Love Medicine tells a multigenerational story that spans many decades, lives, marriages, loves, and deaths. It is an ambitious novel that both attempts to provide a widescreen view of life as it interconnects across blood and generations while simultaneously reserving the right to zoom into quiet moments that, while they may seem insignificant at the time, blossom in import as author Louise Erdrich scales back her view to reveal the intricate nature of her story. The novel centers around the two poles of the Kapshaws and the Larmartines, two families who live on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. These families are not made up of traditional nuclear units, and Erdrich must provide an intricate and looping family tree just so the reader understands who is related to whom.
Each chapter of Love Medicine presents itself as a short story, a common technique for a first novel. However, what separates Love Medicine from other novels who have taken the same approach is the way Erdrich utilizes the shifting point of view to provide a multifaceted view of characters and events. Most chapters are written from the first person and provide an opportunity for Erdrich to play with tone and voice that depends on the character. For example, Lipsha Morrissey, a teenager growing up in the eighties, utilizes videogames for metaphors. The death of a veteran returning from Vietnam is treated as an accident or a suicide depending on the author. The technique, if a bit less experimental even if simultaneously more grand, is similar to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
By revisiting events, and even placing some events in non-chronological order, Erdrich’s stories accumulate momentum and power as the novel progresses. As readers, we are aware that we are privy to only moments in a larger story that takes place off screen. In ways Love Medicine is like a collection of close photographs of a single skyscraper – a bird’s nest on a ledge, an American flag, the sun reflecting off a window – without ever revealing the whole object. We recognize the whole from the aggregate because of our familiarity with both, and in the case of Love Medicine the whole is life from family.
Perhaps the single most impressive aspect of Love Medicine is Erdrich’s prose. Her writing is just this side of magical realism, and while certain characters may believe in magic, Lipsha Morrissey believes he has a healing touch, because these very same characters are telling the story we are welcomed to doubt their powers. However, Erdrich’s writing is often imbued with an effervescent mysticism. In the chapter “The Island” narrated by Lulu Nanapush, Lulu leaves her home to live in a cave on an island with Moses Pillager, perhaps a more surrealist chapter than the rest of the novel. Upon consummating her romance with Moses, Lulu, who would go on to father many children with many fathers, informs the reader: “I want to grind men’s bones to drink in my night tea…I want to be their food, their harmful drink, to taste men like stilled jam at the back of my tongue.” These moments of surrealism are equally matched by a prose that seems permeable and effervescent, as if the words can barely capture the events before us.
Erdrich is responsible for populating her novel with a myriad of characters whose lives bend and bounce off one another, and while we may not condone the actions of every one of them, there is a clear understanding that their actions rise from a shared pain. Because these characters are connected through a webwork of relations, their loneliness seems that much tragic.