Warning: This review contains spoilers.
The second book in my Louise Erdrich Project is Love Medicine, her most famous novel, and the one that’s considered a modern classic. It tells the story of two Ojibwe families, the Kashpaws and the Lamartines, over three generations. I see it as a sort of roadmap to Erdrich’s world, since it introduces the North Dakota reservation that will become her default backdrop, and many characters who will appear in her later novels. But it’s obviously a lot more than that.
Love Medicine is powerful. I am at pains to describe how much. It is heavy with feeling, memory, metaphor. It was my third time reading it, and I still had to pause after each session to process the words. The specific love medicine of the title is made to save a romantic relationship, but the book mainly concerns itself with familial and tribal love. The point of the book is to paint the portrait of a people and place, so there isn’t much of an overarching story. Instead, Erdrich shows us how this love, based on family and community, gives one a sense of belonging and identity. She accomplishes this through a series of almost independent tales, snapshots of her characters’ lives. She opens with a family reunion after the death of a loved one, depicting the grief, the mundane, the unsaid. Later we meet the cuckold wife, the mistress, the adopted son searching for his place, the lost girl of mixed blood. The love they need is sometimes withheld, but it springs up again somewhere else, so that Love Medicine is both sad and uplifting, and always moving. Some buried recess in my chest aches when I read it. I can only imagine the effect it must have on Ojibwe readers, who would recognise the traditions, humour, and other references that are wasted on me. Erdrich presents the bond uniting her people with such tenderness and certainty that Love Medicine must be quite the love letter.
As for me, Love Medicine is one of the very few books that trigger fangirl reactions in me. I can’t detach it from its characters, to whom I felt attached from the start. I especially recognised Marie Kashpaw, as the idealised image I have of my own grandmothers. So headstrong she brings an entire congregation of nuns to their knees at age fourteen; snatches the first man she wants and shapes him into a pillar of his community; endures his cheating and drinking; raises a million kids. All of this with time left over for reflective potato-peeling and water metaphors. She is an old house that stands against the passage of time, with hardship adding cement to the edifice. When she goes toe to toe with the book’s other force of nature, Lulu Lamartine, it is a clash of titans, an anticipated final battle. The phrase “strong female character” gets thrown around so much it’s lost any meaning, but Marie Kashpaw gives it new life.
Going beyond the individual characters, what’s interesting about Love Medicine is their connection with each other. Each chapter both develops a character and links them to others. From the individual portraits a web emerges, which I became invested in following, almost compulsively. I thought it was just my OCD symptoms talking, but then I heard that many readers of Love Medicine feel compelled to draw family trees. So many readers, in fact, that Erdrich decided to add a family tree to the book to save everyone the trouble (it’s only in the American edition, unfortunately). Clearly, readers enjoy the intellectual effort required in keeping the characters and relationships in mind, and I think it contributes majorly to the book’s appeal. One thing I remember from studying fandom: a text is a lot more likely to become “cult”, to gain a loyal following, if it involves the audience in its storytelling. If it makes the storytelling a two-way process in some way. What Erdrich created here with her complex system of characters is the perfect recipe for turning readers into fans.
Because the book is so close to a short story collection, certain chapters stand out. “The Red Convertible” is so laden with injustice, and so charged with brotherly love, that it will leave you wrecked. “Scales” is a jewel, weaving an analogy of weight with tenderness and humour. “Crossing the Water” is also one of my favourites, mainly becomes it associates the imposing legend that is Gerry Nanapush with the soul-searching voice of his son Lipsha. I’m a bit in love with Gerry, his graceful and gentle bulk, his improbable ways of escaping from prison. And I identify with Lipsha, who’s desperately trying to be accepted and to belong somewhere. I can’t wait to read what I think of as his novel, The Bingo Palace.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Next in the project is The Beet Queen, which will feature Gerry’s wife, Dot. If “Scales” is anything to go by, she is both kind-hearted and aggressive- I can’t wait to get to know her.