LOVE MEDICINE: Week Five

Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky
October 29, 2009
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Since David talked about “Resurrection,” I thought I’d finish up my part of this discussion by looking at the book’s religious structure. It goes without saying that any book that begins with a death on the day before Easter and includes chapters entitled “Crown of Thorns” and “Resurrection” is hinting at a Christian narrative of sacrifice and redemption. And that Christian narrative is there, if only ironically, in the way Gordie punishes himself after June’s death by nearly drinking himself to death in “Crown of Thorns,” and in the strange pieta of “Resurrection,” as his mother waits for him to rise again.

But that’s not the only religious narrative being enacted in this book. If it were, then we might have to see Love Medicine as what Gerry Nanapush contemptuously calls King Kashpaw in “Crossing the Water,” the book’s final section — “an apple…red on the outside, white on the inside.” In the profile at the end of the book, Erdrich notes that her relationship to Christianity is complex:

I was brought up as Catholic; my father’s a German Catholic and my mother is Ojibwe/French and a very devout and strict Catholic. I wear a holy medal and have a confessional in my bookstore. I still love the saints, but I think some of the dogma is dangerous nonsense. I try to follow the Ojibwe and Catholic tenets of what makes a good person.

Elsewhere, Erdrich has described the central theme of her work as “dual citizenship,” noting that her own mixed blood gives her access to both sides of the line, “one foot on tribal lands, and one in ordinary middle-class life.” In the book’s religious themes, this dual citizenship is reflected in the mixing of a Christian narrative of redemption with Native American trickster myths.

Tricksters are the figures in Native American myths who bring human culture to the natural world, mainly by lying. (And what could be more human?) A trickster is a clown, a gambler, a con man, a magician. The book’s main trickster figure is Gerry Nanapush, six foot four, 320 pounds, “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.” He’s also Lulu Lamartine’s son and Lipsha Morrissey’s father, which is appropriate because those two are the other major trickster figures in the book. Lulu has become a “jiibay witch whose foundation garments was a nightmare cage for little birds,” able to read people’s secrets with a terrifying clarity after an eye operation that leaves her dependent upon her old nemesis, Marie Kashpaw, to “put the tears into her eyes.” (Nice irony, since Lulu put so many tears in hers.) For his part, Lipsha has now learned from Lulu the secret everyone has been hiding from him all his life, that he’s really June’s son, and he’ll work his own trickster magic in the rigged poker game that brings the novel to its conclusion.

But the book itself is just as hard to pin down as Gerry Nanapush, who’s broken out of every prison in the Midwest. The plot is full of tragedy ??? death, grief, lost land, rural poverty, broken families, the living death of alcoholism ??? but the stories that the characters tell us don’t feel tragic. As we’ve noted throughout this discussion, even the most tragic stories are full of strange comic moments.

One virtue of the Christian narrative of sin and redemption as a narrative structure for a novel is that it’s linear: it all moves one way, toward a solemn moment of resurrection and forgiveness. But in Native American trickster myths, things tend to go around and around, through cycles of death and rebirth that can end up seeming wildly comic. In the novel’s final section, Erdrich shows us just such a trickster figure: it’s Wiley Coyote, “getting blown to bits for the fifty-millionth time by the Road Runner. Coyote is the classic Native American trickster, and Lipsha identifies:

I always thought, personally, the coyote deserved to roast that chipper bird on a spit.

“I feel sorry for old Wiley Coyote,” I said.

The kid looked at me like I was a sad case.

“That don’t matter,” he said. “They still blow him up.”

Or run him over with garbage trucks. That’s what they did next. When he was flat as a pancake, someone rolled him in a tube and mailed him C.O.D. to Tijuana.

Wiley Coyote never catches the road runner, but he always gets the bird. Still, he comes back after every commercial, full of hope, a brand new plan, and another piece of fiendish equipment from the Acme Corporation. And that’s the trick in trickster myths. Nothing is ever simply comic or simply tragic. Lipsha gets a prophetic vision when he’s clonked by an empty whiskey bottle between the eyes, and he resolves the tangled narratives of his family by cheating at cards. He learned to crimp cards from Lulu, who was the most merciless poker cheat in the senior citizen center. Once again, that’s appropriate, because Lipsha’s the wild card in Erdrich’s novel:

I always like to keep my eye on where my jacks are going in the deck, because other people like to call the one-eyed jacks wild. I got a soft spot for the jack. The jack of hearts is me ??? who doesn’t hold a sword in his hand but a banana peel.

When the card game is done, Lipsha has dealt himself “a perfect family“A royal flush.” And in doing so, he saves his imperfect family from their own worst impulses, distracting his father, Gerry Nanapush, from his righteous anger at King Kashpaw, the half-brother who used to torment Lipsha throughout their shared childhood. As his winnings, Lipsha claims the car that King bought with their mother’s life insurance. He uses it to drive his father to freedom in Canada and, through his forgiveness, to bring his mother’s spirit home:

I tell you, there was good in what she did for me, I know now. The son that she acknowledged suffered more than Lipsha Morrissey did. The thought of June grabbed my heart so, but I was lucky she turned me over to Grandma Kashpaw.

I still had Grandma’s hankie in my pocket. The sun flared. I’d heard that this river was the last of an ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the Dakotas and solved all our problems. It was easy to still imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves, but the truth is we live on dry land. I got inside. The morning was clear. A good road led on. So there was nothing to do but cross the water and bring her home.

Erdrich’s tangled web of stories reflects the trickster spirit more than the Christian theology of death and resurrection, but it also suggests that tragedy and comedy can never be fully separated. None of the dead stay dead in Love Medicine. And none of these stories are ever finished. Louise Erdrich has said that she expects to keep writing about these characters until she dies. And that’s true of the way all our stories work, the way we build families and communities out of acts of collective memory. In that sense, we’re all tricksters, all Wiley Coyote, ready to pick ourselves up after every disaster and start over, because the truth is that no matter how many times you’ve told a story, you can never really be sure that you’ve reached the end.

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