by Louise Erdrich
HarperPerennial, 1993; originally published in 1984
Source: purchased many years ago
Reread it because . . . it was time
Love Medicine was the first Louise Erdrich novel I ever read. My introduction to Erdrich’s work came via a Native American Literature course I took as an undergrad, taught by the university’s writer-in-residence, Janice Gould (who had fantastic taste in literature; I loved most of the reading she assigned). Over the next couple of years I devoured nearly everything Erdrich wrote. When I decided recently to finally reread some of her work, I knew I would start with Love Medicine since it was both the first Erdrich novel I ever read and the first she wrote.
Love Medicine was also one of the first novels I ever read with multiple narrators. This is a tough book to start with if you’ve had little experience with this literary technique. Not only does Erdrich switch narrators from one chapter to the next, but she moves back and forth in time and between first- and third-person narration. To add to the confusion, there are a plethora of characters, and you need a family tree just to keep track of who’s related to who and how.
Erdrich handles this deftly. She never info-dumps on the reader; instead, she introduces the characters organically and give them each an opportunity to tell their own story in their own time. In doing this she creates realistic, multi-dimensional characters more successfully than if she spent pages describing their histories and personalities.
Before rereading this, I really couldn’t remember anything about it other than the novel’s narrative style. Once I started reading, however, I was delighted to discover how familiar it felt. Yes, most of the book had escaped my memory, but more of it was lurking in my brain than I initially thought. As I was re-introduced to the characters the book started floating back. Marie’s name triggered a grin; Sister Leopolda’s name incited a shudder; Gordie’s name made me want to weep 200 pages before it should have.
There is one passage, however, that stuck with me even after I forgot all the others. Upon rereading it I find that it still moves now me as much as it did years ago. I don’t normally include large quotes in my reviews, but I’m sharing this one because it is a great example of why I love Erdrich’s writing. There is so much grief in her work but there is strength and light there, too.
Brief back story: Marie’s mother-in-law, the formidable Rushes Bear, has moved herself in with her son, Nector, and his family. There is no love lost between Marie and Rushes Bear; Rushes Bear is an extremely difficult person to get along with and it doesn’t help any that Marie is a Lazarre, which just gives Rushes Bear another excuse to despise her. (The Lazarres are on the lowest rung of the social ladder on the reservation.) Marie is pregnant when Rushes Bear moves in. When she goes into labor, Rushes Bear and Fleur Pillager deliver the baby. After the birth, Marie overhears this conversation in the next room:
“You take this,” said Nector. “The money’s yours.”
There was a clank as something hit the floor.
The door closed.
“If that Pillager won’t take it, you can,” said Nector.
“Not from your hands.”
“I’m your son,” he said.
“No more. I only have a daughter.”
“Her?” he said, almost laughing. “But she’s a Lazarre.”
“You shame me,” Rushes Bear said. “You never heard any wail out of her, any complaint. You never would know this birth was hard enough for her to die.”
I never saw this woman the same way I had before that day. Before that birth of the child, a son after all, Rushes Bear was a hot fire that I wanted to crush. After that, things were different. I never saw her without knowing that she was my own mother, my own blood. What she did went beyond the frailer connections. More than saving my life, she put the shape of it back in place. And even though her wild moods descended again, and again, with more violence until she was lost in those storms, sometimes for weeks, and even though sometimes she’d rise from her place behind the chair and bolt for home when we weren’t on guard, and even though she was more trouble to me than any child I ever had, I took care of the old woman every day of her life because we shared the loneliness that was one shape, because I knew that she was in that boat, where I had labored. She crested and sank in dark waves. Those waves were taking her onward, through night, through day, the water beating and slashing her unknown path. She struggled to continue. She was traveling hard, and death was her light. (104-105)
“More than saving my life, she put the shape of it back in place” – love it.
Other reviews: BookLust, Caribousmom, Regular Rumination, Shelf Love
Did you write a review? Let me know and I’ll add it to the list!
Read Full Post »