Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (1984)

Jane and Kimberly enter an imaginary North American Indian world introduced by Louise Erdrich in her first novel, Love Medicine, where the women never lack personhood, the land never lacks spirit, the men never lack legend and the children grow up wise.

Summary: The first book in Louise Erdrich’s Native American series, Love Medicine tells the story of two families, the Kashpaws and Lamartines. Written in Erdrich’s uniquely poetic, powerful style, it is a multigenerational portrait of strong men and women caught in an unforgettable drama of anger, desire, and the healing power that is love medicine.

 When you asked me to suggest a novel for Double Mirror, my mind went immediately to Louise Erdrich. Of all the authors I’ve read, she’s offered me something special from the first book I picked up in the 1980’s which is, very likely, the one I’ve suggested we talk about now, Love Medicine. Apropos of her books eliding time and space, the book you’re reading now is newly edited and not the same one I have.

 I admit when you first suggested this book, and Erdrich herself, I knew about your interest in Native American culture and worried if I would be as into it as you because my interest in that culture is much less. Yet when I started to read, I was swept up by her intimacy with the culture, being of the Obijwe tribe herself, and felt myself slip easily into her prose. I found myself falling in love with it the same way I had fallen into Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate, which presented the Mexican culture in such a sensual fashion. Although Love Medicine is full of hardship, death, and the stark realities of a culture prone to the administration of white men, it is the word sensual that I still carry in my mind after reading. Erdrich’s characters and circumstances glimmer with an underlying sensuality about life, in ways that only those whose spirits and lineage are deeply intertwined with the land can. Environments, surroundings, and events are told from within a deep relationship with human and physical nature. Instead of magical realism, the stories come alive with a sense of natural realism.

 Love Medicine is, in fact, many inter-related short stories, not a novel in the conventional sense of the word. The real Louise Erdrich novel goes on and on and on, year after year, book after book, like a gusty wind whirling through a fictional American Indian reservation in the Great Lakes stopping here and there to take a breath.

 Yes, as we meet each individual character through their own first-person narratives that jump time and space to offer a portrait of a community that has been interlinked from its origins, we feel a deep sense of connection with them as a people. Even though their stories take place amongst the modern reservation’s government houses, schools and rice and flour rations, we still feel the imperceptible beating of one communal Native American heartbeat that cannot be stifled or removed from its long strand of wide and deep roots. And it is this heartbeat that moves us along.

 Going back to read her first book after all these years, I see something I didn’t see then. I was conscious at the time of being drawn to her murky Faulknerian worldview of American Indian culture where she wove the realities of spirit right into people’s daily practicalities and vice versa. I like living in two realities, the one where things get dirty and you clean them up and the ‘other’, not so straightforward. How you see and how you experience yourself and the world around you are all of a part in Erdrich’s stories.

 When you talk about the realities of spirit being woven into people’s daily practicalities and vice versa, you strike something that kept coming up for me while reading—the juxtaposition between historical cultures and the contemporary American culture, and the way spiritual beliefs really do inform that. I know we have a lot of melting pot communities in America made up of immigrants but I am talking more about the white man, the community I was raised within. I remember a lifelong compulsion of mine to befriend Mexicans, Jews, and Middle Easterners, drawn from my desire to feel part of something greater than my isolated Caucasian family made up of its individual parts but never part of an all-encompassing whole. I loved witnessing, and being part of, traditions and get-togethers at the homes of my friends and their families which seemed all the more richer for embracing a warts-and-all mentality about life. Secrets were out in the open. If families were troubled, you knew. In my house, the spirit was connected to church on Sunday, a pocket you went into weekly to make yourself feel better, yet in the home, the spirit was absent. I loved seeking out communities where life was authentically played out within the home, rooted in a richer sense of connection. In Love Medicine, this deeper connection spreads itself through all regardless of the ways the tribes had been forced to integrate into the white man’s world.

 Now, some forty years later, I am more aware and even more captivated by the way she writes about women. It would take a dissertation to back up what I’m about to say but, intuitively, what I see is that Louise Erdrich makes the matrilineal line of influence on family members come alive as an even match with paternity. The mother’s experiences, viewpoints, and beliefs are essential to an individual’s identity, as significant but unlike heritage from the father. And it’s passion that makes it work. Under the every day of coping, men and women are wild about one another.

 My two favorite characters in the book are Lulu Nanapush (Lamartine) and Marie Lazarre (Kashpaw)—the rivaling matriarchs who spend years knowing that they are in love with the same man Nector, but never confronting each other about this, and in fact, growing to be friends after his death when they are old co-habitants together in the Senior Citizens nursery home. Both lived passionately, ferociously, and with gusto. Lulu was unabashedly sexual, a wild woman who kicked off her impetus for the unconventional by seducing a hermit on his own island, Moses Pillager, and bearing her first son. She would go on to have more husbands and sons, the paternity of each questionable and gossiped widely about within the community. Yet, she never loses respect, even when it becomes known that she is having an affair with Marie’s husband Nector.

 Yes, fascinating to discover how each woman understood and explained her relationship with Nector. They held onto to their dignity and accepted forces in their lives that were far larger unifiers than dividers. I was completely caught up in the way they were living the challenges they faced, completely out of judgment. The women knew what was going on, they weren’t ignorant and yet chose to live fully in the moment. Instead of adding personal victimization to societal, they held firm to their convictions of self-respect. Faults are, somehow, folded into character, making them more and not less of person.

 Marie similarly forges her own strong route when she battles with a vicious nun as a youth, refusing to let her tainted family’s reputation force her into compliance with the nun’s determination to make her see herself as a devil-ridden sinner. She then goes on to build her own family, even taking in stray children, utilizing an inner knowing about her role in this lifetime to exceed the expectations of others. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when she and her daughter Zelda find the letter from Nector in which he admits he is leaving her for Lulu. Zelda runs off to find her father in front of Lulu’s house, which he has accidentally burned down while trying to wait for her return and deliver the letter. Marie places the letter down under another cup so as to confuse Nector over whether she has actually seen it or not, and she goes on to peel every single potato in the household and to wash the dirty floor.

 I love listening to you throw all these details together. The energy of living passionately is contagious!

 It is as if Marie is using her feminine role in the family to knit it back together, domesticity becomes her therapy and her bridge back to sanity. When Nector comes home, she offers him her hand and brings him back through the door, all her pain and anger now turned back into love, through a pile of discarded potato skins.

 Ha, this is a great exposition of how an Ojibwe woman holds onto her dignity while losing her sanity. Interesting for us (and readers) to contrast this with how Gemma in the television series, Doctor Foster, does it.

 In this world, wild women can be mothers. The wildness mixed with the maternal holds a reign over passionate, flailing men, providing true meaning to the term love medicine. Love is indeed medicine of the trickiest kind, wily and persevering. It allows for an understanding between the sexes. These Native American men who have been stripped of their own indigenousness, being forced into roles as tribal chairman and laboring workers, only connected to their own true spirits by the occasional hunt for deer, or fishing for dinner, are held together by these Native American women whose compassion runs as deep as their disappointments. The one character, King, who opts for a white woman, becomes a befuddled alcoholic with a son who does not respect him at all—the white woman’s experience with love medicine does not exist, just perpetual fighting.

 Encounters with the outside world is an on-going theme in Erdrich novels. This book starts with a story called ‘The World’s Greatest Fisherman”. A young Chippewa woman born to escape her life catches the eye of a man in a bar, believes he’s different enough to go off with him into the night and then, after lunging sex in the front seat of his pickup, slips out from under his heavily sleeping body and disappears, deliberately, into a cloud of snow flurries. Now, as I go back and read this story, I see that I was caught like a summer trout with a handmade fly by Louise Erdrich, hungry for tales about women living everyday life on the other side of ordinary. June is much more than a wandering prostitute. She brings her family together and leaves a legacy of invisible longing for belonging to meet modern times.

 Yes, and even though June’s death was born from this seedy encounter and her return to the elements afterward, we get a sense of honor in this event. The family remains to talk about her, not remembered with a bad reputation, but remembered for the wild woman she always was. She had given her own son to Marie Kashpaw to raise, yet this episode is not covered with a bad taste, it is covered with the idea that the community will emerge to take care of its own, regardless of the circumstances. People are who they are, and that is okay. It is an honoring of one’s true nature that can only come from a people who understand the complexities of nature.

 Right, June becomes the beginning of a long story where everyone appears to be linked, through the mother or the father. However, as intriguing as the connection between people turns out to be, it’s the woman’s inner tumult mirroring the family’s connection to the land they live on that feels unique. Residents but not always owners with power, they hang on fiercely to the land and their emotions to give their children a place to belong.

In Erdrich’s hands, a woman’s natural way of weaving her sexuality in and out of keeping a roof over her head, raising children and wrangling husbands. She has a way of telling a tale that makes every woman special, special in a way that makes others around them special and then, makes it, whatever ‘it’ is, all work out. Story by story, women are no more problematic than men and just as fascinating. And then Erdrich adds in a little food for thought. Love medicine links death and the spirit of being.

 And we get a sense that this will go on, that the women will continue to provide healing for the men, as battered and blistered as they will become as they continue their assimilation in white society. Toward the end, we see Albertine, a granddaughter of Marie’s, travel by bus to the Twin Cities, wanting to get away and seeking to find her own liberation. She runs into Lulu’s son Henry, who has just come back from the war, deadbeat and tortured from all that he has seen. She spends the evening from bar to bar with him and ends up in a hotel room with him. She allows herself to be a receptacle for his pain. As he pumps into her, he is attempting to bring himself home. And even though he ends up drowning, too steeped in PTSD to become a regular man again, Albertine provides him the connection with his origin in ways that allow him to go home again and to die in the river of his roots.

 Over and over again, the young want to know their origins and are determined to maintain a sense of identity in a changing world. In the last story, national boundaries between U.S. and Canada prove both separating and healing for a father and son. Where blessings come from, God or one’s own hand, the link between loss and discovery transforms a young man from unwanted misfit to a wanted son. It’s a powerful love medicine that leaps the boundary of fiction into the field of reality. Louise Erdrich’s stories are about how we see ourselves in a changing world. In one reality, people die. In another, in the lives of others, they carry on. I liked being swept up into the irrationality of maintaining dignity in the face of shameful facts, of wild crazy obsessions defying age, ignorance and, especially, poverty and of believing the vitality of life is in the living, not the having. Doesn’t matter who I am being what.

 That was particularly poignant for me. The constant presence of the vitality of life, even when that vitality was a dark one.

 I will admit, however, when I reached the end, I wanted to make a family tree of the intertwining Chippewa Indian families. But instead, from 1984 to date, I kept on reading her books right up to (and beyond) the one in 2014 where she becomes a character herself in Books and Islands. I have a feeling a family tree would look a lot like a map, more land than tree like the abstraction of topography in an Aborigine painting.

 In my updated copy of the book, there was an actual family tree showing these connections. There were lines for traditional tribal marriage, children, Catholic marriage, and sexual affairs. It was very helpful to go back and reference that graphic every time I encountered a new voice in a story.

 Adding the infusive force of mother to the inherited presence of the father, Louise Erdrich blends the impact of endings with beginnings to create a felt generational continuity that isn’t easily mapped but is palpably experienced. She includes the death of her characters as casually as she does sex, with flair and confidence. When she brings back the death of June, in the first chapter, into a later fantasy of her husband killing her as a deer he encounters in the woods via drunken illusion, the meaning of separateness collapsed and the personal became collective. I felt compelled to read the death of the deer story more than once to grasp the full extent of its significance.

 Yes, the spirit of June comes back to haunt her husband through the dead deer, which he struck on the side of the road while in an alcoholic haze. It came back as a reminder of the beatings June had suffered by his own hands.

 Love Medicine holds an edge of madness alongside utter sanity that, somehow, contains tragedy within hope. It may come naturally to those who live close to the land, who inherit the American Indian mother’s sense of knowing, the American Indian father’s ability to slip invisibly past gatekeepers but for me, they’re precious auspicious moments. I never get tired of reading Louise Erdrich.

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