I noticed Louise Erdrich’s picture at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. during a visit last spring. She is an award-winning novelist and poet who wrote a book called Love Medicine. I expected this to be a simple, well-expressed rendition of love lost and found again, but Louise’s characters are Chippewa Indians living on a reservation, with lives and loves intertwined in complex and memorable ways.
Each chapter in Love Medicine tells a story from a different character’s perspective. While Aunt June dies in Chapter 1, her memory becomes a thread that joins many individual tales into a cohesive novel as people talk about June in the context of their own stories. Further, people return to tell stories at different stages in their lives. For example, near the beginning, a young Lulu speaks of her passion for Nector. In a later chapter, a mature married Lulu returns to tell of her torrid affair with Nector and her anger at him for accidentally burning her house down.
While the title Love Medicine implies failed love that can somehow be healed, very few of the stories end well. After a few hours of drinking and sex with a white man, Aunt June walks home through the snow in a cheap parka and a pink turtleneck torn at the waist. She doesn’t make it. In another story, Henry and Lyman buy a beautiful red car that becomes a symbol of their pride and success. Henry goes off to war. When he returns, his spirit is gone. Henry jumps into the river and disappears, and the car becomes a symbol of pain and loss for Lyman.
The stories are told with beautiful and lyrical references to nature. “The length of sky is just about the size of my ignorance. Pure and wide.” “The wind took my voice and I stood in a hollow of air.” “Time was rushing around me like water around a big wet rock.”
While most of the storytellers are resigned to a life of poverty, children, and sometimes despair, they speak of their fate as if it were what nature intended. There is no real sense of tragedy, but more an understanding that life offers both good and bad. Perhaps the word medicine in the title refers to the healing effect of accepting one’s fate and still feeling love no matter the circumstances.
Today, Louise owns Birchbark Books, a nonprofit publishing house that encourages local Native writers, their art, traditional medicine, and Native American jewelry.
A retired engineer, Ursula Wong writes about strong women. Her award-winning debut novel, Purple Trees, and her second novel, Amber Wolf, portray strong women struggling against impossible odds to claim a better life. Sign up for her popular Reaching Readers blog on her website: http://ursulawong.wordpress.com