Here we have a first novel -- a lovely, accomplished book -- about members of the Chippewa tribe living on a reservation in North Dakota, the author of which is herself a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. This is interesting, but it is not really the point. If "Love Medicine" is a book about American Indians, it is also one about the most elemental struggles and emotions of people everywhere. If it adds to our understanding of the lives of American Indians, that will be all well and good; but I do not think that is why Louise Erdrich wrote it.
It's described as a novel, but it's really a collection of interconnected stories, 14 of them, about two families named Kashpaw and Lamartine. The former are "the last hereditary leaders of this tribe"; the latter are rather lower on the social scale. But they are united in countless ways: by the common experience of being Indians, by the shared life on a hard land, by the drink and violence that color so much of their days, by their distrust and resentment of whites who neglect and abuse them -- but above all by the mysterious and exalting workings of love.
There are, for example, Nector Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine, by any measure two of the most vivid characters to be found in recent American fiction. Nector has a wife, Marie, whom he loves, and Lulu has had husbands and other men in great numbers. Yet they love each other, and so Nector climbs through Lulu's window "to have his candy come what might." It threatens to wear Nector out -- "How I managed two lives was a feat of drastic proportions. Most of the time I was moving in a dim fog of pure tiredness" -- and it prompts Marie to go in search of love medicines, "an old Chippewa specialty," in hopes of winning him back. This she fails to do before his death, yet in death he comes to visit her and reaffirm his love. Her grandson tells her what is the book's central truth:
"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 no magic. No supermarket heart could have brung him back."
The speaker is Lipsha Morrissey, one of the many distinct and memorable characters with whom Erdrich has populated her novel. There are also June Kashpaw, whose early and somewhat peculiar death haunts all of her survivors; Gerry Nanapush, "the famous Chippewa who had songs wrote for him, whose face was on protest buttons, whose fate was argued over in courts of law, sent press releases to the world"; Albertine Johnson, who finds herself somewhere halfway between the reservation and the outside world; and Henry Lamartine, who comes back from Vietnam a shattered man:
"I'd bought a color TV set for my mom and the rest of us while Henry was away. Money still came very easy. I was sorry I'd ever bought it, though, because of Henry. I was also sorry I'd bought color, because with black-and-white the pictures seem older and farther away. But what are you going to do? He sat in front of it, watching it, and that was the only time he was completely still. But it was the kind of stillness that you see in a rabbit when it freezes and before it will bolt. He was not easy. He sat in his chair gripping the armrests with all his might, as if the chair itself was moving at a high speed and if he let go at all he would rocket forward and maybe crash right through the set."
It doesn't call attention to itself, but that is writing. Without once striking a false note, Erdrich has pulled off the exceedingly difficult feat of merging colloquial and literary styles into an entirely convincing whole; we believe that we are listening to ordinary people speak even as we know we are in the hands of an exceptionally skilled, sensitive, observant writer. We're also in the hands of a writer who steadfastly refuses to sentimentalize or melodramatize the sadness and hardship in the lives of her characters; she gives us Indians, all right, and to the outsider they have the clear stamp of authenticity, but more than that she gives us people. "Love Medicine" is the work of a tough, loving mind.