Love Medicine is a novel about relationships. It is about families and lovers. It is about love as the tie that binds. The characters in the novel live throughout their lives experiencing different things with different people, but it all comes back to love as the force that brings them together.
The story is set around a North Dakota Indian reservation over a span of fifty years. It is the story of two families who lives intertwine because of different bonds of both love and hate. You are introduced to the main character of the novel, Marie Lazzare Kashpaw, while she is still in her youth. As a young Indian, she goes to live at the Sacred Heart convent. She is taken under the wing of the twisted Sister Leopolda who beats and abuses Satan out of her soul. Yet, Marie puts up with her abusive treatment. Sister Leopolda explains her harshness to Marie as a difference between herself and the Devil. “He wants you. That’s the difference. I give you love.” Marie both does come to hate and love her. This nun made her as strong as she was. She gave her pride in herself; pride to prove to Leopolda that the Devil was not within her and that she could succeed even as the wife of an Indian.
There are relationships in the novel that contained true love. Many of these relationships were not marriages, but they outlasted everything. Nector Kashpaw is possibly the most significant character in that sense in the novel. His love life ties the lives of the two main characters of the novel, Marie Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine. In Nector’s youth he had promised to marry Lulu, but then found himself in the arms of Marie. He marries her instead and has children and a life with her. Lulu goes from man to man having children all with different paternal lineage. Yet it is Lulu that Nector really loves, and as much as she hates to admit it, it is Nector that still holds her heart. They have an affair together that continues for years until Nector is forced to choose between them. He loves Lulu, but is rejected by her and returns to Marie. Although he is still with Marie, his heart still belongs to Lulu.
In the course of Nector’s death and a joint business venture with Lyman Lamartine, the two women become close. They form a bond with each other through their mutual connection to Nector that is very surprising for they had been rivals throughout his lifetime. They are able to overcome their hatred for each other because of their love for Nectar. They are able to mourn together, reminisce together, even laugh together. It is love that causes their tie and a combining of the two families.
The friendship and marriage of Gordie Kashpaw and June Kashpaw, who were playmates and cousins, is another relationship that depicts the strength of true love. In their youth the two were inseparable. They told each other everything. When they grew older they ran off to get married. They had a child together, but June was wild. She would go off for months to do as she pleased with whomever she pleased. Their marriage, when together, was not all smooth sailing either. Gordie was abusive. After her death, Gordie thought to himself, “They we knew each other better than most people who were married a lifetime. They we knew the good things, but they we knew how to hurt each other, too.” He claims to have missed her while she was gone, but was also relieved in her absence. Now that she was dead, he could not believe that she was never coming back. He is overcome by grief and love as he goes over their years together in his mind. His love for her is so strong that it drives him to drink to shut the memories out. He thinks that her ghost comes back to him and he thinks that he kills her. June’s death causes him to become delusional with grief and loss. It is in her death that he realizes his true love for her.
There is a strong belief in the fate of the dead. There are few characters in the novel who come back to visit the living, but those who do are the ones who were truly loved by those they visit. Nector returns to visit Marie to show her that he really did love her once and that the love medicine did work. Lulu feels Nector’s presence in the night. Gordie sees June and goes wild thinking that she has finally now come back to him. It is those who are truly loved who are missed the most. When taken from a side interpretation, the spirits who return truly loved who they returned to. They come back to say, “I loved you.”
The novel is freckled with many other relationships involving the characters of the novel. Erdrich uses these meaningless relationships to contrast them with the great relationships of true love. The novel describes June’s one night stands while describing the eternal love of those who were left behind in her death have for her. While Lulu goes through multiple husbands and several partners in between her heart is loyal to Nector. This contrasting works well. The language that Erdrich chooses to describe the other relationships is cold. When describing love the tone is warm. It is this way that the she points out the difference between these two different types of relationships.
It is through the character of Lipsha Morrissey that the reader learns the true meaning of the title, Love Medicine. Lipsha is slow intellectually and therefor acts primarily from his heart. It is he who really has the insight into what is meaningful in life. He calls himself a healer and claims to be able to remove the pains of others. This is what makes him special. He sees the heartache of his grandmother, Marie Kashpaw, at the fact that her husband Nector is in love with another woman. He knows of the ancient magical powers of “love medicine” and attempts to rekindle the flame of passion between his two grandparents. He fails in acquiring the necessary ingredients for his potion and substitutes common grocery store items for the ancient recipe. Lipsha comes upon an idea that can be seen as the nature of the novel. He says, “I finally convinced myself that the actual power to the love medicine was not the goose heart itself but the faith in the cure.” This could not possibly be truer. All of the feelings of love in the novel pull those involved together. In the end it is the pure and true love that overcomes all other obstacles and brings the people back to each other.