1 - June Kashpaw
June Kashpaw is in Williston, North Dakota, on the Saturday before Easter. She walks into the Rigger Bar after seeing an intriguing man sitting near its window. The man orders June a beer and peels colored eggs for her to eat. June has no money left, except her funds for a bus ticket back to her reservation, and she decides to forgo the bus in favor of spending time with this man. He introduces himself as Andy, a mud engineer.
Andy and June leave the first bar and go to another one down the street. June goes to the bathroom. She is uncomfortable in her itchy ripped shirt, which she has hidden under a jacket from her son, King. She hopes that this man will be "different," but after a transcendent moment, she realizes that even if he is not, she will still manage to "get through this again."
The man and June drive out of town. He stops on a country road, turns on the heat, and begins to undress her. Yet before they can have sex, he falls asleep. June extricates herself from the car and begins to walk home. A heavy snowstorm falls as she is walking across open ranchland.
Albertine Johnson narrates this chapter in the first person. At the time of the narration, she is a young medical student in Fargo. She receives a letter from her mother Zelda, and learns in this way that June went missing in a storm and has died. Albertine is upset that her mother didn't tell her sooner: the letter arrived a week after June's death. Although Albertine's mother claims she did not want to disturb her daughter's studies, Albertine was very close to June, who was a good aunt to her. Upset, Albertine goes and lies on a patch of grass at her university and thinks about her dead aunt.
Two months later, Albertine decides to go home to see her mother, even though these two women don't get along very well. She pulls up to the family home, which once belonged to her grandparents but is now maintained by Albertine's aunt Aurelia. Aurelia and Zelda are at home making pies and greet Albertine.
Soon King, June's son, pulls up in his car. His wife Lynette and his son King Junior are with him, along with Grandma and Grandpa Kashpaw (Marie and Nector). Not all is well with these new guests: Grandpa exhibits memory loss and is clearly aging. King is also verbally abusive to Lynette.
In the scenes that follow, the reader learns the story of the Kashpaw land: it was deeded by the government to Rushes Bear, Grandpa Nector's mother, when allotments were being distributed. Eli and Nector were too young to receive allotments, so while their siblings all moved to Montana or wherever they received land, the two youngest stayed on their reservation. Nector went to government school and Eli was kept home. Albertine tries to get Grandpa Nector to tell her about his life, including his past political activism, but his mind has clearly deteriorated.
Inside the house, Grandma Marie tells a story about Aurelia, Zelda, and their brother Gordie, who all tried to hang June when they were young. The family reflects on June's life, and it is established that King's new car was bought with June's life insurance money.
Gordie Kashpaw, who is Albertine's uncle, King's father, and June's ex-husband, arrives. He is very drunk. Zelda, Aurelia, and Grandma Marie go off to see June's grave. They tell Albertine not to let Gordie, Eli, and Nector eat the pies, which they are saving for the next day.
Lipsha Morrissey arrives; he was raised by Grandma, and his mother is June, though he isn't aware of this fact. The conversation among the men turns to hunting and fishing: King talks about skinning and eating a skunk, then gives Eli his "World's Greatest Fisherman" hat, since Eli says that he has caught a bigger trout than King ever did. Soon after, King and Lynette begin to argue, spurred on by the traded hat, which Lynette had bought for King. Lynette locks herself in the car while King, now drunk and sick with grief over his mother, screams at Lynette and smashes the car.
Lipsha and Albertine escape the scene after King, Lynette, and King Junior drive off. The two cousins go and sit in the cold and wet wheat field. They lie there in awe as the Northern Lights color the skies above them.
Lipsha and Albertine are still in the field. They talk about how crazy King is. Albertine wants to tell Lipsha that June is his mother, but before she can, Lipsha says that he could never forgive his mother - whoever she is - for abandoning him. He says that she tried to drown him. Albertine falls asleep as they talk.
Lipsha and Albertine return to the house after hearing clanging metal. They find King trying to drown Lynette while she fights back by knocking cutlery and plates around. They pull him off her and discover that all the pies are smashed. Albertine is very angry. King and Lynette head outside and have sex in the car, and Albertine tries to put the pies back together as best as she can.
The first of the four parts of this chapter centers on June Kashpaw, a down-on-her-luck middle-aged Chippewa woman whose mysterious death sets off the actions and memories that structure the novel. She dies the day before Easter Sunday (or, if her death occurred past the middle of the night, on Easter Sunday itself). This is a fitting symbol, since June dies on the day of Christ's resurrection and comes from a deeply Catholic family. The man she meets in the bar, Andy, feeds her egg after egg: oddly fitting symbols of rebirth on the eve of her death.
The chapter is delivered in a third-person limited point of view. The reader has full access to June's thoughts, and it is clear that June is a woman who has suffered deep psychological damage. She carries her doorknob with her, since doing so is the only way for her to lock her room; she feels brittle and fragile sensations on her skin yet also feels pure and naked inside. Her introspective thoughts contrast with her rough actions: she drinks to the point of intoxication and almost has sex with Andy, a man she has just met. Neither event seems to disconcert her: it is clear that these are all natural parts of her life.
The imagery of religion and rebirth in June's section culminates with her death. She decides to walk home to her reservation, and when she exits the warm car, she falls out: Into the cold. It was a shock like being born." She walks across the cold, slushy ranchland in thin boots. Her feet grow cold and then numb, but she feels competent navigating the snow and knows what direction to take. Nonetheless, she walks into the storm, into what the reader visualizes as a dark whiteness, perhaps heralding her death from hypothermia even before it occurs.
As the narrator notes at the end of this section, "the snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home." The apparent religious imagery again references the fact that June's death occurred on or near Easter. It is also clear from the beginning of the next section that June never made it home, but died out in the fields during the storm. If she "came home" at all, it was only a Christian homecoming that brought her into the world beyond.
The second, third, and fourth sections of the chapter deal with the aftermath of June's death: her family gathers on a rural Native American reservation in North Dakota. Albertine narrates these three sections in the first person. Here, the theme of family relationships becomes prominent, particularly relationships involving mothers and their children. Albertine has a difficult relationship with her mother Zelda, yet has never turned away from Zelda completely and continues to try to connect with her mother. In contrast, June's two children have been damaged by her negligent parenting: her son King, whom she left with her ex-husband Gordie after their marriage collapsed, has grown into an abusive and alcoholic husband. Her son Lipsha, whom she abandoned when he was a baby, does not even know that she is his mother. He expresses anger at whoever his mother may be and says that he will never forgive her. This power of relationships between parents and children will be a consistent theme of Love Medicine, and by introducing such tempestuous relationships in the first chapter, Erdrich indicates the central role of such bonds in her novel.