Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Review by Justin Taylor, Mountainview Faculty

This past school year, I used an anthology in a few of my writing classes that I had never used before. It was The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, and to be honest with you, I was not persuaded of its efficacy as a teaching tool. The selections are refreshingly offbeat, and the sheer range of the thing (1700s-2000s) is something, but the book contains a lot of typos, formatting mistakes, and errors of fact (particularly in the biographical notes for the included writers) that left me constantly second-guessing my primary course text, which is the one thing a teacher doesn’t want to have to worry about. Oates/Oxford should have hired a proofreader and a fact-checker, or, if they did, they should have fired them. Oh well.

     Still, there were some stories that I encountered for the first time in The Oxford Book that not only yielded fruitful classroom discussions and creative responses, but stuck with me after the school year ended. One such story is “Fleur” by Louise Erdrich, about a woman reputed to be a witch, and the supernatural revenge she may (or may not) have taken on a group of men who violated her. The story, which is less than ten pages long, is masterful in the way it handles point of view, as well as in the way it balances candor and subtlety. It left me eager to read more Erdrich, so I picked up Love Medicine, her debut novel, first published in 1984 (then revised and expanded in 1993, and again in 2009).

     Love Medicine takes place over roughly half a century on (and off) an Ojibwe Reservation in North Dakota. A family tree included in the front matter lays out five generations of Kashpaws, Morrisseys, Nanapushs, and Lamartines, many of whom will get to narrate one or more chapters at some point in the sprawling saga. On the family tree, a legend explains that different symbols are used to distinguish “traditional Ojibwe marriage,” “sexual affair or liaison,” and “Catholic marriage,” as well as “children born from any of the above unions” from “adopted children.” Such scale might overwhelm some readers before they’ve even begun, but don’t be scared off! The novel, for all its technical daring (leaps forward and backward in time, characters phasing in and out of primary-protagonist status) is remarkably lucid and emotionally potent. It’ll have you hooked within five pages, and in full-on binge-mode within fifty.

     I loved it so much I forced myself to slow down around the three-quarters mark, because I wasn’t ready for it to be over yet. Happily, it turned out that this was a needless precaution, because Erdrich has written several more novels set in the same community, including the Pulitzer finalist The Plague of Doves, the National Book Award-winning The Round House, and a novel called Four Souls that, as far as I know, hasn’t won anything but which caught my eye because its protagonist is Fleur Pillager, i.e. the title character of the story that first introduced me to Erdrich’s work, so I’m going to read it as soon as I find a copy. (Fleur appears in Love Medicine too, but only briefly.) 

     Philip Roth called Love Medicine “a masterpiece, written with spellbinding authenticity” and Toni Morrison rightly noted that its "beauty...saves us from being completely devastated by its power.” To these accolades I only wish to add a brief teacherly note. Love Medicine is recommended for one and all, but it will prove especially useful for students exploring that gray and intimidating borderland between the novel, the “linked collection” and the “novel-in-stories.” I’ve seen Love Medicine described as all three of these things, but Erdrich herself seems to regard it as a novel, while at the same time regarding its component parts as stories rather than as chapters. (The title story of The Red Convertible, her Collected Stories, is a chapter from this novel.) This makes sense if you think about it, given how many books she’s written about these people and this place: are not the novels themselves mere chapters in some larger book? In any case, if you’re looking for a model, Love Medicine is among the best you’ll find, because it will give you permission not to follow anyone else’s, but rather to build your own.

Justin Taylor is a Mountainview MFA faculty member, as well as the author of Flings, The Gospel of Anarchy, and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever.