Heck of a good book! I’ve read several of Erdrich’s novel’s and I think this is the best of the lot so far. I’ve read The Beet Queen (an 8.5 – 25 years ago?), The Painted Drum (a 6 – maybe 7 years ago?) and The Round House (an 8, earlier this year). But Love Medicine was Erdrich’s first novel and it got
attention winning the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984.
For the most part, the narrative is made up of a number of interwoven 1st person accounts about life, love and family on the very small Turtle Mountain Reservation in north central North Dakota, home to a small group of Chippewa (aka Ojibwa or Anishinaabe) including Erdrich.
The stories revolve around two large reservation families (and a few other persons) whose lives have tangled more than once. Thank goodness there’s a family tree online as well as in the book.
Except for the first one the stories are presented in generally chronological order from 1934 through 1982 with several being from one year then moving on to a later year.
In the opening story which is neither 1st person nor in chronological order, a woman named June Morrisey is drunk (again) and ends up dead in a blizzard. Her niece, Albertine Johnson in another city, tells the rest of June Nanapush Morrisey’s story and the background to much of the (contemporary) history – or at least what she knows, the way she knows it. More will be revealed. It turns out June is a part of the large Kashpaw clan from the nearby reservation.
The next stories are back up to 1934 to hear from Marie Lazarre and Nector Kashpaw who form the basis for a huge family feud – Nector may have married Marie but he loves Lulu Nanapush and they have a torrid 5-year affair. Lulu eventually married 4 times, but never to Nector. And she had 8 children – one by Nector.
Some scenes are replayed from the pov and/or understanding of another character – we get the affair from the perspective of Nector, Lulu and Marie. They each leave gaps but they each fill in holes which make for great “aha!” moments. The plot threads get kind of lost or convoluted in the telling but they straighten out as the story continues. And I think the twisted relationships of family issue is a huge theme (what is family?) along with love and tradition and Indian history including white intrusion.
The reservation setting felt very realistic. The light and occasional use of magical realism totally fits – imo – because of Cherokee religious ideas. Erdrich’s style is smooth and lyrical (rhythmic?) with wonderfully surprising metaphors using the environment and folklore as a base:
“He was fishing in the middle of Matchimanito. And there was big thoughts on his line,” (Kindle Locations 2859-2860).
“I saw the leaves of the poplars applaud high in wind.”
(Kindle Locations 864-865).
I’ve enjoyed some of Erdrich’s books more than others. My first was The Painted Drum (2005) and I wasn’t enthusiastic at all. But then came The Round House (2012) which I enjoyed quite a lot. Now the 20th Century Reading Group has picked Love Medicine and although this was Erdrich’s first novel, it’s the one I enjoy the most so far – I’ve added A Plague of Doves, a Pulitzer winner, to my reading list.