Loving Across Boundaries: Life & Death and Indian & White in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine

Through multiple characters’ perspectives and relationships, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine explores the two concepts of love and identity in a variety of ways. With each chapter narrated by a different character, they each tell their stories and an overall story about the interconnectedness between several family clans on the Ojibwa reservation in North Dakota. Some characters define their identity by their expression of love and could not define themselves otherwise. Lulu Nanapush is one such example. Sometimes the idea of love is misunderstood and parents are forsaken by their children, as is evidenced by the case of Lipsha Morrisey, whose own identity is a mystery to no one but himself. Nector Kashpaw is a great example of the concept of searching for identity, loving two women and two worlds, the Indian world and the white man’s world, which both of his lovers exemplify. He is an educated man, having gone to boarding school like his lover Lulu, “Lulu Lamartine sniffed down her nose at the length and bagginess of old-time skirts. She led her gang of radicals in black spike heels and tight, low-cut dresses blooming with pink flowers,” (p 303) while his wife Marie (Lazarre) Kashpaw had remained on the reservation and gone to the convent for her education, “…A determined bunch who grew out their hair in braids or ponytails and dressed in ribbon shirts and calico to make their point,” (p 303). Marie did not take in a lot of the white man’s ideas and culture as had Lulu and Nector. The novel takes place over several decades, from the 1920’s through the 80’s. Through chronological ordering of the narrations, and via flashbacks, we see characters age; men and women as they are, as they were and as they will be. The reader’s first experience with Nector is as an old man being compared to his great-grandson, “King Junior, was happy because he hadn’t yet acquired memory, while perhaps Grandpa’s happiness was in losing his,” (p 20). This statement as narrated by his granddaughter, Albertine, sums up Nector’s life as an Indian straddling two worlds. This statement informs Erdrich’s audience that Nector has seen so much in his lifetime, between finding an identity in both the Indian and White man’s worlds as well as his identity as a man who is both a husband and lover. His life has been long and trying, involving many difficult decisions with far-reaching consequences. He had to make difficult decisions as both and Indian responsible to the tribe, and as an Indian official answerable to the United States government. “I go down on my knees, a man of rags and tinder. I am ready to be burned up in the fire, too, but she reaches down and lifts me up,” (p 145) is a line by Nector, metaphorically telling the audience he is so lost and confused, having to choose between both worlds, Marie or Lulu, Indian and non-Indian. He is a man lacking strength. He is ready to be consumed in a fire that will allow him to die, and in death, he will not have to make such difficult decisions anymore. A question remains, which world will he go to in his death, the Indian “spirit world” or perhaps a more Catholic afterlife?

The previous comment on memory, by Albertine, simultaneously tells the audience her feelings on what it is like to be a baby, especially an Indian baby. Since King Junior is new to the world and ignorant of all the problems that come with being an Indian, he can be happy. The reader later learns Albertine’s own adolescent years lead her to do her own soul searching where only years later does she truly finds her “self” off the reservation. The definition and search for an Indian identity is a common theme in current American Indian literature, from Sherman Alexie’s works, including The Toughest Indian in the World and The Business of Fancy Dancing, to Sarah Powers’ Grass Dancer.

Lulu Lamartine defines herself by her lovers, of which she has taken many in her lifetime, “It’s a sad world, though, when you can’t get love right even after trying it as many times as I have,” (p 278). “I never grew from the curve of my mother’s arms, I still wanted to anchor myself against her. But she had tore herself away from the run of my life like a riverbank,” (p 68) explains Lulu’s childhood, lacking the love and of her parents and a model on how to love men. At a young age she want sent to boarding school, as happened to many Indians around the turn of the 19th century well into the 20th, which was a scheme to isolate Indian children from their parents to Americanize the children, though this also broke down familial and tribal bonds, what little bonds Lulu still had left.

Nanapush and Rushes Bear, her adoptive parents, raised her when she was not attending boarding school and they scarcely provided Lulu with good examples of a committed adult relationship, “Once I crowded the house, Margaret [Rushes Bear] tried to punish Nanapush…” (p 70). Lulu’s ideas of love became about control. She could identify with Rushes Bear after many years as a strong-willed, independent woman. Early on she learned how to push apart Nanapush and Rushes bear, keeping Nanapush, the closest thing she ever had to a father, for herself. This concept of selfishness and control came into her life early in a very impacting way, when she had come across the body of a man in the woods when she was seven years of age, “Death was him…He never seemed to notice the passage of time. So after a while, I knew he was mine,” (p 279). This dead man was the embodiment of death and Lulu felt she could control death. At the point she opens his pants she thinks that through sex she can control death, whether vis a vie her power to influence men’s feelings and urges, or through the process of sexual reproduction. Coincidentally, of all her children, more than half a dozen males, were all very loyal to her, always keeping near home.

Contradictorily, life is also is controlled this way. With her power and prowess as a lover, she has brought many sons into the world, several of which later lead very passionate live and pass on the bloodlines of so many clans within the tribe.

Lipsha Morrisey represents an Indian at loss for an identity as a member of the tribe and more specifically, a member of a family. Having been abandoned by a mother he did not know, and by father who did not know of his son’s existence, he was raised by Nector and Marie Kashpaw. He had been told his mother had intended to drown him and that he was rescued by Marie. Though everyone on the reservation knows his mother is June Morrisey, even after her death and Albertine wants to tell Lipsha who his mother is, he says, “I can never forgive what she done to a little child,” (p 39). It is not until he meets his father that he understands who he is and that having been raised by Marie was a blessing, “I tell you there was good in what she did for me, I know now…but I was lucky she turned me over to Grandma Kashpaw,” (p 366-367).

It is through family members and lovers that the characters in this novel learn to identify themselves. Without love and sometimes hatred for family or lovers, these characters are unable to identify themselves. Lulu and Marie are mirrors from which Nector sees himself as lover and husband and father. Lipsha needs to know why June abandoned him and needs to meet his father to understand his place in the community. Lulu needs her plethora of suitors to see who she is in relation to other humans and to life and death, as life and death define each other. Without an unknowingness of self, love itself has and gives no meaning. Love medicine cannot help those who know themselves, only those who do not.