Louise Erdrich | Critical Essay by Thomas Matchie

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of Louise Erdrich.
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(approx. 15 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Thomas Matchie

SOURCE: "Love Medicine: A Female Moby Dick," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 478-91.

In the following essay, Matchie outlines parallels between Love Medicine and Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

Published in 1984, Love Medicine is about a tribe of Indians living in North Dakota. Its author, Louise Erdrich, is part Chippewa and in the book returns to her prairie roots for her literary materials. Recently, Erdrich published another work entitled Beet Queen, also about the Red River Valley, and some of the same characters appear in both novels. Love Medicine is different from so much of Native American literature in that it is not polemic—there is no ax to grind, no major indictment of white society. It is simply a story about Indian life—its politics, humor, emptiness, and occasional triumphs. If Erdrich has a gift, it is the ability to capture the inner life and language of her people.

Since its publication, Love Medicine has won several national awards. Still, critics see in it a serious lack of unity—it was originally published as a series of short stories or vignettes. Also, some think it has little connection to authentic Indian values; students at the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota identified more with Giants in the Earth, Rolvaag's epic novel about white immigrants on the Dakota prairie. My contention is just the opposite, that the book does function as a whole, though this may not be immediately evident, and that the author is highly aware of Indian history and tradition, which emerge in subtle ways, helping us to understand the mystery of existence, whatever our color or ethnic origin.

While reading the novel it may help, strangely enough, to keep in mind another novel, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. These two works may seem far apart, one about the sea—"in landlessness alone lies the highest truth"—and the other about the Dakota prairie, the geographic center of North America. But one of Erdrich's characters, Nector Kashpah, sees himself as Ishmael—"call me Ishmael," he says, after escaping a particularly difficult situation. If one looks further into the matter, it becomes evident that there are many ways these two books are alike. First, they have similar episodic or disjointed structures. Then, the major characters in one story seem to draw upon those in the other. And through it all, the same motifs (e.g., water and fishing, wildness—particularly among the males, preoccupation with power as well as the importance of the heart, the alternating realities of life and death, concern with colors, especially white and red) appear again and again. Indeed, it may be that the truest unity and deepest values of Love Medicine come clear when juxtaposed with Melville's classic novel of the sea.

In regard to structure, Love Medicine begins with a short account, told in third person, of the death of June Kashpah in 1981 in the boomtown of Williston, North Dakota. Then the novel proceeds with many short, seemingly unrelated episodes—some descriptive/narrative, some dramatic—told from multiple perspectives, but all about life on and off the reservation over a period of fifty years (1934–1984). Each vignette centers on shattered family life and the alienation of individuals. The parts may indeed seem dissimilar, unless one views them in an organic way, much as Moby Dick in 1850 represented a departure from the classic or three-part structure so common at that time. Moby-Dick, of course, is about the disintegration of a ship, not only physically, but spiritually, for the purpose of the voyage and the unity of the crew collapse, all because of Ahab's preoccupation with one white whale. It begins with Ishmael's narrative, but then switches to everything from descriptions of the whaling industry, to poetic monologues, to dramatic episodes both comic and tragic. The parts, though different, are interposed erratically and often unexpectedly, but in the end they work together toward the whole. And that is how one must view Love Medicine.

In both cases the circle, so indigenous to Indian life, governs all, though in the case of the structure of Love Medicine, it takes fifty years to see it. Moby Dick starts with Ishmael's leaving New Bedford, contemplating many kinds of images of death (e.g., in the chapel, through Fr. Maple's sermon, in the Sprouter-Inn, in the prophecies of Elijah). Then, after the wreck of the Pequod (named after an extinct tribe of Indians), he surfaces in a circular vortex as he rises out of the chaos before coming home. In Erdrich's novel the action starts with June's death and then, after going back in time through a series of chaotic scenes dealing with Indian family life, circles back to the beginning when June's lost son Lipsha surfaces—rises psychologically and spiritually, not only to discover his real mother and family, but in his words to "cross the water, and bring her home."

Undoubtedly, Erdrich did not set out to write a book like Moby-Dick, but like Melville she writes about what she knows best—Indian life in this century—and like him she seeks through her characters the answers to some profound questions about human existence. It is in this context that she parallels in broad and general ways Melville's pattern of development, themes, characterizations, and motifs to create a virtual allegory of his work. In many ways her novel mirrors his, for her Dakota prairie can be as wild as his ocean typhoons, just as his sea can be as calm and dreamy as the Midwestern prairie. Indeed, as we shall see, the motif of wildness runs through the novel, but the character most directly exhibiting this quality is Nector Kashpah, who sees himself as reliving Moby Dick. Nector literally connects the various Indian families on the reservation; himself a Kashpah, he marries Marie Lazarre Morrissey, but never loses his passion for Lulu Lamartine, a promiscuous mother of a girl and at least nineteen boys, one of whom is Nector's.

Midway in the book Nector, a type of figure not uncommon in Melville because he is both comic and tragic, says:

I kept thinking about the one book I read in high school … Moby Dick, the story of the great white whale. I knew that book inside and out. I'd even stolen a copy from school and taken it home in my suitcase….

"You're always reading that book," my mother said once. "What is it?"

"The story of the great white whale."

She could not believe it. After a while, she said, "What do they got to wail about, those whites?"

I told her the whale was a fish as big as the church. She did not believe this either. Who would?

"Call me Ismael," I said sometimes, only to myself. For he survived the great white monster like I got out of the rich lady's picture [he'd been paid by a rich lady to disrobe for a painting she called "Plunge of the Brave"]. He let the water bounce his coffin to the top. In my life so far, I'd gone easy and come out on top, like him. But the river wasn't done with me yet. I floated through the calm sweet spots, but somewhere the river branched.

Here is where he falls headlong again for Lulu.

One of the ironies of the novel is that Nector is not really Ishmael at all, but more like Ahab, in that he is an irrational figure who thinks he can control all worlds—the Kashpahs and the Lamartines, his wife's and his lover's. A member of a most respected family and the chairman of the tribe, Nector becomes the victim of his sexual passions, falling for Marie as she escapes from the Sacred Heart Convent, but equally possessed with the beautiful and lascivious Lulu, into whose waters he continually sails to satisfy his fantasies. He finally concludes:

I try to think of anything but Lulu or Marie or my children. I think back to the mad captain in Moby Dick and how his leg was bit off. Perhaps I was wrong, about Ismael I mean, for now I see signs of the captain in myself.

In trying to burn a letter he's written to Lulu saying he is leaving Marie, he actually sets fire to Lulu's house—an event reminiscent of Ahab's burning masts in Moby Dick—before returning sheepishly to Marie. In the end he dies a pathetic old man, one who has literally lost his mind and has "to have his candy." He chokes to death on turkey hearts, the ironic symbol of his erotic needs and manipulative ways.

The Ishmael who discovers the real "love medicine" is Lipsha Morrissey, the bastard son of June Kashpah—the one who brings Nector the hearts. Like Melville's narrator, he is a wanderer who has to discover in painful ways the meaning of his universe and how he fits. He has to find that his true mother is June, who dies on her way home crossing the prairie. He has to find that his brother is King, his boyhood tormentor, disrupted by the Vietnam War and as wild and torn as Nector. King is the real son of June and Gordie Kashpah. Gordie, the youngest child of Nector and Marie, is another wild character. Drunk, he goes berserk after the death of June; in a magnificent episode, he kills a deer (a wild animal akin in Erdrich's world to the whale), thinking it is June, and then returns to the convent to confess his deed, before ending in an open field "howling" as if he were "drowned."

But most of all Lipsha has to find that his father is the perennial criminal Gerry Nanapush, one of the older sons of Lulu Lamartine. His is another wild tale (narrated by Lipsha's counterpart Albertine Johnson) entitled "Scales," wherein he escapes from jail to visit in the tiny unit where they weigh trucks, Dot Adare, the woman who bears his child, before returning to his own (physical as well as mental) imprisonment. With this discovery late in the novel, Lipsha combines in his own person the larger symbolic family of the Chippewas. He does all this as a kind of innocent observer, like Ishmael, who only occasionally takes part in the action. But out of the death and destruction of his people he, unlike Nector-Ahab and his male counterparts, accepts the responsibility for his life and worth as he rises to the surface in the end. He is the one who truly "connects" all, for he completes the cycle begun by his mother whose spirit he now brings home.

If there is a parallel to Moby Dick in Love Medicine, it is June Kashpah. She dies early in the novel, but like the great white whale, her presence pervades the entire story and gives it depth. She is not there and yet there. Sometimes she even "comes alive," as when Gordie thinks the deer in his back seat, stunned and yet moving, is June herself. Initially having run away from Gordie, June is hungry and picked up in Williston by a stranger, whom she thinks is "different," but after falling from his truck, perishes walking across the cold white prairie as she "came home." In this early vignette, Erdrich captures the bleakness and boredom at the center of so much Indian life in this century. It is that dark side of life, the side which preoccupies Ahab in Moby Dick, something he equates through the while whale with a "inscrutable malice" behind the universe—a mask he wants to penetrate. Erdrich does not philosophize as much as Melville, but this concept of evil is a legitimate way of viewing the source of so many of the destructive aspects of Indian life depicted in Love Medicine. It is interesting that when June's inlaws—Gordie and Zelda and Aurelia—recall her life, one of the dominant incidents they remember is their trying to hang her, and her egging them on, like some kind of evil mind. Love Medicine, like Moby Dick, is a type of journey to penetrate the enticing but illusive mask that conceals the mystery of evil.

As the story unfolds, however, we discover a beautiful side to June, much as Ishmael sees a mystifying and uplifting aspect to the white whale to counter Ahab's view. June has been raised by Eli, Nector's brother, the moral center of the novel, who lives in the woods and represents the old Indian past. At one point in the novel the irascible King insists that Eli have his hat, on which are the words the "World's Greatest Fisherman," for all agree Eli deserves it most. June is inevitably associated with Eli, with water, with fishing, with the good in the Kashpah history. All the Kashpah women admire June, as do her husband Gordie and son King, to whom she leaves money for a car. Like so many of the males, however, King's destructive wildness keeps him from being the responsible human being his mother wanted; this is left for Lipsha to achieve. June, then, is a driving force behind the Chippewa world, but the reader must pick between the beautiful and humanizing aspects of such a presence, and what Ishmael calls when reflecting upon the whiteness of the whale, "the all-color of atheism"—the possibility that behind the Indians' life patterns (which are now white patterns) is not much of anything at all.

There are, no doubt, significant differences even within the general likenesses of Love Medicine and Moby Dick, if only because Erdrich is a woman returning to the land and her people, rather than a man going to sea with a male crew. If Lipsha, for instance, is Ishmael, he only appears at the end to complete the circle. In the beginning his mentor and female counterpart, Albertine Johnson (perhaps the author's surrogate), returns to the reservation after and because of June's death. Albertine introduces us to the chief characters of the drama, much as Ishmael does when he boards the Pequod, telling us of the Knights and Squires, the chief mates and harpooners. But Albertine returns, not to the captain's quarters, but to the kitchen where her mother Zelda and aunt Aurelia, the daughters of Nector and Marie, are discussing June. Here we are first acquainted with the "familiness" of the Chippewas, and begin to know the characters—the Kashpahs, the Morrisseys, the Lamartines—whose stories stretch from 1934 to 1984, much as the characters on the Pequod evolve on the voyage to capture Moby Dick.

Good human relationships are important to both authors, and if Ishmael crosses cultures in making friends with the pagan harpooner Queequeg (who like Eli in Love Medicine is a kind of noble savage), Albertine is herself a half-breed, red and white, the daughter of Zelda and the "Swede." She suffers because of her double-nature, but her return, like Ishmael's setting out, comes from her uneasiness and is an effort to escape loneliness and build human bridges. Curiously enough, Albertine has her own chaotic history, and just as Ishmael may be an innocent observer, but is taken in by Ahab's powerful dark influence, so is Albertine taken in. As Erdrich's story circles back in time we find that Albertine in 1973 at fifteen tries to run away from the reservation. She goes to Fargo, only to end up sleeping with Henry Lamartine Jr., one of Lulu's sons, on N. P. Avenue in the cheap Round Up Hotel. After making love, Albertine feels empty and wants to separate herself from him, whereupon he senses that she has "crossed a deep river and disappeared." In short, he needs her, and her horror pales beside his nightmare explosion. Like King, he has been damaged by the Vietnam War, and when he touches her the next day "weeping," she is now touched emotionally by the depth of their mutual loneliness.

In the beginning of the novel, however, Albertine returns to the reservation. Like Ishmael, she is not pure, but she has more distance than the others, having lived in a white woman's basement for some time away from home. Through her we meet Zelda and Aurelia. On the Pequod the chief mates, like Stubb and Flask, are skillful whalers, but not thinkers, and soon become extensions of Ahab's mind. The women of the reservation are also servants, but they are more free and happy people—like the harpooners in Moby Dick who dine in an atmosphere of merriment following their humorless captain's meal. These women don't fight the system, run by the males, but they are basic to its existence—giving birth to the children, planting and growing the food, cooking and baking for the men—like Gordie and King and Lipsha, who unconsciously quarrel over and destroy the newly baked pies. Among the Nanapushes, Gerry leaves prison temporarily to impregnate Dot, who is then left to raise and feed the child. These women may be treated like dogs, as Ahab treats Stubb, but they keep the whole operation afloat. They maintain the land, encourage their men, survive catastrophe. The Pequod is a commercial enterprise where under contract the mates and harpooners follow their mad leader without question. The women in Love Medicine are not paid, but they keep the family itself intact, in spite of the alcohol, the violence, the abuse and misuse of one another.

Albertine identifies with these women—their fun, their hopes, but also their fears and worry about the men. In one of the most powerful scenes in Moby Dick, Ishmael almost loses control of the ship as he gazes into the Try-Works (the red-hot pots of sperm oil), contemplating how intertwined are both the magnificent as well as the most hellish moments of life, even as the Catskill eagle flies high and yet at times swoops very low. Albertine-Ishmael, amid all the fighting and confusion, is worried about Lipsha and takes him for a walk in the fields, and gazing at the northern lights, she muses:

I thought of June. She would be dancing if there was a dance hall in space. She would be dancing a two-step for wandering souls [like Lipsha]. Her long legs lifting and falling. Her laugh an ace. Her sweet perfume the way all grown-up women were supposed to smell. Her amusement at both the bad and the good. Her defeat. Her reckless victory. Her sons.

So June, amid the high moments and the low, the bad and the good, gives substance to the Indians' quest for meaning. Lipsha will find himself in the end, but it is too early to know that now, and Albertine, his alter ego, can only hold his hand, and like Ishmael, try to keep the ship on course.

But the two female giants of Love Medicine are Marie Kashpah and Lulu Lamartine, and they take center stage as Albertine fades, just as Ismael gives way to more dramatic scores in Moby Dick. These two women are the Starbucks of the novel, for they buck the system—the government, church, or family—to keep their souls alive. Starbuck, of course, is Ahab's first mate who objects to Ahab's decision to take revenge on the white whale, but still decides "to obey, rebelling." Ahab fears Starbuck, but in a strange way respects him, comes to trust him with his life, and even confides in him shortly before his death. In Erdrich's work Marie will not be crushed. As a girl in the convent she outsmarts the grotesque Sister Leopolda, who tries to break her spirit, but to save face Leopolda must treat the stabbed hands of her underling as stigmata, and Marie emerges as Saint Marie, "Star of the Sea."

Escaping that world, she uses Nector Kashpah's advances to snare him into marriage, and then keeps him sober so he can run the tribe. She is close to Nector, as Starbuck is to Ahab, though she knows he plans to leave home for the amorous Lulu. But even here Marie uses his guilty feelings and fears to keep him in the house. Like the other women, Marie is a homemaker and protector; early in June's life she takes in the child, though Marie lets her follow her own desire to live with Eli in the woods. Overall, she resembles Starbuck. A wise realist, she is able to compromise without losing her identify in impossible situations which any moment may, like the sea, sweep one under.

Lulu, on the other hand, is the object of many men's desires. By Old Man Pillager, for instance, she has Gerry Nanapush, and she returns the advances of her suitor from St. Paul, Beverly Lamartine, who like Nector-Ahab pursues her for her body. These men are important to Lulu, for they fulfill her physical needs, but they never get the best of her. Though Nector is her favorite, she never lets him think that she is inferior to Marie. When as tribal chairman Nector informs her the government is taking her house, she stays put, even when it burns, till they furnish her with a new dwelling. Like Marie she has spunk and keeps her "starbuck" identity in spite of overwhelming odds. Like the other women, she is a good housekeeper, for her place is always neat and orderly. In the end Marie and Lulu come to know and respect each other at the Senior Citizens' home, where Nector's mind fades and he finally chokes to death. Here the two rivals come to feel for each other as women in a touching way—in Lulu's words "reflecting on the human heart." These two women, like Ahab and Starbuck, trust one another; in an awesome gesture Marie, removing the bandages from Lulu's eyes, enables her to cry again—something she has not done since childhood. Here the author employs water in another way as a kind of "love medicine" to generate new life. Together the two mourn Nector much as one might feel for Ahab, a proud but pathetic figure, as he continues (like most of Erdrich's men) his wild unrelenting pursuit until the end.

There are other major incidents in Love Medicine that pick up key threads in Moby Dick, like the close relationship between madness and wisdom. Both King Jr. and Henry Jr. are affected mentally by the Vietnam War to the point they become violent souls. Henry Jr., after a long drive with his brother Lyman, who cannot save him, drowns himself in his red convertible. In Melville's story, the castaway Pip loses his mind when Stubb will not save him from the sea, but he returns in his madness to offer sharp, bitter wisdom to Captain Ahab, and from him the captain accepts it. In Erdrich's world where one generation fails, the next seems to succeed, as when King Howard Kashpah Jr. (King and Lynette's young son), after all his father's rage, learns to write his name, Howard Kashpah, in school on a red paper heart. The marker label says "PERMANENT," and the teacher tells him "that means forever." So Howard in his Pip-like childish wisdom undercuts the adult world around him to establish his own identity as a human being. In this way Howard parallels the growth in Lipsha Morrisey, the other son of June.

Colors, especially red and white, are also crucial in both novels, for they are a part of the very texture. White and red seem to go back and forth in Moby Dick, as the red heat of the tri-pots lights up the Pequod, just as do the tapering white candles or mastheads struck by lightning. In one case Ishmael philosophizes on life, while in the other Ahab commits himself to death. In Love Medicine the Indian is, of course, the redman living in a white world. June in the beginning has on a red nylon vest when the stranger in a white jacket "plunged down against her" with a "great wide mouth," as though she were entering the whale itself. Then there is the red convertible in which Henry Jr. drowns; the mark of white society, this is the machine that spells freedom, but it cannot solve basic human problems where so many are held psychologically captive.

Finally, there is the red of the heart itself—a powerful symbol in both novels. On the Pequod Ahab, just before the fatal chase, talks to Starbuck about the importance of the heart, family, love. His words are touching, coming from a man bent on destruction: "I … do what in my own … natural heart, I durst not … dare," he says. In Love Medicine both Lipsha and Howard come to know the meaning of the heart—Lipsha through the turkey hearts which kill his Ahab-like grandfather, and Howard through the paper heart on which he writes his name. Lipsha says that love means forgiveness, that it is not magic, but a "true feeling." Later, when he discovers in a card game his true father and sees himself as part of the larger family, he says, "The jack of hearts is me." These awakenings give a kind of tragic joy to a story pervaded by so many deaths.

Love Medicine, then, is a book about the prairie that examines the wild, chaotic lives of several Indian families whose lives on the reservation have immersed them in a dark and often violent existence, one that the author seems to equate with Ahab. It is a world created by a white—shall we say malicious—intelligence, except that behind the scenes hovers an amazing human being, June Kashpah, whose life and recent death still give meaning and hope to its members. Albertine-Ishmael goes back to that world to experience again the rage dramatized by her grandfather Nector-Ahab, as well as other violent males. But she also discovers the values sustained by women like her mother, Zelda, and Aurelia and Dot Adare, but especially by Marie and Lulu, who in spite of the men and the systems and the power, give dignity and spirit to an otherwise hollow and violent world.

Out of the chaos emerges, through Howard and Lipsha, possible new worlds, just as June would have wished. Indeed, Lipsha-Ishmael begins to see the importance of love within all the families and in this way "brings June home" as he (to use Nector's words) lets "the water bounce his coffin to the top" in the end. Love Medicine is a novel about the land, but one which has so many parallels to Moby Dick that it draws tremendous power when placed beside Melville's classic novel about the sea.

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