The Greatest Love
Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine is an excellent collection of linked short stories, the distinction between a novel and linked collection being that each segment can (and does) stand on its own. Several possible linking devices are identified. The linking device Erdrich uses for continuity in this collection 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. This linking device is portrayed most prominently through two central characters, June Kashpaw and Lipsha Morrissey Kashpaw. The linking device is also supported by several extended metaphors (water being the most prevalent), and a cast of colorful and poignant characters over fifty years.
What makes this feat most interesting to me is that Erdrich started with seven previously-published stories, stories published in a six-year span between 1978 and 1984, and built another seven around them for the final original product (1984). Also, in later editions of Love Medicine (1996 and 2009), she adds and subtracts stories seemingly at will. She wrote “Love Medicine” the story as the “bridge” story, mirroring her structure and theme, and revised “The World’s Greatest Fisherman” significantly to foreshadow her action, themes, characters, and resolutions. This paper explores and defends these concepts, and uncovers at least one way to write a very successful linked short story collection.
I wish I could expound here on what a great writer Louise Erdrich is, how she can turn a phrase and extend a metaphor with the best of them. I wish I could tell others that if they want to learn how to write commandingly in the first person, they should study Love Medicine (no less than nine of the original fourteen stories are in first-person). I wish I could recommend Love Medicine as the book to study for short story beginnings and endings, how to get them just right. I wish I could delve in about her prose patterns of repetition, the delay of tension and emphasis that repetition brings, in words and in the technique of having the same story told several times from different character’s perspectives. I wish I could compare all the poets-turned-prose writers that seem to be calling to me more recently — Rosellen Brown, Stuart Dybek, Louise Erdrich among the latest. I wish I could do all this — and I might yet — but not today, and not as part of this particular critical paper.
II. Love Medicine: Linked short story collection or novel?
No doubt someone somewhere is arguing about the difference between the novel and a linked short story collection. One of the latest publisher marketing trends is to blur the lines further and market books as what they call “a novel in short stories.” While novels and linked short story collections are very similar in that they often have common characters, settings, themes, so forth (could be anything with possible exception of plot), linked short story collections have one or more “linkpins” holding the elements together, and one other most distinguishing feature: Each “chapter” can stand on its own as a complete short story. My interest in analyzing Love Medicine is to explore how Louise Erdrich built a linked short story collection. Every once in a while, we are blessed with a short story collection that has more story elements in common than many good novels, and where the sum of the whole is equal to much more than the sum of the parts, which may also distinguish this linked collection from most novels. Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine is one of those short story collections.
III. Love Medicine Then and Now.
Love Medicine: A Novel, the 1984 original I read and quote from (the rare “northern lights” cover version from our local library), consists of 14 stories, seven of which had appeared in different publications before.
Love Medicine: Newly Revised Edition, the 2009 edition, consists of the original 14 stories and three more (“The Island” and “Resurrection,” which appear in chronological sequence, and “The Tomahawk Factory,” which appears between the covers but as a postscript — see Note 1). Another short story, “Lyman’s Luck,” which appeared in the “expanded edition” issued in 1995, was deleted from the “newly revised edition” in 2009 because it “interrupted the flow of the final quarter,” according to an Eldrich “author’s note”. Not insignificant is that the newly revised edition has no mention of “a novel” except in a couple old reviews — certainly not sitting prominently on the cover like the 1984 edition.
While I am not going to compare all the changes in all three versions, it is interesting and intriguing to note that Eldrich is able to make additions and subtractions to Love Medicine seemingly at will without seriously disrupting the story collection “link” — even some 25 years after the original was published. This suggests that the structure inherent here, and whatever story elements there are that link this story collection together, are very strong and flexible, indeed.
The copyright page holds this or similar acknowledgement:
Grateful acknowledgement is made to the editors of the following magazines in which sections of this novel first appeared: The Atlantic Monthly: “Saint Marie”; Chicago Magazine: Another version of “The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” and “Crown of Thorns”; Kenyon Review: “Lulu’s Boys”; Mississippi Review: “The Red Convertible”; Ms. Magazine: “Flesh and Blood”; The North American Review: “Scales,” which also appeared in The Best American Short Stories of 1983.
It’s not clear to me from this acknowledgement whether both “The World’s Greatest Fisherman” and “Crown of Thorns” first appeared “in another version,” or whether just “The World’s Greatest Fisherman” was revised for Love Medicine. More on this later. What is more striking is that Erdrich was able to incorporate seven previously published stories with one or two minor changes into a linked short story collection. This hits me as extremely hard to do, but also lends credence to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s opinion: (Fitzgerald)
Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves — that’s the truth. We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives… And we tell our two or three stories — each time in a new disguise — maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.
Indeed, Erdrich herself said this when asked “what she’s writing now” in a 2009 interview: “The same story I’ve been working on my whole life.” (newly revised edition, p. 4) Regardless, building a linked short story collection and adding and deleting to the original seemingly at will is a tremendous feat. Erdrich makes a point to thank her writing partner and eventual ex-husband Mark Dorris for his involvement and ideas on the 1984 version, and dedicates that version to him. The later version is dedicated to her brothers Mark, Louis, and Ralph.
III. Possible Story Collection Links.
Eldrich herself talks to one of the common story elements holding Love Medicine together, the characters: (newly revised edition, P.S., p. 6)
Since writing Love Medicine, I have understood that I am writing one long book in which the main chapters are also books…The characters appear and disappear in my consciousness — a lamentable, messy place. If you read on in the other books, you will find that the people in Love Medicine live out destinies invisible to me as I wrote this first book. Although I sometimes wished that these imagined people would speak in a linear fashion, I can only, truly, be grateful they come back at all. I write about them as they present themselves. I really have no choice in this matter. That they keep returning, insistent and surprising, is a strange gift. Indeed, they have not finished with me yet.
B. Family Relations.
Not insignificantly, the characters that reappear throughout Love Medicine are mostly related. While at first this seems an easy story collection link pin, it also has its drawbacks: With the large amount of interaction, exchanges, and so-called “bastard” births in the Ojibwe culture and this family in particular, perhaps, keeping track of who is related to whom, and how, can get to be quite complicated, to the point of being a distraction to the flow and continuity. I noticed that in the 2009 version, the publishers conveniently provided and placed a nice hand drawn “family tree” in the front matter to address this issue. However, the legend gives away the complications and complexities. Legend categories include these designations and demarcations: “traditional Ojibwe marriage;” “sexual affair or liaison;” “Catholic marriage;” “children born from any of the above unions;” “adopted children,” and the footnote, “marriages and liaisons are numbered in order of any issue,” whatever the hell that means…
At one point in “Love Medicine,” the story, Lipsha refers to all the children returning to the reservation for Grandpa Kashpaw’s funeral as “all the blood children and took-ins.” While all the ins and outs of “family” are endearing, they are hard to keep straight at any given time (even when illustrated, apparently). Sadly, in my library’s 1984 collector’s edition, someone had gone through the opening story and circled all the character names with a pen, no doubt in an attempt to keep them straight. I doubt Erdrich would recommend this family-tree approach as the story collection link pin with its risk for confusion versus continuity, and would rather point to either the Ojibwe tribe itself or to the chronological structure inherent in Love Medicine as more manageable links.
One of the first things you notice as a reader of Love Medicine is that every chapter has a year date, and many of the chapters (but not all!) have character names in the heading. The order is: Chapter/story title, date, then character name (if used). In the 1984 edition, nine of the fourteen stories are preceded with character names, so five of them (36%) do not have any character names associated to them. I have not yet determined why some stories have character names associated with them, even some numbered sub-stories within stories have names, and some do not; perhaps it is nothing more than a flag for those stories written in first person? Most significant is that all stories have dates. This adds a chronological feature to the stories, and aids somewhat with keeping characters straight (for instance, Marie Lazarre becomes Marie Kashpaw after marrying Nector) — but it is a shaky house to build a linked collection on.
In all editions of Love Medicine, the only story presented out of chronological order is the first one, “The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” tagged as occurring in 1981, the year June died (no character name provided). Perhaps providing dates for each story is another attempt to soothe the family-tree situation.
Adding chronological markers is an interesting feature that allows Erdrich to insert additional stories 10 and 24 years later, but it is not the link pin needed to tie these stories together as a collection (many Faulkner novels/stories also come to mind, especially his Yoknapatawpha stories such as “The Bear”). The fact that Erdrich herself inserted stories chronologicially and then later pulled them out because they “interrupted the flow of the last quarter” of the book is proof that the link pin holding this collection together is not just chronological order, or adding a character name to the story title.
D. Place —Regional.
One might also think that the story collection link pin could be the Ojibwe tribe itself or the Western region, i.e.,the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, and adjacent Minnesota. But this too would be too simple for the complexity that is Love Medicine, and the power with which the stories are joined and flow. According to the New York Time Book Review, Louise Erdrich’s novels, “regional in the best sense, are ‘about’ the experiences of North Americans the way Toni Morrison’s are about black people, William Faulkner’s and Eudora Welty’s are about the South, Philip Roth’s and Bernard Malamud’s are about the Jews. The specificity implies nothing provincial or small.” (newly revised edition, P.S. section, p. 33).
In many ways, Love Medicine, again like many of Faulkner’s stories and novels, transcends both place and time. The Chicago Sunday Times called Love Medicine “…a deeply spiritual novel.” Toni Morrison stated that “the beauty of Love Medicine saves us from being completely devastated by its power.” Angela Carter said, “The impression is of a river of memory bursting its banks and overflowing upon the page in an irresistible flood.”The New York Times Book Review said, “Love Medicine is finally about the verities of loving and surviving, and these truths are revealed in a narrative that is an invigorating mixture of the cosmic and the tragic.” (All quoted from the “newly revised edition.”)
There is something deeper to Love Medicine that draws us in and holds the stories together.
To me 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. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine Plains Indians hearing of the loving nature of Jesus, 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”?
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, the original Christian symbol/icon. A glance at the story titles is also telling: “The World’s Greatest Fisherman” (fisher-of-men); “Saint Marie”; “The Beads” ; “Flesh and Blood”; “Scales” (if one carries through on the fish references?); “Crown of Thorns”; and “Resurrection” in the new edition all have religious connotations. The story “Love Medicine” itself involves the blessing of turkey hearts by a priest and a Catholic funeral — more on this later.
Telling, perhaps, although not to be taken too far, are these comments about religious background from Louise Eldrich 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 Oijbwe and Catholic tenets of what makes a good person.
“I still love the saints, but I think some of the dogma is dangerous nonsense.” Edrich could be expressing her own beliefs in Love Medicine, setting it up as a kind of “Erdrich bible” in which, like Thomas Jefferson did in his “Jefferson bible,” she crosses out the parts of Catholocism she doesn’t like or agree with, and adds heaping portions of Oijbwe beliefs. Eldrich 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 Eldrich to project her own beliefs on Love Medicine’s characters and promote a blend of the best of Oijbwe and Catholic religions in their lives. Such a theme is strong enough to link a short story collection together, handled well.
IV. Establishing Continuity through June.
If religion is indeed the thread that ties 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 thread for 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. 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- Oijbwe Christ, and she is given the most prominent placement in the story collection — at the beginning and at the end. 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 at 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. 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.
Remember 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 Oijbwe might blend their natural religion with the Catholic teachings of the Sisters at Sacred Heart Convent. Although we may have to call this passage “Miracle of the Pants” in which she fell down and out of a truck seat headfirst “but somehow landed with her pants halfway up,” Louise.
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, which is more naturalistic i.e. Indian belief) through her sons King and his brother, Lipsha. Her reincarnation in physical objects like the car smacks of the Catholic concept of the host, and the 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. They would have succeeded if Marie had not interrupted them (“The Beads”).
Finally, even though the closing scene is Lipsa’s, her son’s, June appears significantly in
the end of Love Medicine, even 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 her home. Love Medicine begins and ends with June, its most significant character, its most significant linking element.
V. 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 of 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.
If I am not mistaken, these are the first uses of the word “love” in Love Medicine; attributed with Lipsha, they pass on a powerful implication and role to carry throughout the collection.
Lipsha also 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 Oijbwe and Catholic “love medicine” that is the religious theme that unifies the collection.
Lipsha doesn’t know who his mother 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 was 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 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.”
Lipsha progresses through life in Love Medicine, in and out of the narrative like evceryone else, but playing a bigger and bigger role as the story evolves. He has at least two epiphanies: One at the time of Nector Kashpaw’s death, and one in Minneapolis when a beer bottle hits him between the eyes and he knows who his father is — Gerry Nanapush, the prison escape artist, whose mother was Lulu Lazarene. Note that of all the characters, only Gerry and Lipsha have special powers, “magic”. 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 then to win the red Firebird.
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 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 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. He 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 and walked with him.
It is incredible to me that the original version of “World’s Greatest Fisherman” (note acknowledgement) 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 existing 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 misued words, 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 flaw, even though the chances for reservation Indians to not speak well should be fairly high. Once again, Erdrich calls our attention to the fact that Lipsha is not like the rest, he is different and perhaps even special.
VI. A Word or Two on Place.
Earlier in this paper I dismissed place (setting, region) as not being the primary unifying link that held the story collection together. I still believe that. But place is established and wound intrinsically tight 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 story element. The metaphor of water carries the 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 in the snow that June walks home on, in the river that Henry and the red convertible are buried in, in Lake Turloc where Grandpa Kashpaw fished, in Lulu’s tears as Marie puts drops in her eyes.
It is in water too where the many fish metaphors in Love Medicine live. For but one example, 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.
VII. The Supporting Cast of Saints: Nector, Marie, Lulu, others.
Erdrich said she loves the saints, and it shows in her multitude of supporting characters in Love Medicine. Here I will mention just two of those supporting characters, Lulu and Marie. Of course, they are tied forever to Nector, but more on him below (“Love Medicine” the story).
In the short story “The Good Tears,” we get Lulu Lamartine’s first-person narration. Lulu might be said to be the Mary Magdelan character in Love Medicine: (pp. 216-217)
No one ever understood my wild and secret ways. They used to say Lulu Lamartine was like a cat, loving no one, only purring to get what she wanted. But that’s not true. I was in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms….
But for awhile after letting the world in I would be full. I wouldn’t want anything more but what I had.
And so when they tell you I was heartless, a shameless man-chaser, don’t ever forget this: I loved what I saw. And yes, it is true that I’ve done all the things that they say. That’s not what gets them. What aggravates them is I’ve never shed one solitary tear. I’m not sorry. That’s unnatural. As we all know, a woman is supposed to cry.
There were times.
I’m going to tell you about the men. There were times I let them in just for being part of the world. I believe that angels in the body make us foreign to ourselves when touching. In this way I’d slip my body to earth, like a heavy sack, and for a few moments I would blend in with all that forced my heart. There was this one man that I kept trying to forget. The handsome, distinguished man who burnt my house down. He did it after I got married the third and last time. The fire balded me completely. I doubt I’ll ever marry again.
Here is the only reference I recall to angels. Also, look at the repetition Erdrich uses to make a subtle point: Standing alone, after “a woman is supposed to cry,” is the phrase “There were times.” Then almost immediately after, in the second sentence of the next paragraph, we get this: “There were times I let them in just for being in the world.” (my emphasis) The entire phrase is repeated — for delay? For emphasis? And we get a word play of sorts here too: Lulu says, ”I’m not sorry. That’s unnatural. As we all know, a woman is supposed to cry.” But the placement is confusing though intentional. Which is unnatural, that Lulu is not sorry, that Lulu doesn’t cry, or both?
Lulu, for all of her feminine charm, is doomed to a life on earth with men, and these are the times that almost make her cry. There were times. Other women despise her. She has many offspring, all boys (see story “Lulu’s Boys”). She gets officially married three times and has several other sexual liaisons, some resulting in children. She loves a man she can’t officially have, and then doesn’t want him when she can have him, when he’s ready for her. Even in the Senior Center, Nector and Lulu meeting in the laundry room for a tete-a-tete. In the trailer fire, a fire set by Nector because she will not move to another place on the reservation to make room for the tomahawk factory, she saves one of her sons before she is balded. For all her ways and feminine guiles, Lulu must have a man’s soul, because as we all know, a woman is supposed to cry. And she also plays a key part in telling Lipsha who his mother is.
Marie, Mother Mary, the matronly saint in the story, knows about Nector;s liaisons with Lulu, but chooses to ignore the fact (and the note he left for her, that he regrets once he is spurned by Lulu). This makes the following scene, after Nector dies, even more poignant: (“The Good Tears,” pp. 235-236)
I had put in my request for an aide at the desk but they didn’t have enough aides for all who needed them. That’s why Marie volunteered to take care of me. She knocked that morning. I let her in.
Things are new even at the age when we are supposed to have seen everything. We sat down for coffee and listened to the early-morning music hour on the radio. I thought her voice was like music in itself, ripe and quiet. I had gotten so good at listening I appreciated just the sound of it. I gave her a pillow I’d made out of those foam rubber petals they sell in kits.
“This is real nice,” she said. “I never learned how to do this kind of thing.”
“You were always too busy taking children in,” I told her.
Then there was something I had to get off my chest.
“I appreciate you coming here to help me get my vision,” I said. “But the truth is I have no regrets.”
“That’s all right.” She was almost impersonal in her kindness. Her voice had lightened. “There’s a pattern of three lines in the wood.”
I didn’t understand, so she put it another way.
“Somebody had to put the tears into your eyes.”
We fell to hearing the music again.
She did not mention Nector’s funeral. We did not talk about Nector. He was already there. Too much might start the flood-gates flowing and our moment would be lost. It was enough to just sit there without words. We mourned him the same way together. That was the point. It was enough. For the first time I saw exactly how another woman felt, and it gave me deep comfort, surprising. It gave me the knowledge that whatever had happened the night before, and in the past, would finally be over once my bandages came off.
She got my eyedrops from the table. I tipped my head back and felt her gently peel the tape from my cheeks. She wiped my eyes with a warm washcloth. I blinked. The light was cloudly but I could already see. She swayed down like a dim mountain, huge and blurred, the way a mother must look to her just born child.
For the first time I saw exactly how another woman felt… Lulu has bandages over her eyes, but now can see, because of Marie’s unconditional love, even if she is the “third line in the wood” where Lulu and Nector are concerned. Once again, love heals, love is freeing, love is the way of their all-too-human-and-religious lives.
VIII. “The World’s Greatest Fisherman”: The “Other” Version
As mentioned earlier, the acknowledgement page of Love Medicine mentions that the 1984 version of “The World’s Greatest Fisherman” used in these publications is “another version” than the original 1978 version first published in Chicago Magazine. While I didn’t search for and find a copy of the 1978 Chicago Magazine to confirm (which I would have if this were my critical thesis, as it appears to be growing to be), I did come across what appears to be the original version of “The World’s Greatest Fisherman” in Erdrich’s latest short story collection, The Red Covertible: Selected and New Stories, 1978 – 2009.
Alas, I tried to resist looking at the original version, to try to keep things simple, but my curiosity and interest (not my scholarly inquisitiveness?) made me do it.
There are some superficial changes in 1984’s “The World’s Greatest Fisherman”: “Delmar” becomes “King,” “Patsy” becomes “Albertine.” But most striking and significant is that Lipsha is not in the original version of the story at all. The statements attributed to Lipsha in 1984 were first spoken by Lynette, King’s/Delmar’s white wife, in 1978. The loving statements made by Albertine, her being comforted by Lipsha in the wheat field, and her intent to tell him who his mother is, are all not in the 1978 version of the story. The scene where Albertine/Patsy saves Lynette from being drowned in a drunken rage by King/Delmar IS there; however, Albertine’s assumption that Lipsha is there to back her up and her disappointment when he is not there, have been added in 1984.
In short, by the time Erdrich revised “The World’s Greatest Fisherman” in 1984 for Love Medicine, she had figured out that Lipsha was the key mover, the one to be initiated and anointed, the most changed character of the collection. She needed a starting point, a story that told of Lipsha’s innocence and naivitee, of his fear of breathing in outer space, of his innate intelligence, of his initial caring and healing touch, then his ultimate disappointment to others. She had probably figured out the religious aspects of the linking before she revised “Fisherman” as well. My guess is that she had written “Love Medicine” the story as a roadmap for Love Medicine the collection, and then went back and revised “Fisherman” to establish Lipsha’s central position in the tale, introduce her linking element, and foreshadow much if not all of the action in the collection (although June’s parts appear to be mostly intact, altered just slightly if at all). Remember: “The World’s Greatest Fisherman” is the only short story in Love Medicine presented out of chronological order. Now we see why.
Erdrich took a pretty broad view on the phrase “another version,” indeed. But she also says she has found that she is never finished with short stories that she knows she has finished… or rather, that they aren’t always finished with her yet.
I for one am glad, and I am grateful that I had this glimpse at how her mind worked to form Love Medicine from mainly existing and already published stories — one in particular. It certainly is one approach… I wonder if she would admit it, and if true, recommend this approach to others?
IX. “Love Medicine” the Story: The Mirror, the Road Map
I’ve speculated on and briefly supported how I believe Love Medicine was born as a linked short story collection. My further contention is that “Love Medicine” the story mirrors the theme and structure of Love Medicine the linked collection, and probably provided Erdrich with the framework she needed to set the remaining stories, those already written and those yet to be written, in motion.
I want to focus on the linking element of religion in the story collection, so the overview will be brief. “Love Medicine” is narrated by Lipsha — in the story as in the collection, he undergoes a major change. The other major characters, June, Marie, Lulu, and Nector Kashpaw, are all here. The setting is the Senior Center on the reservation, at the twilight of their lives. Lipsha has failed at school off the reservation and come back to stay with them, mainly to care for Nector. Lipsha is connected with Nector in several ways; they are like one another.
In the beginning of “Love Medicine”, as he did in “The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” Lipsha shows his youthful innocence and naivitee: (“Love Medicine”, pp. 189-190)
For a while she would call me the biggest waste on the reservation and hark back to how she had saved me from my own mother, who wanted to tie me in a potato sack and throw me in a slough. Sure, I was grateful to Grandma Kashpaw for saving me like that, for raising me, but gratitude gets old. After a while, stale. One day I told her I had paid her back in full by staying at her beck and call. I’d do anything for Grandma. She knew that. Besides, I took care of Grandpa like nobody else could, on account of what a handful he’d gotten to be.
But that was nothing. I know the tricks of mind and body inside out without ever being trained for it, because I got the touch. It’s a thing you got to be born with. I got secrets to my hands that nobody ever thought to ask. Take Grandma Kashpaw and her tired veins all knotted up in her legs like clumps of blue snails. I take my fingers and I snap them on the knots. The medicine flows out of me. The touch. I run my fingers up the maps of those rivers of veins or I knock very gentle above their hearts or I make a circling motion on their stomachs, and it helps them. It makes them feel much better. Some women pay me five dollars.
I couldn’t do the touch for Grandpa, though…
Lipsha is due to be initiated. Look too at the religious words used in this early passage: “hark,” “saved”; bread = host, i.e. “raising” and “stale”; “raising” as in resurrected; gratitude; “tricks of mind and body”; “secrets”; “the touch,” “hands,” references to Jesus’ healing touch as well as to another dimension, magic. Hearts. Circles. June is here too, in the reference “saved me from my own mother,” and “”It’s a thing you got to be born with.” The nice tension-building device is that we readers know Lipsha’s mother is June but he doesn’t. Even the water metaphor is here early: “Slough.” “Clumps of blue snails.” “Medicine flows…” “Rivers of veins.” “Snap” = foreshadowing the snapping turtle story Nector tells Lipsha? Even place is here, i.e., “maps of rivers of veins,” foreshadowing the Chippewa underground world, the ancient ocean and those who lived there on the water.
Marie is worried that Nector is reuniting with Lulu, and in fact Lipsha sees them attempt to “join” once more in the laundry room. Lipsha is moved, i.e., taking the first steps of his initiation: (“Love Medicine,” pp. 192-193)
I saw that tears were in her eyes. And that’s when I saw how much grief and love she felt for him. And it gave me a real shock to the system. You see I thought love got easier over the years so it didn’t hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good. I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it. I thought it curled up and died, I guess. Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash.
She loved him. She was jealous. She mourned him like the dead.
And he just smiled into the air, trapped in the seams of his mind.
…She’d always love him. That hit me like a ton of bricks. For one whole day I felt this odd feeling that cramped my hands. When you have the touch, that’s where longing gets you. I never loved like that. It made me feel all inspired to see them fight, and I wanted to go out and find me a woman who I would love until one of us died or went crazy. But I’m not like that really. From time to time I heal a person all up good inside, however when it comes to the long shot I doubt that I got staying power.
And you need that, staying power, going out to love somebody….
Note the foreshadowing of Nector’s death: “She mourned him like the dead.” Marie comes to Lipsha for help, and he concocts a recipe for “love medicine:” Marie and Nector are to eat the hearts of two wild geese mated for life, and that will bring the love back. But Lipsha is not able to get wild goose hearts, settles for turkey hearts from the grocery mart, has the hearts blessed by a priest (couldn’t hurt!), and gives them to Marie telling her they are goose hearts. Marie serves the hearts at dinner, but Nector chokes on his and dies. The writing is superb, the religious overtones heavy: (“Love Medicine,” pp. 208)
You hear a person’s life will flash before their eyes when they’re in danger. It was him in danger, not me, but it was his life come over me. I saw him dying, and it was like someone pulled the shade down in the room. His eyes clouded over and squeezed shut, but just before that I looked in. He was still fishing in the middle of Lake Turcot. Big thoughts was on his line and he had half a case of beer in the boat. He waved at me, grinned, and then the bobber went under.
Grandma had gone out of the room crying for help. I bunched my force up in my hands and I held him. I was so wound up I couldn’t even breathe. All the moments he had spent with me, all the plans he had hoisted me on his shoulders or pointed into the leaves was concentrated in that moment. Time was flashing back and forth like a pinball machine. Lights blinked and balls hopped and rubber bands chirped, and suddenly I realized the last ball had gone down the drain and there was nothing. I felt his force leaving him, flowing out of Grandpa never to return. I felt his mind weakening. The bobber going under in the lake. And I felt the touch retreat back into the darkness inside my body, from where it came.
Again the water metaphor and fishing and bobbers this time are woven in the scene, and we’re subtly reminded of Lipsha’s trouble breathing previously in “The World’s Greatest Fisherman.” Links abound within, between, and among these stories! And again we experience a compresence of time, of past and future in the present moment. The metaphors and tension continue when Marie Kashpaw returns: (“Love Medicine,” p. 209)
Grandma got back into the room and I saw her stumble. And then she went down too. It was like a house like you can’t hardly believe had stood so long, through years of record weather, suddenly goes down in the worse yet. It makes sense, is what I’m saying, but you still can’t hardly believe it. You think of a person you know has got through death and illness and being broke and living on commodity rice will get through anything. Then they fold and you see how fragile were the stones that underpinned them. You see how instantly the ground can shift you thought was solid. You see the stop signs and the yellow dividing markers of roads you traveled and all the instructions you had played according to vanish. You see how all the everyday things you counted on was just a dream you had been having by which you run your whole life. She had been over me, like a sheer overhang of rock dividing Lipsha Morrissey from outer space. And now she went underneath. It was as though the banks gave way on the shores of Lake Turcot, and where Grandpa’s passing was just the bobber swallowed under by his biggest thought, her fall was the house and the rock under it sliding after, sending half the lake splashing up to the clouds.
Where there was nothing.
It makes sense, is what I’m saying, but you still can’t hardly believe it. Is there a better summary for life or religion than this sentence? The metaphors continue. This time we get rocks, reminiscent of Peter, the rock of the Catholic church, mixed in (literally!) with the natural beliefs of the Ojibewa tribe. We’re reminded of maps and roads and all the cars we’ve encountered so far and Erdrich projects all that we will encounter in the future. And once again we get a sense of compresence of time and space: Erdrich alters the sentence construction, using repetition, syntax, and a second-person voice, correct but almost the reverse of what we’re used to, to engage us, to slow us down and draw us in, as well. “You see how instantly the ground can shift you thought was solid. You see the stop signs and the yellow dividing markers of roads you traveled and all the instructions you had played according to vanish. You see how all the everyday things you counted on was just a dream you had been having by which you run your whole life.” Yes, makes sense, but I still can’t hardly believe it. There is more than logic going on here, more than just intelligence or just emotion either needed in any true religion.
We get some of Lipsha’s learnings at what was no doubt the Catholic funeral scene: (“Love Medicine,” pp. 210-211)
All the blood children and took-ins, like me, came home…They were struck down with grief and bereavement to be sure, every one of them. At the funeral I sat down in the back of the church with Albertine. She had gotten all skinny and ragged haired from cramming all her years of study into two or three…Her eyes were bloodshot from driving and crying. She took my hand. From the back we watched all the children and the mourners as they hunched over their prayers, their hands stuffed full of Kleenex. It was someplace in that long sad service that my vision shifted. I began to see things different, more clear. The family kneeling down turned to rocks in a field. It struck me how strong and reliable grief was, and death. Until the end of time, death would be our rock.
So I had perspective on it all, for death gives you that…Forgiving someone else made the whole thing easier to bear.
Note the return to the rock metaphor; and recall that rocks of course are part of the earth, part of place as well, so they work both as geographic and religious metaphors. And we have more tears.
After the funeral Grandma and Lipsha experience Nector’s ghost. She thinks it is a sign that the love medicine worked. Lipsha knows it is not. But as another sign of his growing maturity, Lipsha is the only one to speak the name of the dead — and significantly it is not Nector’s name but, rather, June’s: (“Love Medicine,” p. 213)
“Go back,” I said to the dark, afraid and yet full of pity. “You got to be with your own kind now,“ I said. I felt him retreating, like a sign, growing less. I felt his spirit as it shrunk back through the walls, the blinds, the brick courtyard of Senior Citizens. “Look up Aunt June,” I whispered as he left.
Lipsha has grown to the point where he can forgive his relatives, the others on the reservation, but he still has a confession to make as we move back to “Catholic-mode”: (“Love Medicine,” pp. 214-215)
“Grandma,” I said,”I got to be honest about the love medicine.”
She listened. I knew from then on she would be listening to me the way I had listened to her before. I told her about the turkey hearts and how I had had them blessed. I told her what I used as love medicine was purely a fake, and then I said to her what my understanding brought me.
“Love medicine ain’t what brings him back to you, Grandma. No, it’s something else,. He loved you over time and distance, but he went off so quick he never got the chance to tell you how he loves you, how he doesn’t blame you, how he understands. It’s true feeling, not magic. No supermarket heart could have brung him back.”
She looked at me. She was seeing the years and days I had no way of knowing, and she didn’t believe me. I could tell this. Yet a look came on her face. It was like the look of mothers drinking sweetness from their children’s eyes. It was tenderness.
“Lipsha,” she said, “you was always my favorite.”
She took the beads off the bedpost, where she kept them to say at night, and she told me to put out my hand. When I did this, she shut the beads inside of my fist and held them there a long minute, tight, so that my hand would hurt. I almost cried when she did this. I don’t really know why. Tears shot up behind my eyelids, and yet it was nothing. I didn’t understand, except that her hand was so strong, squeezing mine.
Lipsha has almost made it; here the Catholic religion and Ojibwa beliefs nearly merge, literally, in his hand. In what could be a condemnation of accepting Catholic beliefs without applying real life, without applying common-sense logic: “Tears shot up behind my eyelids, and yet it was nothing.” What was nothing — his tears or the rosary beads, and by extension the Catholic religion as taught and practiced on the reservation?
In perhaps the most beautiful passage in the book, the story ends as Lipsha goes forward in his new world: (“Love Medicine,” pp. 214-215)
The earth was full of life and there were dandelions growing out the window, thick as thieves, already seeded, fat as big yellow plungers. She let my hand go. I got up. “I’ll go out and dig a few dandelions,” I told her.
Outside, the sun was hot and heavy as a hand on my back. I felt it flow down through my arms, out my fingers, arrowing through the ends of the fork into the earth. With every root I prized up there was return, as if I was kin to its secret lesson. The touch got stronger as I worked through the grassy afternoon. Uncurling from me like a seed out of the darkness where I was lost, the touch spread. The spiked leaves full of bitter mother’s milk. A buried root. A nuisance people dig up and throw in the sun to wither. A globe of frail seeds that’s indestructible.
With a poet’s touch, Erdrich separated this paragraph from the preceding paragraph by a double break, like a stanza break, in prose. Literally only a minute had passed (“she shut the beads inside of my fist and held them there for a long minute, tight, so my hand would hurt.”) Time and space are blurred again, compressed, and we are reminded that life is pain as well as happiness. Cathololic and Oijbewa beliefs are merging as “I felt it flow down through my arms, out my fingers, arrowing through the ends of the fork into the earth.” (my emphasis) Lipsa is getting his touch back, his touch for forking dandelions as well as his touch for understanding and healing. By using words of universal proportion, such as “earth” and “globe,” Erdrich again reminds us of Faulkner. Lipsha is reborn, like the Ojibewa can be reborn, like all people can be reborn. The implication is that Lipsha can and now assumes Nector’s place as tribal leader and will show the others the “true” way.
There is also subtle word-play on the phrase, “A nuisance people dig up and throw in the sun to whither.” Is “nuisance” the subject or an adjective describing “people”? Two different meanings emerge, “[dandelions as] a nuisance people dig up,” or a “nuisance people” like the Native Americans? What is the religious lesson here, children? Note too that we have seen dandelions before, associated with June: Once when June takes her fatal walk, once when Albertine hears of June’s death: (“World’s Greatest Fisherman,” p, 9)
I sat there at my table, thinking about June. From time to time, overhead, I’d hear my landlady’s vacuum cleaner. Through my window there wasn’t too much to see — dirt and dead snow and wheels rolling by in the street. It was warm but the grass was brown, except in lush patches over the underground steam pipes on the campus. I did something that day. I put on my coat and went walking down the street until I came to a big stretch of university lawn that was crossed by a steam-pipe line of grass — so bright your eyes ached — and even some dandelions. I walked out there and lay down on that patch of grass, above the ground, and I thought of June until I felt the right way for her.
We have come full circle.
Louise Erdrich is quoted as saying that Love Medicine was “an act of desperation.”
Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine: Newly Revised Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.
Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine: A Novel. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, “One Hundred False Starts,” Saturday Evening Post, 1933
Note 1: In the Author’s Notes of the newly revised edition, Erdrich says: “Once again, this book is a little different from previous editions. I have worked over a few small sections added in 1995, but the biggest change is this: I have deleted one of the chapters [arrrggh — stories, not chapters!] (“Lyman’s Luck”) added in the 1995 expanded edition, and moved another (”The Tomahawk Factory”) to the P.S. section in the back of the book. I did this because I was surprised to find how thoroughly “The Tomahawk Factory” and “Lyman’s Luck” interrupted the flow of the final quarter. “The Tomahawk Factory” was one of the first pieces I wrote, so it seems to belong to Love Medicine. In the end, I am leaving it rather loosely attached.” (pp. 5-6, P.S. section, newly revised edition).