My first introduction to Louise Erdrich was through her novel The Round House, which garnered a fair amount of critical acclaim, and which I think someone recommended to me. My second discovery of her was through Plague of Doves, which I read for a book club where everyone HATED it and I couldn’t have had a more opposite view. Recently I decided to read Love Medicine, giving myself a third dose of Erdrich.
What I love most about her books is her prose and story structure. She writes these sentences that come out like poetry sometimes — simple, but clear and metaphorical. As for her structure, Erdrich tends to write from multiple points of view throughout her work, invoking many voices of a single family or tribe to describe intertwined events and relationships. The only downside of that approach is getting a little confused between all the characters. I made liberal use of the family tree that she provides in the beginning of Love Medicine to figure out who was connected to who else and how. (A warning that the rest of the post contains some spoilers):
Several of the stories that Erdrich tells through Love Medicine called to me, but one particularly skillful section was her description of Marie Lazarre’s childhood. Marie temporarily joins a convent, and encounters a terrifying, yet magnetic mentor who changes how she views herself and the church forever. She later develops into somewhat of a matriarch of the Kashpaw clan on the Chippewa reservation, and Erdrich describes a fascinating relationship between her and Lulu Lamartine, another powerful female figure on the reservation who is involved at times with Marie’s husband.
Throughout the novel weaves the character of June Morrissey, who passes away in the first few pages of the work. We see her character expanded and nuanced through the eyes of those who loved and fought with her. Using June’s story to shape the rest of the work is another example of how well Erdrich is tapped into structure and metaphor.
The way that Erdrich dealt with gender was also interesting to me, as the Chippewa women in her work were in some ways bound to similar stereotypes as other women — seen as the ones to cook and clean, subject to being cheated on by men, etc. However, the strong matriarchal perspective complicated those truths with others, and reminded me of matriarchal strength in other cultures, as in many black families for instance.
So, while the threads of the different characters were challenging to keep track of at times, I’m glad to have read and enjoyed another of Erdrich’s works. I also want to push myself to read other Native American authors, and not rely on the voice of a single woman from one particular tribe as THE perspective on American Indian culture, as we are want to do at times. I look forward to expanding my horizons along those lines.