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Literary Analysis: Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich’s novel Love Medicine, takes place on the present day Ojibwa reservation, and though the characters are entirely fictional, the social, economic and cultural issues depicted within the novel are very much true to life.
While the novel stands in its own right as a heartfelt human drama, it also delves into the sticky subject of reservation land being slowly eroded and sold away through an entirely legal means. Erdrich also allows the complicated question of retaining traditional culture in the face of modernization and human progress to take and active role within the story.
While Erdrich may not necessarily have all the answers to these issues, she does, at least, manage to bring some important questions into the mainstream American consciousness.
At the outset of the novel, the reader is able to tour the reservation through the eyes of Albertine, a returning college student. It becomes clear early on that the landscape of the modern reservation is one heavily influenced by history, dotted by “rock cairns commemorating Indian defeats."
The cairns are a symbol of a multitude of issues faced on the reservations. As a direct result of the government’s exclusionist policies, the scene is one of small land allotments, poverty, and disenfranchisement. While most Americans assume that Native American land rights issues are a thing of the past, in reality land rights continue to be an issue as the reservation lands continue to dwindle.
Unlike in times past, instead of unfair treaties the land is now lost legally through capitalist trade. Erdrich examines how many poor families become pressured into selling off their land. Albertine declares “The policy of allotment was a joke. As I was driving toward the land, looking around, I saw as usual how much of the reservation was sold to whites and lost forever." While broken treaties may be a thing of the past, the underlying desire for land that prompted disregard for the treaties is not.
Tradition vs. Modernization
Erdrich also tackles the theme of conflict between traditional ways of living and increasing modernization. This struggle is shown through the characters of Nector and Eli Kashpaw.
Nector, through the urgings and manipulation of his wife, overcomes alcoholism to become a powerful figure within the new tribal government and the increasingly modernized community. Eli is a polar opposite; he is the embodiment of the traditional ways, “the last man on the reservation that could snare himself a deer."
Each has adapted differently to the changing fabric of the lives of the Ojibwa, representing either an embrace or rejection of white ways of life and government. Yet it is young Lipsha Morrissey who manages to incorporate both of these aspects. A fusion of both Nector and Eli, Lipsha is a typical young man, wrestling with issues of identity and self.
Lipsha has, however, retained a bit of the old magic, so when Nector’s wife becomes concerned with his infidelity, she asks Lipsha, her adopted grandson to make her a traditional love medicine. Lipsha, being the somewhat irresponsible young man that he is, purchases the ingredients from the grocery store instead of hunting for them in the woods as tradition would prescribe. The medicine backfires, whether from Lipsha's shortcut or simply a random chain of unfortunate events, and a tragic accident causes the death of Nector.
Afterwards, Nector's spirit returns to his wife as a testament to the love between them, showing that the imitation love medicine was never needed in the first place. Though the medicine may not have been entirely necessary, and though it was not enacted in the proper, traditional way, this scene in the book is one of many ways that Erdrich depicts tradition as remaining an important force even in a changing community.
Though many if not most of the characters have lost the ability to hunt and trap game, though they live in modern houses and drive cars, there is a flavor of life and belief system that remains constant, that cannot disappear even in face of modernization, of dwindling land ownership, or of a historic legacy commemorated only in isolated piles of rock.