Love Medicine ??? Getting Lost At The Start

Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky
September 30, 2009
Comments 12

Thanks for getting us started, David. I’ve 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: it’s more satisfying to think that it’ll all add up, move toward some clear resolution, and tie up its many narrative threads into that complex tapestry you mentioned. I’ve 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 I’ve been pointing out to them that we won’t know exactly what this narrative is until Erdrich finishes writing about these characters, or revising the stories she’s 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 she’s published will become a chapter. I suspect we’ll 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 Erdrich’s readers will find that satisfying, but something may also get lost when the river flows too smoothly.

In a sense, it’s the gaps between the narratives that this book is about: while you’re right that June Kashpaw “has been part of a widely and deeply connected family and community,” it’s important to note that she gets lost between two worlds. She’s decided to walk home from to the reservation from the white oil town just beyond its borders, so when she vanishes, it’s 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 that’s not the only sense in which she’s 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 it’s harder than that to get home. (The final lines of the book have her son, Lipsha, thinking that it’s 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 June’s journey in those opening pages was incomplete.)

The same thing is true about June’s son, King, who gets crazy whenever he comes home to the reservation from the city. That’s because he’s also lost between worlds. The title of our first story/section/chapter ??? “The World’s 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, it’s clear that he’s surrendering the only identity he’s managed to create for himself beyond these webs of family stories that have shaped him. But let’s face it, you can buy that hat in any truck stop on the highway. As a marker of identity, it’s 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 aren’t just a complex tapestry, they’re also what tie us down, binding us to the fixed identities that we strain against, especially when we’re young. One thing that interests me is watching Erdrich’s characters struggle against these stories, and struggle to make sense of them, just as we do, as if they’re not just narrators but readers as well. They seem as frustrated — or as liberated — by the gaps between these stories as we are.

But here’s a question I’ve 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 June’s death that organizes these stories and makes it where we have to start?

12 thoughts on “Love Medicine ??? Getting Lost At The Start

  1. I’m not totally sure why Erdrich decided to begin the story with June’s death. To me it starts out like other stories we have read this year in class. We have read Oedipus Rex and Beowulf, both start right in the middle of the action. This seems to be what Erdrich is doing also. The book starts in the middle of the story and as the story progresses we learn more of the story. I think this may be what she is trying to do with beginning the story with June’s death but only Erdrich knows exactly what her reasoning is.

  2. June’s death may have been a controversial place to start, but overall it’s a great way to show the reader (like Sergei said) the emotions and overall mood of the story. Most great pieces of literature start either with a strong, well-written “In the Beginning,” or dive right into the story. And here it works really well because we see June’s tension with the two different worlds. The metaphor is a good way to attract the reader’s attention. Everyone likes a descriptive writing that helps them to become part of the story. As June rolls out of the truck, I can see what her feelings and actions are. Her movements are greatly elaborated by the metaphor. And even though we hardly learn about her in this first part, her death leads to the rest of her “family” and its disfunctions. June’s death, in essence, is the introduction to her split life, which is exactly what the rest of the families are going through on the reservation and in the white world.

  3. I think June’s death was a controversial place to start until you get into the reading. As you delve deeper you find that without the knowledge of June and how she passed you would be lost in some areas of other characters lives. Though I do not feel the entire book revolves around June I do feel that she has a “finger” per say in everyone’s lives. (Instead of a hand) she ha two sons who play small but detrimental parts in the book and her husband who we find ourselves focusing on allot. i would comment more in depth however I have a class to attend.

  4. I am another student at Danville High School who is reading Love Medicine in my honors English class. Over the summer when I started reading this book it was very confusing, having each chapter as a different story threw me off a little bit. But through our class discussions and Sergei coming in to talk to us really has helped me a lot. I think the beginning confused me just because I didn’t know what to expect, but as I continued to read I saw how all of the stories were connected. I think that Louise Erdrich started this book out with June’s death because it keeps us reading. One of the main characters dieing from the start gives the book an interesting mystery that keeps the readers hooked. The death of June Kashpaw is what kept me reading. I wanted to learn more about her, I kept asking myself questions like“ Why did June die? What is so important about her? and Why not any other character? These questions are what kept me reading and looking for more. I think starting off this book with her death was very smart and a good way to keep readers going.

  5. I agree with Sam when he says that when he starts put reading a book, the first chapter has to be interesting. I found it interesting that the start of this book was June’s death. You see throughout the book that most things are centered around her. Starting out with June’s death makes you want to learn more about her because you don’t know anything about her other that the fact that she dies. It keeps you interested and it makes you want to find out more about her. The book also starts out with a lot of conflict. Zelda didn’t tell Albertine that June had died until after the fact. Because of that Albertine didn’t talk to Zelda for two months. When I first started reading the book and it started out having conflict, I figured that the rest of the book must have conflict, and turns out I was right. Starting out with tragedy and conflict definitely keeps me interested.

  6. My English class has some very different opinions about how we feel about the setup of the book. Personally, i really like how the book is short stories that fit together. When i read it this summer without the guidance of a teacher, I tended to mix up a few characters, but now that we have begun discussions, it makes a lot more sense. I like how they start with June’s death. Like Sergei said, she haunts every situation. She is the one constant between all of the characters at different points in their lives. I have enjoyed the book so much because it is so different, so uniquely written, and uses symbolism in ways that we are not accustomed to.

  7. Craig, my reading of this is that we need June’s death to come first because she’s both the ghost that haunts this narrative and the sacrifice that must be redeemed. She connects these generations because she’s both a lost child (adopted by Marie) and a mother who has abandoned her own child (Lipsha). That makes her the center of this “web of stories,” and the final story is about Lipsha’s need to find her, forgive her, and bring her home.

  8. I do not understand why June’s death is the beginning of the book? I don’t understand why it is. It would make more sense if she was the central character of the book but lulu is the main character. I guess you have to start somewhere but I don’t understand why Erdrich wouldn’t start at the beginning rather than towards the end of the time line of the book, which was when it actually took place. It was a very good chapter and needed to be in the book but I think it was in the wrong place. Can someone please give me a good reason why she decided to place this chapter out of place.

  9. In my high school Honors English Course, one thing that we discussed that really interested me was when we talked about the symbolism of cars. First we learn about King’s car, which he bought with June’s estate. I think the family doesn’t necessarily accept the car especially Eli, who wont even ride in it. Lulu’s car represents how hard it is to stay loyal to a relationship, as we learned from the “butter incident.” What I felt was the most bizarre car was Henry Jr. and Lyman’s red convertible. I was captivated how when they drove all the way to Alaska, they kept the top of the convertible down. However, when they get back to the reservation they put the top back up. With quite a dramatic ending, Henry is taken down by the branches and the car doesn’t live much longer either.

  10. Why should the book start with June’s death? Well the reason I think Erdrich began Love Medicine this way is to start the book out with a hook. When I read a book, the first chapter has to be interesting to me or I will not finish the book. After I read the first chapter of Love Medicine, I was instantly hooked. My exact thoughts after reading the beginning were, “Wow, one of the main characters that I had just met died. Where is Erdrich going to go from here?” I was confused, interested, but mainly curious about where the book is going to take me from there. It was a suspenseful beginning chapter but it hooked me into reading on. For me to sit down and read a book the author has to grab my attention and Erdrich did this by putting June’s death in the first chapter. This is the reason why I think it was a good idea to start the book with a hook.

  11. I am a student at Danville High School and we are reading Love Medicine in our Honors English class. I wasn’t sure about the book when I first read it and it was a little confusing for me at times. When Sergei came to our class to discuss the book with us it helped me understand the book in so many ways. I loved how he said that this book was a “web of stories,” and how all these people connect in one way or another. I have enjoyed comparing the characters throughout the book and seeing how they connect with one another.In the different chapters you are able to view each character individually and see how they truly are and the way they react in different situations. In this book there is also much Symbolism that takes place. The different symbols help us learn even more about the characters and helps develop the story.Overall I have enjoyed reading this book in class and discussing it.

  12. Why start with June’s death? Well for one thing, it’s a classic example of starting in medias res. Get the reader interested in trying to figure out where we’ve been, which characters are important, how they’re connected to each other, etc… before actually laying it all out. The initial section introduces almost all of the characters we’ll follow throughout the book, but it is written from the younger generation’s perspective. It is almost jarring in the next few chapters to find that Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Eli are suddenly the main characters of their own stories, with names, and desires, and sadness all their own. But isn’t that how families work? The younger generation can’t believe the elders had their own wild youths. By starting the novel with two sections so far apart in time, Erdrich plays with the disconnect between our perception of those we love, and the reality.

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