These love medicines is something of an old Chippewa specialty. No other tribe has got them down so well. But love medicines is not for the layman to handle. You don’t just go out and get one without paying for it. Before you get one, even, you should go through one hell of a lot of mental consideration. You got to think it over. Choose the right one. You could really mess up your life grinding up the wrong little thing. – from Love Medicine, page 241 –
The Kashpaw family lives on a North Dakota reservation and its branches are convoluted and multiple. They are connected loosely to the Nanapush family through the illegitimate son of June Morrisey (adopted daughter of the Kashpaws) and Gerry Nanapush. Love Medicine follows the lives of the multiple characters of these two families, weaving backward and forward through time to establish their connections to each other.
The novel opens with June Kashpaw’s final one night stand. As the character who connects both families through her illicit affair with Gerry Nanapush (resulting in the birth of their son Lipsha), it seems appropriate that Erdrich begins her story with June. But Love Medicine is really about the two matriarchs of the converging families: Marie Kashpaw and Lulu Nanapush Lamartine. These women – strong, sharply spoken, and brave – are the characters around whom the novel spins. Marie comes from a poor and unstable home and turns initially to the Catholic Church…only to discover that evil can live anywhere.
I heard later that the Sacred Heart Convent was a catchall place for nuns that don’t get along elsewhere. Nuns that complain too much or lose their mind. I’ll always wonder now, after hearing that, where they picked up Sister Leopolda. Perhaps she was just sent around to test her Sisters’ faith, here and there, like the spot-checker in a factory. For she was the definite most-hard trial to anyone’s endurance, even when they started out with veils of wretched love upon their eyes. – from Love Medicine, page 45 –
Lulu moves from man to man, seeking the love she never really had, and raises eight boys from different fathers. Both women fall in love with the same man: Nector Kashpaw. Yet, although this is at its heart a family saga, Erdrich reveals herself as a brilliant writer by drawing on deeper themes of love, loss, religion and belief, and the dark underpinnings of reservation life and politics.
Writing from multiple viewpoints across many years, Erdrich gradually builds the core of her novel and connects the two families. Her reflections on faith and religion weave in and out of the narrative.
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 to 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. – from Love Medicine, page 236 –
Erdrich does not sugar-coat the problems found on reservations – alcoholism, sexual promiscuity and domestic violence. Yet despite these difficult subjects, she finds room for empathy for her characters. Impacted by tragedy, her characters often reveal their resiliency to despair.
I was sitting at my linoleum table with my textbook spread out to the section on “Patient Abuse.” There were two ways you could think of that title. One was obvious to a nursing student, and the other was obvious to a Kashpaw. Between my mother and myself the abuse was slow and tedious, requiring long periods of dormancy, living in the blood like hepatitis. – from Love Medicine, page 7 –
Erdrich’s writing is often dreamlike and poetic. Her prose resonates with compassion, anger and a deep understanding of the challenges Native Americans have faced. I was carried along by Erdrich’s honest writing into a world I had little knowledge of before. Despite the multiple characters, I had no trouble following their lives and connections (although Erdrich does provide a helpful family tree at the beginning of the novel).
Love Medicine is a novel about the interconnectedness of family, personal despair and triumph, and the truths upon which our lives are built. Brilliant, powerful and beautifully wrought…this is a novel I highly recommend.