Love Medicine, a first novel by Louise Erdrich which recently won the National Book Critics Circle Award, is very much a poet’s novel. By that I mean that the book achieves its effect through moments of almost searing intensity rather than through the rise, climax, and closing of a sustained action, and that its stylistic virtuosity has become almost an end in itself. The prose indeed has remarkable energy and sensuousness. But I found Love Medicine a hard book to penetrate. The episodes, most of them dramatic monologues, are loosely strung together and the relationships of the various narrators and characters are so confusing that one must constantly flip back to earlier sections in an effort to get one’s bearings. The reader who perseveres will undergo an imaginary adoption into a nearly forgotten American Indian tribe.
The subject has much documentary interest. Louise Erdrich, who is herself of Chippewa descent, has created a scroll-like account of the often squalid, demoralized, but at times rhapsodic lives of the Kashpaws, Lazarres, Lamartines, Nanapushes, and Morrisseys—Indian and part-Indian families living on a Chippewa reservation in western North Dakota. The novel begins in 1981, moves back to 1934, and then forward by stages to the present. In the opening episode, June Kashpaw, “a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved,” is picked up in a North Dakota oil boom town by a “mud engineer” who attracts her by rapping on a barroom window as she is passing by. Without hesitating, June goes in.
There were cartons of colored eggs on the bar, each glowing like a jewel in its wad of cellophane. He was peeling one, sky blue as a robin’s, palming it while he thumbed the peel aside, when she walked through the door…. What she walked toward more than anything else was that blue egg in the white hand, a beacon in the murky air.
He ordered a beer for her, a Blue Ribbon, saying she deserved a prize for being the best thing he’d seen for days. He peeled an egg for her, a pink one, saying it matched her turtleneck. She told him it was no turtleneck. You called these things shells. He said he would peel that for her, too, if she wanted, then he grinned at the bartender and handed her the naked egg.
But this lighthearted and sexy exchange has a grim outcome. The two get drunk together and drive out into the countryside while an early spring snowstorm is raging. There the man passes out while trying to make love to June, and June leaves the car, determined to walk home. “The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home.” That “came home,” the reader realizes with a shock, is a euphemism for “perished.”
In the second episode we are introduced to the surviving Kashpaws, who have assembled at the old homestead some …