Boundary Rivers and Shades of Meaning: Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine
Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine is boldly unconventional: within the first ten pages, we read that June Morrisey-Kashpaw, one of the novel’s main characters, walks into a raging snowstorm and loses her life. The understanding is that she would rather brave the snow than spend the night with the stranger she met at a small-town bar. But perhaps this bone-chilling wind of death is simply setting the stage for Erdrich’s dark magical realism: “The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home.” In describing her death as such, Erdrich introduces a slippery, two-sided water image which recurs throughout the novel.
For those who grew up in the Native Chippewa communities across North Dakota, the suffering depicted in Erdrich’s novel is nothing new. The snowy wilderness where the story is set was long ago colonized and taken away from its native dwellers. As America was becoming an empire, the white man’s religion, government, language, and way of life slowly choked out Native culture. Love Medicine tells the story of two Chippewa families—the freedom that was taken away from them, the structures of power that changed their lives, and the intergenerational trauma that continues from the pain of institutionalized dehumanization. Through their stories, Erdrich argues that “right and wrong were shades of meaning, not two sides of a coin.”
In one particularly moving scene, Erdrich describes the desperate prayer of June’s father, Grandpa Kashpaw, “shreak[ing] to heaven, plead[ing] like a movie actor and pound[ing] his chest like Tarzan in the [Hail Mary’s] Lord I Am Not Worthies.” Lipsha, June’s son, cannot understand why Grandpa would hurt himself in order to make himself known to the above; in response, his grandfather says, “God don’t hear me otherwise.” How was it possible that the God of the Christians allowed such widespread discrimination? Did God ordain the suffering of North Dakota’s first peoples? “Even now,” says Lipsha, “I have to wonder if Higher Power turned it back, if we had to yell, or if we just don’t speak its language.”
Lipsha’s criticism of Christianity reflects a large and contentious history. The hellfire promised for Natives in Catholic theology burns into the structures and subconscious of Native communities, imposing a European standard of spirituality for the community. It tortures characters like young Marie, who becomes caught at the space between the white culture surrounding her and the Native community to which she is connected by blood. Religion scars even her body: Marie’s mother abuses her own daughter under the guise of being her Catholic educator: “Reach,” Leopolda directs Marie to a hot oven, “Reach with your arm for that cup. And when your flesh is hot, remember that the flames you feel are only one fraction of the heat you will feel in his hellish embrace.”
The cruelty and ill will borne towards the Chippewa not only splinters the community away from mainstream society, but also crushes its core. Erdrich does not shy away from relating the brokenness within—the sexual abuse, the alcoholism, the cycles of death and violence. Yet between the harsh reality at the junction of two cultures vying for dominance lies a river—a river that flows peacefully towards a better tomorrow, despite the pain of today.
The emotional water imagery provides relief from the fiery conflict between tribes and families. Often water represents death—death by drowning into the next world. But the water that restores flows from the river which reaches evermore for the silver lining in those grey North Dakota skies. By the end of the story, Lipsha is able to drive across the river without fear. “I’d heard that this river was the last of an ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the Dakotas and solved all our problems,” he reminisces in memory of his grandparents, “but the truth is that we live on dry land… So there was nothing to do but cross the water and bring her [June] home.”
There is indeed pain in collective forgetting and broken dreams, but there is hope when one reclaims their identity and perseveres anyway—hope that one’s legacy will not be forgotten. Because no one—no matter how powerful, cruel, or forceful—can ever take away their Chippewa identity. Their people. Their love-medicine. Nobel laureate and author of Beloved, Toni Morrison, aptly explains that the “beauty of Love Medicine saves us from being completely devastated by its power.” And it’s true: Erdrich’s novel writes from the river between two lands and two conflicts, and the importance of easing the tension with tolerance. In navigating the space between two ways of life, bearing witness to the power of oppression and the love which combats it, Love Medicine points to our common humanity and challenges readers to consider the flowing waters, the dark undercurrents, and the barriers erected by society which continue to divide us from ourselves.
About the author: Camilo is an artist from Houston, Texas. You can find him at the water's edge with a mug of coffee in hand.