“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.”
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)
Also, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country (2003)