Louise Erdrich | Critical Essay by John S. Slack

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Louise Erdrich.
This section contains 3,988 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by John S. Slack

SOURCE: "The Comic Savior: The Dominance of the Trickster in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 118-29.

In the following essay, Slack contends that Love Medicine's loose structure as a novel is held tightly together by the recurring figure of the Trickster, represented by various characters.

One complaint occasionally directed at Love Medicine is that it is really not a novel but rather a collection of short stories bound together loosely by a common set of characters inhabiting successive stories. The arguments for its misnomer include the book's lack of either a central protagonist or a central conflict and its multi-narrational, and thus disjointed, narrative structure. However, this essay offers an argument in favor of Love Medicine's "novelism," that is, at least as far as its possession of a central protagonist is concerned. As others, like Nora Barry and Mary Prescott, have suggested, it does have one: June (Morrisey) Kashpaw, whose disembodied spirit haunts or protects the lives of all the other main characters. However, I would further submit that, in this text, June is really the preeminent Chippewa woodland trickster figure, that wily, good/evil shape- and sex-changer, and as such, she embodies anagogically most of the central characters who people Erdrich's rich narrative.

In this sense, Erdrich's narrative is actually a retelling of some of the oral myth-tales of Naanabohzo the trickster, set in the medium of late 20th-century printed fiction. In other words, many of the stories in Love Medicine are related to and are a relating of the once verbally preserved cycle of Chippewa folk tales of the trickster. This reading of the text can help also to account for the novel's multiple narration as well as the sense of disjointedness some readers experience. Moreover, this reading firmly places Erdrich's text in league with those of another Chippewa writer, Gerald Vizenor, whose three books to date, but especially Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart (1978), deal with a multiplicity of modern manifestations of the trickster figure.

Perhaps Erdrich and Vizenor, like the countless generations of Chippewa storytellers who spoke of the adventures and misadventures of their trickster figure, understand the one intrinsic value in all of them: the stories reveal that we all possess traits correlative to the trickster's. Robert F. Sayre briefly explores this human phenomenon:

Let us start by admitting that we are all Tricksters as dumb and greedy as Wakdjunkaga [her/his Winnebago name]—have been and will remain—no matter how balanced and controlled we may ordinarily try to be in our waking, rational lives. We do and will leave rotting fish in the refrigerator, try to get something for nothing, soil underwear, masturbate, lust for [men]women on the beach, cut our own fingers and arms, and get fooled by squirrels in the attic and raccoons turning over our garbage cans.

Not unlike that of the original tales, Sayre's point is that humor and self-parody are elemental to a sane outlook on life. Indeed, according to Mac Linscott Ricketts, the trickster is the ultimate comic figure for humanity. Ricketts believes that by laughing at the tricks, boasts, and buffoonery of this clown, we are laughing at ourselves. He concludes that "[T]he myths of the trickster enabled the Indians to laugh off their failures … since they saw in the trickster how foolish man is, and how useless it is to take life too seriously."

Of course, most of the qualifications cited above are considered negative aspects of the trickster's "personality" as they are revealed in the original Chippewa myth cycles. Not only does s/he play tricks and get tricked, s/he is also a semi-divine, the offspring of a fisher-woman by the Great Spirit, or manito, who is known to the Chippewa as Misshepeshu. Moreover, Trickster, or Manabozho (also Naanabozho, Nanapush, Wenebojo, etc.), is the creator and namer of all the creatures of the world. Likewise, as Ron Messer indicates, Stith Thompson long ago proved that Longfellow's hero Hiawatha is really a one-sided, cleaned-up version of the Chippewa trickster-hero, Manabozho. In short, the trickster is both laughable fool and "comic savior," i.e., the preserver of the very human, humorous side of life.

Carl Jung, correlating the abilities of the trickster, shaman, and medicine man, suggests their "approximation" to a savior figure. This approximation, according to Jung, is a "confirmation of the mythological truth that the wounded wounder is the agent of healing, and the sufferer takes away suffering." Certainly, several of the traditional stories do give this aspect of acquiescence-in-adversity to Trickster. However, in my estimation, what makes this prankster more comical as a savior, and thus more prone to culture hero status, especially as s/he is manifested in the Chippewa myth cycles, is her/his inherently laughable high jinks and low (body) humor. According to Victor Turner, every manifestation of the trickster is "raw, undomesticated body and collective power, undefinable, uncontainable, and compounded equally of polymorphous libido and aggression." For, paradoxically, this comedic savior is just as often depicted as being endowed with a devilish wit and satanic demeanor.

This paradox is at the heart of Erdrich's Love Medicine—literally so. It is the trickster in this novel who provides the medicine that can heal all the damaged hearts (though in Lipsha's case he hilariously botches it); and it is the trickster manifested as con men, liars, cheats, wife beaters, and sadistic nuns who damages those hearts in the first place. As a result of this latter manifestation, Louise Flavin views Love Medicine as a negative depiction of life on a modern reservation. Such an observation is extremely lop-sided since there is about the book much reason to be hopeful. For instance, Nora Barry and Mary Prescott think Erdrich's novel envisions a changing culture—one that "draws upon the rich tradition of folklore and vision to offer characters a promising context for growth…." The trickster, drawn from that tradition, is a survivor. And except for June, many of the young characters/tricksters in Love Medicine, like Lipsha, Gerry, Dot, Albertine, Lyman, and even Gordie, are definite survivors.

These and other characters provide the stories which make up the discoveries and mishaps that living brings and which Erdrich has utilized so that present and succeeding generations of her "listeners" can laugh at them and yet be forewarned. Perhaps, using the trickster stones as a teaching paradigm, Erdrich understands that her "love medicine" cannot always heal, but it can be a written prescription for health, both physical and spiritual. Like the trickster of the old folk tales, each of these new manifestations in Love Medicine acts heuristically but never didactically. Those who "hear" these accounts can either smile and take heed or plunge headlong into the abyss, as Nector appears to do in the painting done of him as a young brave.

The actual "accounts," if judged by chapter heads, number only fourteen; however, the first and last chapters each have four subdivisions and "The Good Tears" has two. Moreover, at least two of the other chapters have unnumbered breaks which divide them into two. Thus, by my estimation, there are as many as twenty-three possible trickster narratives in Love Medicine. The first of those accounts belongs significantly to June.

June, like the trickster that she is, is depicted as being always in flight, sensuous, erotic, and possessing a great physical hunger. In the only tale in which she acts physically, she gambles her sex for food and drink; however, unbeknownst to her, she plays her last hand with a white oil boom engineer before her planned return to the reservation. Instead, she is tricked by him, just as she is tricked by the weather, which she misjudges as an approaching, warm and mild, spring wind. As her niece Albertine observes, June was a plains Indian: "Even drunk she'd have known a storm was coming. She'd have known by the heaviness in the air, the smell of the clouds. She'd have gotten that animal sinking in her bones." June's demise, then, seems an enigma, until the cue comes (through the use of metaphor) from the narrator that this is some type of redemptive death. Erdrich seems to be implying that the trickster as savior has suffered for her people and now will be reborn in several new forms, both good and bad (and sometimes in combination), throughout the remainder of the novel.

June's two sons are perfect examples of good and bad reincarnations of the trickster. Although never actually acknowledged by her, Lipsha Morrissey is June's love child by Gerry Nanapush, the name-bearing Chippewa trickster figure in this novel. Believing himself abandoned and nearly drowned by a mother he never knew, Lipsha is raised by June's adoptive "mother" (really her aunt), Marie Kashpaw. He calls Marie "Grandma," which is significant since several versions of the traditional tales have Naanabozho raised by his grandmother, Nookoomis. Lipsha is Erdrich's most endearing example of a comic savior. His first-person accounts, including the story of the recovery of his past and his traditions which concludes the novel, are hilariously and heartwarmingly funny. However, as a savior of traditional ways, beliefs, and values, it is Lipsha who returns to the reservation (a somewhat typical modern tribal story-ending) after tricking his half-brother, King, out of his car.

King is the son of June by Gordie Kashpaw and perhaps the one truly "bad" and dislikeable manifestation of the trickster in Love Medicine; there is nothing of the culture hero in him. If Lipsha is more akin to divinity in his innocence, King is closer to the demonic in his guilt-ridden lowdown tricks. He steals the food from Lipsha's plate when they are growing up, teasing him that only real children can eat. He has also taken a potshot at his half-brother while out gopher-hunting together. King even tries to drown his own wife Lynette during a drunken binge, simply because she has fearfully taken his car keys. And in the penultimate scene between King, Lipsha, and Gerry, it is revealed that King did the truly despicable: he "sold out" a member of his own tribe.

Having been in the same prison as Gerry Nanapush, King gained Gerry's confidence and then betrayed him. In exchange for his own accelerated parole, he helped send Gerry to an Illinois maximum security prison. What makes King a trickster, however "unredeemable," is his affinity to that mythical character's unwavering ability to become entangled somehow in her/his own web of deceit. In his calculated betrayal of Gerry, according to Lipsha, King overlooked the sly capability of a true Nanapush to break out of any enclosure, including a federal prison: "No concrete shitbarn prison's built that can hold a Chippewa." Or, as Gerry's mother, Lulu, concurs when she "spills" the secret of Lipsha's paternity to him, while simultaneously revealing the hitherto unknown name of Gerry's own father, "There ain't a prison that can hold the son of Old Man Pillager, a Nanapush man. You should be proud that you're one."

One of the tales concerning Marie Kashpaw deals with a different type of enclosure: the convent located on the reservation. However, it too involves a kind of a breaking out; but what leads to Marie's breakout, the duel between two powerful tricksters, a sadistic nun and this foolishly wise fifteen-year-old, is very graphically described by Marie. However, it is important to note that, despite the graphic violence of the tale, this is a very funny story. Perhaps the humor is unsavory to some tastes because Erdrich is simultaneously taking a satirical swipe at Catholic fundamentalism. It seems to me that both these women confuse their trickster spirits with Satan. That confusion is due in part to Christianity's welding together of certain "negative" qualities of the trickster, confusion, disorder, cunning, and lustfulness, with the sin and pure evil incarnate in its Devil. Marie, an impressionable but gifted young woman, understands only that this presence is in her:

I stood out. Evil was a common thing I trusted. Before sleep sometimes he came and whispered conversation in the old language of the bush. I listened. He told me things he never told anyone but Indians. I listened to him, but I had confidence in Leopolda. She was the only one of the bunch he even noticed.

By inculcating her with tales of the devil, the school nuns have masked Marie's ability to unleash her own culture hero-tricksterhood. But by her misdirected zeal, Sister Leopolda ironically initiates Marie's cunning as a trickster. Marie plans to "steal" what the nun values most, Leopolda's eternal salvation, while winning her own place in heaven as a saint (culture hero). Leopolda, on the other hand, believes she can wrench evil from the girl, but ironically, she must employ the most drastic means to do it.

So she pours boiling hot water on Marie's back and bottom to burn out the devil. Then, in true trickster spirit, Marie tries to push the nun into an open baking oven; but the equally wily sister avoids this disaster and then stabs the girl in the hand and smashes her on the head with a poker, knocking her unconscious. These two tricksters are so cunning that the conclusion of this tale must be a draw. Marie momentarily gets her "sainthood" when she awakens: "For when I came around this was actually taking place. I was being worshiped. I had somehow gained the altar of a saint." However, the nun soon tricks Marie out of her glorification: "Leopolda had saved herself with her quick brain. She had witnessed a miracle. She had hid the fork…. And of course they believed her, because they never knew how Satan came and went…." And as witnessed by a later tale, "Flesh and Blood," these two opposing types of tricksters even continue their power struggle a quarter of a century later.

Another kind of power struggle is to be found in Nector's stories, most of them lusty, gutsy tales truly worthy of a modern retelling of the Nanapush legends. One good indication of Nector Kashpaw's imminent trickster status is his twinhood. Almost every version of the Chippewa myth makes Naanabozho's birth a multiple one, sometimes triplets or quadruplets, but most often twins. As Hare, the trickster usually kills his brother, Wolf, who then wreaks havoc in the afterworld, thus setting up a dual domain. Likewise, Nector and Eli represent a dichotomy of sorts; the former is school-taught and city-wise, while the latter is unschooled but very knowledgeable about traditions and the ways of nature. "In this way, it is a good partnership," says Nector, referring to Eli's second sense for shooting geese and Nector's for selling the goods in town.

In one tale, with a pair of those geese strapped to his arms, Nector first encounters Marie the trickster, fresh from her duel with Leopolda. Nector, who lusts after Lulu Nanapush, feels nothing for this "skinny white girl, dirty Lazarre." Yet, when he tangles with her, he is tricked by her emerging feminine wiles, and takes her sexually, in plain view of the convent's inhabitants. Thus, unable to consummate his desire for Lulu, he sublimates this passion for a number of years, but in later "tales" he does have an affair with Lulu that ends with a disastrous fire set by the "Tricked-ster," Nector himself.

The mother of Gerry Nanapush and seven other sons all by different fathers, Lulu Lamartine is the fascinating subject of one story and the hilarious narrator of another. Indeed, she is another powerful female trickster figure and a comic savior to boot. Like her rival, Marie, Lulu has a huge heart; but while Marie takes in waifs, orphans, and abandoned children, Lulu takes in lost boys who pretend to be men. She is the preserver of passions as well as old traditions, both human and trickster. It is Lulu who teaches Lipsha to cheat at cards by marking them. Lulu must have also learned some tricks from her first lover Old Man Pillager, another disembodied trickster character, since "Old Man" is one of the proper names used in the Algonkian nation for the trickster. One of the funniest trickster narratives in the book is when Lulu is about to be forced out of her home by the tribal council; she turns the trick her way by appearing before them. There, she intimidates every man in the room into silence, for fear she will expose them in their sexual follies:

Every one of them could see it in my face. They saw me clear. Before I'd move the Lamartine household I'd hit the tribe with a fistful of paternity suits that would make their heads spin.

Though her passion is more notorious than her compassion, Lulu is not amoral. When her third husband, Bev Lamartine, brother of her late husband and a minor evil incarnation of Trickster, reveals that he has "cheated" her, because he is still married to a woman in the Twin Cities, she sends him back there with her son, Gerry, to legalize their marriage by means of a divorce from Bev's first wife.

Gerry Nanapush, of course, epitomizes the most common and comical qualities of the trickster. Erdrich portrays him as elusive; in fact, he never gets a tale of his own, yet his presence, like June's, is all over the novel. Indeed, there is some innate affinity between these two tricksters; his memory of June, and not revenge, is what really motivates Gerry to seek out King at the end, according to Lipsha. But what Lipsha and all the other observers of Gerry marvel at most of all are his physical qualities. Those descriptions, while often deceptive and contradictory, make Gerry a prime example of the comic savior.

In describing his sense of humor, Albertine recalls the trial that put Gerry in jail in the first place. In a barroom brawl, the trickster had used "reservation rules" and kicked a cowboy in the balls. In court, a doctor testified "in behalf of the cowboy's testicles" stating that he is possibly infertile. Gerry retorts that such a lasting effect seems impossible, since the bar was dark, his aim was bad, and his target extremely small. That seals Gerry's verdict, and, consequently, he spends half his life in jails, breaking out of them, or running away from those who wish to place him back in them. Albertine understands that all this particular trickster wants is to settle down, but the modern world will not allow it:

So you see, it was difficult for Gerry, as an Indian, to retain the natural good humor of his ancestors in these modern circumstances. He tried though, and since he believed in justice, not laws, Gerry knew where he belonged—out of prison, in the bosom of his new family. (my emphasis)

A trickster with a family is not as uncharacteristic as it seems. According to Turner, later North American trickster myth cycles "describe the structuring of the trickster's life and activities: he marries, settles down, has children, obeys kinship, and affinal norms, etc."

Erdrich not only gives Gerry comical and familial features, but, as the storyteller, she also portrays him as a rebellious but peaceful savior, one who eventually gets culture hero status among the Chippewa. He is a great example of Ricketts' "trickster-fixer." Thinking of her renegade son, Lulu says, "… inspiring the Indian people, that was [Gerry's] life." Even more evocative is Lipsha's comments about his father's now-legendary abilities:

… Gerry Nanapush, 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.

That was … Dad.

By connecting Gerry to radical politics, Lipsha identifies him as the persecuted promoter for drastic change; in short, he becomes a savior figure, one who must suffer for his people so that their cause may be heard. However, that does not keep Erdrich from surrounding Gerry's tales with downright good humor. In fact, the author allows Lipsha and his cousin Albertine to give her "listeners" an idea of the comically personable and extraordinarily physical qualities of this shape-changer.

Although a trickster herself, Albertine is definitely in awe of this great one. She seeks him out, knowing a bit of the legend surrounding Gerry: "… he was famous for leading a hunger strike at the state pen, as well as having been Henry Lamartine's brother and some kind of boyfriend to Aunt June…." When she finds him (easy since he is so "large"), she and he have a friendly drink before Albertine is attacked by Dot Adare, Gerry's pregnant girlfriend. In true trickster style, when on the defensive, Albertine laughs in the face of her enemy. She is saved from utter annihilation by Dot when gigantic Gerry catches his girl "in midair and carried her, yelling, out the door."

Besides his ever-growing size and weight, Albertine is impressed with Gerry's androgynous features. As I have already indicated, tricksters can not only change shape, they can also switch genders. Albertine portrays Gerry as a giant mass with paradoxically delicate properties. His little fingers curl "like a woman's at tea" when he picks up his wife. In fact, his entire hands are "delicate and artistic," and he uses them "prettily." Albertine is so affected by his delicacy that she makes this odd comparison: "So many things Gerry did might remind you of the way that a beautiful courtesan, standing naked before a mirror, would touch herself—lovingly, conscious of her attractions." Juxtaposed in Albertine's mind with this femininity of Gerry is his absolute bulk, his leonine agility, and his incredible strength. He is a "mountain," "a hot-air balloon" who makes a "godlike leap" from a third-story hospital window, like "a fat rabbit disappearing down a hole." The allusion to Hare, whatever the waist size, is another signifier of the agility and potential ability of this elusive shape-changer.

At the conclusion of the novel, Lipsha witnesses yet another narrow escape by Gerry Nanapush. Only this time Lipsha, as trickster, is able to assist in his father's final flight. The instrument for that flight is King's Firebird (a car named for a Native American mythological bird), which Lipsha and Gerry wrest from the traitor in a symbolic, trickster-swindling poker game. In one version of the traditional tales, there is a climactic scene portraying a showdown between Naanabohzo and the Great Gambler, Gichi Nita Ataaged, in which trickster wins and the gambler dies. This modern reenactment of that tale has King and Lipsha playing five-card stud using pieces of Lucky Charms cereal for chips before the arrival of Gerry. Gerry's "miraculous" appearance frightens King's family and increases his trickster-fixer status for Lipsha:

The famous Chippewa who had songs written about him, whose face was on protest buttons, whose fate was argued over in courts of law, who sent press releases to the world, sat down … with his son and his cellmate….

Of course, the game of cards is "won" with Lipsha's marked deck, which Gerry immediately recognizes as his mother-trickster's, Lulu's, special crimping system. Unlike the Great Gambler, King will not die, except symbolically in his son's eyes, who betrays his father's whereabouts when he mistakenly assumes that the police, in pursuit of Gerry, are after King.

In her first novel, Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich has managed to recount and thus recover for a "modern audience" some of the myths and traditional beliefs of the Chippewa. It seems to me that her polyglossic narrative technique is really the only way to tell anew the hilarious tales of the trickster; that is, by and through a variety of human faces and shapes who command some or all of the characteristics of this contemporary comic savior. In other words, storytellers have always had many voices, but Love Medicine reflects that multiplicity simply because a modern trickster narrative demands it. And June's presence begins and ends this narrative because, as the egg-eater, she spawns a progeny of tricksters (no matter how impossible genetically) which is constant only in its ability to be returned anew. Renewal, through laughter, is the prescription, and also the favorable prognosis, of Love Medicine.

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