Greatest Love of All? Religion in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine (short)

The Greatest Love of All?
Religion in
Louise Erdrich’s
Love Medicine

Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine is an excellent collection of linked short stories. One of the main linking factors for Love Medicine is religion, a hybrid of the naturalistic Ojibwa beliefs and practices, and the Catholic “missionary” religion lived by her reservation characters that promotes good living and embraces life in all its splendor and warts. The religious theme is tightly connected to both love and identity, themes themselves blurred by the myriad number of characters, liaisons, and relationships portrayed and at work on the modern Indian reservation. This “seeking” for identity and religion are portrayed most prominently through two central characters, June Kashpaw and Lipsha Morrissey Kashpaw. Religion as linking device is also supported by several extended metaphors (water being the most prevalent).

On one level, Love Medicine is about religion, about the shared beliefs and differences in the Ojibwe naturalistic religion and the Catholic religion, a unique mix of the very human and the very spiritual and sometimes very Catholic practices and beliefs. This description might also be placed on a number of the characters in Love Medicine. Its stories are stories of ordinary people seeking their true identity, looking for love, looking for something to believe in — or, equally important, finding their way back to something to believe in. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine Plains Indians hearing of the loving nature of Jesus from Catholic Missionaries, then blending beliefs of Jesus with their own naturalistic religion, and calling this new hybrid religion “love medicine.” Isn’t Christianity (at least the New Testament part) all about “love”?
Catholic religious characters appear often here. At least two of the stories are about Marie’s interactions with Sister Leopolda (“Saint Marie” and “The Beads”); another nun appears prominently in “Crown of Thorns” (Sister Mary Martin); and there are allusions to Western religious dogma and images throughout Love Medicine — most notably to ”the dark one” and to fish/fishing, the original Christian symbol/icon, inherent in the water metaphor.
A glance at the story titles comprising Love Medicine is also telling for their shared religious inferences: “The World’s Greatest Fisherman” (fisher-of-men); “Saint Marie”; “The Beads” ; “Flesh and Blood”; “Scales” (if one carries through on the fish references? Also scales of justice); “Crown of Thorns”; and “Resurrection” in the new edition all have religious connotations. The story “Love Medicine” itself involves an Indian rite gone awry, the blessing of store-bought turkey hearts by a priest, and a Catholic funeral.
Intriguing, perhaps, although not to be taken too far, are these comments about her religious background in the Profile section of the newly revised edition: (p. 31)
I was brought up as Catholic; my father’s a German Catholic and my mother is Ojibwe/French and a very devout and strict Catholic. I wear a holy medal and have a confessional in my bookstore. I still love the saints, but I think some of the dogma is dangerous nonsense. I try to follow the Ojibwe and Catholic tenets of what makes a good person.

“I still love the saints, but I think some of the dogma is dangerous nonsense.” Erdrich could be expressing her own religious beliefs in and through Love Medicine, setting it up as a kind of “Erdrich bible” in which, as Thomas Jefferson did in his “Jefferson bible,” she crosses out the parts of Catholicism she doesn’t like or agree with, and adds heaping portions of Ojibwe beliefs she feels strongly about. Erdrich went on to say: (newly revised edition, Profile, p. 31)
I try to keep an open mind about there being another dimension, a spiritual dimension to this world. I ignore a lot of my logical thinking. I prefer to have some beliefs that don’t make logical sense.

It would have been easy for Erdrich to project her own beliefs on Love Medicine’s characters and promote a blend of the best of Ojibwe and Catholic religions in their lives. Such a theme is big enough and strong enough to link a short story collection together, handled well.

Establishing Continuity through June
If religion is indeed one of the threads that tie the story collection together, and a Catholic version of Christian religion as interpreted by the Ojibwe and combined with their own beliefs at that, the story needs a sacrificial lamb and a savior. The sacrificial lamb, indeed perhaps the most complete and prominent character in the collection, is June, who ironically appears “alive” in “real” story time in the story collection only once, in the first section of the first story, despite affecting almost all other lives in the stories. June is Christ-like in many ways, very human, “not much of a mother but a good aunt,” according to Albertine, often something of a benevolent anti- or alternate-Ojibwe Christ, and she is given the most prominent placement of any character in the story collection — appearing both at the beginning and at the end of the collection.
Love Medicine begins like this: (The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” p. 1)
The morning before Easter Sunday, June Kashpaw was walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota, killing time before the noon bus arrived that would take her home. She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved.

June quite significantly appears and dies on Easter (her death being foreshadowed here, i.e. “killing time”, like a prophecy), then appears over and over again throughout the stories, sometimes literally as an illusion (“Crown of Thorns”), other times in memory or reincarnate in physical objects (such as the Firebird car). June, like Jesus (and Moses and the Jews, for that matter) wandered in the wilderness of “Williston, North Dakota” before reaching “home”: (“The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” Love Medicine, pp. 5-6)
She had walked far enough to see the dull orange glow, the canopy of low, lit clouds over Williston, when she decided to walk home instead of going back there. The wind was mild and wet. A Chinook wind, she told herself. She made a right turn off the road, walked up a drift frozen over a snow fence, and began to pick her way through the swirls of dead grass and icy crust of open ranchland. Her boots were thin. So she stepped on dry ground where she could and avoided the slush and rotten, gray banks. It was exactly as if she were walking back from a fiddle dance or a friend’s house to Uncle Eli’s warm, man-smelling kitchen. She crossed the wide fields swinging her purse, stepping carefully to keep her feet dry.
Even when it started to snow she did not lose her sense of direction. Her feet grew numb, but she did not worry about the distance. The heavy winds couldn’t blow her off course. She continued. Even when her heart clenched and her skin turned crackling cold it didn’t matter, because the pure and naked part of her went on.
The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it and came home.

Not only do we have the obvious Easter reference, but also the 40 years of wandering suffered on the Jews. Remember too that June’s fatal trek is after she was “reborn” when she fell out of the oil rigger’s truck: (“World’s Greatest Fisherman,” pp. 5-6)

She stayed quiet until she felt herself getting frail again. Her skin felt smooth and strange. And then she knew if she lay there any longer she would crack wide open, not in one place but in many pieces that he would crush by moving in his sleep. She thought to pull herself back together. So she hooked an arm over her head and brought her elbow down slowly on the handle, releasing it. The door suddenly sprang wide.
June had wedged herself so tight against the door that when she sprang the latch she fell out. Into the cold. It was a shock like being born. But somehow she landed with her pants halfway up, as though she’d hoisted them in midair, and then she quickly did her bra, pulled her shell down, and reached back into the truck. Without groping she found her jacket and purse. By now it was unclear whether she was more drunk or more sober than she’d ever been in her life.

This mixture of cosmic and physical realities without holding any punches or dirt is not only typical of Erdrich’s writing style, which gets downright allegorical and gritty at times; it is also typical of how the Ojibwe might blend their natural religion with the Catholic teachings of the Sisters at Sacred Heart Convent. However, we may have to call the passage immediately above the “Miracle of the Pants” in which she fell down and out of a truck seat headfirst “but somehow landed with her pants halfway up.” That’s some trick.
According to Indian beliefs June is reincarnated in the red Firebird that her son King buys with her insurance money. She is also reincarnated (literally in the flesh) through her sons King and his brother, Lipsha. Her reincarnation in physical objects like the car smacks not only of Ojibwe beliefs but also of the Catholic concept of statues for saints, and the host of communion (“the body and blood”). The Ojibwae ban on saying the dead person’s name is typical of many indigenous cultures and religions, especially the more naturalistic ones.
It was June too that asked to be hanged when she was a child for stealing a horse while playing “westerns” with her adopted brother and sister. The siblings would have succeeded if Marie had not interrupted them (see “The Beads”).
Finally, even though the final scene is Lipsa’s, her son’s, June appears in the closing line: (“Crossing The Water,” pp. 271-272)
I still had Grandma’s hankie in my pocket. The sun flared. I’d heard that this river was the last of the ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the Dakotas and solved all our problems. It was easy to still imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves, but the truth is we live on dry land. I got inside. The morning was clear. A good road led on. So there was nothing to do but cross the water, and bring her home.

The “her” is June, as the Firebird, the Phoenix, the native symbol and mythological bird of rebirth, rising from the ashes. It is completely appropriate that Lipsha bring his mother home, with honor, thus restoring her place in the tribe. Love Medicine begins and ends with June, its most significant character, one of its most significant linking elements.

Establishing Continuity through Lipsha
In many respects, Love Medicine the collection (and “Love Medicine,” the story, for that matter) can be seen as an initiation archetype for Lipsha. He is a somewhat weird boy with unusual characteristics according to Albertine, who introduces us to him: (“The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” p. 36)
“Energy,” he said. “Electromagnetic waves. It’s because of the temperature, the difference sets them off.” He was talking about the northern lights. Although he never did well in school, Lipsha knew surprising things. He read books about computers and volcanoes and the life cycles of salamanders. Sometimes he used words I had to ask him the meaning of, and other times he didn’t make even the simplest sense. I loved him for being both ways. A wash of love swept me over the sickness. I sat up.

These are the first uses of the word “love” in Love Medicine. Because the love is attributed with Lipsha, these references pass on a powerful implication and foreshadow a major role to carry throughout the collection.
Lipsha has a healing power even then: “Lipsha’s voice was a steady bridge over a deep black space of sickness I was crossing. If I just kept listening, I knew I’d get past all right.” (p. 35) Later, in the story “Love Medicine,” we learn that he had a healing power in his hands. Remember what June was searching for in Williston ND? “Someone different.” Lipsha is different, and like June, represents the combination of Ojibwe and Catholic “love medicine” that is the religious theme that unifies the collection.
Throughout most of the collection, Lipsha doesn’t know who his mother or father is; he is a “took-in” of Marie’s and a special companion to Nector Kashpaw — but many others, especially the women, know that June is his mother. He must struggle to overcome his hatred of his birth-mother and discover his identity before he can be “whole.” Albertine recognizes this and tries to tell him the truth at the beginning of Love Medicine, but Lipsha isn’t ready or prepared to listen then: (“World’s Greatest Fisherman,” pp. 36-37)
“No,” said Lipsha. “Albertine, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Now I was the one who felt ignorant, confused.
“As for my mother,” he went on, “even if she came back right now, this minute, and got down on her knees and said, ‘Son, I am sorry for what I have done to you,’ I would not relent on her.”
I didn’t know how to rescue my intentions and go on. I thought for a while, or tried to, but sitting up and talking had been too much.
“What if your mother never meant to?” I lay down again, lowering myself carefully into the wheat. The dew was condensing. I was cold, damp, and sick. “What if it was just kind of a mistake?” I asked.
“It wasn’t no mistake,” said Lipsha firmly. “She would have drowned me.”
Laying still, confused by my sickness and his certainty, I almost believed him. I thought he would hate June if he knew, and anyway it was too late. I justified my silence. I didn’t tell him.
“What about your father?” I asked instead. “Do you wish you knew him?”
Lipsha was quiet, considering, before he answered.
“I wouldn’t mind.”

This passage effectively sets up Lipsha’s tension and eventual reconciliation with June, and foreshadows his later meeting with his father. Lipsha progresses through life in Love Medicine, in and out of the narrative like everyone else, but playing a bigger and bigger role as the story/plot evolves. He has at least two epiphanies: One at the time of Nector Kashpaw’s death, this epiphany a religious experience in and of itself; and one in Minneapolis when a beer bottle thrown by a vagrant hits him between the eyes and he knows who his father is — Gerry Nanapush, the prison escape artist, whose mother was Lulu Lazarene. (The beer bottle is yet another charming but heavy-handed touch, Louise.) Note that of all the characters, only Gerry and Lipsha have special powers described as “magic:” Gerry’s skill happens to be escaping from prison. Ironically, comically, it was through Lulu that Lipsha was able to verify his father’s identity — she had taught him in the Senior Center how to cheat at cards and mark them a particular way, which Gerry recognized in their final scene with King, Lipsha’s brother — which also enabled them to win the red Firebird, i.e., signaling Lipsha’s reunion and reconciliation with June.
Lipsha’s initiation is nearly complete when he finds his father using the trunk of the Firebird to escape, and they talk about June and make peace with one another (and by association, her) before Lipsha drops him off near the Canadian border. In another religious angle, Lipsha is in many ways the prodigal son returning to the reservation, more fortunate (from the tribe’s POV) than King, who stays in Minnesota, unable to fit in on the reservation or deal with his heredity. Lipsha’s initiation is finally complete when he crosses the river and goes home: (“Crossing the River”, pp. 271-272)
I didn’t want my lights to show, so I cruised for miles and miles in the soft clear moonlight, slow, feeling the comfortable dark behind me and before.
I didn’t turn the headlights on until I hit the highways. Near dawn, I came to the bridge over the boundary river. I was getting pretty close to home now, so I stopped the car in the middle of the bridge, got out to stretch, and for some reason I remembered how the old ones used to offer tobacco to the water. I looked down over the rail.
It’s a dark, thick, twisting river. The bed is deep and narrow. I thought of June. The water played in whorls beneath me or flexed over sunken cars. How weakly I remembered her. If it made any sense at all, she was part of the great loneliness being carried up the driving current. I tell you, there was good in what she did for me, I know now. The son that she acknowledged suffered more than Lipsha Morrisey did. The thought of June grabbed my heart so, but I was lucky she turned me over to Grandma Kashpaw.
I still had Grandma’s hankie in my pocket. The sun flared. I’d heard that this river was the last of the ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the Dakotas and solved all our problems. It was easy to still imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves, but the truth is we live on dry land. I got inside. The morning was clear. A good road led on. So there was nothing to do but cross the water, and bring her home.

Lipsha is now whole, comfortable with the dark, at peace with his identity, finally belonging, no longer a took-in but a man with a rich heritage. He found and gave forgiveness at Grandpa Kashpaw’s funeral, and made great strides after that “freeing” of himself. “Forgiveness,” of course, is a central facet of both Christianity and Judaism, among other world religions; so it is significant that the forgiving that happened to Lipsha at Nector’s wedding was his “turning point.” Lipsha is in many ways the hope and future of the Turtle Mountain tribe, ready to carry on for Nector Kashpaw and the others that have come before him and nurtured him.
It is incredible to me that the original version of “World’s Greatest Fisherman” did not have Lipsha in the story at all until the stories were first collected and published as Love Medicine. The northern lights and discussion on planets were there, but it was Lynette not Lipsha who talked about them. For Erdrich to be able to envision such a unifying theme in seven previously-published stories and in Lipsha is astounding; for her to deliberately write it so well is, well, almost magical.
One last point about Lipsha: While many if not all of the characters had character flaws, Lipsha was the only one to consistently project a grammatical flaw. He (his voice) constantly misused words and made grammatical errors; note the phrase above, “It was easy to still imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves…” i.e. the use of “them” instead of “those.” No other character exhibits such a consistent or obvious flaw, even though the chances for reservation Indians to not speak well should be fairly high. Once again, Erdrich makes a point through a minor character trait that Lipsha is not like the rest, he is different and special.

Water As Religious Metaphor

Early on I dismissed place (setting, region) as being the primary unifying link that held the story collection together. I still believe that. But place is established and wound tightly with the extended metaphor water, as in the passage quoted above:
…the last of the ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the Dakotas and solved all our problems. It was easy to still imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves, but the truth is we live on dry land.

Throughout Love Medicine, “place” is a very real supporting element of the collection’s link, religion. The metaphor of water carries its own religious theme. It is the ancient ocean, calling up Ojibwa tradition and heritage. It is the river that is a boundary around the reservation, a “crossing over” point. It is frozen in the snow that June walks home on; it is in the river that Henry and the red convertible are buried in; it is in Lake Turloc where Grandpa Kashpaw fished, it is in Lulu’s tears as Marie puts drops in her eyes. And of course, it is in the holy water used by the Sisters.
It is in water too where the many fish metaphors in Love Medicine live. For but one of many examples, look at this opening passage from “Saint Marie”: (pp. 40-41)
So when I went there, I knew the dark fish must rise. Plumes of radiance had soldered on me. No reservation girl had ever prayed so hard. There was no use in trying to ignore me any longer. I was going up there on the hill with the black robe women. They were not any lighter than me. I was going up there to pray as good as they could. Because I don’t have that much Indian blood. And they never thought they’d have a girl from this reservation as a saint they’d have to kneel to. But they’d have me. And I’d be carved in pure gold. With ruby lips. And my toenails would be little pink ocean shells, which they would have to stoop down off their high horse to kiss.
I was ignorant. I was near age fourteen. The length of sky is just about the size of my ignorance. Pure and wide. And it was just that — the pure and wideness of my ignorance — that got me up the hill to Sacred Heart Convent and brought me back down alive. For maybe Jesus did not take my bait, but them Sisters tried to cram me right down whole.
You ever see a walleye strike so bad the lure is practically out of its back end before you reel it in? That is what they done with me. I don’t like to make that low comparison, but I have seen a walleye do that once. And it’s the same attempt as Sister Leopolda made to get me in her clutch.

Place and water in its many forms are used by Erdrich over and over to recall and represent the old people, the previous generations, and by extension their religion and beliefs, and therefore add to the compression of past and future in every present moment, and to the sense of timelessness and universality so rich in Love Medicine, and so important to love and religion. But water instead of place is the dominant symbol, because water also has the stronger religious connotations.

Louise Erdrich is quoted as saying that writing Love Medicine was “an act of desperation.” She was 29 at the time, and worried that unless she published something significant by age 30 she would be a failure. Her prayers were answered (?) and her hard work rewarded with the critical success of Love Medicine, still going strong after 25 years and two major revisions. She is experiencing recent success through her novel Plague of Doves (a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist), and her comprehensive collection of short stories, The Red Convertible (2009). She also says she keeps writing the same story over and over, the one with the Indian characters that come to her, speak to her, the one with the big themes able to carry major works: Love. Identity. Religion.
She also says that her characters must not be done with her yet, because they keep on appearing to her, coming to her. We can only be so lucky.

Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine: A Novel. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984.

Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine: Newly Revised Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.

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2 responses to “Greatest Love of All? Religion in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine (short)

  1. hannah

    This piece of writing is amazing.. I have just finished the book and until now I missed out on the big clues. Thank you!

    • thanks Hannah — Erdrich is amazing. Religion is a continuing theme of hers. Read especially Last Miracle of Little Big Horse (Father Damian) and her national book award winner (finally!) — The Roundhouse. Harpers also has “P.S.” sections in the back of the paperback versions that are very informative.

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