Thanks for getting us started, David. Ive been talking with high school students here in Knox County about Love Medicine, and one of the things I keep hearing is that they want this book to be a novel: its more satisfying to think that itll all add up, move toward some clear resolution, and tie up its many narrative threads into that complex tapestry you mentioned. Ive been using the word web instead as a way of talking about how the threads could be at once intricately woven and still loose enough for us to see the gaps between narratives.
And Ive been pointing out to them that we wont know exactly what this narrative is until Erdrich finishes writing about these characters, or revising the stories shes already told, and we see the whole story spread out across a whole series of books: Tracks, Love Medicine, The Bingo Palace, Tales of Burning Love, and books that Erdrich still may not have written yet. In interviews, Erdrich has described herself as writing one long novel, in which each book shes published will become a chapter. I suspect well see these stories differently when we can see them all, and the day will probably come when some enterprising publisher ties them all neatly together in a single volume. No doubt many of Erdrichs readers will find that satisfying, but something may also get lost when the river flows too smoothly.
In a sense, its the gaps between the narratives that this book is about: while youre right that June Kashpaw has been part of a widely and deeply connected family and community, its important to note that she gets lost between two worlds. Shes decided to walk home from to the reservation from the white oil town just beyond its borders, so when she vanishes, its a metaphor for how easy it is for these characters to get lost between the reservation and the white world. (Picture the scene of that snowstorm, with the whiteness swirling in around her to obliterate the familiar landscape, and you get the metaphor.) But thats not the only sense in which shes lost between worlds. Erdrich writes that June walked over the snow like water and came home, but the rest of the book makes clear that its harder than that to get home. (The final lines of the book have her son, Lipsha, thinking that its his job to cross the water and bring her home. So either we have to change what we think Erdrich means by coming home during the course of the book, or else Junes journey in those opening pages was incomplete.)
The same thing is true about Junes son, King, who gets crazy whenever he comes home to the reservation from the city. Thats because hes also lost between worlds. The title of our first story/section/chapter ??? The Worlds Greatest Fisherman ??? comes from the cap that he wears everywhere he goes. Everyone knows him by that hat, so when he drunkenly gives it away to his uncle Eli, who really is a great hunter and fisherman, its clear that hes surrendering the only identity hes managed to create for himself beyond these webs of family stories that have shaped him. But lets face it, you can buy that hat in any truck stop on the highway. As a marker of identity, its a pathetic fiction, but without family or community, what else does he have? His wife steals the hat back for him, and after a scene of drunken violence, they retreat back to the city. Like many of us, he wants to live in his own fiction of self, not the web of stories that bind him to that family and community. Family stories arent just a complex tapestry, theyre also what tie us down, binding us to the fixed identities that we strain against, especially when were young. One thing that interests me is watching Erdrichs characters struggle against these stories, and struggle to make sense of them, just as we do, as if theyre not just narrators but readers as well. They seem as frustrated — or as liberated — by the gaps between these stories as we are.
But heres a question Ive been asking those high school students: Why start here? The next group of stories/sections/chapters go back in time to 1934, where we get our first view of the love triangle between Marie Lazarre, Nector Kashpaw, and Lulu Lamartine which will dominate the book. So what is it about Junes death that organizes these stories and makes it where we have to start?