Her clothes were filled with safety pins and hidden tears
Last week I sat on the steps of a downtown pier, stalled in the summer sun, reading my 1989 paperback edition of Love Medicine. With its Washington Husky-purple cover and title blaring in giant Britannic Bold white font, the book must have appeared to the uninitiated like a pulp romance. Little did they know it was one of the most significant works of American fiction published in the 1980s, by an author who has become a national literary treasure.
Louise Erdrich squeezes the back of our neck and pushes our resisting head to look directly into the lives of Native Americans on a reservation—a part of North American culture about which most of us know very little, segregated as reservations are by politics, geography, contempt, and pity. And the reader does more than observe—she sees, hears, thinks, feels, loves, and suffers as Erdrich’s characters do, through fifty years and the countless episodes of heartbreak, laughter, rage, and grace.
Love Medicine opens in 1981 with the death of beautiful but broken June Kashpaw. June stumbles from a truck cab and runs from a stranger who calls her by another woman's name as he makes love to her. She sets out for her home on a North Dakota Chippewa reservation, following her instincts through a later winter storm. But her sharp survival skills, honed in a lifetime of living out-of-doors, cannot overpower the snowstorm or keep her warm in a pair of jeans and a thin jacket.
June’s death propels the narrative down a path of memories connecting two Chippewa familes—the Kashpaws and the Lamartines. Love Medicine is the first in Erdrich’s symphony of novels featuring characters from the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota, set in and around the reservation. Although she dies in the story’s opening scene, June’s spirit holds the narrative together. The thread of her life is woven through each character’s story.
The author uses a conversational first-person give the reader a sense of second skin with the characters. Mixed in are handful of third-person limited narratives that imbue the story with a lyrical, almost mythical tone.
The writing is gorgeous. The characters are so vividly rendered, you feel them in your blood.
She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved.
AH! Could there be a more perfect sentence?
She was a natural blond with birdlike legs and, true, no chin, but great blue snapping eyes.
Gordie had dark, round, eager face, creased and puckered from being stitched up after an accident. His face was like something valuable that was broken and put carefully back together.
Even as the characters speak directly to you, drawing you into their secret thoughts, shames and desires, Erdrich’s prose is like music, full of shifting tones and rhythms, crescendos and counterpoints.
Veils of love which was only hate petrified by longing--that was me.
So many things in the world have happened before. But it's like they never did. Every new thing that happens to a person, it's a first... In that night I felt expansion, as if the world was branching out in shoots and growing faster than the eye could see. I felt smallness, how the earth divided into bits and kept dividing. I felt stars.
There they were. And he was really loving her up good, boy, and she was going hell for leather. Sheets were flapping on the lines above and washcloths, pillowcases, shirts was also flying through the air, for they was trying to clear a place for themselves in a high-heaped but shallow laundry cart.
There is evil and mystery, as Marie Lazarre escapes the horror of the convent on the hill in the 1930s; Sister Leopolda’s fingers like a “bundle of broom straws, her eye sockets two deep lashless hollows in a taut skull” will haunt your dreams.
There are stories of betrayal: Nector Kashpaw turns away from his wife for the comfort of his first love, the easy, sensual Lulu Lamartine, mother of eight boys by eight fathers; June has an affair with tribal legend Gerry Nanapush, whose 6’3”, 250-pound frame cannot be contained by any prison, and leaves their son to be raised by the tribe as she had been.
You will ache for Henry’s future, wasted in the jungles of Vietnam and pray that Albertine, the first of her family to attend university, doesn’t waste hers. There is deep despair, as Gordie, wretched with alcohol, hallucinates the deer he has hit is his dead wife, June. He bundles the deer into the back seat of his car and the scene which unfolds is sickening and desperately sad.
And there is redemption and love, as tender and insightful Lipsha Morrisey, who isn’t aware until he is a grown man that June is his mother, finds a way to forgive and love the woman who cast him off; as Marie opens her home and heart to stray children; as two old women, enemies since childhood, come together in their final years.
It is challenging to keep straight the shared bloodlines and histories. I believe later editions contain a family tree of sorts. But Erdrich explains these connected lives in a way that you realize they are like the root system of an aspen tree—one tree, standing alone, is really part of a vast forest:
They moved in dance steps too intricate for the noninitiated eye to imitate or understand. Clearly they were of one soul. Handsome, rangy, wildly various, they were bound in total loyalty, not by oath, but by the simple, unquestioning belongingness of part of one organism.
Whatever its flaws, and apparently Erdrich found enough to revise the book and publish new editions in recent years, Love Medicine is the reason we read: to be shaken to our core by characters we hate to leave behind as we turn the final pages.