51 pages 1 hour read

Louise Erdrich

Love Medicine

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1984

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Summary and Study Guide


American author Louise Erdrich’s debut novel, Love Medicine, was first published in 1984 to critical acclaim. A bestseller and winner of the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the novel follows three generations of members from five Ojibwe families in Minnesota and North Dakota. Lyrical, metaphorical, and a complex exploration of oppression, joy, and family, the novel is both a record of history and an analysis of love. Blending the genres of historical fiction and literary fiction, Love Medicine is structured as a series of interconnected short stories that engage the reader in philosophical thought about the authoritative power of institutions and the power of the individual to embrace joy and resilience. Erdrich revised and published several versions of the novel.

Erdrich is the author of 28 books, including novels, poetry, fiction, children’s books, and non-fiction. Erdrich received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2021 for her novel The Night Watchman. An enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, a federally recognized Ojibwa tribe for Indigenous Americans of mixed heritage, Erdrich is considered one of the most influential writers of the Native American Renaissance.

Please be advised that Love Medicine depicts substance use, self-harm, and domestic violence.

Plot Summary

Love Medicine opens with June Morrisey’s final moments in 1981. June, an Indigenous American woman, bar hops with a stranger. They drive away together and when he falls asleep on top of her in the car, June walks into the night alone, but never makes it home.

Albertine Johnson, June’s cousin’s daughter, receives a letter from her mother Zelda informing her of June’s burial. Away studying medicine, Albertine resents her mother but begrudgingly returns to her family at the reservation for summer break. Albertine’s grandmother, Marie Lazarre, is a matriarchal figure for many people in their community. Marie is married to Nector Kashpaw, whose health is declining with age. Many of the men in the family have alcoholism, and many of the women in the family live with domestic abuse. Gathered together again to mourn June, years of conflict flare up.

The next story is set in 1934, and subsequent stories trace the formative family events that occur over the next several decades, appearing in near-chronological order. Marie’s formative adolescent experiences take place at the Sacred Heart Convent. Marie dreams of becoming a saint, to prove that an Indigenous American girl could be saintly. Her rivalry with Sister Leopolda becomes physical and Sister Leopolda knocks Marie out with a fire poker. When Marie comes to, the nuns are gathered around and praying to her like she truly is a saint. The feud with Sister Leopolda follows Marie into old age, culminating later in the book when Sister Leopolda is old and ill and Marie accepts that there are no losers or winners in their grudge.

At 15, Marie leaves the convent. She runs into Nector, then a teen from the reservation. Nector is one of the few kids from the reservation who attends public school. His brother Eli learns about the land and Nector helps Eli hunt geese whenever he can. Nector is determined to marry Lulu Lamartine, another girl from the reservation. However, when he suspects Marie of stealing from the convent, they engage in a physical scuffle that blooms into attraction. They marry, angering Nector’s mother Margaret, also known as Rushes Bear.

Margaret’s husband Kashpaw took Lulu in when Lulu was abandoned as a young girl. At first, Margaret resented Lulu’s presence. Margaret learns to appreciate Lulu when Nector marries Marie. The lonely Lulu becomes consumed by the image of her cousin Moses Pillager, who lives alone on an island near the reservation. Despite warnings of his odd and solitary ways, Lulu runs off to be with Moses and for a while, they live in love on the island. When Lulu becomes pregnant, she knows she cannot stay on the island forever.

By 1948, Marie has her own children and she struggles to make sure everyone has enough to eat. Nector drinks too much and is often away from home, but Marie is determined to make a stable life for her family. She takes in June Morrissey, who is remarkably quiet and withdrawn. One day, Marie stops her other children from hanging June from a noose during playtime. June accuses Marie of intervening in their fun. June leaves to live with Marie’s brother-in-law Eli. Meanwhile, Marie is pregnant again and Margaret comes to help. Margaret saves Marie’s life during her arduous birth and berates Nector for not taking better care of Marie. Through the pains of childbirth, motherhood, and dealing with unreliable men, Margaret and Marie realize that they have more in common than they thought. They become friends and allies.

By 1957, Lulu has long ago left Moses and has many sons by different men. Her most recent husband, Henry Lamartine, died in a car wreck. Beverly (Bev), Henry’s brother, is married to a white woman in the Twin Cities but is certain that Lulu’s son Henry Junior is his son. Determined to bring Henry Junior to live in his home, Bev returns to the reservation. Bev is impressed by how much Lulu’s sons adore her, and he falls in love with Lulu. Meanwhile, Nector struggles through an internal dilemma. Once full of promise, he found that job opportunities outside of the reservation came easily to him, even though some jobs conflicted with his conscience. When he marries Marie and grows his family, Nector finds work representing the tribe to the United States government. He falls in love with Lulu again, and they have a passionate affair. Nestor tries to leave Marie for Lulu, but Bev’s pursuit of Lulu interferes. Nector arranges for the Lamartine land on which Bev lives to be reclaimed by the reservation, but Lulu’s house is precious to her. When Nector goes to Lulu’s house intending to leave Marie, he accidentally burns down her house with a discarded lit cigarette.

Nector’s daughter Zelda finds his note to Marie, informing her of his love for Lulu and his desire to leave her. When Zelda gives Marie the note, Marie furiously cleans the house and contemplates Nector and his emotions. Zelda finds Nector and brings him home, but the near-separation haunts Nector and Marie for the rest of their marriage.

In 1973, Zelda’s daughter Albertine runs away. In Fargo, North Dakota, Albertine spots a man she recognizes as Indigenous American. She follows him around town until he finally approaches her. The man is Henry Lamartine Junior, returned home from the Vietnam War. He and Albertine drink together and he takes her to a motel. In the room, drunk, he starts having visions and rambles out loud, scaring Albertine. They have sex, but Albertine is confused and in the morning, he nearly attacks her. A year later, Henry Junior disappears into a river. His brother Lyman is an enterprising young man. Before Henry left for the war, he and Lyman purchased a beloved red convertible. When Henry comes back, hardened and depressed from the war, Lyman destroys the car so that Henry has something productive to focus on. Henry fixes the car and goes on a road trip with Lyman, but never comes back. While camping out next to a river, Henry threw himself in and waded away.

Albertine spends many years aimlessly, going from job to job. She befriends Gerry Nanapush, one of Lulu and Moses’s sons. Gerry’s pregnant girlfriend Dot resents Albertine at first, but the two women develop a friendship while working on the same construction site. Gerry escaped from prison, but whenever he is apprehended, he always manages to escape again. When police arrive at the hospital as Dot gives birth, Gerry runs away for a long time. He is eventually apprehended and is accused of killing a state trooper in the ensuing gunfight. He is incarcerated in another state, leaving Dot and their daughter to fend for themselves.

The narration catches up to 1981. Gordie, one of Marie’s sons, is devastated by June’s death. He and June had been in love once, and he drowns his grief in alcohol, convinced that her ghost is haunting him. One night, Gordie drives to town for more alcohol and hits a deer. He pulls the deer into his car to sell later, but the deer is still alive. He kills the deer and convinces himself that the deer is actually June. Gordie drives to Sacred Heart, begging for confession regarding his deceased wife. Sister Mary tries to help him but discovers that the corpse in his car is a deer. Marie tries to help Gordie with his depression, worried that he will harm himself.

Nector has become child-like in his old age, but he resumes his affair with Lulu. Lipsha Morrissey, Nector’s grandson and a healer, tries to fix Nector and Marie’s relationship with love medicine. The medicine requires goose hearts, but when his goose hunt fails, Lipsha buys two turkey hearts. He tries to get the Convent to bless the hearts, but they don’t take him seriously. Lipsha blesses the hearts himself and presents them to Nector and Marie raw. Marie devours hers, and forces Nector to eat his by clapping him on the back, inadvertently causing Nector to choke to death in Lipsha’s arms. Afterwards, Marie and Lulu are visited by Nector’s ghost. Lulu lives in a Senior Citizens home due to her declining eyesight, and when Marie volunteers to help there, they become friends.

By 1983, Lyman has taken over Nector’s job with the reservation. He is Nector’s son with Lulu, a fact that is known but unspoken. He restarts Nector’s plan to establish a factory on the reservation that would employ the community to produce souvenirs of Indigenous American artifacts. Despite community opposition, the factory is created and jobs are distributed. Marie and Lulu encourage the other employees at the factory, but Lyman overproduces and the factory quickly loses money. Stressed, he snaps at Marie one day. When he apologizes, Marie and Lulu argue and Marie finally names Nector as Lyman’s father. The two women start a fight that escalates into an all-out brawl among the employees. They destroy the factory and walk away with much of the goods. Dejected, Lyman beats Lipsha, whom he blames for starting the brawl, then meets with the other employees at the bar. He asks Marie about his father, and Marie calms him and dances with him. Lyman plans to turn the factory into a casino.

By 1985, King Kashpaw, Gordie and June’s son, lives away from the reservation with his wife Lynette, and his son, Howard. Lipsha Morrissey has recently learned that June and Gerry were his parents, and he visits King to find out more about Gerry. Gerry escapes from prison again and enters King’s apartment while he and Lipsha play cards. Gerry accuses King of testifying against him, and they play a card game, betting the car King bought with money from June’s death. Gerry wins but is accosted by police who followed him there. He escapes through the window, and Howard cries out to the police to arrest his father King for domestic abuse. Lipsha gets the car registration and keys from King and drives away. Knocking from the back makes him stop, and he opens the trunk to find Gerry, who took cover in the car. Lipsha drives his father to Canada, then drives to a river where he comes to terms with his past.

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