Louise Erdrich’s first novel, Love Medicine, is anything but a light read. The read is so heavy at times it seems that to get back to reality you have to peel away layers of poetic prose and cultural nuance. Erdrich makes modern Native American life accessible, but that does not mean it’s easy to read. Love Medicine follows different characters in the Kashpaw and Lamartine families on a Chippewa reservation in Minnesota. The chapters are all told by various characters connected to the two families and the reader has to pay close attention to who is narrating the chapter and at what point in the timeline the chapter is taking place. Though mostly told chronologically, the beginning of the story is sprung into action by one family member's death and then the subsequent chapters go back in time and pan out chronologically until the initial death is surpassed in the narrative. Phew!
In this beautiful story exploring multiple themes, one of which is modernity vs. tradition,the most pressing theme is the idea of and the boundaries of love. Love is examined through continual intersections of characters in the story and how they are thrown together in fits of desire, passion, desperation and even deep disconnected sorrow. It is a family saga that spans generations (and novels).
Love is more like a force, or at least that’s how Lulu Lamartine has lived her entire life having birthed eight sons by many different men on the reservation. Some of the men Lulu married and some were men she shared the force of her love with, and she is never apologetic.
Lipsha Morrisey goes his entire young adult life without ever knowing who his parents are, assuming he is the offspring of souls that intermingled in the space of love and then gave him over to be raised by his grandmother. One thing Lipsha does know about himself is that he is gifted with a healing touch, and in a moment of bloated self-assurance he believes that he can wield Love Medicine to bind his constantly wandering grandfather Nector to the side of his forever faithful grandmother Marie. It is in Lipsha’s chapter that readers are introduced to the power of love as a force of intentional energy.
In his youth, Nector Kashpaw catches a young Marie Lazarre as she flees the Catholic convent after being mutilated by an insane nun (a re-occurring character of questionable sainthood, Sister Leopolda). Something occurs here that I found to be captivating as a reader. Nector unintentionally knocks Marie over because he thinks she has stolen from the convent. In a moment when she is pinned beneath him their sexuality wraps around them like an intoxicating cloud and they both seem given over to it. Then Nector realizes that Marie is severely injured and never in her struggle with him did she complain about her pain. Nector recognizes in a fourteen-year-old Marie Lazarre a kind of internal strength and fierceness that he is inexplicably drawn to.
Nector knows that he is had. He acknowledges his fall into the trap of love with a young and forceful Marie whose love is a consistent soft breeze and less of the rising and falling force of a tide like Lulu’s love. Nector strays from his wife and engages in a long affair with Lulu, even fathering one of her children, but he never seems capable of understanding that he was a leaf in the wind of the love that these women could weave. Lulu was passionate and Marie was stalwart, and both women always had their children to bring into their embrace of love while the ambling men in the story seemed to flounder in regards to their true purpose.
The role of the men in this story speaks to some of the modern struggles in Native American culture. The men in Love Medicine stretch across the entire gambit of experience: jail, alcoholism, war torn, and just generally lost in their own identity. It is the women in Love Medicine that seem to hold life on the reservation together. The more in touch with Chippewa traditions the characters were, the more their lives seemed to make sense. Some characters left the reservation all together, but were always drawn back by an undeniable sense of home. And that sense of home is what Marie and Lulu are able to create, even with government rations and economic hardships they do the best they can with who they are and what they are given.
It is in Marie and Lulu’s self-recognition that I find the true beauty in this story. These women know who they are and they always seem to know how to project unto others that they possess a greater knowing about life. And I think they do.