Thursday, July 9, 2020

Book 241: Love Medicine

"You see, I thought love got easier over the years so it didn't hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good. I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it. I thought it curled up and died, I guess. Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash."

Dates read: June 12-16, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: American Book Award, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

I've lived in Nevada since the summer of 2012. It'll officially be eight years at the end of this month! This is where I've spent more of my adult life than any single other place, and where (assuming nothing major changes) I'll spend the rest of it. But if you ask me where "home" is, I'd still tell you it was Pinckney. My relationship with the place I grew up is complicated, and I am not upset that it's not where I've ended up, but there's just something that it has marked on me indelibly, in a way that no place else has ever really been able to replace it in my mind as my home.

The instinct to turn towards home, to seek refuge there in times of strife, kicks off Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine. June Morrissey, drunk and struggling in Williston, North Dakota, decides to head back to the reservation when she was born and raised. The problem is that she doesn't have proper winter clothes and there's an enormous blizzard. She dies on her journey, and the book moves both forward and backward in time to tell the story of June, her quasi-adoptive parents Nestor and Marie Kashpaw, Nestor's childhood sweetheart Lulu Lamartine, June's children and cousins and nieces and nephews and a whole sprawling cast of others. It's classified as a novel, but honestly is much more a collection of short stories about a common set of characters. The placement of the stories is obviously deliberate, revealing information about the subjects bit by bit, but the book as a whole doesn't really have a defined narrative arc.

I think, for a lot of people who grew up far from reservations and didn't really know many (or any) Native Americans, it can easy to think about them as almost preserved in amber...our idea of what "an Indian" looks like and what their experiences are is rooted in black and white photos and/or stereotypes. Even though some might think it's less damaging because of its romantic (in the larger sense of the word), it's still a prejudiced and honestly racist way of thinking. Native Americans still exist. They live in the world. They talk on cell phones. But they remain mysterious to many other Americans, which is why this book isn't just good, it's also important, in that it presents a realistic portrait of Indian life on a reservation, showing it to be full of people: some better, some worse, some smart, some dumb, some kind, some harsh. It has its own challenges and experiences just like any other community, but it's made up of the same kinds of humans we find everywhere.

As might be expected for a book with the word "love" in the title, the bonds we form with others, both those rooted in blood and those created by the body and the heart, is the central through-line connecting the pieces of the story together. Though no one's story is presented in a straightforward, neatly chronological way, Erdrich creates vibrant characters who resonate with emotional truth over the course of the narrative. She gives us little snapshots of their lives at points in time, pieces that begin to cohere into a whole. That this book spawned multiple sequels doesn't surprise me at all: the people she creates clearly have long histories that bear further exploration.

This is a book that strongly favors characters over plot. While all of the individual stories have their own little dramas, there's not a lot of narrative flow over the course of the book. The real interest is in seeing the characters over the course of their lives, meeting a woman when she's a grandmother and then getting a look at the young woman she was before the rest of her life happened, figuring out how she might get from there to here, getting little glimpses along the way. Erdrich's writing is beautiful: it tends towards the lush without veering into purple prose territory. I will say, though, that effectively as she does wield her chosen episodic format, the lack of tension or drive to the book was a bit of quibble for me and it was hard to get "sucked in" because of it. Even so, this is a very good book and I would recommend it widely. It might not quite be your cup of tea in the end, but it's very much worth reading.

One year ago, I was reading: Polite Society (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Looming Tower

Three years ago, I was reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Four years ago, I was reading: Under the Tuscan Sun

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