Louise Erdrich

Love Medicine

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Love Medicine Summary

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Louise Erdrich’s 1984 debut novel Love Medicine covers a half century in the lives of a number of Chippewa on an Ojibwa reservation in North Dakota. It is possible that the reservation is based on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. The winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Love Medicine is a novel made up of a series of short stories that cover the years 1934 through 1984. Each of the book’s chapters has a different character as narrator; most, but not all, are told from the first-person point of view. The narratives are conversational in nature, in an effort to capture the Native American cultural tradition of storytelling. While Ojibwa myths and culture are prevalent in the novel, Euro-Indian and Euro-American cultural influences are also present in the multigenerational storylines. At the start of the story June Morrissey freezes to death as she is returning home to the reservation. This takes place in 1981, after which the time frame reverts to her early years and generally progresses in a chronological sequence.

At the time of June’s death, her family comes to her funeral. Albertine Kashpaw arrives after the others, as her mother had withheld news of June’s death for fear of interrupting Albertine’s studies. King is June’s son; he arrives with his wife Lynette and a baby boy they neglect. When Albertine’s cousin Lipsha arrives, also late, they observe the Northern Lights. The next stories in the collection center on a young girl named Marie who plans to enter a local convent. Sister Leopolda, her sponsor, acts violently towards her. The two even have a physical confrontation in which Marie gets a scar on her hand resembling stigmata, or a representation of Christ’s crucifixion wounds. Marie later flees the convent and meets Nector Kashpaw, with whom she has a physical relationship. They fall in love and marry.

When Nector falls in love with Marie, he rejects Lulu Lamartine, who then takes up residence with the local medicine man, the reclusive Moses Pillager. Moses is mysterious and not very accessible, but they fall in love and eventually have a child. As the book continues, Marie thinks back to the time when June was young and came to live with her. June was found in the woods after the death of her mother. She was starving when Marie took her in and cared for her. As time went on, June went to live with Eli, Nector’s brother.

Lulu becomes more of a focus in subsequent sections. After leaving Moses and marrying a man named Morrissey, Lulu eventually marries Henry Lamartine. Henry later dies in an accident that might have been a suicide. Lulu also has an affair with Henry’s brother, Beverly Lamartine, with whom she has a child. Many years later, Beverly returns to claim his son and falls in love with Lulu. The life shared by Marie and Nector is discussed in the chapters that follow. Nector considers his long marriage to Marie and has an affair with Lulu during a period of midlife crisis. When he learns from Lulu that she plans to marry Beverly, Nector burns down Lulu’s house and writes a letter to Marie telling her he is leaving her to be with Lulu. Marie has a last interaction with Sister Leopolda then goes home and finds the letter, but she tells Nector that she never found it, and he ends up staying with her.

Two sections then tell the story of two of Lulu’s sons, the half-brothers Henry Junior and Lyman. They were close while growing up but after Henry served in Vietnam, he returned as an alcoholic, unhappy version of the man he had been. Lyman tries to help Henry but is unsuccessful and Henry ends up drowning. Additional stories tell of Albertine’s summer working at a weighing station for trucks with the wife of a local criminal; of June’s former husband Gordie Kashpaw and the depression he falls into after June’s death; and of Lipsha, a healer to whom Marie turns with the hope of finding a love potion that will stop Nector from seeing Lulu and make him stay faithful to Marie. Ironically, Nector chokes to death while eating the heart of a turkey that was supposed to be part of the love potion. Later in the novel, the reader encounters the story of Lulu’s various love interests of all the children she has had. Many years after Nector burned her house down, he and Lulu revive their affair at a retirement home. When Nector dies during surgery, Marie and Lulu develop a connection when the former becomes her one-time rival’s caregiver.

The ending of the book finds Lipsha looking for his father, having just found out that he is the son of June and Gerry (who is Lulu’s son). Lipsha goes to the Twin Cities, having had a premonition that Gerry will escape from prison there. After narrowly avoiding an altercation with police, Gerry, hiding in Lipsha’s trunk, is taken to the border of Canada, leaving Lipsha feeling at least some comfort with his exploration of his heritage.