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?