual moves to accommodate a pervasive American culture or remain true to the lifestyle and folkways of their Chippewa ancestors. In part, the linked short stories chart the health and success of characters who are in this process of movement, from the almost mythic time of “The Island,” the only story without a year below the title, to the stories of the Kashpaw and Nanapush grandparents' early lives in 1934 to the present of their grandchildren in 1984. Larger American historical events help measure the dilemmas of American/Native American identity and the health of the tribe itself, such as the American prosperity of the 1950s, the Vietnam war, and the radicalism of the late 1960s and 1970s.

The death of June Kashpaw early in the first story, “The World's Greatest Fishermen,” who freezes to death as she tries to walk back to the reservation during a spring snow following a meaningless sexual encounter with a drunken white oil worker, sets up the movements in time of the novel, as short stories and characters assess how this came to be, or the past, and how June's struggles in her life affect the future of her children and her family. The book begins in the middle of things, moves back to the past, and then proceeds chronologically, although with gaps in time and action ordinarily summarized by narrators in traditional novels. The holes in the usually seamless time of the novel highlight the anomie caused by the dilemmas of identity in characters' lives.


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Family Ties The characters in Love Medicine exhibit distinct personality traits and live their lives accordingly. Yet, very strong ties exist among all the characters—the ties to their common families and heritage. For example, while Albertine has chosen to leave the reservation to study nursing, she is drawn back home upon hearing about her Aunt June's death. Back on the reservation, Albertine wants to connect with her grandfather, hoping to understand more of her heritage. She asks him questions about his days as an advocate for Indian rights, hoping that something she says will rekindle his memory. The other characters also tell their stories through their relationships to June. Thus, the familial bonds provide a common thread throughout Love Medicine, offering a universal theme to which everyone can relate.

Individual vs. Society In addition to their ties to family, the characters in Love Medicine hold their cultural heritage close to their hearts. They try to live in contemporary society while keeping their Chippewa traditions alive. Lipsha Morrissey presents a good example. The family recognizes that Lipsha has the “touch,” that he possesses the ability to heal with his hands as many of his ancestors could. He tries to use his ability to make his grandfather love his grandmother again. Feeling at loose ends when he cheats on his potion for love medicine and his grandfather dies, and having the newfound knowledge that Gerry Nanapush is his father, Lipsha allows the white man's world to lure him into joining the Army.

Culture Clash Gerry Nanapush's self-identity has always been at odds with the society in which he lives. Like his son, Lipsha, Gerry has a strong sense of his heritage and feels wronged by the white man who will not give him a fair chance. When he fights a white man by “reservation rules” (Erdrich) in a bar one night, he loses and gets a prison sentence. He escapes from prison because he believes that his rightful place is with his family. Because white man's law dictates that he be returned to prison, Gerry must hide from everyone—unable to live the honest and peaceful life that is his heritage.

Race and Racism Gerry Nanapush's barroom fight resulted from his trying to defend his heritage. A “cowboy” had asked him whether a Chippewa was also a “nigger.” Gerry fought him by “reservation rules”; he kicked the man in the groin. That ended the fight, and Gerry thought the issue was settled. Yet he had to go to court, where the white witnesses and the white doctor stacked the evidence against him. His Indian friends provided him with no help as witnesses; they did not believe in the United States judicial system. Gerry received a sentence that was stiff for a first offense but “not bad for an Indian.”

Identity Lipsha Morrissey grew up in Grandma Kashpaw's home. He never really knew who his parents were until he was nineteen years old, when Lulu Lamartine told him. All of those years, though, the family treated him well. He thought that it was because he had his special “touch.” Yet, he discovers that he is June's son by Gerry Nanapush during one of June's separations from Gordie. When Lulu tells him the news, she says that she thinks he should know because she feels that he has always been troubled, not knowing where he really belonged. He decides shortly after this that he wants to meet his father. When Lipsha and Gerry meet and Lipsha helps him escape, he finds his true identity in Gerry's words: “You're a Nanapush man. We all have this odd thing with our hearts.”

God and Religion Erdrich's Catholic upbringing is reflected in Marie's stories. As a young girl, Marie (Saint Marie) aspires to rise to the stature of the nuns who live in the convent on the hill. She feels that she is as good as they are. “They were not any lighter than me. I was going up there to pray as good as they could. Because I don't have that much Indian blood.” Sister Leopolda, Marie's teacher, constantly warned the children that to disobey her was to let Satan take over their lives. When Marie's attention once strayed from her school work, Leopolda convinced Marie that Satan had chosen her. As a result, Marie sought salvation through Leopolda. To rid herself of Satan, she would conquer Leopolda; she would get to heaven before Leopolda. Marie joined the convent. For three years, she endured the emotional and physical abuse Leopolda inflicted on her, believing that the harder she prayed and praised God, the sooner she would be free of Leopolda and Satan's grasp. Then, Leopolda nearly killed her with a poker. Regaining consciousness, she realized that Leopolda was telling the other sisters that Marie had undergone a spiritual transformation and received the mark of Christ in her hand. When Marie understood that she had been living a faithless lie and that Leopolda was a sick woman, Marie no longer believed that she needed the faith that the nuns offered.


Chapter Summaries