National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
Love Medicine

Love Medicine

by Louise Erdrich

To be mixed blood is great for a writer. I have one foot on tribal lands and one foot in ordinary middle-class life.


Louise Erdrich (Photo by Persia Erdrich, courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers)

Excerpts of Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. Copyright © 1984 by Louise Erdrich, used with permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read...

Irene Bedard reads from Love Medicine...

The morning before Easter Sunday, June Kashpaw was walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota, killing time before the noon bus arrived that would take her home. She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved. Probably it was the way she moved, easy as a young girl on slim hard legs, that caught the eye of the man who rapped at her from inside the window of the Rigger Bar. He looked familiar, like a lot of people looked familiar to her. She had seen so many come and go. He hooked his arm, inviting her to enter, and she did so without hesitation, thinking only that she might tip down one or two with him and then get her bags to meet the bus. […]

Although the day was overcast, the snow itself reflected such light that she was momentarily blinded. It was like going underwater. He ordered a beer for her, a Blue Ribbon, saying she deserved a prize for being the best thing he'd seen for days.

Reed: That's actress Irene Bedard reading from the opening passages of Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine. Welcome to The Big Read—a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature. I'm your host, Josephine Reed. Today, we're talking about Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich—a portrait of two multigenerational Chippewa families struggling to cope on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota.

Amy Tan: Love Medicine is a collection of stories surrounding a community of people. And they happen to be Native Americans, five generations of family. They are united by secrets and tragedies, as well as a kind of love that goes through misunderstanding and through history and through sometimes violence, anger, grudges…

Howard Bass: In essence it's a story of love and time, and a story of how people hurt each other and sometimes how people can help each other heal.

Tony Fitzpatrick: In Love Medicine, there are a great many people to keep track of, and each of them leads us into this marvelous spiral into the book's heart.

Laura Waterman Wittstock: It's about a storm that comes into an area and it's there for five generations. You don't know how the storm is gonna lift, but there is optimism as well as defeat through this book of characters who tell their own stories.

Reed: When Love Medicine appeared in 1984, it represented a new chapter in Native American literature. The story begins with June Kashpaw, whose death in the opening chapter haunts this book. Moving from man to man, tired beyond her years, June abandons her latest one-night stand as he sleeps in his car on the cold North Dakota plains. She stands alone under the night sky and begins to walk.

Irene Bedard reads from Love Medicine...

She had walked far enough to see the dull orange glow, the canopy of low, lit clouds over Williston, when she decided to walk home instead of going back there. The wind was mild and wet. A Chinook wind, she told herself. She made a right turn off the road, walked up a drift frozen over a snow fence, and began to pick her way through the swirls of dead grass and icy crust of open ranchland. Her boots were thin. So she stepped on dry ground where she could and avoided the slush and rotten, gray banks. […] She crossed the wide fields swinging her purse, stepping carefully to keep her feet dry.

Even when it started to snow she did not lose her sense of direction. Her feet grew numb, but she did not worry about the distance. The heavy winds couldn't blow her off course. She continued. Even when her heart clenched and her skin turned crackling cold it didn't matter, because the pure and naked part of her went on.

The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home.

Louise Erdrich: The plot of the book is really two words; the plot is "going home."

Reed: Author, Louise Erdrich.

Erdrich: A woman who has seen everything and has really come to the very end of her despair begins to walk toward home, not knowing that she is going to pass into an Easter blizzard. And that the purest part of her is going to continue going home, no matter what is in her way.

Reed: Home is at the heart of Louise Erdrich's writing. She grew up in a small farm town, Wahpeton, North Dakota, the eldest of seven children. Her parents were both teachers.

Erdrich: My mother is French and Chippewa. That's the same as Ojibway or Anishinabe. And my father is German. And I didn't leave my hometown, Wahpeton except to go either to the Turtle Mountains or to my grandparents in Little Falls, Minnesota until I went east to Dartmouth College. And I think that sense of place was enormous for me. I took in so much of where I grew up. For me, that's the source of everything, is that part of the world.

Reed: To outsiders, that part of the world—the Northern Great Plains—can seem like a vast expanse of emptiness. To Louise, it's “sky-filled.”

Erdrich: Growing up in the Red River Valley where you really just have a flat-table land and horizon, and I grew up on the edge of town. To me, the changing landscape of the clouds was an enormous source of beauty. And it was never the same, always different.

Reed: Five hours northwest of Wahpeton is the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, where Erdrich's mother was raised and her grandfather served as Tribal Chairman. The Reservation is the setting for Love Medicine and inspiration for its vibrant cast of characters—most of whom Erdrich feels she hardly had to conjure.

Erdrich: Once I started writing about where I really came from, the characters began to find me. I didn't feel that I was inventing them. I felt that they were coming toward me revealing themselves almost impetuously and with sometimes very little of my own control. They wanted to tell their stories.

Tan: One day I was in Hawaii and I started reading this phenomenal book Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. And all of a sudden it was like electricity going through the top of my head and through my body because these were the kinds of stories that I was trying to write.

Reed: Novelist, Amy Tan.

Tan: This was about families and history and finding layers. Each of these voices was different. And they were voices of men and women and of different generations. And you would read this—I read this—and I thought, how does this writer know these things? You can't believe that there's a writer who can describe the world and people that way.

Bass: I'd read the book, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, probably not too long after it came out…

Reed: Howard Bass, cultural arts manager at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Bass: …and it was easy for me to get lost in her language because the descriptions are so beautiful and lyrical, even in the most harsh interactions between people. Her use of language is so exquisite.

Fitzpatrick: This book knocked me on my heels. I remember thinking that, as a young man growing up an Irish Roman Catholic, I'd never known anybody of Native American extraction.

Reed: Visual artist, Tony Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick: All of the then-called Indian world I knew of was, you know, what I'd seen on television or read in comics and in westerns, and this book was a revelation. The Kashpaws and the Lamartines were like other families. And, like most families, you know, love stirs the pot.

Reed: Erdrich's characterization of the women in these two Chippewa families made a deep impression on Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick: You know, I'd read a lot of Algren and a lot of Hemingway and a lot of Faulkner and this book introduced me to indelible women characters. And women seem to pay this price for freedom in this book and in this landscape.

Reed: For Fitzpatrick, June Kashpaw is one such woman. June Kashpaw is so beaten by life, she finally relinquishes it.

Fitzpatrick: You know, June's kind of not allowed to be free, so she keeps running away from on-again off-again marriage. And we're pulling for her, we envy her and, because of Louise's compassionate pen, we don't really ever judge her. You know, or at least I don't. She is one of those women who's kind of confined and chained by the hardscrabble place she comes from.

Wittstock: She was this magnificent woman, described with the long perfect legs and still beautiful after all those years.

Reed: Laura Waterman Wittstock has spent her career working with Native American organizations.

Wittstock: It seemed like she was the best that the reservation had to offer. And it had broken her and she did not have much to live for.

Reed: Howard Bass.

Bass: In Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich presents us with a mystery right from the beginning. How does June and her story play out in the rest of the book?

Reed: Amy Tan.

Tan: I think it's one of the remarkable things that Louise Erdrich has done is to take a character like June who is so murky, so self-destructive at the very beginning, introducing her and then making her the focal point of having so much that you don't know about her. Did she, in fact, walk across the snow with the idea that she would just disappear?

Blaeser: I think that she is one of the most complex, but intriguing characters.

Reed: Chippewa writer Kimberly Blaeser teaches Native American Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Blaeser: We have this character who is down on her luck, who would not strike us as being a character about whom so many people have such deep love and fascination, that she doesn't seem to be someone to look up to. But the wonder of Erdrich's writing is that she makes this entirely possible for us to hold her up as this significant, wonderful character. So she challenges certain kinds of preconceived ideas we might have about what makes good and bad in humanity.

Reed: Although June dies in the first chapter of Love Medicine, she remains a strong presence throughout the book as her family reflects on her life, death, and strange beginning. She was born June Morrisey. Marie Kashpaw is her adopted mother.

Irene Bedard reads from Love Medicine...

I didn't want June Morrissey when they first brought her to my house. But I ended up keeping her the way I would later end up keeping her son, Lipsha, when they brought him up the steps. I didn't want her because I had so many mouths I couldn't feed. I didn't want her because I had to pile the children in a cot at night. One of the babies slept in a drawer to the dresser. […] Sometimes we had nothing to eat but grease on bread.

Maybe it scared me, the feeling I might have for this one. I knew how it was to lose a child that got too special. I'd lost a boy. I had also lost a girl who would have almost been the age this poor stray was. […]

I looked at her. What I saw was starved bones, a shank of black strings, a piece of rag on her I wouldn't have used to wipe a pig. […]

So I took the girl. I kept her. It wasn't long before I would want to hold her against me tighter than any of the others.

Tan: Marie has a voice that is both very downhome and real and stubborn and, you know, the kind of person, if you met her you'd probably say, oh, she's kind of mean.

Reed: Amy Tan.

Tan: But at the same time, you end up knowing things about her life that you can forgive the things that are mean. She's so strong. She embodies so much of what has gone down through this family. So I love Marie for that because she is so imperfect, according to the ways that most people would judge her.

Reed: Louise Erdrich.

Erdrich: Marie has a kind of realistic view of herself and she has enormous powers of endurance.

Reed: Laura Waterman Wittstock.

Wittstock: She is the strong beacon for everyone. Marie is the character that makes us laugh and cry and feel some hope in this very hopeless landscape.

Reed: Howard Bass.

Bass: Marie, Marie, Star of the Sea. She is one of the shining lights in the story, despite dealing again and again with jealousy. Nector is not exactly the most faithful of husbands.

Reed: Marie endures much, including her husband Nector's long-lasting passionate affair with the irresistible Lulu. Tony Fitzpatrick and Kimberly Blaeser.

Fitzpatrick: Lulu's my favorite character in the book. Lulu is kind of unrepentantly herself and doesn't really think she has to pay for what other people regard as her transgressions.

Blaeser: She had a hunger, a passion, that came to her as young woman and that marked her. So we see the kind of moments where she lusts after different figures in the story and again, there is this really well-rendered animal quality to these encounters, but at the same time, in the same section, Erdrich will move that moment to another level so that it has something to do with spirit and has something to do with another kind of hunger. And so I think that shows us part of what drives Lulu.

Irene Bedard reads from Love Medicine...

No one ever understood my wild and secret ways. They used to say Lulu Lamartine was like a cat, loving no one, only purring to get what she wanted. But that's not true. I was in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms. Sometimes I'd look out on my yard and the green leaves would be glowing. I'd see the oil slick on the wing of a grackle. I'd hear the wind rushing, rolling, like the far-off sound of water ­ falls. Then I'd open my mouth wide, my ears wide, my heart, and I'd let everything inside.

And so when they tell you that I was heartless, a shameless man-chaser, don't ever forget this: I loved what I saw. And yes, it is true that I've done all the things they say. That's not what gets them. What aggravates them is I've never shed one solitary tear. I'm not sorry. That's unnatural. As we all know, a woman is supposed to cry.

Reed: Erdrich skillfully pairs strengths with weaknesses in all of her characters. Kimberly Blaeser.

Blaeser: We do have these characters who, on one hand, embody some quality that we could admire. At the very least we relate to it—sometimes it's a sense of strength. Other times it's a weakness, it's a loneliness, it's a hunger, it's a fear. And so all of those kinds of authentic human emotions and the qualities of character that we recognize in ourselves, in our relatives, in our family, in our friends, we can see. So these are very human characters.

Reed: You're listening to The Big Read, from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, we're discussing Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich.

Welcome back to The Big Read. Today, we're discussing Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich.

Nector Kashpaw is a formidable figure on the reservation—he's head of the tribal council. He's also Marie's husband and Lulu's lover.

Irene Bedard reads from Love Medicine...

He's a fine figure of a man, as Lamartine would say, with all his hair and half his teeth, a beak like a hawk, and cheeks like the blades of a hatchet. They put his picture on all the tourist guides to North Dakota and even copied his face for artistic paintings. I guess you could call him a monument all of himself.

Reed: Nector walks in white circles. He attended boarding school as a boy, where he learned to read and write. His brother Eli, on the other hand, was kept home on the Reservation and lives out in the woods in the old ways.

Kimberly Blaeser.

Blaeser: The two boys, Nector and Eli, one was kept at home and one was sent away. And I think that represents that difficulty in the tribal communities of how to respond to the situation they found themselves in not knowing where survival would lie. Would it lie with the education system? Would it lie with the traditional ways?

Reed: Tony Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick: One of the realizations Nector has is what white people think of Native Americans when he says that the only interesting Indian to them is the dead one falling backwards off a horse. So, he's not unaware of what the white world thinks of him and who he is culturally.

Reed: Erdrich's portrayal of these brothers' divergent experiences is rooted in a painful piece of native history.

Anton Treuer is Professor of Ojibway at Bemidji State University in Minnesota.

Treuer: Although today we think of education as an opportunity for people to learn things and better themselves, it was actually introduced to Native people as a way to take away from them what was Native about them. And so, people were removed from their homes, from their parents, people were severely punished for use of tribal languages, and people were sort of remade in the white man's image with devastating effects. In fact, most of the dysfunction in our Native communities today can be attributed to this purposeful disintegration of tribal custom.

Reed: Howard Bass.

Bass: The men in Love Medicine, for the most part, they're really hurting from the effects of colonization, defeat, being sent off to boarding schools, losing their language, losing their cultures and it's up to the women to hold things together in one way or another.

Reed: Gracing sad situations with gentle strokes of humor, Louise Erdrich strikes a delicate balance throughout Love Medicine.

Anton Treuer.

Treuer: Sometimes when you go through so much, what else can you do but laugh? And it's been a tool, I think, that is woven into the fabric of Ojibway culture, that is a tool of healing. And I think Louise's ability to touch on historical trauma in a creative and genuine way, and also to invoke and weave her narratives with Native humor is really one of the great accomplishments of her artistry.

Reed: Love medicine takes many forms in this story. Marie heals herself through the act of cleaning her floor, thereby restoring her dignity. Hers is a non-ritualistic healing. But one character in the story believes he has “the touch.” He is Marie's adopted grandson, Lipsha, a somewhat forgotten and wayward soul.

Louise Erdrich.

Erdrich: Lipsha has a touch for people and surprises himself by being able to heal people, and he knows not how it happens, but he knows that he can lose it by tampering with it, as he says.

Irene Bedard reads from Love Medicine...

...I got the touch. It's a thing you got to be born with. I got secrets in my hands that nobody ever knew to ask. Take Grandma Kashpaw with her tired veins all knotted up in her legs like clumps of blue snails. I take my fingers and I snap them on the knots. The medicine flows out of me. […]

But love medicines is not for the layman to handle. You don't just go out and get one without paying for it. Before you get one, even, you should go through one hell of a lot of mental condensation. You got to think it over. Choose the right one. You could really mess up your life grinding up the wrong little thing.

Erdrich: I have many, many people in my life, but there's nobody like Lipsha. There's no one with that combination of foolishness, wisdom, innocence—a person who always gets it wrong and somehow through his mistake gets it right. You know, he's been treated as though he's nothing. And so out of nothing he somehow transcends the sort of pompousness of humanity.

Tan: Part of this book, it makes you wonder about the qualities of love and what is better than the other, and who will stick by the people they love or are supposed to love.

Reed: Amy Tan.

Tan: These stories are so personal, so intimate, so specific to this community and yet there is so much about it that's universal.

Reed: Louise Erdrich tells the story of Love Medicine in many voices, young and old--Lipsha, Marie, Lulu, Nector, June. And she moves from one period of their lives to another. Under Erdrich's sure hand, these multiple perspectives come together into a singular narrative in the same way a talented seamstress can take pieces of cloth and create a glorious patchwork quilt.

Fitzpatrick: The stories are connected by spirit, by the happenings of these two families over time. And that's the great thing about it is that this is a book that constantly keeps revealing itself to us.

Blaeser: It's like sitting down at a family reunion, hearing stories that you had known pieces of over your life, and then to have, maybe in the same room, five different people who tell five different versions of that story until finally you begin to get a handle on not just what happened, but what it really might mean. So that what we ultimately end up with is a larger cycle of relatedness.

Erdrich: It probably mirrors a lot of the storytelling that was part of my upbringing.

Reed: Louise Erdrich.

Erdrich: And that's not some sort of, you know, we sat at the campfire and we heard these elders telling us stories from the past, no, I didn't have that. I wish I'd had that. I had sort of the casual, we're at my grandparents either on the reservation or here or there and we're kind of sneaking in, overhearing the things that the grown-ups say. And they're always laughing and they're ironic and they're teasing each other. So, that's why I think it was written this way. Because all these voices, you know, there was not one narrator who really had the inside on everybody. And I really liked that you could hear reflections of the other stories from different points of view. And I wanted to tell it that way.

Blaeser: These are haunting characters. They have elements that are, on one hand, so human and so terrible and, on other hand, so inspiring in their ability to survive, to—and I guess this is the key—to love beyond all of those tortures that we experience in our relationships with our families. They're a tangle of humanity that we recognize because that's how we live our lives.

Reed: Amy Tan.

Tan: I've given this book to many people. When I give it to writers I say this is a book that will open your eyes to what voice and story is all about. When I give it to somebody who is a reader and not necessarily, you know, wanting to write their own novel or short stories, I say this is a book that will cause you to fall in love with every single character and wonder about the connections in your own life.

Irene Bedard reads from Love Medicine...

The sun flared. I'd heard that this river was the last of an ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the Dakotas and solved all our problems. It was easy to still imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves, but the truth is we live on dry land. I got inside. The morning was clear. A good road led on. So there was nothing to do but cross the water and bring her home.

Reed: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Molly Murphy. Assistant producers were Adam Kampe, Pepper Smith and Liz Mehaffey. Readings from Love Medicine by Irene Bedard.

Excerpts of Traditional Music taken from the CD People of the Willows, arranged and performed by various artists, including Keith Bear, Gary Stroutos, Nellie Youpee and Jovino Santos Neto used courtesy of Makoche' Recording Company. Original sound effects by Brent Findley of Sonic Magic Studios, Culver City, California, and by Adam Johnson of Architect of Sound.

Special thanks to Elena See, and to our contributors: Howard Bass, Kimberly Blaeser, Tony Fitzpatrick, Amy Tan, Anton Treuer, Laura Waterman Wittstock, and, of course, Louise Erdrich.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm your host and executive producer, Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. For more information about The Big Read, go to www.neabigread.org. That's www.neabigread.org.

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