During a recent trip up to Massachusetts, Dan and I stopped at a place called the Book Mill. It is an old mill converted into a book and music store, cafe and performance space. It is full of creaky charm, overlooks a rushing stream and is filled with MA’s most literary hipsters and often, although we didn’t see them the day we were there, the area’s royal couple, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. It took me a little while to decide what I should purchase there; finally I landed on a book I’d been meaning to read for years, Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. I’d read her later work, Plague of Doves, and loved the writing but had some issues with the structure, so giving her most well-known work a shot seemed like a natural move. The copy I picked up at the Book Mill is the “new and expanded edition”–after reading it, I am happy I have this longer version because I could have kept reading this book forever.
I’m really late to the party with Love Medicine, I know–everyone else read it in the 90s. But, if it has been that long for you, I suggest picking up the book again. I know I will return to it. It is that good. Structurally, I found it very strange and yet the structure is one of its strongest suits–it propels the narrative as well as keeps the reader alert and working to keep track of where the story is going. The first chapter follows the lovely, downtrodden June, enacting her sad routine of drinking with a stranger and fucking in the back of a car. The chapter ends with her slipping out of the car and walking out into the backdrop of the book–the northern Plains. As she disappears into the frozen landscape, I felt hopeful for her future. In the next chapter, though, she was not my narrator anymore–her niece was now my guide and window into her and June’s extended family, gathering, in part, to remember June. Over the course of the rest of the novel, the chapters switch and alternate between the points of view of most members of this gathering, as well as members of several other interconnected Indian families.
One wonderful result of the book’s multitude of narrators is that, in certain cases, we are able to see the same event through different sets of eyes. In one of the most effective examples of this, it seems as though a character has a vision, a completely metaphorical memory that he describes in realistic terms. The reader assumes that what he sees he sees in his mind’s eye because it is would be impossible to see it for real–and the reader is not the only one–the character assumes this, too. Chapters later, when the event recurs yet we see it from a different angle, we realize that what the character was describing was, in fact, real, flesh and blood before him. There is, of course, a twist that I won’t give away but it is a chilling, powerful moment that could only be executed though a structure like Love Medicine‘s.
It is not only the sheer number of narrators that is incredible, but also the scope of the novel, with takes place over approximately fifty years. The Marie Lazarre who guides us through her horrifying, mystical experience as a young teenager tormented at a convent by an enigmatic, sadistic nun in one of the best chapters, “St. Marie,” is quite a different person than the middle aged Marie trying to keep her husband in line, than the elderly Marie, a wise yet trouble-making elder in the community. Ditto for Lulu Nanupush, my personal favorite character. Although she goes through dramatic changes over the course of the book, her first chapter, entitled “The Island,” sets her on her narrative course, a course which takes her through eight sons and a daughter, born to many, many different fathers. It also contains some of the most stunning writing in the novel, which is saying a lot because the writing is straight-through breathtaking. But, in on page 82 in “The Island,” we get this:
I was not immune, and I would not leave undamaged. To this day, I still hurt. I must have rolled in the beds of wild rose, for the tiny thorns–small, yellow–pierced my skin. Their poison is desire and it dissolved in my blood. The cats made me one of them–sleek and without mercy, avid, falling hungry upon the body. I want to grind men’s bones to drink in my night tea. I want to enter them the way their hot shadows fold into their bodies in full sunlight. I want to be their food, their harmful drink, to taste men like stilled jam at the back of my tongue.
As the story of these families goes on, we get chapters by many Lulu’s sons, by their fathers, too. We watch them fall into their fates, be damaged by the Vietnam War, intersect with other characters we’ve come to know, fall in love, out of it. The Vietnam War looms over this story and illuminates, as does the building of a souvenir factory on the reservation, the hard work of negotiating the relationship between Indians and the United States government, a government in so many ways the enemy, but unfortunately, in more than one way, a government that must be relied upon, too.
One of the characters in Love Medicine, by the end, emerges as a sort of center for the book: Lipsha Morrissey. He is given the final chapter, as well as the title chapter. His narrative voice is more direct than some of the other characters, which is an interesting juxtaposition with the fact that we, the readers, know more about him in some ways than he does himself since we, like many other characters in the book, are privy to information regarding his birth parents which he is not until the end. Lipsha is an outsider, something of a mystic, yet a bumbling one. I was surprised when I realized the book was settling around him, but I came to accept his centrality when it become clear that he was a thread that wove through all the novel’s families, that pulled them all into a circle by the end.
Recently, Louise Erdrich appeared on Bill Moyers to discuss her latest book, Shadow Tag. Moyers was clearly excited to have her on the show, but even more excited about her book–he kept asking questions and then talking over her, his face lit up with ideas, thrilled to share the themes, thoughts and realizations that had dawned on him while he read the book. At his praise and enthusiasm, Erdrich seemed overwhelmed–more than once her eyes filled with tears and she could barely look up from the table she was so touched. When she finally was able to get a word in, she explained how she is able to be so prolific, even with young children in the house. She said she has a “small, incremental, insect-like devotion to putting one word next to the next word. It’s a very dogged process. I make myself go upstairs, where I write, whenever I can. One thing about this is that I never have writers block…I just keep going.”
For this, we readers can be thankful. Love Medicine, even the expanded edition, eventually came to an end, but I have a whole backlog of Erdrich work to embark on now, and can surely look forward to more to come.