Saint Marie Themes
by Louise Erdrich

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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“Saint Marie,” the second in the cycle of fourteen linked stories that make up Louise Erdrich’s novel Love Medicine (1985), centers on the complex relations between Indians and non-Indians, a theme that runs throughout the book. Marie in this story and the next, “Wild Geese” (which takes place on the same day, as Marie leaves the convent), is a tough, intelligent, willful daughter of adversity. The nuns look down on her as “Indian,” whereas her future husband, Nector Kashpaw, regards her as merely a “skinny white girl” from a family of drunken horse thieves. She is truly an orphan.

Marie Lazarre is engaged in an archetypal quest for a mother. Seeking a better home than that of her own impoverished family, she enters the convent as the protégé (though really, it is suggested, the slave) of Sister Leopolda. As if in a fairy tale, Sister Leopolda turns out to be a wicked stepmother: Like Cinderella, Marie must dress poorly (not like the other sisters), sleep behind the stove, and eat meager and coarse food. Worse yet, Sister Leopolda physically mistreats the girl, and when Marie attempts to thrust her tormentor into the oven, the witch rebounds and stabs Marie.

The central conflict resembles a legendary joust: Leopolda sees herself as fighting the devil for control of the girl’s soul and insurance of her salvation, while Marie perceives that to be thus controlled is to perish. The contest is imaged in parodies of chivalric legend, first Leopolda’s lance hurled at the devil in the closet, then hand-to-hand fencing with poker and fork—albeit both weapons are in Leopolda’s hands, while Marie’s hand triumphs through a wound. This wound gives the girl her final, bittersweet, triumph: Even as she relishes the comedy of Christian forgiveness that signifies her supposed saintliness, she recognizes in Leopolda the voracious hunger for love that makes the nun a fellow human rather than solely a devilish adversary.

Marie’s battle with Sister Leopolda also encapsulates the inherent absurdity of assimilationist doctrines: the attempt to “kill the Indian in order to save the person.” The contradictory aims of Christian colonizers have been to maintain the lowly status of the colonized peoples while claiming to elevate them as “brothers in Christ.” It may be no accident that Sister Leopolda is named for the Belgian king who presided over one of the most oppressive colonial regime in Africa.

Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In "Saint Marie," Erdrich explores such themes as racism and prejudice. For instance, she examines the various ways Sister Leopolda discriminates against Native Americans, while pushing...

(The entire section is 639 words.)