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Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine: Loving Over Time and Distance


Many Native American novels deal with specific Indian
American issues, such as reservation life and the problems
of relocation and termination. Often, the conflict in the
novel arises out of the native American concern for
connectedness with the land and the interrelatedness of all
life. When the Indian American moves off the reservation
and begins life in a culture essentially different from his
own, the results can be disastrous. The typical native
American story has a "homing" plot. In these stories, the
hero finds fulfillment, personal growth, and value in
returning home, a nd finding himself in his cultural past
among his own people. "To Indians, tribe means family, not
just bloodlines but extended family, clan, community,
ceremonial exchanges with nature, and an animate regard for
all creation as sensible and powerful." 

Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, looks at Indian American
reservation life in a less optimistic light. In this novel,
the returning Indian finds that the tribe has
disintegrated, the past has been forgotten, and the
reservation lands no longer support a livelihood. Leaving
home is the road to fulfillment.
The story is at the same time one of disintegration and
breaking connections, and of bonding and restoration.
Presenting the story from so many different points of view
suggests not tribal or family unity, but separation and
difference. At the same time, the points of view are
unified around the subject of one family. This accentuates
the theme of the breakdown of relationships, while showing
the unique tie the family and reservation life have for
these people. 

The novel has no central conflict or protagonist. Instead
of a clearly defined conflict, the novel portrays a variety
of characters attempting to love and survive in a world
where G-d and the government seem to have forsaken them.
Left to their own devices, many of them - especially the
men - flounder. While the men in the novel accept
inevitable doom in their lives, the women approach the same
reservation world with a different outlook. The novel is
clearly feminist in its depiction of two strong women who
raise families in adverse situations and, in the end, bond
with each other after their children are raised and the man
that they both had loved has died. Marie and Lulu not only
survive, but look back on their lives with satisfaction,
having endured without the support of a strong male figure
or the help of G-d or the government. 

One of the survivors of reservation life is Lipsha
Morrissey, abandoned by his mother June and raised by
"Grandma" Kapshaw. Lipsha narrates two central chapters -
one gives the novel its title, and the other ends the book
as a link to the opening chapter and the death of June.
Lipsha recognizes that life on the reservation is bleak,
more so than ever before. He bemoans the loss of faith in
the Chippewa gods and the inefficacy of praying to the
Catholic god, who does not seem to hear. The absence of an
attentive god is part of the problem of the Indian
Americans. In the absence of a god, Lipsha attempts to help
his family and friends by restoring the primitive art of
witch doctoring. He believes himself to have healing
powers, which he calls "the touch." he attempts to heal the
rift between his grandparents by having them eat the raw
heart of a wild goose. Since wild geese mate for life,
Lipsha believes that eating the goos heart will lessen the
separation that has developed between his grandparents over
Nector's affair with Lulu. His attempt to work love
medicine is made comic when he fails to shoot a wild goose
and resorts to using a frozen supermarket turkey heart. The
final deflation occurs when old Nector Kapshaw chokes and
dies trying to swallow the heart. Instead of the "healing
touch", Lipsha works a different kind of "love medicine."
his real insight comes form being a man of strong feelings
coming from being raised on love. 

The story is not one of continuity, relatedness, and
harmony with the land and nature, with culture and
tradition which are ideas that shape much native American
fiction. Instead, Louise Erdrich depicts a cultural mileau
where the sacred ceremonies, tribal rituals, and Indian
cultural identity have disappeared. The connectedness to
the land has disappeared, the means to make a living is
gone, and the younger generation must find work off the
reservation or stay there and flounder. While the novel is
untraditional in many ways, it gives a compassionate
humanistic account of the lives of reservation Indians
without glorifying their culture yet without demeaning them
in their weakness and failure. Ms. Erdrich is able to
present realistically their unique characters and
situations, focusing upon the Indian American as a race
with definite problems but with the same enduring nature as
all Americans. 
Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction Vol. 30 #2. 
"The Triumph of the Brave: Love Medicine's Holistic
Vision". Nora Barry and Mary Prescott
Louise Erdrich challenges the romantic vision of native
Americans as destined for cultural oblivion. Her novel
celebrates native American survival and credits spiritual
values with that survival. Erdrich focuses on the failure
of ritual and traditions that divide according to gender.
According to Erdrich's holistic vision, survival and
continuity depend on a character's ability to internalize
both the masculine and the feminine, the past and the
present. It is apparent in Love Medicine that rituals and
traditions that are exclusively male will no longer work.
For instance, through King Kapshaw, Henry Lamartine, Jr.,
and Gordie Kapshaw, Erdrich presents the failureof the
warrior tradition. 

Marie Kapshaw is one of Erdrich's strongest characters
because her life is a blending of two complementary
gender-based traditions. Her life includes risks,
transformation, householding, bad medicine, as well as an
integration of past and present. Her participation in
womanly ritual is obvious in her willingness to absorb
orphan children into her own family. Her role in the novel
is most prominent, however, when she is taking risks and
drawing upon the past. Marie's vision during her
adolescence, incorporating power and compassion, guides her
at crucial points for the rest of her life. She practices
the compassion that her vision teaches her when she takes
in homeless children, most significantly June and Lipsha,
and when in her old age she Lulu, her rival, regain her

Lulu Lamartine is Marie's powerful counterpart, lifelong
rival for the Nector's affection, and, ironically, her
companion in old age. Lulu is a worthy adversary because
she is an effective compliment to Marie is. The two
characters mirror one another in their role as mother, in
their ability to take risks, in their way of blending past
and present, and in their wielding of power in old age.
Lulu challenges the tribe when her land is in danger of
being sold to a manufacturer of tomahawks, fearing the
threat to the old way of life that the factory represents.
Lulu alone seems mindful of the conflict between the old
values and and the influences of the white standard of
economic success. 

June inhabits a netherworld between the masculine and
feminine; her life lacks structure because she feels no
connection to either tradition, nor can she blend the two.
Throughout her life, she wanders into the worlds of
masculine and feminine ritual inconsistently. As a child,
she participates in masculine ritual with her guardian Eli,
wearing a hat just like his and hunting with him. Marie
observes June's identification with Eli and traces it back
to the incompetence of June's mother, who had completely
neglected the child and fostered a mistrust of women. June
does not become Eli, however, nor is she ever comfortable
with the feminine rituals of wives and mothers. Her
marriage with Gordie is on-again-off-again, so she is not
always available to her son King. She gives her second son,
Lipsha, to Marie to raise, watching him grow only from a
distance. Her efforts to succeed in the white world as a
beautician, secretary, clerk, and waitress fail, too. It is
understandable that June feels dislocated in these
traditionally feminine roles. Although she is apparently
unaware of it, the chaos in June's life is a result a
fragmented gender identity. Because June tries early to
adopt a woodlands tradition that is no longer workable in
most cases, she cannot carry into her adult present the
life that made her childhood secure. June cannot reconcile
her past with her present in life. Only in her death does
June finally feel comfortable with her past and her
present; she feels secure, solitary, and she has a

Lipsha shows some promise because he has the power to heal.
It is apparent in the section "Love Medicine" that Lipshais
is not yet a mature caretaker of his power. He dares to try
to work the potent love medicine that would revive the
passion between Marie and Nector, but when that ancient
prescription proves too difficult to follow, he improvises
and bungles. His toying with tradition has serio-comic
consequences, when it results in Nector's demise. Lipsha's
growth begins after Nector's death, when two old women
inspire him to search for his place in the scheme of
things. First Lulu offers Lipsha significant information
about his heritage and teaches him how to cheat at cards.
Then by broadly hinting that Lipsha should help himself to
her savings, Marie provides the means for the journey to
the present trials he needs to overcome if he is to
progress. With the help of his trickster father, Lipsha
gambles for his just inheritance and wins the car that his
half-brother King bought with June's insurance money. 

Traditionally, the new culture hero returns home with
prizes and uses them to gain recognition from the tribe.
Lipsha's great prize is his awareness of himself, his sense
of belonging and of being a real person. His triumph,
however, is internal. It consists of being a man who will
never be trapped by rituals exclusive to men and who has
the capacity of reconciling his present with his past. 

Erdrich forces the reader to peer into the breach that
separates two ways of viewing the world and human
experience. Rather than showing readers a civilization in
decline, Erdrich offers a vision of a culture that
continues to evolve. Even as she posits that the old
gender-based rituals of hunter and warrior are no longer
fulfilling, she draws upon the rich tradition of folklore
and vision to offer characters a promising context for
growth. When characters call uon tradition to guide their
lives, they reconcile the distant and recent past with the
present. Erdrich places great value in experience with
emphasis on rituals and roles that are not gender-based.
Characters trapped in or between gender-based roles are
unfulfilled. Those who take advantage of the fluidity
between past and present are free enough to incorporate it
into their experience rituals complementing the
gender-based behavior that is expected of them will survive
and even triumph.


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