Stories as medicine

In Louise Erdrich’s novel Love Medicine, Lulu Nanapush asks her old love Nanapush “What’s your love medicine?” (70), he responds: “No clocks. These Young boys who went to the Bureau school, they run their love life on white time. Now me, I go on Indian time” (71).

The title Love Medicine invites multiple interpretations, powerfully encapsulating the central healing objective of the novel, woven through the re-examining of events through multiple perspectives and ‘truths’ offered through the short story cycle. Through the narrations of seven (or nine if June and Gordie are considered) different characters, the stories cover a fifty-year span through the eighteen main ‘windows’ into the central body of events. The driving events of June’s death and the on-going love affair between Eli Nanapush and Lulu Nanapush Lamartine are examined through the complexities of the resultant different forms of human relationships against the existing difficult backdrop of Native American Indian culture and history. Through the themes of love, home, the individual and the community, and the repeated motifs of water, stones, bridges, religion and spirituality, Easter and resurrection – love medicine highlights the double-edged sword of the equally potentially healing and destructive ability of love through symbolically examining and re-enforcing these themes and images.

Love Medicine as a novel and as a title can be read in three main different ways. The title can initially be interpreted as the positive and healing power of love itself to act as a remedy; as a cure or antidote to the trials that forms of love and relationships incur; and as the “old Chippewa specialty” (241) of concocting potion-like ‘love medicines.’ This essay will discuss the significance of the title in terms of how Erdrich weaves multiple forms of ‘love medicine’ into the novel through many layers of symbology, repeated imagery, and the over-all healing of the driving events of the novel – resulting in the strongest themes of love and healing.

The term ‘medicine’ is outlined in the Oxford Dictionary in three ways, interestingly specifically highlighting a North American interpretation:

“1. the science or practice of the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease (in technical use often taken to exclude surgery); 2. a drug or other preparation for the treatment or prevention of disease; 3. (among North American Indians and some other peoples) a spell, charm, or fetish believed to have healing or magical powers” (887). The book encapsulates all these interpretations of love acting as a medicine – using the technique as old as talking of story-telling, Erdrich offers the novel as a calculated treatment for the deeper wounds of the Native American Indian genocide in America and lasting effects of this. Sweet Wong notes that: “Often, stories are embedded within stories. Family and community narratives are told and retold from different perspectives throughout the book, so that the reader is forced to integrate, interpret, and reinterpret the narrative(s)” (Sweet Wong, 90). Through this multi-faceted examinations, Erdrich lances the wounds of the culture and the personal wounds of the characters – opening them up, bringing them under examination so that they can heal, and finally heal properly.

The event of June’s death acts as the triggering incident of the book, providing a common theme from-which to place and align the character to each other, as well as linking them together in their joint loss and processing of June’s death. We begin to see here how the novel is imbedded with layered symbology. June’s death takes place around Easter in 1981 and the novel concludes three years later with Lipsha “cross[ing] the water, and bring[ing] her home” (367). This links to the healing of Christ after the crucifixion and resurrection three days later. June serves as a character within a family and thus a link within the chain of family and community, but she is also representative of the Chippewa and Christian spiritual beliefs – likened to Jesus through symbolical associations as well as a representation of the wild and nature-related Native American Indian spirit. Although ‘brought up’ in the wild and possessing intrinsic Chippewa instincts regarding nature, she knowingly walks into a snow storm and “walked over it like water and came home” (7), again alluding to Jesus and walking on water.

While water is the element of ultimate healing and soothing – also of purifying, although that is the done most effectively by fire, illustrated in the burning down of Lulu’s house. The book is ripe with water symbology – ‘A Bridge’ (167), ‘The Good Tears’ (276) and ‘Crossing the Water’ (329) all directly link to water – healing through water, and the need to overcome the proverbial ‘flood of life,’ and also consciously decide to utilise the connections, life-lines and ‘bridges’ we are given to rise above and surpass events. Love-making is frequently described in terms of ‘flooding’ and water symbology, contrastingly we are repeatedly told that drowning is the worst death imaginable in Chippewa culture due to the understanding that the drowned soul is never able to rest, find peace, essentially ‘find home.’ We are taken through the many love-affairs and the sexual encounters of characters, but also through the death/suicide of June and Henry Lamartine, and intentional drowning of Henry Jr. after he returns significantly changed by the war he has fought in and experienced.

Suffering and guilt are portrayed though the Christian symbol of crucifixion, but equally ‘saved’ by resurrection – ‘Sainte Marie’ (43), ‘Flesh and Blood’ (146), ‘Crown of Thorns’ (212) and ‘Resurrection’ (259) directly referring to the Christian symbology operating in the crucifixion of Christ. Through Marie’s stigmata and the biblically laced descriptions linking June to Jesus, ‘crucifixion’ and the ‘resurrection’ of characters is stressed – many characters committing suicide and choosing a certain death in order to gain another life. Nanapush embraces the ‘second childhood’ of dementia rather than remaining entirely – mind, body and spirit – in the conflicted situation of his love-triangle between his love Lulu and wife Marie, he releases his mind until his spirit can follow with his physical body’s death. Although Marie is ‘crucified’ by Sister Leopolda and bares the painful physical and emotional ‘stigmata,’ she does not die from it and ultimately resurrects her love for Nanapush through healing her relationship with Lulu.

Lipsha is a magical character who knows “the tricks of mind and body inside out without ever having trained for it, because I got the touch” (231). However, in making the ‘love medicine,’ the potion and magical cure to rectify Nanapush’s love for Marie, he loses his literally ‘healing touch’ after making a false “evil shortcut” (245) of buying Turkey hearts instead of killing a pair of Canada Geese which mate for life. Gordie’s piercing guilt triggered by June’s death acts as his slow death and crucifixion – their abusive relationship being his ‘The Crown of Thorns,’ their love ‘crowning’ him, and his abuse of her the ‘thorns’ that now kill him. Furthering the symbology, their son is named King.

Healing is offered in so many ways though the novel. With the death of the old generation within the family, representing a death of the ancient Native American Indian culture, we are provided hope for the future. We are offered an answer, a way forward, a how encapsulated in the closing ‘Crossing the Water’ (329). Howard, formerly King Jr., finds a ‘permanent’ answer though claiming his own identity and changing his name. This links to the constant name changes witnessed throughout the chapters – symbolical of the characters adopting new identities with their new ‘loves,’ both lovers and life ventures. Through time and returning to the simple and ancient ‘work’ of tending the land, Lipsha’s gift of the healing touch is restored. Through his process of healing from his Grandfather and mother’s death, Lipsha is able to ‘cross the bridge’ and not only bring June home, but with him the reader and the wandering spirit of the Chippewa’s displaced by the violent history of the United States of America.

“Stories are medicine,” (Estes, 15) states Clarissa Pinkola Estes. The acclaimed Chippewa author, psychologist and ‘cantenara’ or ‘story-teller’ uses the cross-culturally known format of orature and story telling as a means to unpack lessons and moral guidance left behind in traces and symbology for us to read, interpret and respond to. “They [stories] have such power; they do not require that we do, be, act anything – we need only listen. The remedies for repair or reclamation of any lost psychic drive are contained in stories” (Estes, 15).

The healing and medicine of the novel and stories is found in the antidotes though anecdotes – healing though the medium of story – using the Christian mythology regarding death and resurrection, the Chippewa understandings of life, death, and the latent magic within its culture and customs. In the direct posing of the question of “what is love medicine?” – the representation of the quintessential and ‘traditional’ Native American Indian Nanapush – replies that it is to live and love operating from a different, transcending (“No clocks” therefore no time) understanding of what it means, urging the reader along the Chippewa beliefs and philosophy of life. This is later echoed and expanded on by Lulu.

“All through my life I never did believe in human measurement. Numbers, time, inches, feet. All are just ploys for cutting nature down to size. I know the grand scheme of the world is beyond our brains to fathom, so I don’t try, just let it in. I don’t believe in numbering God’s creatures” (281).

Albertine notes that “the story of June’s hanging was at one time “only a family story,” but it becomes, after her death, “the private trigger of special guilts” (19) (Sweet Wong, 91). Hence through the understanding of this, we are presented with the complex relationships of two inter-woven families and their differing experience of events, resulting in their personal problems and triumphs, markers in the moulding of their respective characters. The stories operate within the framework of the dual understanding that individuals are multi-faceted and constantly changing. On a superficial level, the book deals with the death of June Morrissey and her family’s healing from this. It further explores the bitterness of betrayal through the Nanapush-Marie-Lulu love triangle, but also the beauty of love – as Nanapush loves Lulu and Marie beyond the grave, and Lulu and Marie reconcile their relationship and thus both experience a healing from their life-events of suffering.

Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine dove-tails the aims of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, providing a patchwork quilt of stories and experiences – weaving together the strands of the lives of the individual characters, creating a more broad and complete picture and understanding of events beyond the personal experience of the individual and relating it to the encompassing framework of our cultural history and heritage within which we as people operate. “Both clans storytell (sic.)in the plain voice of women who have lived blood and babies, bread and bones. For them, story is a medicine which strengthens and arights (sic.) the individual and the community” (Estes, 19). By examining the over-lapping lives and experiences of the two families stemming from the Native American Chippewa and Ojibwa tribes living on an American-Indian reservation, the novel offers cross-cultural catharsis to its reader. Through this complex web, interwoven themes and imagery of healing, and the digestible and relatable medium of stories, Erdrich provides a salve rich with the medicine we need to heal from whatever grieves us.

This post makes use and reference to the following resources:

  • Erdrich, Louise. (2004) Love Medicine London: Harper Perennial.
  • Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. (1992) Women Who Run With the Wolves ‘Singing Over the Bones.’ Australia: Random House.
  • Sweet Wong, Hertha D. (ed). (2000) Louise Erdrich’s ‘Love Medicine’: A Casebook. Oxford: OUP.
  • Concise Oxford English Dictionary. 11th [Revised]. 2008.
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