- Louise Erdrich's Restorative Love Medicine
Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, originally published in 1984 and released with additional chapters in 1993, captures and soothes the angst of a pandemic year because it is rooted in loss, in alienation and loneliness, in networks of support that are surprising and unpredictable, in the occasional ability to subvert oppressive structures, and in the comfort of the quotidian—to scrub one's floors and peel every potato in the house in the face of potential loss, to hold the weight of a sleeping child's body "for the first and only time" as she succumbs for a moment to trust.1 Homecoming frames the novel, from June Kashpaw's ill-fated walk into a North Dakota Blizzard on Easter Sunday to Lipsha Morrissey's return to the reservation in the Pontiac Firebird, bought with June's life insurance payout, to "cross the water, and bring her home" (367). The novel's structure of intertwined stories begins in 1981, then dips back to 1934 and moves roughly chronologically to the final "Crossing the Water" story set in 1984. Voiced in first- and third-person from a wide array of characters' perspectives (with varying degrees of bias and reliability), the stories simulate for the readers the reality of gradually coming to know a large inter-related family network. The two opening narratives, one focusing on June's final hours and one told by her niece Albertine Johnson as they plan their returns to the reservation and to their families, offer a portal into a half-century's worth of life on and around an Ojibwe reservation in northern North Dakota.2 Functioning as an ensemble rather than a story with a single protagonist, the narratives of a dozen or so principle characters demonstrate the resilience and fragility of familial and communal ties, with these tensions amplified by deep colonial structures.
As most people who know Love Medicine also know, Erdrich has woven a wide tapestry for the Kashpaw, Nanapush, Pillager, Morrissey, Lazarre and Lamartine families, tracing their stories in a range of interconnected novels—The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), The Bingo Palace (1994), Tales of Burning Love (1996), The Antelope Wife (1998), The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001), Four Souls (2004), and The Painted Drum (2006). Sometimes compared to William Faulkner and his illumination of the characters and place of Yoknapatawpha [End Page 52] County, Erdrich maps the lives of Ojibwe and European immigrants and their descendants across a vast patch of land in North Dakota and Minnesota. Erdrich, a mixed-race member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Band of Indians, adds several layers to the complexities of land loss and gain and family hierarchies, as she exposes the wider history of the disenfranchisement of the Anishinaabe people. At the time of its original publication, Love Medicine contributed to a surge of print literary texts by Indigenous authors, generated from rich oral cultures, in the late-1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s, and designed to be read by a wide audience; the beginning of this period is often marked by the publication and critical recognition (including the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) of N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn (1968).3
A masterful storyteller on many counts, Erdrich excels in her ability to write characters who are simultaneously deeply flawed and worth saving, worth knowing. Her women characters in particular wield power and gain dignity in surprising ways. In "Saint Marie," an early story in Love Medicine set in 1934, the skinny and scrappy Marie of the "dirty Lazarre" family (she soon after marries into the more respectable Kashpaw family) boldly ascends the hill to the Sacred Heart Convent, asserting, "I was going up there to pray as good as they could. Because I don't have that much Indian blood." The 14-year-old aspires to become the first saint from the reservation: "And I'd be carved in pure gold. With ruby lips. And my toenails would be little pink ocean shells, which they would have to stoop down off their high horse to kiss" (43). In...