Trigger warning for rape and suicide.
I am continuing my out-of-order dive into Louise Erdrich’s collections of interlinked stories featuring characters on an Ojibwe/Chippewa reservation somewhere in the Dakotas. Love Medicine is one of the earliest of these; it includes stories originally published as far back as 1984. Several of the stories in this collection is, as the title hints, about love. But this collection also revolves around love’s darker implications: jealousy, grief, and unrequited love.
Love Medicine spans 1934 to 1985. Over the course of the novel, I saw two sides form up. On one side is the sprawling family of Lulu Nanapush. On the other is the equally sprawling, but more dysfunctional, family of Marie Lazarre Kashpaw. In between these two women is Nector Kashpaw. Nector was in love with Lulu before he literally bumped into Marie and, somehow, ended up married to her. Nector loves Lulu for the rest of his life. He also loves Marie. Marie loves him and is jealous of his love for Lulu. Lulu also loves Nector, but her love is more expansive than either Nector’s or Marie’s. This tangled, mostly unspoken web affects the original trio and appears to affect generations of their descendants.
The novel begins with a story that encapsulates much of the emotional range of the rest of Love Medicine. June Morrissey is traveling back to the reservation. The last of her money was spent on the bus ticket. At one of the stops, she meets a man and decides to have sex with him. After the act and the man suddenly falls asleep on her, June slips out of the warm truck and walks away into a snowy night. She ends up freezing to death. This first story shows us sexual need, a hint of addiction, and death by either misadventure or suicide. As the collection progresses, we see these actions and emotions repeated in variations.
In some stories, it seems as though characters were doomed because of their DNA or their parents’ sins. In others, we see characters wrestling deeply with grief for their lost loved ones. We also see a deeply broken culture—a recurrent theme in Erdrich’s novels. These characters have nothing to turn to when they have no idea what to do next. The local Catholic church is warped by brutal mysticism. No one knows the old ways anymore. So many of the characters are just following their emotional impulses. These emotions can be deadly; people drown in them. And, as one character tells us later in the collection, drowning is the worst death for a Chippewa.
Love Medicine is depressing. Though there are moments of humor to lighten things up, this collection is like having one’s face pressed up against a window to watch miserable people on the other side and not being able to look away for relief. The scholarly literature I read when I was helping students do research on The Round House has taught me that Love Medicine is an important book in the overall series. In the end, Love Medicine is a hard book to read but necessary, if one is to fully understand the world Erdrich created.