The first book in Louise Erdrich's Native American series, which also includes The Beet Queen, Tracks, and The Bingo Palace, Love Medicine tells the story of two families--the Kashpaws and the Lamartines. Now resequenced by the author with the addition of never-before-published chapters, this is a publishing event equivalent to the presentation of a new and definitive text. Written in Erdrich's uniquely poetic, powerful style, Love Medicine springs to raging life: a multigenerational portrait of new truths and secrets whose time has come, of strong men and women caught in an unforgettable drama of anger, desire, and the healing power that is Love Medicine. Discover the writer whom Philp Roth called "the most interesting new American novelist to have appeared in years" all over again.
And that's the problem that I've got with "Love Medicine," really. I don't usually understand it when readers complain that a book is "too depressing:" sadness is where literature comes from, after all. But this one tested my patience. Erdrich presents modern Native American life as a nearly continuous series of tragedies, a continual downward slide. I don't know if this was her intention, but it bogs the book down considerably. Erdrich's style may be impressive, but I sometimes felt that its decidedly deliberate pacing and its literary diction didn't do her subject matter any favors. It's well-composed and well-constructed, but somehow inert. "Love Medicine" sometimes feels like the novelistic equivalent of a black-on-black painting. Too much. Despite its obvious strengths, I struggled to finish this one.
In terms of plot, there is not much of a linear one to Love Medicine; it is the story of two family clans on a Native American reservation in North Dakota and the various ways their lives intersect. Some of these intersectional ties are due to marriage and love affairs, others through familial relations (sometimes with illegitimate children not knowing who their biological parent(s) are), and still others through working situations. This edition helpful includes a family tree, which I found myself constantly referring to, although some of the relationships were too complex to even show up on this simplified depiction. But the plot (or lack of it) is not what made this book so compelling. Erdrich's writing style is lyrically beautiful; when I read that she started her writing career in poetry, I realized that the element I couldn't identify in her prose immediately was that it was poetic. Even when writing about bleak events and dysfunctional families, Erdrich managed to do so in a way that was aesthetically pleasing. This alone would have been enough to make this book a good read certainly worthy of its being on the list of 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die.
Still, the book has yet another thing to recommend it: its characters. I'll admit that the first 20 or 30 pages were a bit of a struggle while I tried to grasp a hold on to who all the characters were and how they related to one another. Even though I still had to refer to the family tree at times after that, by the second or third chapter I was wholly sucked into the book and reveling in its characterizations. While there's not really anyone in this book that I would want to be friends with per se, Love Medicine provides a plethora of varied and interesting characters. The characters cover a wide berth of different demographics including both sexes, various ages, and degrees of multiracial diversity. There wasn't a single character in here, even those only tangentially related to main story, who didn't feel realistic. Complex and sometimes competing motivations moved these characters forward in their lives more so than standard plot points.
While I was happy with the ending presented here, the characters were so compelling that I would love to read about them again. Technically, Love Medicine is considered the first in a series of books; however, it seems that Erdrich's books are not strictly serialized in terms of the story simply progressing forward chronologically in another book. After doing some research to find out which book came next and finding very different results (including whether or not particular titles were even part of the series or not, or what the series' title is), the conclusion I was drawing is that Erdrich writes new novels that sometimes feature characters from a previous tale but the books are not necessarily interdependent. I could be wrong, but that seems to be what the case is. At any rate, I will definitely be reading some of her other books in the near future after enjoying this one so much.
This was Erdrich's first novel, and I do think maybe it shows, just a little bit. The only other novels of hers I've read are The Plague of Doves and Shadow Tag, but I remember finding both of those to be effortlessly beautiful reads that pulled me along compulsively. Whereas this one, in places, perhaps feels like it's working a little harder at to achieve its effect. But when the writing is at its best, wow is it good.
I wasn't exactly happy at first to find those similarities--Alexie's book didn't impress me, and I thought that maybe I just preferred a more traditionally structured novel or it's just I'm not much of a fan of social realism. And well, both those things probably are true, but I wound up a lot more impressed with Erdrich--the tales, and her characters, felt much richer and packed a lot more of an emotional impact and in the end felt more than the sum of their parts; Erdrich felt the more reliable narrator. The prose is so gorgeous--often passages make you slow down to savor them and you feel this is one book you'll have to keep and return to read again.
Her book did take me a while to get into. At first I found the first chapter, with its plethora of related characters, confusing. When I completed that chapter, I was tempted to go back and create a cheat sheet and then saw the beginning of the book handily provided a genealogical chart.
What helped wasn't so much that though, but just reading--you eventually get to know the characters and how they all interrelate and for me those characters make the novel. Right after reading LOVE MEDICINE, I saw a mention of the work in a book on literature talk about how Lipsha Morrissey was the closest thing to a protagonist in the work, but for me the true center and the most unforgettable characters were the two matriarchs, Marie Lazarre Kashpaw and Lulu Nanapush Lamartine, around whom many of the other characters revolve in some way. Both are such strong-willed characters, you wouldn't dare feel sorry for either, and I think that's a lot of what kept LOVE MEDICINE from winding up feeling depressing, despite a lot of tragedy in this book. I was especially surprised to love Lulu in the end--believe me, for plenty of reasons, she's unlikely to strike most readers as sympathetic for much of the book. In the end, I was sorry to leave these characters.
To round out the comparison, although I found Alexie interesting for his window into into life in the modern American Indian reservation, his book didn't leave me wanting to read more of him. That's definitely not the case with Louise Erdrich.
Once Lipsha discovers that June really loved him, a road is constructed that connects dry and wet land. He associates June with a deep, dark river because she seems to wander the earth, as though she drowned. The river's current is a driving force that carries June's memory and used to cover the land.
This is the second book I've read by Erdrich (I read Tracks before this one), and the marveling at the craftsmanship of her writing continued all the way through it. She mixes fantastical elements with some of the most gut-punching, matter-of-fact observations by characters who just cannot catch a break.
Tracks introduces several characters that appear in Love Medicine, and then Love Medicine takes over and tells what happens to those characters. The major issues of land rights being taken away, language being lost, and religion shifting to something new and foreign are all addressed. In fact, Lipsha Morrisey addresses the issue with this heart-breaking passage:
"Our Gods aren't perfect, is what I'm saying, but at least they come around. They'll do a favor if you ask them right. You don't have ot yell. But you do have to know, like I said, how to ask in the right way. That makes problems, because to ask proper was an art that was lost to the Chippewas once the Catholics gained ground. Even now, I have to wonder if Higher Power turned it back, if we got to yell, or if we just don't speak its language... Was there any sense on relying on a God whose ears was stopped? Just like the government? (p. 236-237)"
Can you imagine struggling with something like this? Wondering if the God of the Catholics, the one who you have been told is the all-powerful, cannot understand you or worse... simply doesn't care?
And how did the government treat the Chippewas?
"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. They sent your brother to hell (War), they shipped him back fried. They sold you booze for furs and then told you not to drink (p.326)."
Talk about a punch in the gut. None of these things were foreign to me - at this point I've seen them talked about in several different novels by different authors. But concentrated in that small amount of space... it's horrifying.
While I recommend Louise Erdrich's books whole-heartedly, I want to warn those who pick one up. They will pull at your heart-strings, you will struggle to get through the story. There will be tears, but only if you take the time to invest yourself and get to what she is talking about between the lines. Overall, it's an experience that everyone should have... but one you will only have if you give yourself over to it.
Some of this book was published previously as short stories in magazines such as Mother Jones and The Atlantic Monthly. I thought this novel would seem like patched together short stories but it doesn't. In fact, I have trouble imagining being satisfied by reading one segment alone. Each chapter seemed so intricately woven with the others that I can only presume that Erdrich conceived the whole story at one time.
The first story tells about June Kashpaw dying in a snowstorm after walking away from a man's car in the country. June was raised on a reserve in North Dakota and the rest of the book deals with all the other people who live or used to live on the reserve. The Kashpaws, the Morrisseys, the Lamartines and the Nanapushes mix and mingle. At times I found it hard to remember who was related to whom and how they were related. And I suspect that was deliberate because even they weren't always sure who fathered which child. But the urge to know one's family history is powerful and the children do figure it out.
I particularly liked the stories which dealt with an occurrence from several different angles. For instance, the story of Lulu Lamartine's home burning down is told from the perspective of Nector Kashpaw who was in love with Lulu (although married to Marie) and then from the point of view of Marie and finally discussed by Lulu. Each person has a different insight and remembers events slightly differently. Erdrich captures all the nuances expertly.
Each story is narrated by a different character, and Erdrich is very good at creating different voices for each of her characters and creating believable motivations for their actions. I read several of her later novels prior to this one (published in 1984), and when I first began reading it, I was struck by how much she had grown and improved as a writer since this work. This one is certainly a competent and beautiful work, but it doesn't contain the lightning flashes of humor and layered depths of melancholy as some of her later works. That said, however, it is still an excellent read. She gives her readers insight into the inner life of an Indian reservation and Indian ways of thinking that I found fascinating. She is also really wonderful at character development -- not only of individual characters, but also within the context of families. Erdrich's characters can not be fully themselves outside the context of their families and communities. The family dynamics that she creates add another layer of depth to the narrative.
It took me a while to get through this book because although the stories reference each other, they are also rather self-contained. Once I finished one, I didn't feel like I had to rush back to the book to get to the next one. That can be a good thing if you don't have time to finish the whole book at once. Erdrich's work always stays with me for a while after I finish it, and this book was no different. I found it very though-provoking and touching.