LOVE MEDICINE, Louise Erdrich’s wonderful novel-in-stories, which won her the National Book Critics Circle Award, is possibly my favorite among all her work. My copy of LOVE MEDICINE is underlined and dog-eared because of the many times I’ve reread it. I recommend this book often to friends and students because there is much here to enjoy as a reader and learn from as a writer. It was a great influence on me as I wrote my own novel-in-stories, BEFORE WE VISIT THE GODDESS.
LOVE MEDICINE is set in a North Dakota reservation and tells the stories of two intertwined Native American families, the Kashpaws and the Lamartines/Nanapushes, following them through several generations.
Erdrich’s talent can be felt right away in the first story, where the beautiful but emotionally damaged June Kashpaw, who, in her efforts to redeem her life (she has just had sex with a stranger in his car, a man who calls her by another woman’s name), sets off for the home she had left behind a long time back on the reservation, and dies in a snowstorm. It is a powerful, heartbreaking story, written out in Erdrich’s unmistakable style, at once knife-sharp and poetic, and filled with original and memorable images that force us to look anew at the world.
In this novel we meet a cast of characters, flawed yet riveting, bound together by generations of feuding and loving, that will stay with us long after we’ve closed the pages. Among them are Lulu Lamartine, selfish and voluptuous and ready to embrace the world, who has many partners and many children resulting from those relationships. She brings up these children in loving chaos: her oldest, Henry Lamartine, traumatized by Vietnam, who ultimately commits suicide in spite of his brother’s valiant attempts to rehabilitate him; the larger-than-life trickster figure, Gerry Nanapush, whom no prison can keep interred; and Lipsha Morrissey, abandoned at birth by his mother, but blessed with the gift of healing and forgiveness.
The relationships are intricate and sometimes confusing. Fortunately, Erdrich has provided a family tree at the beginning of the novel, and I recommend that you keep it handy.
Perhaps Erdrich’s greatest accomplishment in this novel is that she is able to expose, with honesty and clear-sightedness, the tragedies of native American life—the poverty, the broken families, the alcoholism, the prejudices the characters have to face.
And yet, ultimately, this is a book of joy and hope, weaving into itself the rich cultural tradition and the indomitable spirit of the Ojibwe that continues to flourish, often through their remembrance of their ancient stories and their relationship with nature. And through the book runs a strong current of humor that will delight and surprise you into laughter when you least expect it!
Chitra Divakaruni is the author of BEFORE WE VISIT THE GODDESS and is the McDavid Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Houston.