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|Subject||Native Americans in the United States|
|Genre||Novel or Short Story Cycle|
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston |
HarperCollins (rev. ed.)
1993 (rev. ed.)
|Media type||Hardcover & Paperback|
275 pp. |
367 pp. (rev. ed. paperback)
|ISBN||0-06-097554-7 (rev. ed. paperback)|
Love Medicine is Louise Erdrich’s first novel, published in 1984. Erdrich revised and expanded the novel for an edition issued in 1993, and then revised it again for the 2009 edition. The book explores 60 years in the lives of a small group of Chippewa (also known as Ojibwa or Anishinaabe) living on an unnamed Ojibwe Reservation in North Dakota (possibly based on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation). Love Medicine won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award.
Except for the first chapter (set in 1981), the narratives follow a loose chronology. Each chapter is narrated by a different character. These narratives are conversational, as if the narrators were telling a story, often from the first-person perspective. There are, however, five chapters that are told from a limited third-person perspective. The conversational tone of the novel is representative of the storytelling tradition in Native American culture. It draws from Ojibwa myths, story-telling technique, and culture. It also incorporates the Euro-Indian experience, especially through the younger generations, some of whom have been forced by government policy to accept, if not possess, Euro-American culture.
Love Medicine begins with June Morrissey freezing to death on her way home to the reservation. Although she dies at the beginning, the figure of June holds the novel together. Similarly, a love triangle among Lulu, Marie, and Nector is a link among the narratives, even though it is not a persistent theme in the novel. There is also a homecoming (or homing) theme in the novel. The use of multiple themes adds to the storytelling effect of the work. Other themes include: tricksters (in the Native American tradition), abandonment, connection to land, searching for identity and self-knowledge, and survival.
Chapter 1 opens in 1981 with June Morrissey in Williston, North Dakota, an oil boom town, after she has left Gordie Kashpaw and her son yet again. She dies trying to walk home in a snow storm. Part two of chapter one is in the first person voice of Albertine Johnson, June's niece, who receives a letter from her mother informing her that her Aunt June is dead and buried. Her mother did not invite her to the funeral, and as a result, Albertine refuses to speak to her. Two months after receiving the letter, Albertine goes home to the reservation. Albertine tells stories about June: her mother dying, father running away, marrying her cousin, leaving Gordie and King Kashpaw, returning only to leave again. During Albertine’s visit to the main house (where all Kashpaws were welcome), the entire family gathers. This opening chapter sets the tone for the subsequent altering of perspectives and going back through history.
In Chapters 2, 3, and 4 we become acquainted with Marie, Nector, and Lulu (the love triangle the novel is centered on) as young adults in and around the year 1934. We learn that Marie once wanted to be a nun and never really liked the Lazarre side of her family. Nector was always in love with Lulu but married Marie for reasons unbeknownst to him. We learn that Lulu always assumed she and Nector would be married, but when she found out about Marie, she went to Moses Pillager (Lulu’s cousin and well-known medicine man) but left him, taking her first child (Gerry Nanapush) back home when Moses refused to move out from the wilderness.
In Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8 Erdrich explores the complexities of parenthood and infidelity for Marie, Nector and Lulu. We are acquainted with Lulu's 9 children and Marie's 7 children. Chapter 5 occurs in 1948; chapters 6, 7, and 8 occur in 1957. Chapter five deals with June being adopted by Marie, and later raised by Eli. Part two of chapter 5 is about the controlling power and rage of Marie’s mother-in-law, Rushes Bear. Marie gradually warms up to Rushes Bear. In chapter 6 we learn about the death of Lulu’s first (legal) husband, Henry Lamartine and Lulu’s affair with his brother, Beverly Lamartine, during Henry’s funeral. Years later, Beverly decides to go home to the reservation and claim his son, Henry Jr. Instead, Beverly is seduced by Lulu, forgets about claiming his son, and returns to the city. Chapter 7 is the turning point in the novel, because this is where the love triangle (Marie, Lulu and Nector) gets demolished. Nector and Lulu begin an affair that will last five years and produce a son, Lyman Lamartine. Then, Nector decides to leave Marie and marry Lulu. He leaves a note for Marie (which she later ignores completely), and takes a letter to Lulu. But while Nector waits for Lulu he accidentally burns down her home. When Lulu runs in to save her son, she burns all her hair off and it never grows back.
Chapters 9 and 10 focus on the brothers Henry Lamartine Jr. and Lyman Lamartine in 1973 and 1974. Chapter 9 recounts Albertine Johnson running away from home as a 15-year-old. She meets Henry Lamartine Jr., and loses her virginity to him. Chapter 10 is about Henry Jr. and Lyman and the car they bought together. Lyman recounts the many road trips before Henry Jr. went off to war, before he returned a very changed man. Their first road trip afterward turns out to be tragic: Henry Jr. jumps into the river, toward his death, and try as he might, Lyman could neither find nor save him.
Chapters 11 through 18 occur between the years 1980 and 1985, when Nector enters his “second childhood” and Marie and Lulu become friends in the retirement community.
Chapter 11 shows Albertine working with Gerry Nanapush’s girlfriend at a weigh station. We learn that Gerry Nanapush is a prisoner and frequent escapee.
Chapter 12 focuses on Gordie’s alcoholism following June’s death. He has nearly drunk himself to death when one night he thinks he sees June’s ghost. He goes to the car not thinking about how drunk he is and subsequently runs into a deer. He decides to put the deer in the backseat but forgets this and hallucinates that he has in fact killed June. He panics and goes to the convent where he drunkenly confesses to a nun. The police are called and Gordie runs away.
Chapter 13, entitled “Love Medicine (1982)” is central to the book. We learn that the entire family of Kashpaws/Pillagers/Nanapushes had/have special gifts of healing and insight. Lipsha Morrissey says, “I got the touch.” As we learn from Lyman later in the novel, the Pillagers were members of the Midewiwin (medicine men and women who were blessed by the Higher Power to help others.
Nector has entered his “second childhood” and is unbearable for Marie because all he refers to is Lulu who is living in the retirement community with Marie and Nector. Lipsha is relatively young, 18 or 19 years old when his adopted grandmother, Marie, asks him to work love medicine on Nector. Love medicine, as Lipsha explains it, should always be used with extreme caution. Lipsha and Marie plot how to get Nector to eat a male goose heart while Marie eats a female goose heart. Lipsha chooses geese because they mate for life, and Marie wants him to be faithful. Nector refuses it and taunts Marie by putting the heart in his mouth but not swallowing. Marie is furious and smacks Nector on the back to make him swallow, but instead Nector chokes to death. Naturally, Lipsha and Marie are grieved, but by the end of the chapter Marie says, “Lipsha... you was always my favorite.”
Chapter 14 shows of Marie nursing Gordie through his sickness (alcoholism).
Chapter 15 is Lulu’s 1st person perspective. Lulu tells the story of her house burning down, and subsequently, the ending of her affair with Nector. The day Nector dies, Lulu is in recovery from surgery (possibly the removal of cataracts). Because the facility is short on aides, Marie offers to take care of Lulu. This begins an unexpected and often difficult friendship between the two matriarchs of the extended family.
Chapter 16 (moved to the P.S. section in the 2009 edition) is told from Lyman’s 1st person perspective. He is crushed by Henry Jr.’s death and takes a year to mourn him. Eventually, Lyman ends up in Indian politics and policy. Ironically, he is re-assigned by the BIA to set up the factory his father (Nector Kashpaw) had begun years earlier.
After a workers riot, Lyman closes the factory and, by chapter 17 (entire chapter deleted from the 2009 edition), has a grand idea for the building: bingo, and later, a sex house. He has made up his mind.
In chapter 18, Lipsha is back at the retirement community when Lulu demands that he speak with her. She tells him about his parentage (which everyone on the reservation knows except Lipsha). She tells him because she has little to lose: “I either gain a grandson or lose a young man who didn’t like me in the first place.” Lipsha goes to visit King (his half-brother) to learn more about his Gerry, who does escape prison that very night and meets Lipsha: “So many things in the world have happened before. But it’s like they never did. Every new thing that happens to a person, it’s a first. To be a son to a father was like that. In that night I felt expansion, as if the world was branching out in shoots and growing faster than the eye could see.” Lipsha drives Gerry to Canada.
- Marie Lazarre Kashpaw (wife to Nector Kashpaw) She has five children by Nector (Gordie, Zelda, Aurelia, Eugene and Patsy), and adopts her niece, June, and June’s son, Lipsha.
- Nector Kashpaw (son of Rushes Bear and Kashpaw, husband to Marie Lazarre Kashpaw). Chairman of the community by default. He has always been in love with Lulu and years into his marriage to Marie he has a five-year affair with Lulu Nanapush Lamartine and begets Lyman Lamartine. Nector never recognizes Lyman as his son.
- Lulu Nanapush Lamartine (mother to Henry Lamartine, Jr., Lyman Lamartine, Bonita Lamartine, Gerry Nanapush, and four other unnamed sons all with different fathers) Lulu first marries her cousin, Moses Pillager. She leaves him and marries Morrissey. After this marriage, she eventually marries Henry Lamartine who dies in a car accident involving a train, heavily implied to be suicide. She also has affairs with Beverly Lamartine, Nector Kashpaw, and an unnamed Mexican man.
- June Morrissey (daughter of Marie's sister: half-Lazarre, half-Morrissey from the Pillager line, wife of Gordie Kashpaw, mother of King Kashpaw and Lipsha Morrissey) June is first adopted by Marie Kashpaw, but later is raised by Eli Kashpaw (the bachelor of the family). June runs away from Gordie and King, returns several times only to leave again. June dies in the first chapter (1981).
- Eli Kashpaw (adopted father of June, son of Rushes Bear and Kashpaw, brother of Nector). While Nector went away to English school Eli was hidden by his mother and was raised in traditional Indian manner. He is the bachelor of the tribe, and raised June once she ran away to live with him.
- Gerry Nanapush (son of Lulu and Moses Pillager) Gerry is a legend on the reservation. He is imprisoned and continues to escape from prison for decades. He had an affair with June Morrissey and begets Lipsha Morrissey.
- Albertine Johnson (daughter of Zelda Kashpaw, granddaughter of Marie Kashpaw) Albertine is one of the Kashpaws that got off the reservation. She attends an unnamed university studying Western medicine.
- King Kashpaw (son of June Morrissey and Gordie Kaspaw, married to Lynette, father of King Howard Kashpaw Jr.) King receives the insurance money from June’s death and buys a new car with it. Abuses his wife Lynette.
- Lyman Lamartine (son of Lulu and Nector) Lyman is very lucky when it comes to money and business. By the end of the novel he begins a business that effectively saves the Indian community on the reservation.
- Henry Lamartine Jr. (son of Lulu and Beverly Lamartine) Henry goes to war and comes back very changed. He throws himself into a raging river and kills himself. It is unclear if he intentionally committed suicide.
- Lipsha Morrissey (son of June Morrissey and Gerry Nanapush) Lipsha is adopted by Marie, just as Marie adopted his mother, June. Lipsha is unaware of his true parentage for many years, although everyone on the reservation is aware of the truth. His parentage is revealed by Lulu, his true grandmother. Lipsha continues his life and never forgets what he has experienced.
Rushes Bear (Margaret)====Kashpaw ________|_________ | | Marie Lazarre=.=.= Nector Kashpaw Eli Kashpaw ____________________|_________________ ! | | | | | ! Patsy Eugene Aurelia | Gordie =.=.=June.....................Gerry Kashpaw Kashpaw Kashpaw | Kashpaw | Morrissey | Nanapush Zelda | Lipsha Morrissey Kashpaw | King Kashpaw =.=.=Lynette | King Jr.
The interconnectedness of the entire family/clan/tribe is emphasized. The Kashpaws and Pillagers were leaders of a community in the past before the move to the reservation. Their lineage and heritage was proud, but broken due to government policy that divided the clans and tribes.
Native American government policy is a recurrent topic, especially because the Kashpaw family is (according to Nector) “respected as the last hereditary leaders of this tribe.” As we learn from Lyman later, the Pillagers were members of the Midewiwin (medicine men and women who were blessed by the Higher Power to help others): “The Pillagers had been the holdouts, the ones who wouldn’t sign the treaties, the keepers of the birch bark scroll and practitioners of medicines so dark and helpful that the more devout Catholic Indians crossed their breasts when a Pillager happened to look straight at them.” Native American politics and government policy actually turn out to be the family’s saving grace as the novel describes gambling: “one of history’s small ironies... to take money from retired white people who had farmed Indian hunting grounds, worked Indian jobs, lived high while their neighbors lived low, looked down or never noticed who was starving, who was lost” (327).
Loss of a cultural identity and Native American spirituality characterizes and separates the two generations in Love Medicine: “They gave you worthless land to start with and then they chopped it out from under your feet. They took your kids away and stuffed the English language in their mouth.” The generations that Erdrich covers experience that loss of culture. The youngest family members (or, perhaps those who attend American schools) are socialized in an American tradition rather than a Native American tradition. With each passing of a generation, vital knowledge of the culture seems to be lost.
- Chapter One: “The World's Greatest Fishermen (1981)” first person – Albertine Johnson
- Chapter Two: “Saint Marie (1934)” first person – Marie Lazarre
- Chapter Three: “Wild Geese (1934)” first person – Nector Kashpaw
- Chapter Four: “The Island” first person – Lulu Nanapush (added to 1993 edition)
- Chapter Five: “The Beads (1948)” first person – Marie Kashpaw (2nd section added to 1993 edition)
- Chapter Six: “Lulu's Boys (1957)” third person
- Chapter Seven: “The Plunge of the Brave (1957)” first person – Nector Kashpaw
- Chapter Eight: “Flesh and Blood (1957)” first person – Marie Kashpaw
- Chapter Nine: “A Bridge (1973)” third person
- Chapter Ten: “The Red Convertible (1974)” first person – Lyman Lamartine
- Chapter Eleven: “Scales (1980)” first person – Albertine Johnson
- Chapter Twelve: “Crown of Thorns (1981)” third person
- Chapter Thirteen: “Love Medicine (1982)” first person – Lipsha Morrissey
- Chapter Fourteen: “Resurrection (1982)” third person (added to 1993 edition)
- Chapter Fifteen: “The Good Tears (1983)” first person – Lulu Lamartine
- Chapter Sixteen: “The Tomahawk Factory (1983)” first person – Lyman Lamartine (added to 1993 edition; moved to the P.S. section in the 2009 edition)
- Chapter Seventeen: “Lyman's Luck (1983)” third person (added to 1993 edition; deleted from the 2009 edition)
- Chapter Eighteen: “Crossing the Water (1985)” first person – Lipsha Morrissey
Love Medicine won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award.
The book is also a selection of The Big Read, the National Endowment for the Arts' community-wide reading program.