Throughout the novel, Erdrich subverts the idea that Indians must assimilate in order to be part of American life. She creates characters who live out traditional values daily. For example, Lulu’s decision to promote traditional culture late in life does not come at the expense of her owning a new Chevy or wearing tight, fashionable clothes. She does not conform to the stereotype of Indians rediscovering their identity through wearing traditional garments or rigidly exhibiting traditional behavior. Instead, Lulu promotes traditional culture within a modern context.
The Chippewa Indians in Love Medicine have not lost their tribal identity, as a non-Indian reader might expect based on historical treatment and modern-day circumstances. Lulu and Nector both were sent to government boarding schools off the reservation, in a practice that was prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet both of these major characters return to the reservation rather than embracing the western Christian lifestyle that has been drilled into them, often through corporal punishment. The lasting effect of their education was not assimilation, but a desire to raise large families that, while involved in American life, also kept their traditional ways intact.
Marie also undergoes a transformation. She looks white and aspires to life with the nuns; she seems, thus, to reject her tribal heritage. Yet by the end of the novel she has fully embraced Chippewa life, so much so that Lyman considers her one of the “traditionals.” She speaks the Chippewa language frequently, partly motivated by her observations of how the BIA and Catholicism have failed her children. To create a good future for her children, she connects with her cultural past.
In apparent contrast to these two women, Lyman appears to have fully assimilated and “sold out.” He works for the BIA and owns a factory that produces high-quality Chippewa trinkets. When his factory fails, he forms a new plan that does not involve exploiting his heritage. He decides to open a casino, which is oddly in line with traditional chance-based Chippewa culture and which will use the laws of the federal government to the advantage of Lyman's community for the first time.
Erdrich situates Love Medicine in a unique temporal landscape, where the years she writes about and thus the ages of her characters change chapter by chapter. The reader knows all the elderly characters from the events of their youths, but learning more about these characters is anything but simple. Since the chapters of Love Medicine do not follow a linear temporal pattern, the reader gains new knowledge about the characters in a purposely scattered fashion as the book progresses. Erdrich may introduce a major female character as an old woman, only to jump to her life as a teenager, as in the case of Marie.
Moreover, chapters are often paired with each other, telling the same story from different points of view. To take but one example, we meet Henry when he has sex with Albertine in "A Bridge." So far, we know that he is a damaged veteran recently returned from Vietnam, where he was a prisoner of war. In the next chapter "The Red Convertible," Henry's brother Lyman describes him both before he went into combat and in the year after he came home.
A similar effect occurs in the paired Nector and Marie chapters, "The Plunge of the Brave" and "Flesh and Blood." The temporal landscapes and perspectives of the chapters are nested within each other. Through her fluid treatment of time, Erdrich shows the universal nature of many of the events she depicts as well as their potential for endless interpretation.
Water plays a prominent role in many of the events that occur in Love Medicine. In her last moments, June walks across snow as if it were water. King tries to drown Lynette in the first chapter. Lulu crosses a lake to make her way to the home of Moses, her first lover. Marie metaphorically crosses water when she is giving birth. (In “The Beads,” Marie even uses a word from the old language, “Babaumawaebigowin,” which is spoken in a boat. She must let her body be “driven by the waves, like a boat to shore,” and only then can she give birth.) Nector describes himself as being swept by the currents of a river. After appearing in a painting called Plunge of the Brave, he vows that he will survive against “the raging water” because the world thinks he is just a doomed Indian. Later in life, he feels like time is a river that he has gotten caught in during his 17 years of marriage.
Water also plays a role in traditional Chippewa religion. Henry Junior dies of drowning, and Lulu worries that her troubled son's soul will never find rest, because according to Chippewa lore the drowned are doomed to wander the earth forever, never to pass to the next life. Though Lulu is not supposed to say the names of the dead, since doing so can bring them back as ghosts, she says Henry's name, hoping that if he is trapped between worlds he will know that he still has a home with her.
And at the end of the novel, Lipsha drives across a wide river to return home, bringing "her" - perhaps June, since he is driving the car bought with her insurance - home at last. The whole land of the Dakotas, Lipsha says, was once covered by a lake, and this river is the very last of it. If the lake were still there, it would cover all the problems of the individuals depicted in Love Medicine. But without it, at least they are alive.
Religion, especially Catholic Christ imagery, is a recurring force throughout the book. Gordie is presented in Christ-like terms, having created his own crown of thorns, as he puts it. His mother Marie even hopes that he will rise on the third day after a Lysol binge and be resurrected. When the young Marie goes to the Sacred Heart convent, Sister Leopolda pierces her hand with an iron and later pretends that Marie's wound is a spontaneous stigmata. In Love Medicine, the numerous references to drowning may also refer to Christian baptism.
The Chippewa have historically played games of chance in order to redistribute wealth and resolve quarrels. Chance is a central element in the events of Love Medicine. June takes a “chance” on Andy at the bar on the night she dies. Nector and Marie become acquainted and fall in love thanks to a chance encounter in which they literally run into each other, barreling down the hill from the convent. When Nector dumps Lulu for Marie, Lulu moves on in life by taking changes with love. Chance then brings Nector and Lulu together in middle age: their first encounter after years revolves around a broken truck, tubs of unrefrigerated butter, and the chance that will Lulu drive by in an air-conditioned car and that Nector will have the courage to talk to her.
The theme of chance is also linked to attempts to improve Chippewa life. At the end of the novel, Lyman figures out a way to use federal reservation laws to the tribe's advantage: he will open a casino and bring in people (and money) from hundreds of miles around. Best of all, gambling plays into the ancient Chippewa tradition of chance games. Thus, Lyman will use "luck and greed" to get ahead in the world, both for himself and for his community.
The figure of the trickster is prominent in Chippewa legend in the figure of Nanabozho. And true to tradition, trickster characters play important roles in Love Medicine. Gerry Nanapush, with a last name even similar to that of the original trickster, is the tribe's hero. He is a frequent jailbreaker with a good sense of humor about his own predicament. He enacts the role of the smart and sly hero, but in exchange he must live the life of a fugitive in order to escape his compounded jail sentences. Nevertheless, he is a hero to the tribe.
Lipsha is also a trickster figure, as becomes evident in the goose-heart incident. He tries to perform love medicine but completely botches the attempt, each step hilariously amplifying his failure. First, he picks a goose heart for Marie and Nector to eat, because he thinks that geese mate for life. He is wrong here: though geese may form life-long partnerships, 40% of male geese raise children that are not theirs - a situation that, ironically, resembles the divided loyalties of Lipsha's elders. Then, when Lipsha fails to shoot a goose, he uses store-bought turkey instead. He tries to get a priest or a nun to bless the turkey heart, but fails at this as well. By the time the "love medicine" is served to Nector, who ends up choking and dying, it is clear that Lipsha has taken on the role of a trickster, perhaps by accident. Beyond this, Lipsha has a trickster-like gambling skill that he learned from Lulu, herself a trickster who is legendary for her sexual adventures and her card crimping.
Albertine is also an inadvertent trickster. When she lies on her back at night looking at the northern lights with Lipsha, she has a feeling of oneness with the universe. According to Chippewa lore, Nanabozho is supposed to have felt this same oneness.
Survival in different contexts is an important theme in Love Medicine. Most of the characters are survivors, in one sense or another, though conditions of survival have changed. Rushes Bear, old Nanapush, Eli, and Moses come from a time of epidemics and government land claims. Lulu, Nector, and Marie come from the era of institutionalization of Indian children through government schools and churches, a process intended to remove these young people from their cultural heritage and force them to assimilate. The youngest generation survives in different ways: Gerry is a political activist, Albertine is only half Indian but is being raised in full sight of her heritage, Lipsha embraces his traditional healing powers, and Lyman’s casino plans preserve the heritage of “games of chance." The circumstances that the characters must live through are different, and each of their stories presents a different set of survival tactics and a different perspective on survival.
Love Medicine Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Love Medicine is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.