Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine (1984)

“Since writing Love Medicine, I have understood that I am writing one long book in which the main chapters are also books titled Tracks, Four Souls, The Bingo Palace, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse and The Painted Drum. The characters appear and disappear in my consciousness – a lamentable, messy place.”

Erdrich Love Medicine

My fourth Erdrich novel of 2017

This is not a linear story; it meanders across time and space, readers must scurry to catch the threads and hold them in a way in which one could weave with them.

Love Medicine was originally published in 1984, but the author has revised it twice. In 1995, two sections were added like short stories. In 2009, one of those was removed completely and the other appears in an appendix.

The work feels episodic, but readers are situated more clearly than the table of contents suggests; in a list, the sections appear cohesive, as though the chapters are simply named. As readers encounter them in the book, however, each section begins with a character’s name (also, sometimes, a date).

Emotionally, Love Medicine is rooted in 1981, spiralling around June Morrissey’s death. The circumstances of her death were notorious but even more remarkable are the ripples outwards, primarily surrounding the identity of her two sons, one who is acknowledged outwardly to be her son (King) and one whom everyone knows to be her son (Lipsha, who was adopted by Nector and Marie Kashpaw).

There is a lot of disconnect in this novel, even beyond its structure. From the first few pages. “It was that moment, that one moment, of realizing you were totally empty. He must have felt that. Sometimes, alone in her room in the dark, she thought she knew what it might be like.”

Mothers are disconnected from their children (sometimes willingly), spouses from each other, as well as lovers and siblings. People are disconnected from the land (rarely willingly). Politics is disconnected from the people (decisions are made on paper, not in the context of relationships).

There is also a lot of conflict. Inward and outward. Consider Marie Lazarre’s situation in 1934: “And I looked white. But I wanted Sister Leopolda’s heart. And here was the thing: sometimes I wanted her heart in love and admiration. Sometimes. And sometimes I wanted her heart to roast on a black stick.”

The majority of the story revolves around the experiences of the women in the community, however, even when it appears otherwise. Lulu Lamartine’s perspective, offered from 1989, illustrates that:

“I’m going to tell you about the men. There were times I let them in just for being part of the world. I believe that angels in the body make us foreign to ourselves when touching. In this way I’d slip my body to earth, like a heavy sack, and for a few moments I would blend in with all that forced my heart. There was this one man I kept trying to forget. The handsome, distinguished man who burnt my house down. He did it after I got married the third and last time. The fire balded me completely. I doubt I’ll ever marry again.”

Because even though the women’s voices are strong, their stories often revolve around the experiences of the men they love (and hate). But this passage also reveals other key aspects in Love Medicine.

First, this is all about storytelling, about what one character is going to tell you about another (or about themselves): no pretense.

Next, there can be a mix of emotions – even conflicting emotions, as was true, too, in Marie’s feelings about Sister Leopolda – which complicates the telling. So, those men, being part of the world: does she let them in because of admiration or resignation, envy or fear? All or none, or some other reason entirely?

Here, the earthly and the sacred intertwine. There are heartful burdens borne and sorrows best forgotten, as well as tragedies and transformations. Destruction and devastation, too, but a narrow space left for hope and possibility as well.

Love Medicine is a difficult story, fragmented but not hopeless. It certainly secures my interest in this cycle of tales, but next, I’m reading Chickadee, one of the sequence of books for younger readers. Then, The Beet Queen.

Do you have any interconnected novels on your stacks these days?

My Louise Erdrich Reading Project (2017-2018)
Four Souls (2004)
Love Medicine (1984)
The Beet Queen (1986)
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001) *Reread
The Bingo Palace (1994) *Reread
Tales of Burning Love (1997)
The Antelope Wife (1998)
The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003)
The Painted Drum (2005)
The Plague of Doves (2008)
Shadow Tag (2010)
The Round House (2012)
LaRose (2016)

Also, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country (2003)



  1. Wendy June 20, 2017 at 11:29 am - Reply

    To echo the other comments, that’s fascinating that she revised the book twice and that the publisher allowed this! I just finished rereading John Irving’s widow for one year (continuing with my 2017 goal of alternating between new reads and old favourites) and I wish that he would have revised this novel…too long. thanks for the review

    • Buried In Print June 20, 2017 at 1:38 pm - Reply

      So is the Irving a reread that you don’t remember thinking was over-long, or is it one of your “new” reads? That’s one a friend gave to me, but I haven’t yet made time for it.

      • Wendy June 22, 2017 at 6:23 pm - Reply

        It was a reread and it was over 20 years ago I read it for the first time. I’ve read all irving’s novels because A Prayer for Owen Meany was the first book I read as a young adult and kickstarted my passion for reading. This novel is brilliant in the story telling and character development but some sections were tedious to get through. Some of my rereads aren’t measuring up which I shouldn’t be surprised about and some I love more than the first time I read them.

        • Buried In Print June 27, 2017 at 9:31 am - Reply

          Coincidentally, I’ve just started A Prayer for Owen Meany as part of a challenge to finsh books which I’ve had difficulty finishing. I’ve read Garp and I’ve entertained the possibility of others, but my stuck-ness with Owen Meany has always put me off, even though I suspect I need to “get over it”.

  2. Alley June 19, 2017 at 9:02 pm - Reply

    Very interesting that she went back and made changes. Knowing what the new sections were, what do you think about the addition (and later partial subtraction) from the original published version?

    Every time you post about Erdrich I think about how I really need to read Tales of Burning Love, which is just sitting on my shelf.

    • Buried In Print June 20, 2017 at 7:51 am - Reply

      I can see her rationale for removing at least the one story, because it does veer off a little, but I also think she felt more grounded in the work as a whole – in the network of families – than I felt as a reader, so her way of feeling when a story was less connected is bound to be different than mine. Even though I’m only leaving a few weeks or a couple of months between books, I’m still not solid on the entire set of characters, so my sense of where the story veered off was measured from a different centre. To me, it didn’t feel like the excertped stories veered any further than some of the parts, because it’s such a wide web to begin with.

  3. Rebecca Foster June 16, 2017 at 3:46 am - Reply

    This is one of the few Erdrich novels I’ve heard the most about. I too find it very interesting that she revised the book twice. Would you recommend reading the original, or the latest version?

    I have an advance download of her forthcoming novel, Future Home of the Living God (out in Nov.), which sounds like an unusual dystopian. I might well make it my first Erdrich.

    • Buried In Print June 19, 2017 at 12:19 pm - Reply

      Normally, I’m a big fan of following the writer’s direction in these cases, so given her desire to rewrite, assuming she believed the rewritten version was more the story she meant to tell, I would choose those. Like starting with The Magician’s Newphew in Narnia instead of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, as C.S. Lewis suggested. I’m tempted to jump ahead to the new one as well – which I did do when Alice Munro published another collection while I was still reading through her works – but at least for now I’m going to keep on with my original plan. I’ll look forward to your thoughts on the ARC though!

  4. Naomi June 15, 2017 at 6:32 pm - Reply

    The fact that she goes back and revises really says something about what her work means to her, and that she’s never really done with it. I wonder how many writers feel that way?

    • Buried In Print June 19, 2017 at 12:12 pm - Reply

      And then I just read a quote from Mavis Gallant that says she never goes back to reread and who would? Takes all kinds! *grins*

  5. Stefanie June 15, 2017 at 2:43 pm - Reply

    What a wonderful review! I had no idea she had revised this twice since the 80s. Does she by chance say why? And then to move one of the additions to an appendix. Curious!

    • Buried In Print June 15, 2017 at 3:21 pm - Reply

      I haven’t read anything yet which suggests why she is drawn to rewriting larger portions of the work, er, works, as she’s done this with at least one other novel; she does say that her reason for rearranging the stories (and removing one) had to do with the idea of their disrupting the through-story-line, perhaps a fear of leaving readers with an even more disjointed feeling. (It didn’t seem that way to me, upon reading the excised story, but I’m partial to stories in which some assembly is required.) It is curious. I can imagine wanting to do this, but I’m surprised that publishing houses accommodate the desire. I’d be curious to know if readers who read the books when they were new, then revisit the revised editions, feel any difference.

Leave a Reply to Stefanie Cancel reply