NEA 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.

Introduction to the Book

Good writing means revising, and sometimes the process never ends. Since Love Medicine was initially released in 1984, several editions of the novel have been published. The 1993 version contained material not included originally, such as the stories “Lyman’s Luck” and “The Tomahawk Factory.”

Revisiting the book for the twenty-fifth anniversary edition, Erdrich felt that these two stories “interrupted the flow” of the novel’s final pages and chose not to include them. Erdrich explains in her author’s note at the end of the 2009 edition that she now understands she is “writing one long book in which the main chapters are also books” and that the characters in Love Medicine “live out their destinies” in her later work.

In a 1991 interview with Writer’s Digest, Erdrich noted, “People in [Native American] families make everything into a story … People just sit and the stories start coming, one after another. I suppose that when you grow up constantly hearing the stories rise, break, and fall, it gets into you somehow.” These storytelling techniques manifest themselves in Erdrich’s fiction through the distinct voices of her characters and her complex, layered storylines.

Structured as a novel-in-stories, Love Medicine spans the half-century from 1934 to 1984 in rural North Dakota. The book’s chapters are told from the perspective of several different narrators weaving together the lives of two Chippewa families. The novel is not a linear path through time. Instead, it begins in 1981, loops back to the 1930s, and then proceeds forward into the mid-1980s.

In the book’s opening pages June Kashpaw, a renegade and free spirit, freezes to death in a snowstorm. The book then looks back to the departure of June’s aunt Marie Lazarre from the Sacred Heart Convent in 1934. On Marie’s way home she meets Nector Kashpaw, who will eventually become her husband. Nector had been romantically involved with Lulu Nanapush, but his chance encounter with Marie changes all three lives and their families forever.

By allowing these characters and others to tell their own stories with varied voices and perspectives, Erdrich created both memorable individuals and a testament to the ways that family can bind us together.

Major Characters in the Book

Marie Lazarre Kashpaw
Marie claims to be “part-Indian,” although she was born into a family of French descent. She spends part of her youth in Catholic school, and eventually enters the Sacred Heart Convent.

I was ignorant. I was near age fourteen. The length of sky is just about the size of my ignorance.
—Marie Lazarre Kashpaw, in Love Medicine

Nector Kashpaw
Nector is a successful, educated tribal leader. He marries Marie, but in middle age he resumes a relationship with his old flame, Lulu. Years later Nector’s dementia requires that he and Marie move into senior housing, where Lulu also lives.

I never wanted much, and I needed even less, but what happened was that I got everything handed to me on a plate. It came from being a Kashpaw, I used to think. Our family was respected as the last hereditary leaders of this tribe.
—Nector Kashpaw, in Love Medicine

Lulu Nanapush Lamartine
“No one ever understood my wild and secret ways,” Lulu claims, by way of explaining her many love affairs. Despite her wandering eye, Lulu is a good mother, raising eight boys, and finally a girl, over many years.

You know Lulu Lamartine if you know life is made up of three kinds of people—those who live it, those afraid to, those in between. My mother is the first. She has no fear, and that’s what’s wrong with her.
—Lyman Lamartine, in Love Medicine

Lyman Lamartine
Lyman is the son of Lulu and Nector, conceived during her marriage to Henry Lamartine. After Lyman witnesses his brother’s death by drowning, he falls apart.

My one talent was I could always make money. I had a touch for it, unusual in a Chippewa.
—Lyman Lamartine, in Love Medicine

Lipsha Morrissey
Lipsha is blessed (or cursed) with “the touch,” the gift of healing. He was raised by Marie Lazarre Kashpaw, whom he thinks of as his grandmother, but resists learning his birth mother’s identity.

I know the tricks of mind and body inside out without ever having trained for it, because 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…. The medicine flows out of me. The touch.
—Lipsha Morrissey, in Love Medicine

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