Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

I enjoyed this book, but I finished it still unsure of what actually happened in the story.

This was my first experience with the acclaimed Louise Erdrich, and she writes beautifully. I easily got lost in each chapter’s character and events; she creates a world, a culture, seemingly without effort and so completely. It was a lovely experience. This book is a series of vignettes, or character studies. Each chapter is told in first person by a different character, or even several different characters within a chapter, which to some extent added to my confusion; but they had pretty distinct voices. All the characters are related by blood, marriage, and/or life events, so there is a cohesion to the book as a whole; it’s not a collection or anything. But I’ll be honest. I sometimes lost track of how the characters were connected & who was who, exactly. Sometimes I flipped around trying to resolve things but mostly (especially as I moved further into the book) I just let myself float around a little bit confused. It worked for me this way. If you do a better job than I did of keeping things straight, I’m sure you’ll find a very enjoyable sum of all parts; but even if you take it in as I did, I think you’ll find a string of remarkable evocative stories.

The characters come from several families of Native Americans (American Indians? I’m not sure what’s correct) in North Dakota. The families overlap and merge, through marriage, the production of children both in and out of (and across) marriages; and in local politics and interactions. Their culture – as Native Americans on “the rez” as well as in each distinct, and indistinct, family unit – is one of the framing elements of the book, and I found the cultural examination very interesting. Their relationship with the “outside world” of white Americans was an important feature, too. Mostly, though, the stories feature relationships between our characters: mothers & children, spouses, lovers, aunts & uncles and neighbors. Love is a theme, and sex, and the question of parentage comes up rather frequently. There is lots of heavy drinking and battling with alcohol.

There is sadness in most of the stories, and death, but there is hope and such a great deal of humor, too. Erdrich succeeds in placing me in a place and a culture and making me feel what her characters are feeling. Her writing is beautiful, musical. And so often funny! I pulled a few passages for you that describe one of our matriarchs:

She agreed, taking alert nips of her perfectly covered slice. She had sprinkled a teaspoon of sugar over it, carefully distributing the grains. That was how she was. Even with eights boys her house was neat as a pin. The candy bowl on the table sat precisely on its doily. All her furniture was brushed and straightened. Her coffee table held a neat stack of Fate and True Adventure magazines. On her walls she’d hung matching framed portraits of poodles, kittens, and an elaborate embroidered portrait of Chief Joseph. Her windowsills were decorated with pincushions in the shapes of plump little hats and shoes.

“I make these.” She cupped a tiny blue sequined pump in her hand. “You have a girlfriend? I’ll give it to you. Here.”

…several pages later, still talking about the same woman:

Lulu was bustling about the kitchen in a calm, automatic frenzy. She seemed to fill pots with food by pointing at them and take things from the oven that she’d never put in. The table jumped to set itself. The pop foamed into glasses, and the milk sighed to the lip. The youngest boy, crushed in a high chair, watched eagerly while things placed themselves around him. Everyone sat down. Then the boys began to stuff themselves with a savage and astonishing efficient. Before Bev had cleaned his plate once, they’d had thirds, and by the time he looked up from dessert, they had melted through the walls. The youngest had levitated from his high chair and was sleeping out of sight.

See, isn’t that funny and evocative?

I found Love Medicine a unique and enjoyable read, if unorthodox in its structure. I recommend it.

For those who have read this book: did I space out somewhere, or did anyone else have trouble holding the family trees together? Does it matter?

3 Responses

  1. I’ve read a few of Erdrich’s stories and her most recent novel, Shadow Tag. She does write beautifully! I’ve had reading experiences like you describe… I wonder what I’ve missed, but still enjoy the writing and it just carries me along. The Plague of Doves is on my shelf, but hope to read Love Medicine soon, too.

  2. I read Erdrich’s most recent book and liked it, but I didn’t quite love it. I’m quite intrigued to read another one, and you’ve certainly piqued my curiosity with this review!

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