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Volume 9:1 Winter 1985

Editor: Karl Kroeber
Assistant to the Editor: Linda J. Ainsworth
Bibliographer: LaVonne Brown Ruoff

        This issue of Studies in American Indian Literatures concentrates on the art of Louise Erdrich, especially her novel Love Medicine, published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, October, 1984, and awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for the year's best novel in January, 1985. We present comments on this valuable contribution to the growing body of contemporary fiction written by Native Americans by Dee Brown, Ursula K. Le Guin, Scott Sanders, Kathleen Sands, and Linda Ainsworth, and a review by Elaine Jahner of Jacklight, Erdrich's volume of poems, published earlier in 1984. These are followed by a biographical sketch of Erdrich and a bibliography of her work to date, the ninth in our series of SAIL Bibliographies.

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1984. 275 pp. $13.95.


        Belated in noticing Love Medicine, The New York Times Book Review at least avoided its standard complaint about novels by Native Americans--that the lives depicted are depressingly grim. The favorable review (December 23, 1984, p. 6) did object, however, that "we {2} are shown what happens to the older generation, but are left guessing about the future of Ms. Erdrich's younger characters." This would imply that Ms. Erdrich should be a prophet or a social therapist peddling pat answers. But Love Medicine is a work of art, satisfying because it arouses questions.

        For me, Love Medicine poses a question about novelistic unity, because it consists of distinct short stories narrated by different characters involved in events scattered over half a century. Most characters, of course, reappear frequently, and relations between apparently unconnected events are gradually established, so that by the end of the book one feels that one has come to an intimate if realistically incomplete and ambivalent understanding of two quite extended, not to say involuted, Chippewa families. The novel's special fascination arises out of its seeming fragmentation. As Scott Sanders observes, reading this novel is "like being drawn into a boisterous family reunion in a crowded kitchen. Whichever direction you turn, you hear voices speaking." Unlike so many contemporary novels, Love Medicine is not a monologue.

        We hear in it not only diverse voices but diverse languages--the speech-systems of different age groups, genders, occupations, modes of acculturation, political attitudes, religious commitments colliding, overlapping, intersecting, contradicting, fusing. This complicated, unstable competition of languages expressed through individual voicings, however unusual, makes me wonder if "American fiction" is not at its best polyphonic, reflecting the {3} intensely American (both pre- and post-Columbian) experience of encounters among diverse cultures.

        However inadequate the term "ethnic," it seems appropriate for suggesting a cultural bias or origin that flavors other kinds of differences of occupation, education, ideology, and produces the irregular depths of vocal landscape created by Erdrich's dwellers on the Dakota plains. This novel made me realize that what separates European fiction, perhaps even Latin American fiction, from American fiction is the absence from the former of any sense of a texture of multiple ethnicities. All Americans, native or immigrant, live along ethnic interfaces. I would even suggest, at the risk of inadvertently offending some sensibilities, that much of the "Indianness" in Erdrich's novel is linked to sensitivity to the peculiarly poly-ethnic character of Americanness. Her Chippewas possess powerful fictive reality because she encourages us to imagine them neither in isolation from other groups nor contrasted reductively against stereotyped abstractions (e.g., WASPs), but as active participants--destructive as well as constructive--in meetings, misunderstandings, and blendings resonant with overtones of cultural divergence. If the German half of Erdrich's own background appears minimally in Love Medicine, it plays a part just beyond the visible range of action, contributing to the novel's unusually comprehensive vitality.

        Another source of the novel's breadth of vivacity is its exploitation of a tradition of story-telling, made famous by Mark Twain, that {4} uses popular speech rhythms to bring out both the humor and the unsentimentalized pathos in homely affairs. The opening sentence of the story which gives Erdrich's novel its title catches such a rhythm perfectly through the intonation of its final two words: "I never really done much with my life, I suppose." The story might seem to belie the speaker, Lipsha Morrissey, for his turkey-heart love medicine from the Red Owl has profound effects, both hilarious and tragic. Yet the tone is justified by the chapter's final sentence, summing up what he--and we--learn from his mistakes: each human life is "a globe of frail seeds that's indestructible."

Karl Kroeber

*       *       *       *

        What is most engaging about Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine is its delineation of a segment of American life that hitherto has been virtually absent from the nation's literature. Hundreds of thousands of Americans whose blood is wholly or partially Indian live on modern reservations or in urban centers, frequently moving back and forth between the two. Yet except for a scattering of non-fiction pieces we have very little in the way of enduring literature that depicts the modern American Indian from the inside out.

        James Welch with his Winter in the Blood made a brilliant beginning a decade ago, and he and a few other American Indian writers have laid a foundation upon which Louise Erdrich has now added a work of art. She evidently has {5} found her voice early in her career. She knows her characters intimately and perceives the universality of their strengths and weaknesses and the myths and realities by which they live. She understands the effect of time upon people. By using a chorus of differing characters speaking in differing cadences, she has created a word painting that is comparable to one of those revealing canvases of the master colorists that depict how human beings lived in a certain time and place.

        Her work calls to mind a dozen fine writers of the past with whom she might be compared, but such comparisons are superfluous because of the uniqueness and originality with which she handles her own special sources and materials.

Dee Brown
Little Rock, Arkansas

*       *       *       *

        A work of really startling beauty and power by a young writer may rouse in the elder novelist's soul an exhilarating envy or generous jealousy--a thoroughly parental mix of feelings. "How can she? How dare she!" you think, and all the time you're hoping that she'll keep it up, that she'll get away with it--and when she does, you triumph with her. So it was with the first reading of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, so now with Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine.

        If a central originality is what marks the true artist, this book proves Erdrich to be a true artist and probably a major one. Of all {6} the audacities she gets away with so splendidly, I think the most stunning is her use of point of view, or narrative voice, or whatever it's being called now. In this case it is indeed a matter of voice, the many different voices that tell the story/stories. This is no cerebral fascination with mere ambiguity or trendy preference for the unreliable witness. Something profound and very complex is going on, something I have not met with in a novel before.

        The book is told about/told by an interrelated group of people, and I think its inmost concern is with relations, in several senses of the word. But the relations and relationships are different from what we're used to, differently felt, different in kind. The book's originality is not in technique, but in the sensibility which the technique effortlessly expresses or embodies. Oneness and manyness, this is maybe what the book is 'about,' and its passion and compassion, desolation and humor all center in a perception of what it is to belong and not to belong; to be a person; to be one of the people.

Ursula K. Le Guin
Portland, Oregon

*       *       *       *

        In much contemporary fiction the writer is like a highwire performer, a lone stunt man or woman clamoring for our attention with sequined costume and daredevil tricks and the tantalizing prospect of a fall. When such writing succeeds, our gaze is fixed on the quivering wire, the fancy footwork, the leaps from sentence to sentence. But if we glance away, we {7} see no other performers waiting down in the sawdust, no circus tent, no crowd, nothing else at all. The ends of the shimmering highwire stretch away into empty infinities. The act is everything.

        Reading Love Medicine is more like being drawn into a boisterous family reunion in a crowded kitchen. Whichever direction you turn, you hear voices speaking of heart matters, you see bodies gesturing their pantomime of the flesh. You might, for example, hear a voluptuous, rambunctious woman saying this:

No one ever understood my wild and secret ways. They used to say that Lulu Lamartine was like a cat, loving no one, only purring to get what she wanted. But that's not true. I was in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms. Sometimes I'd look out on my yard and the green leaves would be glowing. I'd see the oil slick on the wing of a grackle. I'd hear the wind rushing, rolling, like the far-off sound of waterfalls. Then I'd open my mouth wide, my ears wide, my heart, and I'd let everything inside. (216)

        Or you might watch one of the matriarchs, abandoned by her husband, peeling hundreds of potatoes and waxing the cracked linoleum floor to still her grief. Your attention is caught and held first of all by these voices and gestures, this human spectacle, and only later do you notice the writer's delicate, muscular art.

        Of course, like all characters in fiction, the inhabitants of Love Medicine are verbal confections, created by Louise Erdrich out of sentences--frequently admirable sentences. But unlike many characters in recent fiction, these figures suggest the density of lives lived outside the book, and they bear the mark of their author's affection and respect. The book seems to exist for their sake, to give them substance, rather than for the sake of the author's performance.

        Her caring for them does not prevent Erdrich from seeing into their tangled, muffled lives with clairvoyance. When I try to identify the source of my pleasure in reading Love Medicine, I think first of this compassionate regard Erdrich shows toward her doomed and durable characters. Here is a glimpse of the quality I am talking about:

Gordie had a dark, round, eager face, creased and puckered from being stitched up after an accident. There was always a compelling pleasantness about him. In some curious way all the stitches and folds had contributed to, rather than detracted from, his looks. His face was like something valuable that was broken and put carefully back together. And all the more lovable for the care taken. (25)

Erdrich takes that same care with the bodies and souls of all her scarred people.

        They are mostly Chippewas, four generations of them, living on a North Dakota reservation or in Minnesota's Twin Cities. In each {9} succeeding generation, their ancestral blood and ways are thinned out by mixture with the ways and blood of whites. If you were drawing a graph of what remains distinctly Indian about them, the curve, as it passes through our time, would be heading unmistakably toward zero. The wisdom of the woods, of hunting and trapping and living off the land, is dying with the old men. The wisdom of healing and intimacy with the ancient gods is dying with the old women. Erdrich superimposes on the tales of individual lives this larger story, about a traditional culture giving way to a materialistic, mongrelized white culture. It is by now a familiar story, told about every minority people in America and about beleaguered tribes and races in the erstwhile colonial world. Yet Erdrich retells it about her own doomed Chippewas with arresting dignity and particularity.

        In a worldly sense, Erdrich's people are mostly failures. The women are visited and abandoned by men, ensnared by children, trapped in their cabins and trailers. The men are blasted by drink, idleness, war. One life after another ends in suicide or madness, in prison or the old folks' home. From time to time, a victim tries to make sense of this collective fate:

I looked around me. How else could I explain what all I had seen in my short life--King smashing his fist in things, Gordie drinking himself down to the Bismarck hospitals, or Aunt June left by a white man to wander off in the snow. How else to explain the times my touch don't work, and farther back, to the old-time Indians {10} who was swept away in the outright germ warfare and dirty-dog killing of the whites. In those times, us Indians was so much kindlier than now.

     We took them in.

     Oh yes, I'm bitter as an old cutworm just thinking of how they done to us and doing still. (195)

Despite this hard-earned rancor, despite the chronicles of failure, Love Medicine is neither tract nor elegy. It is a celebration of lives rich in feeling and speech. Here, for example, is Nector Kashpaw:

I'm not ashamed, but there are some times this happens: alone in the woods, checking the trapline, I find a wounded animal that hasn't died well, or, worse, it's still living, so that I have to put it out of its misery. Sometimes it's just a big bird I only winged. When I do what I have to do, my throat swells closed sometimes. I touch the suffering bodies like they were killed saints I should handle with gentle reverence.

     This is how I take Marie's hand. This is how I hold her wounded hand in my hand. (62)

And here is Marie Kashpaw, whose wounded hand he took:


I was ignorant. I was near age fourteen. The length of sky is just about the size of my ignorance. Pure and wide. And it was just that--the pure and wideness of my ignorance--that got me up the hill to Sacred Heart Convent and brought me back down alive. For maybe Jesus did not take my bait, but them Sisters tried to cram me right down whole. (40-41)

And here, finally, is the "took-in" child they raised, Lipsha Morrissey, a boy who "don't got the cold hard potatoes it takes to understand everything," but who can say:

God's been going deaf. Since the Old Testament, God's been deafening up on us. I read, see. Besides the dictionary, which I'm constantly in use of, I had this Bible once. I read it. I found there was discrepancies between then and now. It struck me. Here God used to raineth bread from clouds, smite the Phillipines, sling fire down on red-light districts where people got stabbed. He even appeared in person every once in a while. God used to pay attention, is what I'm saying. (194)

Erdrich is paying attention, is what I'm saying: compassionate, lucid attention to people who have provoked her into a high and eloquent art.

Scott R. Sanders
Indiana University

*       *       *       *

        Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich is a novel of hard edges, multiple voices, disjointed episodes, erratic tone shifts, bleak landscapes, eccentric characters, unresolved antagonisms, incomplete memories. It is a narrative collage that seems to splice random margins of experience into a patchwork structure. Yet ultimately it is a novel, a solid, nailed down, compassionate and coherent narrative that uses sophisticated techniques toward traditional ends. It is a novel that focuses on spare essentials, those events and moments of understanding that change the course of life forever.

        Like many contemporary novels, Love Medicine is metafiction, ironically self-conscious its mode of telling, concerned as much with exploring the process of storytelling as with the story itself. As marginal and edged, episodic and juxtaposed as this narrative is, it is not the characters or events of the novel that are dislocated and peripheral. Each is central to an element of the narrative. It is the reader who is placed at a distance, who is the observer on the fringes of the story, forced to shift position, turn, ponder, and finally integrate the story into a coherent whole by recognizing the indestructible connections between the characters and events of the narrative(s). Hence the novel places the reader in a paradoxically dual stance, simultaneously on the fringe of the story yet at the very center of the process--distant and intimate, passive yet very actively involved in the narrative process.

        The fact that this is a novel written by an Indian about Indians may not be the reason {13} for Erdrich's particular choice of narrative technique and reader control, but it does provide a point for speculation and perhaps a clue to the novel as not just incidentally Indian but compellingly tribal in character.

        We have come to expect certain things from American Indian contemporary fiction. from the Southwest have been overwhelmingly concerned with story, traditional stories reenacted in a ceremonial structure at once timeless and timely. Novels like N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn and Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony are rich in oral tradition and ritual and demand intense involvement of the reader in the texture and event of tribal life and curing processes. James Welch's novels, Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney, are less obviously immersed in oral tradition but draw on tribal history, landscape, and psychology to develop stories and characters that are plausible within Northern Plains tribal ways. Gerald Vizenor's St. Louis Bearheart draws on various Plains oral traditions and manipulates them in a satirically comic indictment of a blasted American landscape and culture. In each case, these major American Indian novelists have drawn heavily on the storytelling traditions of their peoples and created new visions of the role of oral tradition in both the events of narrative and narrative process.

        In these novels it is the responsibility of both the major characters and the reader to make the story come out right. The authors consciously involve readers in the process of narration, activity that is both {14} intellectual and emotional, remote and intimate. Louise Erdrich's novel works in much the same way, but the materials are different and the storytelling process she draws upon is not the traditional ceremonial process of the reenactment of sacred myth, nor is it strictly the tradition of telling tales on winter nights, though there is some reliance on that process. The source of her storytelling technique is the secular anecdotal narrative process of community gossip, the storytelling sanction toward proper behavior that works so effectively in Indian communities to identify membership in the group and insure survival of group values and its valued individuals. Erdrich's characters are aware of the importance of this tradition in their lives. At one point the lusty Lulu Lamartine matter of factly says, "I always was a hot topic" (233). And the final narrator of the novel, searching for the right ingredients for his love potion, comments, "After a while I started to remember things I'd heard gossiped over" (199). Later, on the run from the law with his father, he says, "We talked a good long time about the reservation then. I caught him up on all the little blacklistings and scandals that had happened. He wanted to know everything . . ." (268). Gossip affirms identity, provides information, and binds the absent to the family and the community.

        The inclination toward this anecdotal form of storytelling may well derive from the episodic nature of traditional tales that are brief and elliptical because the audience is already familiar with the characters, their cultural context, and the values they adhere to. The spare, elliptical nature of Erdrich's {15} novel can be loosely related to this narrative process in which the order of the telling is up to the narrator, and the audience members are intimately involved in the fleshing out of the narrative and the supplying of the connections between related stories. The gossip tradition within Indian communities is even more elliptical, relying on each member's knowledge of every individual in the group and the doings of each family (there are no strangers). Moreover such anecdotal narration is notoriously biased and fragmented, no individual privy to the whole story. The same incidents are told and retold, accumulating tidbits of information. There is, after all, no identifiable right version, right tone, right interpretation. The very nature of gossip is instability, each teller limited by his or her own experience and circumstances. It is only from all the episodes, told by many individuals in random order that the whole may be known--probably not to some community member, but, ironically, to some outsider patient enough to listen and frame the episodes into a coherent whole. In forming that integrated whole, the collector has many choices but a single intention, to present a complete story in a stable form.

        Perhaps the novelist, in this case, then, is that investigator (of her own imagination and experience) who manipulates the fleeting fragments of gossip into a stable narrative form, the novel, and because of her artistic distance from the events and characters, supplies the opportunity for irony that the voices in the episodes of the novel are incapable of. Secrets are revealed and the truth emerges from the threads of information. Like the everyday life it emerges from, gossip is not inherently {16} coherent, but the investigator can use both its unreliable substance and ambiguous form to create a story that preserves the multiplicity of individual voices and the tensions that generate gossip. The novelist can create a sense of the ambiguity of the anecdotal community tradition yet allow the reader to comprehend. Gossip then is neither "idle" nor "vicious"; it is a way of revealing secrets and generating action.

        So it is with Love Medicine. There is no single version of this story, no single tone, no consistent narrative style, no predictable pattern of development, because there is no single narrator who knows all the events and secrets. The dialogue is terse and sharp, as tense as the relationships between the characters. Narrators are introduced abruptly to turn the action, jar the reader's expectation, give words to their tangled lives. This is a novel of voices, the voices of two families whose members interpret and misinterpret, and approve or disapprove (mostly the latter) of one another's activities.

        The novel begins with a story that suggests a very conventional linear narrative. June Kashpaw, the erratic and once vivacious beauty of the family, is down and out, heading for the bus that will take her back to her North Dakota reservation. But she is easily seduced by a mud engineer and ends up on a lonely back road on a sub-freezing night, wheezing under the drunken weight of her ineffective lover. She walks--not just away, but across the plains into the freezing night and death from exposure. In one chapter she is {17} gone--but memory of her vitality and the mystery of her death will endure. She is the catalyst for the narrations which follow, stories that trace the intricate and often antagonistic relationships in the two families from which she came. One life--not a very special life at that--just a life of a woman on the fringes of her tribe and community, a woman living on the margins of society, living on the hard edge of survival and failing, but a woman whose death brings the family together briefly, violently, and generates a multitude of memories and stories that slowly develop into a coherent whole. It is June (and the persistent desire of the family members who survive her to understand her, and consequently, themselves) who allows us to penetrate the chaotic and often contradictory world of the Kashpaw and Lamartine families and bring a sense of history and order to the story, to bring art out of anecdote and gossip.

        The structure of the narrative is not as chaotic and episodic as it first may appear. Time is carefully controlled, with 1981, the year of June's death, the central date in the novel. Subsequent to her death, the family gathers, and even those not present, but central to the narration, are introduced by kinship descriptions. The family geneologies are laid out, and as confusing as they are in that first chapter, they become easy and familiar as the episodes unfold and family secrets are revealed. Chapters 2 through 6 of the novel leap back in time--1934, 1948, 1957, 1980--until the pivotal date, 1981, is reached again at the center of the novel. As one of the characters puts it, "Events loop around and tangle again" (95). From this year, the novel {18} progresses to 1984 and begins to weave together the separate stories into an intricately patterned fabric that ironically, even in the end, no single character fully understands--one secret is never told. This flashback-pivotal year-progressive chronology, however, is by no means straightforward. Within chapters, time is convoluted by injection of memory, and each chapter is controlled by the narration of a different character whose voice (style) is markedly different from all the other voices and whose recollection of dialogue complicates the narrative process even further. The system of discourse in the novel is thus dazzlingly complex, demanding very close attention from the reader. But the overlap of characters allows for comprehension. The novel is built layer upon layer. Characters are not lost. Even June, vitally alive at least in memory, stays until the end. In fact, it is she who connects the last voice and the final events of the novel to all the others. It is through June that each character either develops or learns identity within the community, but also, since this is metafiction, in the novel itself.

        There is a sort of double-think demanded by Erdrich. The incidents of the novel must be carried in the reader's mind, constantly reshuffled and reinterpreted as new events are revealed and the narrative biases of each character are exposed. Each version, each viewpoint jars things loose just when they seem hammered into place. It's a process that is disconcerting to the reader, keeping a distance between the characters and keeping the reader in emotional upheaval. This tension at times creates an almost intolerable strain on the reader because the gaps in the text demand {19} response and attempted resolution without connected narrative. The characters innocently go about their doing and telling, unaware of other interpretations, isolated from comprehension of the whole, but they are no less agonized, no less troubled, no less comic for their innocence.

        The reader must go through a different but parallel discomfort, puzzling right along with them to the end. One character pointedly asks another, "Do you like being the only one that's ignorant?" (243); the question might as easily be asked of the reader, and indirectly, it is. At times, the reader is inclined to think June well out of the mixed-up madness of her families, and even wish this narrative might simply be read as a collection of finely honed short stories. But making the story come out right is irresistible, to be in on the whole story is too intriguing to be abandoned. Like the character in the novel, we must respond, "No," to being ignorant. Discovering the truth, from the collection of both tragic and comic positions presented in the separate episodes, demands that we stick around to bridge the gaps.

        There is something funny about gossip, simply because it is unreliable, tends to exaggeration, makes simple judgments, affirms belonging at the very moment of censure. It takes for its topic the events of history, memory, and the contemporary moment and mixes them into a collage of commentary on the group as a whole as well as the individual. Erdrich's novel does exactly that. It takes what might be tragic or solemn in a more conventional mode of telling and makes it comically {20} human (even slapstick), sassy, ironic, and ultimately insightful about those families who live on that hard edge of survival on the reservations of the Northern Plains. It is, of course, the very method of the novel, individuals telling individual stories, that not only creates the multiple effect of the novel but requires a mediator, the reader, to bring the episodes together.

        It is exactly the inability of the individual narrators to communicate effectively with one another--their compulsion to tell the reader, not each other--that makes their lives and history so very difficult. At several points in the novel characters reveal their difficulties in communicating: "My tongue was stuck. I was speechless . . ." (99), "There were other times I couldn't talk at all because my tongue had rusted to the roof of my mouth" (166), "Alternating tongue storms and rock-hard silences was hard on a man . . ." (196). Their very inability to give words to each other, except in rage or superficial dialogues that mask discomfort, keeps each one of them from giving and receiving the love that would be the medicine to cure their pain or heal their wounds. All but June, and she has the author and the other characters to speak for her, and she is beyond the healing embrace of family love.

        In the end, there is some bridging that occurs in the novel; Erdrich even titles the last chapter "Crossing the Water" and an earlier chapter "The Bridge." The water is time: "So much time went by in that flash it surprises me yet. What they call a lot of water under the bridge. Maybe it was rapids, a swirl {21} that carried me so swift that I could not look to either side but had to keep my eyes trained on what was coming" (93). The bridge, of course, is love. But the love in this novel is mixed with pain and failure: "and now I hurt for love" (128), and: It's a sad world, though, when you can't get love right even trying it as many times as I have" (218). It demands suffering as well as pleasure: "A love so strong brews the same strength of hate" (222), and:

I saw that tears were in her eyes. And that's when I saw how much grief and love she felt for him. And it gave me a real shock to the system. You see I thought love got easier over the years so it didn't hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good. I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it. I thought it curled up and died, I guess. Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash. (192)

But despite the conflicts and personal tragedies, it is love medicine, a potion that works reconciliation in spite of is unconventional sources, that holds these characters together even as they antagonize and disappoint one another. Love is so powerful that it creates indissoluble ties that even outlast life, and ultimately it allows forgiveness. In the end, in spite of perversions of love, illicit love, and lost love, there is enough love to bring two women together and a lost son home.

        Erdrich's characters are lovers in spite of themselves, and the potion that works to {22} sustain that love is language--language spoken by each narrator to the reader, language that leads to the characters' understanding of the fragile nature of life and love. Near the end of the novel the bumbling "medicine man" discovers the essential truth of life:

You think a person you know has got through death and illness and being broke and living on commodity rice will get through anything. Then they fold and you see how fragile were the stones that underpinned them. You see how instantly the ground can shift you thought was solid. You see stop signs and the yellow dividing markers of roads you've travelled and all the instructions you had played according to vanish. You see how all the everyday things you counted on was just a dream you had been having by which you run your whole life. (209)

The one thing left that makes life endurable is love. Life is tenuous; love is dangerous, and love potions risky:

when she mentions them love medicines, I feel my back prickle at the danger. These love medicines are something of an old Chippewa speciality. No other tribe has got them down so well. But love medicine is not for the layman to handle. You don't just go out and get one without praying for it. Before you get one, even, you should go through one hell of a lot of mental consideration. {23} You got to think it over. Choose the right one. You could really mess up your life grinding up the wrong little thing. (199)

But healing family wounds isn't a matter of chemistry; it's a matter of words. Like an old folk charm spoken to oneself, the stories of love coerce the loved ones. Finally, the novel seduces the reader into affection for these sometimes silly, sometimes sad characters only real in the magic of words.

        Love Medicine is a powerful novel. It develops hard clear pictures of Indian people struggling to hold their lives together, hanging on to the edge of the reservation or fighting to make a place for themselves in bleak midwestern cities, or devising ingenious ways to make one more break for freedom, but its most remarkable quality is how it manages to give new form to oral tradition. Not the enduring sacred tradition of ritual and myth that we have come to know in contemporary Indian literature but a secular tradition that is so ordinary, so everyday, so unconscious that it takes an inquirer, an investigator, an artist to recognize its value and adapt its anecdotal structure to the novel. While Love Medicine may not have the obvious spiritual power so often found in Indian fiction, its narratives and narrators are potent. They coerce us into participating in their events and emotions and in the exhilarating process of making the story come out right.

        As the number of novels by American Indian writers grows, we can begin to see just how varied are the possibilities for Indian fiction, {24} how great the number of storytelling choices available from the various cultures of Indian tribes, how intriguing and unique the stories are within this genre of American fiction. Perhaps the one thread that holds this fabric of literature together is that the best works of American Indian fiction are never passive; they demand that we enter not only into the fictional world but participate actively in the process of storytelling.

Kathleen M. Sands
Arizona State University

*       *       *       *

        In the final chapter of Louise Erdrich's first novel, Love Medicine, Lipsha Morrissey, King Kashpaw, and Gerry Nanapush sit down "at the dirtiest kitchen table in Minnesota" to play five-card stud--the stakes, a car King bought with insurance money after his mother's, June Kashpaw's, death. Lipsha deals from a deck of cards that he has marked earlier in the evening. As King tosses the keys on the table for the winner, Lipsha Morrissey, the police knock on the door. They are looking for Gerry Nanapush, an escaped convict whose epithets vary: "famous politicking hero, dangerous armed criminal, judo expert, escape artist, charismatic member of the American Indian Movement, and smoker of many pipes of kinnikinnick in the most radical groups" (248). Before either of the three men can make a move, Howard Kashpaw (King Jr.) runs to the door yelling "He's here! . . . King's here! King's here!" Lipsha Morrissey sits, stunned by the actions of the boy, knowing that the police are looking not for Howard's father, but for the {25} man he has only recently learned is his own father, Gerry Nanapush. Lipsha watches the boy's desperate attempts to get the door open so he can hand King Sr. over to the police and thinks:

This was it . . . this was the wages of everything we done. This was the wages of the father meeting up with the son and the ghost of a woman caught in the dark spaces between them. This was the wages. This was the sad fact. (265)

        The serio-comic nature of these events, along with Lipsha's almost Biblical pronouncements about the consequences of man's actions, can only minimally convey the many tones, moods, imbedded ironies and nuances of voice found in scene after scene of this novel as it traces the histories of the Kashpaw-Lazarre and Nanapush-Lamartine families through fifty years of greed, envy, love, and friendship. Set on and around a Chippewa reservation and set against a background of emerging ethnic political struggle, the novel is mostly about the sad--and happy--facts that emerge when daughter confronts mother, son confronts father, wife confronts husband's lover, and all confront the emptiness and fragility of their own lives.

        The social milieu of this novel is the family, and as the names already mentioned suggest, the multi-ethnic family. The diverse backgrounds of the characters and the varying degrees of loyalty to differing customs act as forces that tend to repel family from family, sister from brother, and son from father. What they share--their Chippewa heritage, certain {26} family secrets--tends to bind the characters together. Though one family clamors for social preeminence over another and one son seeks favor over others, attempts are made to retain a semblance of balance.

        In such an atmosphere, we hear certain family members proudly proclaim an allegiance to one or another blood line. One mother, Zelda Johnson, announces, "My girl's an Indian . . . I raised her an Indian, and that's what she is" (23). Zelda's mother had said of herself, however, "I have that much Indian blood" (40); "I looked good. And I looked white" (45). A newcomer to the family, bristling at a joke that is being told, asks, "Issat a Norwegian joke? . . . Hey. I'm full-blooded Norwegian. I don't know nothing about my family, but I know I'm full-blooded Norwegian" (31). Asserting an ethnic identity gives individual family members a way in and a way out of the family conflict. A mother can take possession of a daughter by saying she's like me, not like her father. A daughter can reject a mother by abandoning her Indian ways.

        Whatever it is that inevitably binds family members together also sends them scurrying in different directions. Albertine Johnson, the daughter who has been "raised" Indian, comes to a realization about her bond with her mother that cuts to the heart of all child-parent relationships in this novel: "our relationship was like a file we sharpened on, and necessary in that way" (10). Irritating and unwanted as it may be, the family provides Albertine with the tools she needs to continue refashioning her identity. One of several of a younger generation who leave the reservation to {27} seek their fortunes elsewhere, she keeps returning "home."

        Nothing is ever quite stable in this novel. The term "family" fluctuates in meaning, creating new tensions and opposing forces. This family dynamic provides the perfect metaphor for Erdrich's novel of relationships. As individual family members speak, we see how characters view their own lives and how they are viewed by others. Made up of fourteen chapters, several published separately as short stories, Love Medicine itself perches precariously between genres. Structurally, it recalls the novels of William Faulkner, especially As I Lay Dying and Go Down, Moses. At the center of Love Medicine, as in As I Lay Dying, is a female character, June Kashpaw, who dies early on in the novel. Successive chapters build upon remembrances of her. Characters distinguish themselves by their varying responses to her death and what kinds of memories they have of her. Go Down, Moses, like Love Medicine, is made up of several stories whose connections are never made explicit. Readers must puzzle out what links them together on their own. Love Medicine, too, though the stories focus on members of two families, is made up of stories that have an integrity of their own. Stories are juxtaposed against other stories. Oftentimes they seem to collide with one another. Out of the collision emerges a new, more complex story--one that is never really "told."

        Because we do not have a single narrator, our perspective on characters keeps changing throughout the novel. The Marie Lazarre of "Saint Marie," for example, is a young girl with a "mail-order Catholic soul" who wants to {28} be a saint "carved in pure gold. With ruby lips. And . . . toenails [like] little pink ocean-shells, which they would have to stoop down off their high horse to kiss" (40-41). In "Wild Geese" she is the woman Nector Kashpaw knows as "the youngest daughter of a family of horse-thieving drunks," "rail-tough and pale as birch . . . the kind of tree that doubles back and springs up, whips singing" (58, 59). She is also the mother of "The Beads" who takes in June Morrissey and later the son, Lipsha. In "Flesh and Blood" she peels three gunnysacks of potatoes after she learns about the affair between Nector and Lulu Lamartine. As she scrubs the floor she feels better knowing that she is "the woman who kept her floor clean even when left by her husband" (128). In "The Good Tears" she goes to Lulu's room to put eyedrops (tears) into the aged Lulu's cataract-diseased eyes. How we see Marie depends very much on whose eyes we look through. Ambitious, angry, lonely, betrayed, vindictive, and kind are adjectives that apply equally well. If none of her narrators ever see her in all her guises, the reader does.

        As petty and selfish as some of her characters are, Erdrich renders them with enormous affection and care. When pathetic they retain a certain dignity; when foolish they resist cruel comment. These characters are never sad, pathetic, or foolish for long. After taking note of the sad facts that bring King Kashpaw, Lipsha Morrissey, and Gerry Nanapush together in that dreary kitchen in Minnesota, Lipsha tells us that he "couldn't linger too long on sad facts" (265). Neither does Erdrich. She cares not only about what has happened to her characters and the lives they have led, but {29} also about what, as yet, may happen and what kind of lives they may lead.

        The novel comes from and speaks for a richly varied literary and oral storytelling background. Moreover, what is Native American about the storytelling process in this novel can teach non-Native Americans something about American Literature at large. Erdrich invokes Melville and Moby Dick as Nector Kashpaw sees signs in himself of first Ishmael, the survivor, and then Ahab, the mad captain. Erdrich pays homage to an American writer and glosses the text for us as well. On one occasion, Nector's mother asks him about the book he is reading. Nector tells her he is reading "The story of the great white whale." Her response is "What do they got to wail about, those whites?"

        Such misunderstandings abound for people who never simply read words but who always hear the sounds that make up these words. This novel offers its readers many such clues that its author is a poet as well as a novelist. The novel itself is proof that Erdrich can make the adjustment from poet to novelist with ease and grace.

Linda Ainsworth
Columbia University

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Jacklight by Louise Erdrich. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1984. 48 pp. $6.95 pb.

        In an age and culture where the sheer volume of poetry written on a given day must {30} approach that of personal letters, critics know that words like "new" or "unique" are so shopworn as to threaten meaning. Nevertheless, these adjectives retain their original full force of signification when applied to Louise Erdrich's Jacklight. The poems in this volume demonstrate an awareness that words, wellplaced, will pull at the bit, will make us realize that we can't yet guess how much revelatory power any one word might possess, never mind that of words in combinations. Still another, quite concrete reason justifies applying an adjective like "unique." The poems are rooted in the culture of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe in North Dakota. There, people have retained aspects of their Chippewa, Cree, French, and--to a lesser extent--American, English, Scottish and German heritages, holding to all in a language and culture that distinguishes them from other Chippewa and from mainstream American neighbors.

        With competent sensitivity, Louise Erdrich has grasped the diverse rhythms of her regions, the literal rhythms of speech patterns and the more elusively metaphorical ones of people's dignified confrontations with the isolated events in their lives, framed and staged in the largely unknown and generally unimagined center of our North American continent. Technology and transportation provide high speed connections that weave around or above but seldom through Louise Erdrich's very real literary territory. The insistent power of those unknown people who are, nevertheless, necessarily and intensely knowing becomes the forceful point of the first and title poem.

        We have come to the edge of the woods,
        out of brown grass where we slept, unseen,
        out of leaves creaked shut, out of our hiding.
        We have come here too long.

Readers should approach the experience of this and subsequent poems with confidence tempered by a little humility; for the poems have a strong narrative current which pulls us toward characters who take hold of mind and emotions and leave us in awe of their vitality. These people are attractive largely because they know how to improvise, match action and resource with the calm calculation and total lack of self-pity that makes them stand out as heroic in situations that sometimes threaten the foundations of human dignity. We encounter Francine, the town prostitute who has learned "what the selves are a man can disown / till he lets them to life in a room." She knows that

        . . . what mending there is
        occurs in small acts
        and often after the fact of damage
        when nothing is ever enough.

                                                     "Francine's Room"

        Then there is Leonard, "cracked Leonard," with his "limber sins." Most unforgettable of all is Mary Kröger, "the butcher's wife," his second one. She remembers that the first wife was also Mary.

        I knew her, Mary Kröger, and we were bosom friends
        All graves are shelters for our mislaid twins

        Mary's impact can blister the receptive consciousness; yet ultimately her courage is a message of resilient endurance.

        . . . One night
        a slow thing came, provoked by weariness,
        to cram itself up every slackened nerve;
        as if my body were a whining hive
        and each cell groaning with a sweet thick lead
        I turned and struck at Otto in our bed;
        all night, all night the poison,
        till I swarmed
        back empty to his cold
        and dreaming arms.
                                                     "The Slow Sting of Her Company"

        Louise Erdrich is a novelist as well as a poet and the narrative strength of the poems presages the impact of her novel. But the poet and the novelist practice different crafts. Jacklight provides ample evidence that Erdrich knows the tools of each trade and understands that in poetry language itself is the main subject, with techniques like versification serving to show what language can do and be. Examples of lines that present narrative tension in a way fully consonant with the poet's art can be found on almost every page. One, in a poem about Mary Kröger, especially impresses me.

        They do call minds like mine one-track
        One track is all you need
        to understand
        their loneliness, then bite the hand that feeds
        upon you, in a terrible blind grief.

        This is kind language in the way that a certain quality of light can be kind to a person's facial features; it highlights an appeal which is also an invitation to care and accept and expand our sense of Mary's choices. The same lines show how masterful versification can free words to resonate. The one word "feeds," coming as it does just before a major pause, holds us and shakes us for a bit before releasing us to the direct force of "upon you."

        Some poems have less narrative and a more exclusively imagistic appeal that startles in its own way.

        Wind has stripped
        the young plum trees
        to a thin howl.
                                                     "Walking in the Breakdown Lane"

        One section of the book defies easy classification since "prose-poem" is not really accurate enough. Erdrich's lines on "Old Man Potchiko" recall the enduring but cautious love affair between oral storytelling and poetry. Erdrich tells her version of a traditional tale complete with the grand design and selective freedom of details that characterize the best storytellers. Her tale guarantees glimpses of the exhilaration that only luscious, earthy humor can give and the tale's small touches prepare the way faithfully for its bright central scenes.

        From poems like "Night Sky" with its slowly transforming images to events like "Old Man Potchiko," there is immense range covering diverse themes and techniques. The last lines of the last poem serve as a kind of benediction granted by an old man.

        And through the soft explosions of cattail
        and the scattering of seeds on still water,
        walks Grandpa, all the time that there is in his hands
        that have grown to be the twisted doubles
        of the burrows of mole and badger,
        that have come to be the absence
        of birds in a nest.
        Hands of earth, of this clay
        I'm also made from.
                                          "Turtle Mountain Reservation"

        So are we all made from earth and clay, and as members of the human community we can only be grateful to one who gives us so poignant, reverent, occasionally funny an introduction to other members of the global neighborhood, especially when such gift includes a chance to marvel at the splendid surprises words themselves can still have in store for us.

Elaine Jahner
Dartmouth College

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        Louise Erdrich was born in 1954, of German and Chippewa descent. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and her grandfather was Tribal Chair of the Reservation. She was brought up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, and in 1972 was one of the first women admitted to Dartmouth College. As a student there she was awarded several prizes for fiction and poetry, including the Cox Prize for fiction and the American Academy of Poets Prize. After graduation in 1976 she returned to North Dakota, where she taught in the Poetry in the Schools Program, and was Visiting Poet and Teacher for the North Dakota State Arts Council in 1977-78. She was a Teaching Fellow during 1978-79 in the Writing Program at the Johns Hopkins University, which awarded her a Master of Arts in 1979. Subsequently she was a text-book writer for the Charles Merrill Company, editor of the Boston Indian Council newspaper, "The Circle," a MacDowell Colony Fellow in 1980, and a Yaddo Colony Fellow in 1981. She was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1982. She currently lives in Cornish, New Hampshire, with her husband, Michael Dorris (Modoc), a professor in the Native American Studies Program at Dartmouth College, with their four, soon to be five, children.

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A.S.A.I.L. Bibliography #9

Poems and Short Stories

"Saint Marie," story, The Atlantic Monthly, March 1984.

"The Ballad of Moustache Maud," story, Frontiers, Summer 1984.

"Flesh and Blood," story, Ms., October 1984.

"The Plunge of the Brave," story, New England Review, Fall 1984.

"Lulu's Boys," story, Kenyon Review, Fall 1984.

"Wild Geese," story, Mother Jones, October 1984.

"Crown of Thorns," story, Chicago, September 1984

"The Beads," story, North Dakota Quarterly, Fall/Winter 1984.

"Destiny," story, The Atlantic Monthly, January 1985.

"American Horse," story, in Earth Power Coming, ed. Simon Ortiz, Navajo Community Press, 1983.

"Nuclear Detergent," story, New England Review, Summer 1983.

"Scales," story, The North American Review, March 1982.

"The World's Greatest Fisherman," Chicago Magazine, October 1982.

"The Strange People," "Indian Boarding School," "Painting of a White Gate and Sky," poems, Frontiers, Fall 1981.

"Portrait of the Town Leonard," "Leonard Commits Redeeming Adulteries with All the Women in Town," poems, MSS, Spring 1981.

"The Red Convertible," story, Mississippi Valley Review, Spring 1981.

"Turtle Mountain Reservation," poem, Shenandoah, Spring 1979.

"The Lesky Girls," poem, Carolina Quarterly, Fall 1975.

"In the Midlands, poem, Ms. Magazine, August 1979.

"The Red Sleep of Beasts," poem, Ellipsis, Spring 1979.

"Stripper," poem, Webster Review, Summer 1979.

"To Otto, in Forgetfulness," "Here's a Good Word for Step-and-a-Half Waleski," "My Name Repeated on the Lips of the Dead," poems, Louisville Review, Fall 1978.

"The Rhubarb," "Lise," "From a Sentence in a Book of Italian Grammar," "Tree Prayer," poems, Tilt: An Anthology of New Women's Writing, New Victoria Publishers, 1978.

"All the Comforts of Home," "His Deathmap," "Certain Fields," poems, Dacotah Territory, Fall 1977.

"Maiden Sister," "Insomniac's Journey," poems, Bloodroot, Spring 1978.

"Tree Dweller," "The Book of Water," poems, Dacotah Arts Quarterly, Summer 1977.

"Twin," poem, Primavera, Volume IV.

"Love Letters," "Windfalls," "A Change of Light," "Listeners Unite," stories, published by Woman magazine of Britain, 1980-1983 (under Milou North).

"Images of Love," "Music to His Ears," "Another Time, Another Love," stories, Woman, (under Milou North, collaborations).

"A Change of Light," story, Redbook, October 1980 (under Milou North, a collaboration).

"Listeners Unite," story, Redbook, October 1980 (under Heidi Louise, a collaboration).

Contributions to Anthologies

Story in progress to appear in collection of works by Native American authors, University of New Mexico Press, due Fall 1985.

"Saint Marie" to be included in O. Henry Prize Stories: 1985, due 1985.

That's What She Said: An Anthology of Native American Women's Writing, ed. Rayna Green, Indiana University Press, 1984.

Earth Power Coming, ed. Simon Ortiz, Navajo Community College Press, 1983.

Best American Short Stories, ed. Anne Tyler, Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

The Pushcart Prize, VIII: Best of the Small Presses, ed. Bill Henderson, The Pushcart Press, 1983.


Imagination, a textbook for children, published by Charles Merrill Company, Columbus, Ohio, 1981.

Jacklight, poetry, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1984.

Love Medicine, novel, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1984. Love Medicine was an alternate selection of the Book-of-the-Month-Club, and selected for the "New Voices" section of the Quality Paperback Book Club. It was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Work of Fiction of 1984 and the Sue Kaufman Prize for Best Work of First Fiction given by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. The paperback edition will be published by Bantam Books in October 1985. Foreign rights for the novel have been sold in England, France, Spain, Holland, Germany, Italy, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.

Works in Progress

"The Little Book," story, Formations, Spring 1985.

"The Beet Queen," story, The Paris Review, Spring 1985.

"Pounding the Dog," story, The Kenyon Review, Summer 1985.

"The Air Seeder," story, Anteaus, Fall 1985.

"Mister Argus," story, The Georgia Review, Fall 1985.

The Beet Queen, a novel.

Tracks, a novel.

American Horse, a novel.

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Special Notice

This issue of Studies in American Indian Literatures is being sent in course to subscribers of record as of February 15, 1985. It will be available subsequently only through separate purchase and will not be included in back orders for Volume 9 of SAIL.

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        Issues of SAIL may now be reaching you a little belatedly, for we are no longer sending SAIL first class. By saving on postage we are able not only to hold down the subscription price but also to increase the number of pages in each issue. We are now, therefore, actively soliciting manuscripts dealing with any and all aspects of Native American literatures, both contemporary and traditional, though we will continue to provide book reviews and bibliographies. We favor brief essays, critical, scholarly, or theoretical, requiring minimal documentation. But we hope to initiate a concurrent monograph series for longer works, especially those dealing with traditional materials. Inquiries and manuscripts (enclose self-addressed, stamped envelope, please) should be addressed to the editor, 602 Philosophy Hall, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027.


Call for Papers: The topic for the MLA Discussion Group in American Indian Literature at the MLA Convention at Chicago, December {43} 1985, will be "Politics and American Indian Literature." Send abstracts to the Chairman of the Discussion Group, James Ruppert, University of New Mexico-Gallup, 200 College Road, Gallup, NM 87301, by March 22, 1985, or call Ruppert at (505) 722-7221.

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        Illustrations in this issue are from Schoolcraft and include: Symbolic petition of Chippewa Chiefs to the U.S. President, 1849, scroll of petition by the Chippewa leader Kaizheosh and his band from Lake View Desert, and Chippewa birch-bark transparencies.

Studies in American Indian Literatures, the Newsletter of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures, is issued four times a year. Annual subscriptions are by the calendar year and are $4.00. For back issues and special publications by SAIL contact the editor, 602 Philosophy Hall, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027, to whom contributions and subscriptions should be addressed. Advisory editorial board: Paula Gunn Allen, Gretchen Bataille, Joseph Bruchac, Vine Deloria, Jr., Larry Evers, Dell Hymes, Maurice Kenny, Robert Sayre.

Studies in American Indian Literatures 1985 @ SAIL.



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