David’s already done a great job of exploring “Crown of Thorns,” so I thought I’d talk about “Love Medicine,” which might be my favorite story in the book. In many ways, “Love Medicine” is the mirror image of “Crown of Thorns.” If “Crown of Thorns” turns from horror to grotesque comedy, then “Love Medicine” goes the other way, introducing to one of the book’s trickster figures, Lipsha Morrissey, and his efforts to solve the love triangle that has divided these families for almost fifty years.
Now, Lipsha’s no genius. His brain, his Grandpa Nector observes, is in his heart, like a snapping turtle. But Lipsha’s got a gift: the touch, which is a healing power in his hands. He can snap his fingers over the knotted veins in his Grandmother Marie’s legs or tap on an old woman’s chest to ease her pain. But the most important way in which we get a sense of Lipsha’s role as a healer ??? and his status as one of the book’s trickster figures ??? is through his sense of absurd comedy:
I got to thinking about some funny things that happened. There was this one time that Lulu Lamartine’s little blue tweety bird, a paraclete, I guess you’d call it, flown up inside her dress and got lost within there. I recalled her running out into the hallway trying to yell something, shaking. She was doing a right good jig there, cutting the rug for sure, and the thing is it never flown out. To this day people speculate where it went.
It’s 1982, and we find Nector, Marie, and Lulu living in the same retirement home. But that hasn’t stopped Nector and Lulu from going at it. One day, Lipsha leaves his grandfather digging up dandelions in the courtyard of the senior center, and when he returns, Nector has vanished, his dandelion fork still “quibbling upright in the ground.” Lipsha goes looking for him, and it’s his touch that leads him to the laundry room:
There they were. And he was really loving her up good, boy, and she was going hell for leather. Sheets was flapping on the lines above, and washcloths, pillowcases, shirts was also flying through the air, for they was trying to clear out a place for themselves in a high-heaped but shallow laundry cart. The washers and dryers was all on, chock-full of quarters, shaking and moaning. I could hear what Grandpa and the Lamartine was billing and cooing, and they couldn’t hear me.
Reading Lipsha’s description of the scene, it’s hard not to think of the dead geese flapping away beside Nector and Marie during their first encounter on the road. Embarrassed, Lipsha tries to prevent them from being caught by the other residents of the retirement home, including his grandmother, by leaning against the door. So he’s there for the scene’s comic climax:
Turned out though, in the heat of the clinch, as I was trying to avert my eyes you see, the Lamartine’s curly wig jumped off her head. And if you ever been in the midst of something and had a big change like that occur in the someone you can’t help know how it devastates your basic urges. Not only that, but her wig was almost with a life of its own. Grandpa’s eyes were bugging at the change already, and swear to God if the thing didn’t rear up and pop him in the face like it was going to start something. He scrambled up, Grandpa did, and the Lamartine jumped up after him all addled looking.
Lulu’s wig is the last reminder of the fire that burned her house down, and as Nector stares at it, he’s stricken with guilt: “’The letter was what started the fire,” he said. “I never would have done it.”’ Lipsha doesn’t know what he’s talking about, of course, and neither does Lulu: “What letter?” she asks. But we know; we were there with Nector on Lulu’s porch when he accidentally started the fire by letting his cigarette fall onto the letter, then sat there, dazed, watching it burn. From the comedy of Nector and Lulu’s wild sex among the laundry, and the wig that seems to leap off her head like an enraged hedgehog to attack Nector, we’ve now plunged into the heart of the unspoken guilt that lies between them.
And that may be Lipsha’s real gift. His stories mix comedy with something darker and more profound. The most obvious example comes in his description of the “love medicine” that he tries to administer to Nector and Marie to restore their marriage. He tries to work this powerful magic using the hearts of wild geese, who mate for life. But when he fails to shoot a pair of geese swimming on the slough, he gets lazy and goes to the Red Owl store to buy two frozen turkey hearts instead. It’s a classic trickster moment, in which all good intentions go horribly wrong because of one moment of weakness. But even here, there’s comedy. Look at Lipsha’s description of the moment when Marie tries to get Nector to eat his portion of the love medicine, serving him the turkey heart on a salad with the story that his doctor had prescribed it to build up his blood:
“Just go on and try it,” she said, taking the salt shaker up in her hand. She was getting annoyed. “Not tasty enough? You want me to salt it for you?” She waved the shaker over his plate.
“All right, skinny white girl!” She had got Grandpa mad. Oopsy-daisy, he popped the heart into his mouth. I was about to yawn loudly and come out of the bedroom. I was about ready for this crash of wills to be over, when I saw he was still up to his old tricks. First he rolled it into one side of his cheek. “Mmmmm,” he said. Then he rolled it into the other side of his cheek. “Mmmmmmm,” again. Then he stuck his tongue out with the heart on it and put it back, and there was no time to react. He had pulled Grandma’s leg once too far. Her goat was got. She was so mad she hopped up quick as a wink and slugged him between the shoulder blades to make him swallow.
Only thing is, he choked.
What a strange, perfect scene. The comic tone doesn’t prepare us for the tragedy that follows. But the interweaving of comedy and tragedy is part of the trickster’s task, suggesting the cyclical nature of life and death, laughter and grief in our lives. We all die, and who better than a clown to help us across the “swollen river” of death?
If you look back at Lipsha’s description of the tweety bird that vanishes up Lulu’s dress, you can see a clue as to his role in this book. Half the comedy of Lipsha’s stories lies in his voice, and in this story he makes a small verbal slip as he describes the bird ??? “a paraclete, I guess you’d call it” ??? that gives away the game Erdrich is playing with us. Anybody bother to look up that word? If not, then you missed the joke, because “paraclete” is a Greek word (parakl??tos) that appears in the Bible, specifically in the Gospel of St. John, where it’s used to describe Jesus as man’s advocate before God, pleading for the forgiveness of oue sins, as well as the helper and comforter we call upon in times of pain. That’s Lipsha’s role in these stories — to ease pain, to smooth the passage between life and death, and to comfort wandering ghosts, as when his grandfather comes back to join Marie in her bed:
“He was here,” she said. “He came and laid down next to me in bed. And he touched me.”
Her heart broke down. She cried. His touch was so cold. She laid back in bed after a while, as it was morning, and I went to the couch. As I lay there, falling asleep, I suddenly felt Grandpa’s presence and the barrier between us like a swollen river. I felt how I had wronged him. How awful was the place where I had sent him. Behind the wall of death, he’d watched the living eat and cry and get drunk. He was lonesome, but I understood he meant no harm.
“Go back,” I said to the dark, afraid and yet full of pity. “You got to be with your own kind now,” I said. I felt him retreating, like a sigh, growing less. I felt his spirit as it shrunk back through the walls, the blinds, the brick courtyard of the Senior Citizens. “Look up Aunt June,” I whispered as he left.
Lipsha will have his own reasons to look up June Kapshaw by the end of the book, and it’s his forgiveness that will finally bring her home. For all his bungling, his “love medicine” proves to be more powerful than he realized. When Nector comes back from beyond that swollen river, it’s not to Lulu, but to his wife’s bed. Lipsha explains it to his Grandmother this way:
Love medicine ain’t what brings him back to you, Grandma. No, it’s something else. He loved you over time and distance, but he went off so quick he never got the chance to tell you how he loves you, how he doesn’t blame you, how he understands. It’s true feeling, not no magic. No supermarket heart could have brung him back.
Love, it turns out, is both sickness and cure, and it takes a trickster like Lipsha to show us that paradox by mixing comedy and horror, death and redemption.