Love Medicine

Posted by on Friday, September 23rd, 2005

Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich. 

I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading this.  It’s a pretty big deal to win the National Book Critics Circle Award with a first novel.  Erdrich deserved it. 

The novel is set largely on a Chippewa reservation in North Dakota, with brief forays to the Twin Cities.  There is a family tree at the beginning of the book–refer to it as you read.  This is essentially the story of two linked multi-generational families.  The speaker shifts from chapter to chapter, as does the point in the time-line.  Now we have the voice of a young student going home to visit her grandparents and worrying about her cousin, now the voice of that grandmother still a young woman, explaining her choice of mates. 

What really matters, throughout, is Erdrich’s beautiful way with language.  She accomplishes something all to rare–she writes in the voice of an uneducated person who is brilliant.  We don’t see that often.  Many writers can write as an ignoramus–just mess up their grammar and give them small words and a character will seem dumb.  But to write as someone without great facility for language who is simultaneously brilliant, prescient, and uneducated is quite an accomplishment.  We see Lipsha’s intelligence shimmer on the page, despite his clumsiness with English. 

We also receive a cast of characters that are complex, flawed, and still loveable.  We feel somewhere the urge to hate Lulu or Nector for their selfishness and deceit, and yet we forgive them their sins.  We admire Marie, but know that her own selflessness also hides some greed that would injure a marriage.  I don’t often run across a writer that can make so many characters so well-developed and completely flawed but also completely attractive.  I’ll keep reading Erdrich.  If her later work is even better, I will feel like a very lucky reader.

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