Book Review: Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Love MedicineLove Medicine by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Her clothes were filled with safety pins and hidden tears

Last week I sat on the steps of a downtown pier, stalled in the summer sun, reading my 1989 paperback edition of Love Medicine. With its Washington Husky-purple cover and title blaring in giant Britannic Bold white font, the book must have appeared to the uninitiated like a pulp romance. Little did they know it was one of the most significant works of American fiction published in the 1980s, by an author who has become a national literary treasure.

Louise Erdrich squeezes the back of our neck and pushes our resisting head to look directly into the lives of Native Americans on a reservation—a part of North American culture about which most of us know very little, segregated as reservations are by politics, geography, contempt, and pity. And the reader does more than observe—she sees, hears, thinks, feels, loves, and suffers as Erdrich’s characters do, through fifty years and the countless episodes of heartbreak, laughter, rage, and grace.

Love Medicine opens in 1981 with the death of beautiful but broken June Kashpaw. June stumbles from a truck cab and runs from a stranger who calls her by another woman’s name as he makes love to her. She sets out for her home on a North Dakota Chippewa reservation, following her instincts through a later winter storm. But her sharp survival skills, honed in a lifetime of living out-of-doors, cannot overpower the snowstorm or keep her warm in a pair of jeans and a thin jacket.

June’s death propels the narrative down a path of memories connecting two Chippewa familes—the Kashpaws and the Lamartines. Love Medicine is the first in Erdrich’s symphony of novels featuring characters from the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota, set in and around the reservation. Although she dies in the story’s opening scene, June’s spirit holds the narrative together. The thread of her life is woven through each character’s story.

The author uses a conversational first-person give the reader a sense of second skin with the characters. Mixed in are handful of third-person limited narratives that imbue the story with a lyrical, almost mythical tone.

The writing is gorgeous. The characters are so vividly rendered, you feel them in your blood.

She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved.

AH! Could there be a more perfect sentence?

She was a natural blond with birdlike legs and, true, no chin, but great blue snapping eyes.

Gordie had dark, round, eager face, creased and puckered from being stitched up after an accident. His face was like something valuable that was broken and put carefully back together.

Even as the characters speak directly to you, drawing you into their secret thoughts, shames and desires, Erdrich’s prose is like music, full of shifting tones and rhythms, crescendos and counterpoints.

Veils of love which was only hate petrified by longing–that was me.

So many things in the world have happened before. But it’s like they never did. Every new thing that happens to a person, it’s a first… In that night I felt expansion, as if the world was branching out in shoots and growing faster than the eye could see. I felt smallness, how the earth divided into bits and kept dividing. I felt stars.

There they were. And he was really loving her up good, boy, and she was going hell for leather. Sheets were flapping on the lines above and washcloths, pillowcases, shirts was also flying through the air, for they was trying to clear a place for themselves in a high-heaped but shallow laundry cart.

There is evil and mystery, as Marie Lazarre escapes the horror of the convent on the hill in the 1930s; Sister Leopolda’s fingers like a “bundle of broom straws, her eye sockets two deep lashless hollows in a taut skull” will haunt your dreams.

There are stories of betrayal: Nector Kashpaw turns away from his wife for the comfort of his first love, the easy, sensual Lulu Lamartine, mother of eight boys by eight fathers; June has an affair with tribal legend Gerry Nanapush, whose 6’3”, 250-pound frame cannot be contained by any prison, and leaves their son to be raised by the tribe as she had been.

You will ache for Henry’s future, wasted in the jungles of Vietnam and pray that Albertine, the first of her family to attend university, doesn’t waste hers. There is deep despair, as Gordie, wretched with alcohol, hallucinates the deer he has hit is his dead wife, June. He bundles the deer into the back seat of his car and the scene which unfolds is sickening and desperately sad.

And there is redemption and love, as tender and insightful Lipsha Morrisey, who isn’t aware until he is a grown man that June is his mother, finds a way to forgive and love the woman who cast him off; as Marie opens her home and heart to stray children; as two old women, enemies since childhood, come together in their final years.

It is challenging to keep straight the shared bloodlines and histories. I believe later editions contain a family tree of sorts. But Erdrich explains these connected lives in a way that you realize they are like the root system of an aspen tree—one tree, standing alone, is really part of a vast forest:

They moved in dance steps too intricate for the noninitiated eye to imitate or understand. Clearly they were of one soul. Handsome, rangy, wildly various, they were bound in total loyalty, not by oath, but by the simple, unquestioning belongingness of part of one organism.

Whatever its flaws, and apparently Erdrich found enough to revise the book and publish new editions in recent years, Love Medicine is the reason we read: to be shaken to our core by characters we hate to leave behind as we turn the final pages.

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Use Your Words

You know those lists that ping-pong around the internet every few months, those “If You Don’t Use These Words Correctly, You’re An Idiot” lists? You know the ones: “My head literally exploded when I heard Anthony Weiner was caught sexting AGAIN.” Wow. Did you call the Sunshine Cleaning girls to deal with the mess?


I hate those lists.


Yes, yes, all right. It’s like fingernails raking down a chalkboard, sticky jam between my fingers, creeping underwear I can’t adjust to see it’s/its, you’re/your, their/they’re/there, I/me, fewer/less than, etc., and so on, misused and abused. I like my punctuation neat, my spelling correct, my homonyms sorted and selected with care. I could care less about usage. I’m a descriptivist with a moon in prescriptivism.


What chaps my hide about the lists is their cheap SNOOTiness (you’ll have to click the link to read all about SNOOTs. I’m trying to keep my word count down). They are the syntactical equivalent of the No Child Left Behind approach to education, with all the constancy social media can bestow (like, three seconds’ worth): Here, memorize a list of rules, never attempt to use nonplussed in a sentence, and off you go into the wonderful world of language.


These smarmy compilations often self-identify as lists of grammatical mistakes, when in fact they are spelling, punctuation or word choice errors. Grammar is the structure we use to create meaning from the piles of words at our disposal. But I’ll acknowledge the broader definition of grammar, which spills beyond the classic meaning to include spelling, punctuation, and usage.


Grammar is Greek in derivation, meaning the art of letters. Isn’t that lovely? The Art of Letters.


These punctilious lists would be unnecessary if we placed a higher value on the learning of language, and the reading and writing of beautiful and thoughtful texts. If we just read and wrote more. But that’s a rant for another place and time.


I want to celebrate the Art of Letters, not rap across someone’s knuckles for ending a sentence with a preposition. Which is perfectly legit, thank you very much.


Grammar Police, wielding these lists like rulers, clamp on the blinders instead of opening readers’ eyes. They favor pedantry over playfulness. They ignore that language lives, breathes, expands. It’s rough, rowdy, and ridiculous. It grabs at and sinks its teeth into words, masticates chews grinds them up, and spews great spitballs of meaning. Some stick, some don’t.


And if you snigger when bemusement is used to express wry or tolerant amusement instead of puzzlement, or peruse to mean scan instead of delve into, snigger to yourself. It might make you nauseous (yup, ‘nother one, whether you like it or not). Those “incorrect” definitions are on their way to becoming accepted usage. Not yet in the O.E.D., but Watch This Space.


I’ve studied French for many years. I love its graceful precision, how there seems to be one correct way to say something–and it’s the perfect way, the only expression or construction you need to say exactly what you mean. French is clean, crystalline, harmonic. Like Fauré. Like Chopin.


English is jazz. It’s hip hop. It riffs, it borrows, stakes its claim, then runs off with the secretary. It’s irreverent and innovative.


Studying languages–French, Italian, and Spanish–and teaching English to speakers of other languages has allowed me to appreciate and use English grammar with greater care. And I am so very grateful to be a native speaker of English. I wouldn’t want the hassle of making sense of our gumbo tongue.


To become a better grammarian and editor, as any writer should aspire to be, arm yourself with great writing guides, dictionaries, a thesaurus or two. My current favorite guide is Ben Yagoda’s sparkling, concise, and spot-on How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. Stephen King still rocks my writing world with On Writing. I did a “Find” of -ly words in a 50-page portion of my novel that I’m entering in a contest, scrubbing 70 percent of  the -ly adverbs this search uncovered, replacing them with verbs and nouns. Thanks, Steve. I recently snagged a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Best Friend by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I carry it with me wherever I go to write.


But I believe the best way to become a better writer is to read. Read well-written everything: articles and poetry, essays and novels. Friday Fiction tweets, where writers craft stories in 140 characters. Lyrics.


Read sentences such as these:


“She moved between them as a chaise between carts, was heard after them as a romance after sermons, and was felt among them like a breeze among furnaces.” Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd


“She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved.” Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine


“It’s a clear October day. The wind scatters bright leaves against the blue opalescence of air.” Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces.


Halfway through your life, death turns up
and takes your pertinent measurements. We forget
the visit. Life goes on. But someone is sewing
the suit in silence. 
Tomas Tranströmer, Black Postcards


‘Neath the halo of a streetlamp, I turned my collar to the cold and damp. When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light, split the night, and touched the sound of silence. Paul Simon, Sounds of Silence


Jesus wept. John 11:35, The Bible, King James version


Now, go outside and play.

Writing with Porpoise. Port Townsend, August 2013

Writing with Porpoise. Port Townsend, August 2013

Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round HouseThe Round House by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On two successive nights this week I woke suddenly, yelling out in fright. In my dreams I was moments away from becoming the victim of a horrific assault. Shaken, I turned on the light, shifting uncomfortably in sheets soaked in my sweat, and I reached for The Round House. Louise Erdrich’s profound novel haunted my dreams and moved me to tears and laughter in my waking hours.

Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe living on a reservation in North Dakota, doesn’t escape from her nightmare. On a gentle spring Sunday in 1988 her thirteen year old son Joe and her husband Bazil, a tribal judge, peel her fingers from the steering wheel of her car and speed her unyielding body to the hospital. The front of her shirt is covered in vomit and she reeks of gasoline. Raped and nearly burned alive, Geraldine escaped when her captor went in search of matches.

Geraldine’s physical wounds heal in time, but the spirit of this proud, vibrant woman is crushed. She tumbles into depression, refusing to leave her bedroom, barely eating, escaping her terror through the false protection of sleep. The Round House opens with this crime and it becomes the incident which ushers Joe, the novel’s narrator, out of the smooth waters of his childhood into the murky depths of maturity.

The Round House is more than a coming-of-age story. The novel has many layers, each beautifully rendered in language that is so pure it belies the complex themes. The search for Geraldine’s attacker propels the narrative and in this, it is a tense literary thriller. It is an exploration of tribal law and the protracted effort by the federal government to chip away at Native American sovereignty. Tribal political and judicial limbo is a chord that resonates throughout Erdich’s works, yet when told through the perspective of a child it becomes the character’s discovery of his legacy and not the political agenda of the author. It is a novel rich with history, mythology and adventure.

But more than these themes, this is a novel of family. The tight union of Bazil, Geraldine and Joe forms the familial core. Erdrich’s portrait of a strong woman collapsing dug so deeply under my skin – this cold reality was the source of my nightmares. But the ways a husband and a son respond to the woman they love as she falls apart, how hard they work to lift her up and save her, are heartfelt and poignant. Erdrich captures each character’s emotions and reactions in vivid and graceful detail.

The theme of family extends through the tribal community. Erdrich reveals daily life on a reservation. She shows us what we think we know: the poverty and alcoholism on the inside, the marginalization and racism from the outside. But she also conveys a sense of community that few of us will ever experience, no matter how idyllic our childhood. Within the tribe everyone belongs to everyone else – the definition of family is not limited to blood relations. The communal responsibility demonstrates a solid foundation built on shared history and beliefs.

Despite the violent crime that churns the plot, there many moments of levity and sweetness in The Round House. The novel’s comic foil is Mooshom, Joe’s ancestor and tribal elder. And I do mean elder. He’s entering his second century as salty as a sailor and with libido to spare. The many scenes Joe shares with his besties Cappy, Angus and Zack are ripe with thirteen year old boy hormones, antics and tenderness.

I can’t sing loudly enough my praises for The Round House. I also can’t believe this is the first Louise Erdrich novel I’ve read. It has been a year of celebrated-American author discoveries for me: Terry Tempest Williams, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, not to mention the astonishing debut of Amanda Coplin (The Orchardist). That they are each deeply connected to the American West is significant to me as a reader. Through their words I have developed a deeper understanding, love and compassion for my enormous and complex backyard.

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