Louise Erdrich’s first novel traces the intertwined stories of two families who live on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation: the more serious, conservative Kashpaws and the wilder, no-good Lamartines. The two families are linked by love, lust, marriage, adoption, hatred, jealousy, and tenderness; they’re split by pride, shotguns, Vietnam, and debt. The story is told through a series of interlinked narratives, each told from a different point of view (some first-person, some not), ranging backward and forward in time from about the 1930s through the 1980s, when the book was written. Teresa and I had both had this book on our lists for a long time, so we decided to make this one a joint review!
Jenny: I’m just going to jump right in and say I loved this book. Loved the characters, loved the humor and the bitterness, loved the writing. I want to reassure people right away that, at least for me, the technique of using interlinked stories didn’t feel disjointed or strange. Instead, I felt as if I was looking at a tapestry or a stained-glass window: there are different scenes, and you have to put in a little effort, but it’s clear they make up part of a larger whole. These families were entities, even though the members were very individual. I felt that the sense of clan was one of the strong points of the book: not overdone, but palpable.
Teresa: I thought the nonlinear structure was perfect for this book. It really made me focus on the characters—each chapter felt like a little character study. I think with a more traditional linear narrative, I would be more interested in who did what to whom and choosing up sides and deciding who to root for and against. This structure almost always kept me on the side of the character who was in the spotlight at the time.
I was actually a bit worried about how the whole notion of family and clan would be handled, having never read Erdrich before and not knowing much about her. The title made me think this might be one of those books where family love is the best medicine. Realizing that medicine would mean something different in American Indian cultures than in my own, I feared that it would be overly sentimental, but with a spiritual, other-worldly twist. I was delighted to see that this was not the case. As you say, the sense of clan is never overdone. The characters are haunted by one another, but that hauntedness brings as many complications as it does blessings. And the actual chapter that’s titled “Love Medicine” is particularly unsentimental!
Jenny: The word “haunted” is perfectly chosen. Sometimes those hauntings are literal — there are real ghosts in this book — but sometimes they are the ghosts of things the characters wish they had done, or relationships they wish they had, or ways they want to live. I felt that this novel was full of paths not taken and people who change in ways neither they nor their family could possibly expect. There’s Henry Jr., who comes back utterly different from Vietnam (“Crown of Thorns”), and Lulu Lamartine, who finally learns to weep from her oldest friend and enemy (“The Good Tears”). But you’re right. None of this is ever sentimental. Moving, often, but not sentimental.
One thing I found interesting was the picture of reservation life. Just to give one example, I’m used to seeing the courts and the police as being, generally, on my side. They may make mistakes, but they do justice. In this book, it’s clear that the system always and only brings trouble; if you’re face to face with The Man, from the sheriff to the IRS, it’s because there’s something bad coming your way. There’s unemployment, alcoholism, and government housing on one hand, and on the other is a sense of endless patience, of strength, and of wry fatalistic humor. I loved the portrait of the strong older Ojibwe women in particular, and the way they guided events.
Teresa: The depiction of reservation life really shows Erdrich’s strength as a writer. It would have been so easy for the injustice and the struggles to lead her to lecture her readers, but she never takes that route. She show us these characters’ lives, and we can see how governmental policies and tribal practices affect them, but the point doesn’t seem to be to convince readers that changes need to happen. I frequently find “issues novels” unconvincing because I feel like I’m being manipulated to think a certain way. I never felt that way here. At heart, this is a story about people, not about “issues.”
What surprised me more than anything here was the humor. I laughed out loud several times! “Saint Marie” and “Love Medicine” were especially hilarious, but I laughed quite a lot, often at moments where you’d think shock or anger would be the natural reaction. Somehow, though, Erdrich finds the ridiculousness in the situation and brings it right to the front. Truly stunning.
Jenny: Oh, the humor is woven throughout the book, but I don’t want to give the impression that it’s this big comedyfest. It made me cry as well as laugh, and there were places that did make me angry or shock me. What I loved best was the sense of connection. The main reason I read is to learn more about the human mind and heart, to understand other people better. This book did that so beautifully. I kept thinking as I read how astonishing it must have been to review this as Erdrich’s debut novel. There’s scarcely a foot put wrong here, hardly an awkward word. Iwill definitely be reading more of her work, and I’m so glad I read Love Medicine.